It begins with a puff of infield dirt, a tiny smoke signal sent up from near first base. Translated for the pitcher, it might read, you are toast. With that liftoff, the crossing of left cleat over right, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the best base stealer on the best basestealing team in the league, is headed for second. Let's freeze it right there.
See the catcher? The poor guy is helpless. With elite runners like Rollins, catchers generally have very little control over the play. What matters is how quickly the pitcher delivers the ball to the plate. Faster than 1.2 seconds is excellent; slower than 1.4 and the would-be thief gains such a head start that, as Phillies baserunning coach Davey Lopes puts it, "The catcher can have a bazooka back there and it won't matter." Regardless, the man behind the plate is the one whose reputation is on the line. His caught-stealing percentage is what people look at, so he's bracing, hoping to uncork a perfect throw. With Rollins, he'll need to.
Next check out the shortstop. With the lefthanded-hitting Chase Utley at the plate, he's already moving to cover second base, creating a fat hole on the left side of the infield through which Utley can send a line drive or a hard grounder. This is one perk for hitters batting behind a speedster like Rollins; another is that they'll likely see an increase in fastballs. (The quicker the catcher gets the ball, after all, the quicker he can throw down to second.) The end result: According to Baseball Prospectus, a hitter's batting average jumps 15 points when a basestealing threat is on first, with a slight bump in power as well.
On to the fellow on the mound. At this point in his delivery he's already committed, for better or worse. If he's unfurling a slow, looping breaking ball, then Rollins is as good as safe; a fastball and it might be close. Might be. Either way, the pitcher's already lost the game within this game, the goal of which is to keep Rollins tethered to first by slide-stepping, throwing over or holding the ball. (Do it long enough and a runner's legs, coiled to sprint, start to ache.) In this case, however, Rollins correctly read the pitcher's "tell" just as a poker player might -- it could have been a slight dip of the shoulder, an incline of the knee or even an unconscious glance downward -- and knew he was initiating his delivery. That's when Rollins took off.
Finally turn your attention to the short guy in pinstripes causing all this commotion. Head down and knees driving, Rollins is drifting ever-so-slightly toward the infield grass as he runs, a habit that drives Lopes nuts. (During practice, Rollins invariably runs straight.) At this point Rollins has one of two thoughts on his mind -- "Either, I'm going to be safe, or Oh, s---, I better get going," he says. In a few more steps he'll sneak a glance toward the catcher and evaluate the situation. Is the ball in the dirt, making a slide unnecessary? If not, should he go in straight or fade to the right to avoid a tag? And when should he ease off the throttle, lest he repeat the mistake he made against the Washington Nationals in August, when he beat the throw to second but kept on sliding, as if he'd suddenly hit a patch of ice, until he was stranded a few feet from the bag, baserunning's equivalent of a beached whale? That one still rankles him, and understandably so. It's one of only two times this season Rollins has been caught. The other came when Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann threw him out. ("Just a damn good throw," says Rollins.) Every other time, all 38 of them through Sunday, he's been safe.
If 38 of 40 sounds like an impressive ratio, that's because it is. Only once in the last 86 years -- in 2006, when the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki went 45 for 47 -- has a player stolen more bases while being thrown out so few times. So while Rollins's steal total may not be as gaudy as, say, Willy Taveras's league-leading 66 for the Colorado Rockies or Rickey Henderson's eye-popping totals from the past, his thefts may be more valuable. Sure, Rickey once stole 130 bases in a season, but he was also caught 42 times that year. Forty-two! At his current rate of 95%, Rollins would steal 798 bases before he got caught 42 times. And in this post-Moneyball age, it's not how many you steal that matters, but how efficient you are.
Why? Well, consider that every stolen base increases a team's expected runs by .25 per game according to Baseball Prospectus, whereas getting thrown out reduces them by .64. In other words, to make it worthwhile, a team needs to be successful on roughly three out of every four attempts. By that measure, even though players are running less than in decades past, we are in something of a golden age of theft. The average efficiency in the majors this season is 73.4%, second in baseball history only to last season's 74.4%, and the most prolific basestealing teams this season are all playoff contenders: in order, the Rockies, Rays, Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Red Sox and Angels. They're also the most effective; Rollins's Phillies lead the majors in stolen base percentage, at 83.8%, followed by the Rockies (81.1%) and the Red Sox (79.6%). At a time of year when an extra run here or there can mean the difference between an October spent playing ball and one watching it, that can be a huge advantage. "It's a great weapon, but the key is to use it correctly," says Lopes, who stole 47 bases in 51 attempts for the Cubs at the age of 40. "It's a matter of becoming a student of baserunning. People associate speed with basestealing, but I've known a lot of guys who had great speed but were terrible base stealers. There's an art to it."
