Judging the Royals

Royals fans: If you like stolen bases, thank Rusty Kuntz

Kansas City Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz played a big part in the team’s success in stealing bases in 2014.
Kansas City Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz played a big part in the team’s success in stealing bases in 2014. The Kansas City Star

This winter I’ve been asked about the Royals offseason acquisitions — guys like Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez and Alex Rios — but nobody’s asked me about another significant offseason move the team made: keeping their entire coaching staff.

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a team’s coaches, but they matter. Here’s an example: in 2014 the Royals led the universe in stolen bases, and first base coach Rusty Kuntz is largely responsible — lose Rusty Kuntz and maybe they don’t steal so many bases in 2015.

(Fair warning: I’m prejudiced — I love the guy. I talk to Rusty every chance I get, and I’ve learned a lot of baseball during those conversations. I spend so much time talking to Rusty that other reporters will jokingly ask if it’s OK if they ask him a question. It’s not, but they do anyway.)

Everybody who has a clue realizes Rusty Kuntz is a valuable source of information — and that brings me to a story.

During the postseason, teams hold totally unnecessary off-day workouts. If you haven’t figured out how to hit after 162 games, it seems unlikely you’re going to find your stroke by taking a few hacks in mid-October. The main point of the workouts is to give the media a chance to take pictures and ask a few questions — more publicity for games that are already sold out. A few players drag themselves out to take a little batting practice, reporters gather around the manager to ask a few questions and collect some clichés, and then everybody goes home.

But after one of these off-day workouts, I was leaving Kauffman Stadium when I looked back at the field and saw Rusty Kuntz standing at first base, conducting a base-running clinic for some kids. I quickly realized I was walking the wrong direction; when one of the best base-running coaches in the game is conducting a free clinic, you might want to listen.

I turned around, headed back to the field and found myself standing next to Royals bench coach, Don Wakamatsu. He had the same idea I had: Don Wakamatsu wanted to hear what Rusty Kuntz had to say.

For instance:

▪ With some pitchers, looking at first base means no pickoff attempt; if they don’t look at first they’re coming over.

▪ Rusty advised the runners to “let your eyes move your feet.” Avoid guessing and anticipation; focus on the key (a move that gives away the pitcher’s intentions) and react.

▪ If the pitcher is right handed, does he have a broad base or narrow base? If his feet are far apart, he’ll have to rock back to get his weight on his right foot, and that means he’s throwing the ball home. Watch his back shoulder.

▪ If he’s right handed and has a narrow base, he won’t have to rock back to deliver a pitch, but there are still things you can key on. The pitcher will pick his front foot straight up for a normal set position delivery, but his front foot will go forward if he’s throwing out of a slide step — a delivery that gets the ball to home plate more quickly.

▪ If the pitcher is using a regular delivery — no slide step — don’t worry about a pitch-out; a fast runner can still beat a throw down to second. “If he’s quick, you stick. If he’s slow, you go.”

There was a lot more instruction that day, but you get the idea. Most of this stuff isn’t secret (if a team has a specific key on a specific pitcher, they don’t want that pitcher to know they have it), but even the general stuff illustrates the attention to detail required to steal bases.

After the clinic was over, Rusty and I stood around and talked about his job. It requires a lot of time in the video room. Rusty told me about spending two hours studying one pitcher to find a “key,” the first physical movement that reveals a pitcher’s intentions. Remember, most teams have 12 pitchers — that’s a helluva a lot of time watching video.

No wonder Jarrod Dyson has said Rusty Kuntz is his video. Jarrod might steal the base, but Rusty probably did the work that made it possible. Look at the math: If a pitcher can deliver the ball to home plate in 1.3 seconds or less, he can shut down most base stealers.

But that 1.3 second delivery is measured from the time the pitcher picks up his front foot to the time the ball hits the catcher’s mitt. If Rusty Kuntz can study video and find something that indicates a pitcher’s intentions before the pitcher picks up his front foot, that 1.3 second delivery time can turn into a 1.5 — and now it’s off to the races.

If you’re a Royals fan, the addition of Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez and Alex Rios is important, but don’t miss what some of the guys on the coaching staff bring to the table. Without Rusty Kuntz, the Royals probably don’t steal so many bases — and I’d have to find someone else to talk to.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com.

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