Secret Decoder Kings: First base coaches are baseball's super spies
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This story appeared in the March 28, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
This is a story about espionage, skullduggery, surveillance and occultism, so grab a giant bag of popcorn, which is exactly what Germany Schaefer often did while coaching first base for the Washington Senators. He'd munch on popcorn and feed it to imaginary birds and squirrels, all in a vaudevillian act to show his utter lack of concern for his opponent. But on June 8, 1912, at White Sox Park in Chicago, umpire Silk O'Laughlin did not appreciate the comedy. He found Schaefer's act unbecoming to the national pastime and thereby rendered Schaefer the only man ejected from a major league game for eating popcorn.
It figured such foolishness would occur in the first base coaching box. The job has been to baseball what playing the kazoo is to woodwind instrumentation, or finger painting to portraiture. No other uniformed big league position inspires more unathletic, uninformed people to boast, "I could do that. How hard could that be?"
The first base coach has been held in such low regard that among the many who have filled the job for major and minor league teams are Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh (for two teams), the Famous Chicken mascot and 7'2" former NBA center Greg Ostertag. The well-qualified Mickey Mantle briefly had the job, but before working his first regular-season game there for the Yankees in 1970, he blithely noted, "There's nothing to worry about out there. Nobody listens to the first base coach anyway. I never did."
Looking to boost attendance in 1970, the Yankees paid Mantle $25,000 to coach first base part-time for the final month of that season—that's $917,000 in today's dollars prorated over a full season. Now those coaches typically earn between $75,000 and $125,000.
Thanks to the proliferation of video and the difficulty of the stolen base, the role of the first base coach has gained greatly in importance, even if much of it remains unfamiliar. Armed with granular intelligence to crack secret codes, the first base coach, not the manager, just might be masterminding your team's running game. The first base coaching box has morphed from the Palace Theatre to Bletchley Park.
The foremost such forensic specialist is the Royals' Rusty Kuntz, who proved last year that the job done well can help a team win the World Series. Kuntz, 61, arrives at the ballpark at noon for a 7 p.m. game. He spends four hours a day studying scouting reports as well as video from six camera angles that he zooms in "on certain body parts" to find ways pitchers tip their pitches.
For instance, Kuntz spent 45 minutes studying just one pitch type from then Mets lefthander Jon Niese before the World Series last year—how and when he threw his slider from the stretch. "One body part," Kuntz says. "It took me 45 minutes. Now there's 13 or 14 more pitchers you have to go through. That's why it takes so much time."
In Game 5, the World Series clincher, the time paid off. Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer was on first in the 11th inning of a tie game when Niese prepared to throw a soft 1-and-2 slider to Mike Moustakas. "Run!" Kuntz yelled. Hosmer pulled off a delayed steal—just as Lorenzo Cain had against Niese on a 2-and-2 slider in Game 4—and immediately signaled back to Kuntz in salute.
"That's when you got 'em," Kuntz says. "When they're successful, you've got 'em. Obviously you have to do your homework to get them."
Kuntz's intelligence had also helped Kansas City get to the World Series by beating Toronto in the American League Championship Series. Blue Jays ace David Price had flummoxed hitters during the regular season with his outstanding changeup: Price held batters to a .124 average on his change in two-strike counts, and .222 overall on the pitch. But Kuntz noticed that when Price was about to throw his changeup with runners on, he would take an exaggerated deep breath as he brought his hands to the set position. "He gave his little humph!" Kuntz says of Price. "Always a changeup." The Royals clocked Price's change for a .333 average in the series, beating the Jays in both of his starts.
Although Price hadn't allowed a stolen base all year, Kuntz and the advance scouts picked up another clue—Price was telegraphing his intention to throw home. Without fear of a pickoff attempt, the Royals could run on first move; in the Game 6 clincher, Alex Rios swiped second base in the fifth inning of a 2–1 game.
One of Kuntz's favorite finds is a small nugget that he says helped Kansas City get to the 2014 World Series. On Aug. 8 that year, the Royals faced Giants lefthander Madison Bumgarner for the first time. Kuntz ran through his usual painstaking progression trying to decode a pitcher.
First he pored over video, looking at possible tips from body parts. Nothing.
Then he looked at pitch sequences, searching for patterns such as when Bumgarner might double up on a pitch or when one kind of pitch follows another. Nothing.
Then he went to his third option: pitches specific to certain counts in certain situations. He dived into the thick stack of information provided by the team's analytics department. Finally, Kuntz had his eureka moment.
"Runner on first, 1-and-2 count, slider in the lefthand batter's box, 93% of the time!" Kuntz said. "I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it."