So what is that art? Well, everyone knows how not to steal a base: jump too early and get picked off, go too late and get gunned down or just be plain dirt slow. In the annals of bad baserunning, there are plenty of cautionary tales. The Mariners' Harold Reynolds was nabbed 29 times in 64 attempts in 1988, and the Cardinals' Garry Templeton went 28 for 52 in 1977. Then there's former Giants first baseman Will Clark, a sublime hitter who nonetheless put together perhaps the most unsightly basestealing season in history. In 1987, Clark broke for the next bag 22 times. Only five times did he successfully make it. (In his defense, Clark explains that it was partly a managerial thing. "We had Roger Craig as our manager and we did a ton of hit-and-runs," says Clark. "I mean, he'd hit-and-run with anybody, and he said, 'If I put a hit-and-run on, whatever you do, don't get picked off.' So you rarely got a good lead.")
How to steal, however, is a discipline that has evolved over the years, from the days of Ty Cobb to Maury Wills -- who had more stolen bases (104) for the Dodgers in 1962 than any other team in the league -- to, of course, the Rickey-zoic period. There's not a base stealer in the majors today who wasn't influenced in some way by Henderson. Even kids who weren't fast wanted to be like him. "I remember everyone in Little League, they'd all buy his Mizuno [batting] gloves," says Giants second baseman Kevin Frandsen. "They were fluorescent green and you'd wiggle the fingers, just like Rickey. You thought you were faster because of that, that maybe your hands were faster."
Likewise, as a boy growing up in Oakland, Rollins idolized Henderson, who first came to fame with the A's. Rollins would crouch in his living room during A's games and mimic Henderson's moves, stepping out to a lead, then creeping, creeping across the carpet. "He'd just be inching along, and I was like, Don't they see him over there?" says Rollins. "It was almost to the point where I could look at him on TV and be like, He's about to steal."
Henderson's arrival changed the nature of the pitcher-runner relationship. Not only was he putting up preposterous numbers -- 130 steals in '82, 108 in '83 -- but he was also entirely fearless. Once, in 1982, he got thrown out three times in one game and, upon reaching base again in the ninth with two outs, ran again. (He was safe.) It helped that he had a permanent green light, even when he didn't. "I had to make it happen," explains Henderson, now 49, who even in his retirement remains confident that he could "easily" steal 40 bases today. "If there were two times I got thrown out, then I had to use, 'I missed the sign,' and [A's manager] Billy Martin would say, 'You ain't missed no sign' and I'd say, 'Sure I did.' "
To combat Henderson, pitchers developed new routines. They'd hold the ball or step off or -- well, let's let Rickey tell it. "There was the back step, the back kick, the fake throw," says Henderson, rattling them off. "They made that stuff up when I came in the league. They were like, We got to stop that crazy brother."
Another, more subtle anti-Rickey tactic was for the home team to water down the dirt around first base so that he couldn't get a good jump. Henderson responded like a bored Labrador, digging holes until he found purchase again (and irritating many a first baseman in the process). It's a strategy that lives on. According to Rollins, a couple of teams still do this, primarily the Braves. Says Rollins, "New York used to, but then they got Jose Reyes and suddenly, wouldn't you know it, it stopped."
Reyes is one of the rare burners today who's fast enough to run on a slide-step (the thieves' Kryptonite, in which a pitcher slides his front leg to the plate rather than raising it). Even so, he is young (25) and prone to mental errors. After stealing 78 bases in 2007, he had 47 through Sunday and had been caught 13 times, tied for the second-most in baseball (behind the Rays' B.J. Upton), a sign that he's relying more on pure speed than strategy. Henderson, who was the Mets' first base coach last year and a mentor to Reyes, says, "He reads and then he takes off," rather than having the two things happen simultaneously.
To Lopes, this is the cardinal sin, as he believes bases are taken with the head, not the feet. To watch him prepare the Phillies is to see how complex a seemingly simple act can be. Before each game, Lopes watches video of the opposing pitcher -- he prefers a camera angle from down the first base line but usually has to make do with a shot from centerfield. In particular, he looks for what he calls "idiosyncrasies" that give away either a move to the plate or to first. He watches the pitcher's shoulder placement, head angle, eye movement and in particular the back of the left knee for righthanders. (It's often stiff if the pitcher is coming to first and bent if he's going home.) "It could be how his feet are spread, his elbow, his body rocking back, anything," says Lopes. "As a base stealer, I want something concrete, that tells me that 99.9% of the time he does this, he's coming to first base."
Lopes then meets with his charges, in this case Rollins, Shane Victorino (31 stolen bases in 41 attempts) and outfielder Jayson Werth (14 of 15), to discuss strategy. Once the game starts, he makes sure each player sees the "tell" in action. "See it? Got it?" he'll yell from the first base box as the runner stands off first. Then, if the chance is missed, "What are you still doing here?"
