The art of stealing home: Studying baseball's most exciting play

Publish date:

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 Andy Pettitte on the mound, not yet stumbled as he got closer to home and not yet slid triumphantly, face-first across the dish, but he had already done the hard part. "The biggest thing," he said later, "is getting the courage to go."

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 Gary Matthews Jr. of the Angels and Chris Getz and of the White Sox duplicated Sunday. In addition to being the rarest, fastest and most surprising play in the game, it is also the one most apt to render a major league baseball player, that most confident of athletes (a confidence bred by facing down heat-seeking fastballs from a mere 60 feet, 6 inches away night after night), a nervous wreck.

It's been enough to dissuade some of the game's most willing and prolific base stealers. Florida's Hanley Ramirez, who has stolen 148 bases in the past four years, gave a flat "No" when asked if he had ever thought of stealing home and repeated it when asked if he ever would want to. The Mets' Jose Reyes, who has more steals and attempts than any player in the game over the past five seasons, has said he would like to do it but has yet to put his reputation where his mouth is, having never attempted even one straight steal of home. Toronto's Aaron Hill, who actually did steal home in 2007 (also against Pettitte) said of the range of emotions before he broke for the plate, "I've never experienced anything like it."

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 Rickey Henderson were straight steals of home, and that's four more than Lou Brock (938), the man whose record Henderson broke, had in his Hall of Fame career.

Yet this season there have been four straight steals of home and amazingly, it happened twice on Sunday: Getz did it on a combined botched suicide squeeze and wild pitch that was ruled a stolen base against the Cubs, and Matthews Jr. swiped home on a straight steal against the Diamondbacks after getting the green light from manager Mike Scioscia. "I figured I could give it a shot," said Matthews Jr.

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 Terry Francona said after that game. "What we have is a very fast player with some guts.''

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 Jorge Posada had warned Pettitte to be mindful of the possibility that Ellsbury might go just moments before it happened, almost no one else in the ballpark or watching at home thought it was a legitimate possibility. From now on, however, Ellsbury will be tracked like a paroled convict whenever he reaches third. "I'm sure the whole league will be careful with him [on third]," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "You have to keep it from working."

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 Rod Carew --who piled up seven steals of home in 1969 with the Twins (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight and the career record with 50) -- on his Web site. Carew would often take off with fearsome right-handed slugger Harmon Killebrew at the plate, a frightening proposition with a man nicknamed "The Killer" at the dish. The Twins PR representative even immortalized the danger in a one-line poem that might have served as Carew's epitaph: "Here lies Rod Carew, lined to left by Killebrew."

Ellsbury didn't communicate to J.D. Drew that he was going to steal. Asked later what would have happened had Drew swung, Ellsbury said. "He probably would have knocked me out. But at least I would have scored."

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 Brian Butterfield that he mentioned to his team before the game. "It was one of those things that we talk about in advance and you're like, 'Yeah, right,' " said Hill with a laugh. "That night I got to third and they said, 'If it gets to 1-0, you're hot.' I was like, 'What?!'"

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 Emmanuel Burriss was thrown out at the plate on an attempted straight steal of home in the first inning. "We had nothing on and we had our cleanup hitter [Bengie Molina] up," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "You know young players are aggressive, but that was overaggressive."

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 Luis Gonzalez in his steal of home against the Giants in 1999. "Step off the mound when he hears his teammates yelling at him, which he has to do through the crowd. He has to do it without balking because a guy might flinch a little bit when people start yelling at him. No. 2, he's got to locate the runner so we're telling him just keep sprinting toward home. And No. 3, he's got to throw a strike toward the plate."

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] Dino [Ebel] told me they gave the green light from the dugout," Matthews told "He said, 'Take a shot if you want.' With two strikes, I thought I could get a really good jump and be on top of everybody before he had a chance to swing the bat on me. I tried to time it right and got a pretty big lead. We pulled it off."

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 Ramon Castro said catchers can't keep an eye on the runner before he takes off and can't do much more once he does. "You don't have time to do anything other than catch the ball and look for the runner," Castro said. "It's 1 in 1,000."

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 Michael Bourn on the back end of a double steal and one by the Astros' Kaz Matsui, who broke for home after a pickoff attempt at first base.

As rare as the straight steal is, it is practically normal compared to what Jayson Werth did May 12 against the Dodgers. After striking a single, Werth stole second and third. Once at third base, he noticed catcher Russell Martin was lobbing the ball back to pitcher Ronald Belisario. "After the first pitch I knew he wasn't paying attention to me, so on the next pitch I kind of got my steps," said Werth, whose widening secondary lead surprised -- and alarmed -- Sam Perlozzo, his third base coach.

"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 Pedro Feliz, a right-handed batter, Werth waited until after Martin returned a called strike to Belisario before he broke. He slid in well ahead of Belisario's throw and headed to the dugout where he would be summoned for a curtain call. It was the first time in his career, at any level, that Werth had tried to steal home, and it may well be the last. "I'll probably never get another chance to do it," he said. "It was one of those things where I had it all planned out in my mind and everything kind of unfolded as planned. One second I'm on third base and the next I'm high-fiving my teammates. It was awesome."

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. Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame player, a pennant-winning manager and a beloved figure in the game's history with a hilarious, if often unintentional, sense of humor. But if there is one thing Berra will never joke about, even 44 years after his playing career ended and 20 years since he last wore a uniform in the big leagues in any capacity, it is the one play during his long career that is most familiar to the modern fan: him trying unsuccessfully to stop the most famous steal of home in baseball history. In Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, Jackie Robinson, a base runner of unsurpassed daring who was well past his prime, took off from third against Whitey Ford. Robinson was called safe. Berra exploded in protest. "The ump [Bill Summers] never saw the play good," Berra said recently via e-mail. "He was short and never got out of his crouch. The hitter [Frank Kellert] even admitted later that Jackie was out. And he had a great view."

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."


• Corcoran: Ten significant steals of home• Gallery: Straight steals of home