Base stealers prefer to run on off-speed pitches, especially those in or near the dirt, which place the catcher in a more difficult position to throw. Picking the right pitch to run on is often guesswork or intuition. In this case, Kuntz had a 93% chance of knowing the future.
It was not until the bottom of the sixth inning that Bumgarner reached a 1-and-2 count with a runner on first base. (Kansas City also had a runner at third.) The game was tied at two, and Billy Butler was at the plate. The runner at first was the Royals' slowest runner, catcher Salvador Perez, who had one stolen base in his career. But his lack of speed did not concern Kuntz. The coach had planned in this exact situation to use the delayed steal, one of his favorite tactics and one that few teams deploy.
Perez took two shuffle steps with his secondary lead as Bumgarner delivered home, then took off running as the ball neared the plate. It was a slider in the lefthand batter's box. With San Francisco second baseman Matt Duffy shading toward the bag as Perez ran, Butler, expecting the breaking ball, punched a ground ball single through the hole between Duffy and first baseman Michael Morse. Omar Infante scored from third to give Kansas City the lead.
The Royals won the game 4–2. How important is one win in a 162-game season? In 2014 the Royals won the first AL wild card by one game, which gave them home field advantage in the one-game playoff, which they won on a walk-off, which began KC's 22–9 run in postseason play over the past two years, which changed the fortune of the franchise.
Kuntz has tried to retire each of the past two seasons, only to return to the staff at the urging of general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost. Befitting the traditional irrelevance of the job, Kuntz came to the coaching box by way of driving a package delivery truck, which he did in 1986 after a largely forgettable seven-year major league career. He quit driving the truck after six months and became a roving instructor in the Astros' organization the following season. It was with the 1989 Mariners that he joined the forgettable fraternity of first base coaches. (Signa Phi Nothing?)
In the three decades since, Kuntz has helped redefine the influence of a first base coach. For starters, Yost empowers him to make his own calls about when to run. The Royals ranked first in steals over the past three seasons while succeeding on 80.1% of their attempts.
"Rusty Kuntz," Yost says, "is the best first base coach in baseball."
When baseball took root in the 19th century, no coaching boxes existed—until the 1887 St. Louis Browns of the American Association made them necessary. Led by player-manager Charlie Comiskey and third baseman Arlie Latham, Browns players who manned the coaching positions would run up and down the baselines, heckling and distracting the pitcher, fielders and umpires. In response the league established a 10-by-20-foot box to confine them.
Latham is considered to have been the first full-time coach in baseball, having been hired to staff the third base line for manager John McGraw's 1907 Giants. Coaches (and sometimes managers) gave signs to batters and runners from that side of the diamond. The job of coaching first, meanwhile, developed into an almost ceremonial position. On June 15, 1938, for instance, Babe Ruth qualified for the role for the Brooklyn Dodgers simply by walking into Ebbets Field to watch a game. Popular legend held that Brooklyn executive vice president Larry MacPhail was so inspired by the excitement in the stands around Ruth, then into his third year of retirement, that he hired him the next day to coach first base and boost the team's lagging attendance—not necessarily in that order.
Coaching first base has never been considered a stepping-stone job, creating almost comical turnover. In their first five seasons of the franchise, the Mets gave the duties to people named Cookie (Lavagetto), Solly (Hemus), Sheriff (Robinson) and Yogi (Berra). In 1968 the Washington Senators set an unofficial record by using four first base coaches in one game. In 1999 the Triple A Salt Lake Buzz completely did away with any pretense of the job's importance by hiring celebrities, including Ostertag. The world's tallest first base coach came with an added expense: His size-58 jersey cost three times as much as a normal one.
Traditionally the first base coach's responsibilities ventured little beyond yelling "back!" on pickoff attempts and retrieving equipment left by runners and hitters after the third out. Doug Mansolino, a first base coach for the White Sox and the Brewers in the 1990s, liked to tell people how he prepared for spring training: "I take out three helmets, a bunch of batting gloves and a few shin guards and elbow pads. Then I ask some of the kids in the neighborhood to throw the equipment around the yard. Then I see how fast I can pick it all up."
Says Kuntz, "Not anymore. Because there's so much more first base coaches understand with experience. You can take someone right out of playing and stick them over there, [but] they're not going to do very well in the beginning because they don't know what to look for."
A turning point occurred after the 2006 season, when Philadelphia hired Davey Lopes. Having coached first base for 16 years, with a rare leap to a managing job with Milwaukee from 2000 to '02, Lopes was given total control of the Phillies' running game by manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Pat Gillick. "I don't know that any other first base coach was ever allowed that responsibility," says Lopes, 70, a smart, fast runner who as a player stole 557 bases in 16 seasons, including 47 at age 40.