Of course, each base stealer prepares differently. Some are like Scott Podsednik of the Rockies, who stole 70 bags in 2004 and is, in his words, "pretty anal about it." Podsednik studies film daily and tracks every pitcher in the league by tendencies and time. He says the toughest pitcher to run on is Houston's Roy Oswalt because he delivers in 1.1 seconds with a slide-step. Others are less scientific, simply timing the pitcher by counting: literally "1-2-3-run."
Then there are those for whom the key is surprise. As in, "What the hell is he doing running?"
"The most efficient base stealer in the league?" says Giants outfielder Randy Winn, pondering the question at his locker. Winn is an 11-year veteran, a student of the game and an efficient runner himself, having stolen 25 of 27 bases this season. "[The Mets' Carlos] Beltran?" he guesses. "Or maybe [the Dodgers'] Juan Pierre?"
Told the answer, he raises his eyebrows. "Really? Matt Holliday."
Yes, matt holliday. The Rockies' 6' 4", 240-pound outfielder, who looks more like a WWE star or a tight end than a speed demon. At week's end, Holliday had stolen 25 of 26 bases (96.2%) this season. Only Brady Anderson and Beltran, who were 31 of 32 in 1994 and 2001, respectively, have had more prolific seasons while getting caught just once. Holliday's surprising surge -- his career high before this year was 14 steals, in 2005 -- has come in part because he doesn't look like a base stealer. But just because he's big doesn't mean he isn't fast. And as anyone who remembers him crashing chin-first into home plate -- O.K., near home plate -- with the game-winning run in the Rockies' playoff-clinching win over the Padres last Oct. 1 knows, he isn't afraid to come in hard and heavy. "Every time he hits the ground I hold my breath," says Glenallen Hill, the Rockies' first base coach. "Because that's one big boy coming in there."
Having a basestealing aficionado like Podsednik for a teammate has helped, too. Before each game Holliday checks in for a scouting report on the night's pitcher. That Holliday is a studious hitter doesn't hurt either, as it allows him to anticipate situations. Is it a breaking ball count? Does a reliever use a changeup as his out pitch? "It's a calculated risk for me," says Holliday. "I usually don't go unless I have at least a couple of variables in my favor."
One advantage he has is that he rarely sees a slide-step, though that may change as his basestealing reputation grows. As it is, some pitchers seem to forget he's even on base. Against the Reds last month, Holliday reached base in the seventh inning with the Rockies down two runs. Knowing that the pitcher, former teammate Jeremy Affeldt, is slow to the plate, Holliday stole second. Not that Affeldt appeared to notice. "The very next pitch I got kind of a big lead, and I realized he wasn't looking at me," says Holliday. "So I started to hop and he still wasn't looking, so I just took off." Holliday made it to third with ease and, moments later, scored on a wild pitch. And with that, the biggest guy on the field had just manufactured a run with his feet. "Who would have thought, right?" says Holliday with a laugh.
As surprising as Holliday's basestealing is, there are players for whom their inability to swipe bags is equally confounding, fast men who can look inexplicably slow. For example, Victorino, so fleet his nickname is the Flyin' Hawaiian, only stole four bases in 462 plate appearances in 2006, his first full year in the majors. (He's since learned the trade from Lopes.) This season Ryan Theriot of the Cubs has swiped 21, but he's been nabbed 13 times. "That's how stealing bases gets a bad knock," says Lopes. "To me, if a guy steals 20 times and gets thrown out 12, you just shut him down."
Another example is Twins centerfielder Carlos Gomez. While with the Mets as a reserve outfielder in 2007, he was renowned for being the only player on the team faster than Reyes. Yet handed a starting job by the Twins in 2008, Gomez had 29 stolen bases through Sunday but had been caught 10 times, or nine more than Holliday. "It's not about speed," explains Henderson. "I was never the fastest, but I was the quickest. Bo Jackson was faster than me, but I was quicker."
Lopes seconds that sentiment. "You hear guys say, 'He's at full speed at two steps.' But nobody does that. Usain Bolt, the guy who just won the Olympics, he isn't at full speed at two steps. If a guy's at full speed at two steps, then he's slow. You follow me?"
Rather, a runner who can read a pitcher merely provides the illusion of hitting top speed early. What has really happened is that he's picked up on an indicator and taken off before the pitcher starts to deliver. By the time anyone looks over, he's in full stride.
Of course, that's if everything works out. Sometimes a player messes up a read or gets a bad jump and all the preparation and technique in the world are useless. Then the art of basestealing becomes much simpler. "Then," says Rollins, nicely summing up the essence of the craft, "it's all about how fast can I get my ass from here on down to there."