The art of stealing home: Studying baseball's most exciting play
Earlier this season, Red Sox outfielder
In that instant, the glory belonged to Ellsbury. He had not yet broke for the plate, startling a sold-out crowd and flummoxing normally unflappable Yankees pitcher
Ellsbury hit on one of the many elements that makes stealing home -- especially the straight steal, which is the Great Train Robbery of the game for its sheer courageousness -- the most exciting play in baseball, and perhaps, all of sports. It is a thrilling accomplishment that both
It's been enough to dissuade some of the game's most willing and prolific base stealers. Florida's
That may be because while stealing second is commonplace (major league players are 1221-for-1662 this season) and stealing third is more like a petty crime (222-for-284), attempting to steal home and risking giving away a run, the game's most precious commodity, is the only truly larcenous act in the game. Only four of the 1,406 steals by career leader
Yet this season there have been four straight steals of home and amazingly, it happened twice on Sunday:
Trying it is one thing. Pulling it off, as Ellsbury can attest, is something else. "You have to know you're going to make it," he says. "I knew. It was something I'll never forget."
The same can be said for just about everyone who saw him do it. News of his steal whipped across the baseball world like a tornado, and like a crime wave sweeping the nation, it has, unintentionally or not, led to a rash of imitators. There have already been eight steals of home in various varieties this year, on a pace for the most in any season this decade, according to STATS Inc., which does not distinguish steals of home in their many forms. (The single-season record for the stat, which has been tracked going back to 1974, is 38, set in 1996.)
Ellsbury's steal quickly became the signature play of the season to date and especially in this year's installment of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. For the Red Sox, it was an early indication of their season-long dominance over their archrivals, demonstrating the triumph of youth and of resourcefulness that have been the biggest reasons the Red Sox have surpassed the older and richer Yankees in recent years in the game's hierarchy.
But more than anything, it was a monument to Ellsbury's speed and cunning and owed nothing to anyone else's input. "I guess this is the point where I sit up here and tell you I got here at 11 o'clock this morning, and pored over reports, and I'm a very smart manager,'' Red Sox skipper
Ellsbury was rewarded with a standing ovation and a curtain call from the Fenway faithful. A caricature of him running from the cops with home plate under his arm (the caption read: "ALERT! Jacoby Ellsbury wanted for stealing home in sweep of Yanks!") was taped above his locker for several weeks afterward. He says he got more text messages about that than anything that's happened to him since he won the World Series in 2007. But that was a team accomplishment. This was a solo act.
It was made all the more remarkable by its pure shock value. Ellsbury led the American League with 50 stolen bases a year ago -- he is second this season with 31 -- giving him a well-earned reputation as a force to be reckoned with on the bases. Even though Yankees catcher
The biggest deterrent to the play comes not from the opponent but from the perpetrators themselves. "If it were that easy, teams would be doing it a lot," adds Gaston. "There's more risk than there is reward, so I don't see teams doing it a lot."
The first risk is to the player. "It was fun, but dangerous," said
Ellsbury didn't communicate to
Another, if less serious, impediment to stealing home is that teams almost never scout it, meaning players are often forced to decide to go or not on their own. Several players said their teams don't even mention it during advance meetings before each series, nor is it something they work on in spring training. The Blue Jays are one notable exception. When Aaron Hill stole home two years ago, it came as a direct result of a flaw in Pettitte's delivery detected by third base coach
Butterfield had watched tape of Pettitte and found that the game's best pickoff artist could be taken advantage of in the right spot. "I guess I can let the cat out of the bag because [Pettitte] won't let it happen again," Butterfield said. "When he comes set, he would drop his head over in the direction of first base. Watching the video, there was a time frame where he would drop his head before he would start his delivery so we tried to time it so as his hands were coming set we could make our break toward home."
Hill was all set to run on the 1-0 pitch, but Pettitte stepped off the mound and called time. Had Hill broken as planned, he would have been picked off. When Pettitte got back on the mound, the next pitch was fouled off, and on the 1-1 count, Hill took off and scored easily. In the rush of adrenaline, he didn't even notice until he was back in the tunnel that he had hurt himself when he slid into Posada's shin guards.
Indeed, scoring is a rush, and a potentially huge momentum swing, but getting caught is a sure way to blunt a rally and draw the ire of a manager who didn't call for it. In April, the Diamondbacks beat the Giants 2-0, and San Francisco's
Despite the limited success rate stealing home has -- officially, players are 8-for-22 this year, though that number includes all forms of steals of home and not just straight steals -- it is actually a very difficult play to defend. "The pitcher has to do three things," said Butterfield, whose helpful hints aided not only Hill in '07 but also former Diamondback
About the only thing a pitcher can do before a steal attempt is pitch from the stretch, rather than the windup, so that they get the ball to the plate as fast as possible. But because of the inherent danger of giving up a run, pitchers are often given the option (especially with the bases loaded) of pitching from the windup if they feel more comfortable that way. Matthews' steal Sunday was only made possible when Scherzer went to the windup with two strikes and two outs. "[Third base coach]
Another element making the play easier is that most teams don't even practice ways to guard against straight steals of home (though they do have plays for first-and-third situations to defend double steals, or delayed steals of home). Unlike other infielders, keeping runners close is not a high priority for third basemen, who are focused more on defensive positioning against the batter than on holding the runner on. Similarly, catchers are too busy calling games and working with pitchers to worry much about something so rare. White Sox backstop
That's not far off. This decade there have been 37,417 attempted steals in major league baseball and only 459 have been of home plate, just 1.2 percent. Even that number is misleading because steals of home are often grouped together as one category, whether or not they come by straight steal, double steal, or other forms. Part of what makes the play so unique is that it is one of the few plays that defies easy categorization, and is thus difficult to quantify statistically. For instance, this year's eight steals of home have come in at least five different varieties. Ellsbury and Matthews had straight steals, but Getz's came on the aforementioned broken play. There was one by Houston's
As rare as the straight steal is, it is practically normal compared to what
"I wondered what he was doing," said Perlozzo. "He had gone way down the line a couple of times, kind of sat there, and I was a little nervous he wouldn't get back because I didn't know what he was doing. He had me completely surprised. It was one of the best plays I've ever seen."
With a 2-1 count on
For the victims, it is far from awesome. "Man, that was frustrating," said Pettitte, who with 95 pickoffs in his career -- the most in baseball since the stat has been recorded in 1974 -- would seem to be the least likely pitcher to be victimized.
Those on the wrong end can find immortality in their suffering.
Asked what he recalled most about the play, the old man gave a hint to the competitiveness and humor of his youth while touching on the lasting impact the steal of home will always have in the memories of those who witness it. "Mostly," Berra said, "I remember he was out."