Gillick asked Lopes shortly after hiring him, "Do you think you can get [Shane] Victorino to steal 20 bases?"
Victorino, then a fleet 25-year-old outfielder, had swiped just four in seven tries that season. "Listen," Lopes told Gillick, "if Victorino doesn't steal 20 bases, you don't even have to pay me."
Victorino stole 37 bases in 41 attempts. With Lopes in full control, the 2007 Phillies broke a 13-year playoff drought while stealing 138 bases in 157 tries, an all-time best success rate of 87.9%. In Lopes's four years with the Phillies they had 501 steals, were successful on 84.3% of their attempts and won four division titles, two pennants and a World Series.
"In Philadelphia, I knew I had an impact on the game and maybe a lot of people didn't," says Lopes, now the Nationals' first base coach. "Steve Smith was a third base coach for years. He always said the same thing about first base coaches before—that they just pick up equipment. When he came over [to Philadelphia], he said, 'I'll never say that again about first base coaches in my life.'"
While Lopes does use video, he relies heavily on what he sees from the box. If Kuntz is a one-man IT department, Lopes is the baserunning whisperer. Every runner wants the quickest break possible when attempting a steal. To get it, he has to know the first move of a pitcher's delivery. Lopes can see, for instance, if the giveaway is a slight raise of the back shoulder or maybe a tiny flex of a knee.
Every fraction of a second counts. A fast delivery time is 1.3 seconds. Off-speed pitches take about .2 of a second longer than fastballs to reach the mitt. The first base coach relays delivery times for fastballs and off-speed pitches to the runners, who know from the pregame meetings how long it takes the catcher to get the ball to second base. (The average so-called pop time is 1.95 seconds.)
The average time it takes a base stealer to reach second is 3.52 seconds. If you add an average delivery time of 1.40 seconds, a pop time of 1.95, and the .20 of a second it requires an infielder to catch and tag, you get 3.55 seconds, virtually the same time a runner needs—which makes basestealing, on average, a cat-and-mouse game fought over less than the blink of an eye (about 0.3 of a second).
"If I had a choice between knowing time and idiosyncrasy, let me get that idiosyncrasy," Lopes says. "Once I get that, I know the time is going to be O.K."
In 2013 the Cardinals picked up such a quirk with Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett, who came to the set position with his hands held high. If he did so with the palm of the glove facing centerfield, he would throw a fastball. If he turned the palm toward his body, he would throw a curveball. The Cardinals ran when they knew a curveball was coming.
First base coaches remind runners of such idiosyncrasies, as well as delivery times, by talking to them between pitches, usually within clear earshot of the first baseman. "I don't care if he hears me," Lopes says. "He can go over and tell the pitcher, 'Hey, you're doing this when you're throwing to first.' But it's a habit. It's like going up to a smoker and saying, 'O.K., I want you to quit smoking today. You've been smoking a pack a day, but no more smoking.' It's not going to happen."
Just how far the job has come was apparent after last season, when the Red Sox looked to hire a first base coach. Boston wanted a bilingual coach who could not only work with outfielders but also manage their running game. As the team began to consider candidates, manager John Farrell read in The Boston Globe that former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., Farrell's teammate with the 1995 Indians, was interested in returning to the field.
Farrell called Amaro to gauge his interest. Amaro said he was serious about an on-field job. The next morning he called Farrell to emphasize that interest—and the morning after that and the one after that. Boston hired him, though Amaro hadn't coached first since 1989, when he was on the disabled list as a minor leaguer with the Midland Angels. "Some people were surprised," Amaro says. "To me it's just baseball. I'm able to impact the game on a micro level as opposed to a macro level where I was before. It's a different game than when I played."
The difficulty for all first base coaches includes getting enough opportunities to deploy the knowledge they gather. The per-game rate of stolen bases dropped to a 43-year low last year (1.03), and there were 971 fewer stolen base attempts than in 2011, a drop of 21%—and a lower success rate (70.19%, down from 72.22%).
"It got a bad rap," Lopes says of the stolen base. "Now it's going to go to another level. Everybody is going to use Kansas City as a model. I believe there will be more running attempts, which is good for the game. Because we can make it awfully boring out there."
If Lopes is right, an anonymous army of former truck drivers, GMs and the like may be the secret weapons to putting action back into winning baseball. Kuntz, who hit five career home runs, is the antithesis of Mantle, the slugger who once described his 1970 coaching gig as "patting a guy on the ass and saying, 'Nice hit.'" Apparently the Mick's well-paying job was a little too cushy; a bored Mantle quit after two weeks. Kuntz, meanwhile, is back for his 19th year at first base, much too valuable a spy for Kansas City to do without.