Art of the Steal

Speedsters (and even a few sluggers) have ushered in a new era of base thieving, a crime wave that could pay off big come October
September 14, 2008

IT BEGINS with apuff 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 JimmyRollins, the best base stealer on the best basestealing team in the league, isheaded for second. Let's freeze it right there. ¶ See the catcher? The poor guyis helpless. With elite runners like Rollins, catchers generally have verylittle control over the play. What matters is how quickly the pitcher deliversthe ball to the plate. Faster than 1.2 seconds is excellent; slower than 1.4and the would-be thief gains such a head start that, as Phillies baserunningcoach Davey Lopes puts it, "The catcher can have a bazooka back there andit won't matter." Regardless, the man behind the plate is the one whosereputation is on the line. His caught-stealing percentage is what people lookat, so he's bracing, hoping to uncork a perfect throw. With Rollins, he'll needto.

Next check outthe shortstop. With the lefthanded-hitting Chase Utley at the plate, he'salready moving to cover second base, creating a fat hole on the left side ofthe infield through which Utley can send a line drive or a hard grounder. Thisis one perk for hitters batting behind a speedster like Rollins; another isthat they'll likely see an increase in fastballs. (The quicker the catcher getsthe 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 pointswhen a basestealing threat is on first, with a slight bump in power aswell.

On to the fellowon the mound. At this point in his delivery he's already committed, for betteror worse. If he's unfurling a slow, looping breaking ball, then Rollins is asgood as safe; a fastball and it might be close. Might be. Either way, thepitcher's already lost the game within this game, the goal of which is to keepRollins 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.) Inthis case, however, Rollins correctly read the pitcher's "tell" just asa poker player might—it could have been a slight dip of the shoulder, anincline of the knee or even an unconscious glance downward—and knew he wasinitiating his delivery. That's when Rollins took off.

Finally turn yourattention to the short guy in pinstripes causing all this commotion. Head downand knees driving, Rollins is drifting ever-so-slightly toward the infieldgrass as he runs, a habit that drives Lopes nuts. (During practice, Rollinsinvariably runs straight.) At this point Rollins has one of two thoughts on hismind—"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 andevaluate the situation. Is the ball in the dirt, making a slide unnecessary? Ifnot, should he go in straight or fade to the right to avoid a tag? And whenshould he ease off the throttle, lest he repeat the mistake he made against theWashington Nationals in August, when he beat the throw to second but kept onsliding, as if he'd suddenly hit a patch of ice, until he was stranded a fewfeet from the bag, baserunning's equivalent of a beached whale? That one stillrankles him, and understandably so. It's one of only two times this seasonRollins has been caught. The other came when Atlanta Braves catcher BrianMcCann threw him out. ("Just a damn good throw," says Rollins.) Everyother time, all 38 of them through Sunday, he's been safe.

If 38 of 40sounds like an impressive ratio, that's because it is. Only once in the last 86years—in 2006, when the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki went 45 for 47—has aplayer stolen more bases while being thrown out so few times. So whileRollins's steal total may not be as gaudy as, say, Willy Taveras'sleague-leading 66 for the Colorado Rockies or Rickey Henderson's eye-poppingtotals from the past, his thefts may be more valuable. Sure, Rickey once stole130 bases in a season, but he was also caught 42 times that year. Forty-two! Athis current rate of 95%, Rollins would steal 798 bases before he got caught 42times. And in this post-Moneyball age, it's not how many you steal thatmatters, but how efficient you are.

Why? Well,consider that every stolen base increases a team's expected runs by .25 pergame according to Baseball Prospectus, whereas getting thrown out reduces themby .64. In other words, to make it worthwhile, a team needs to be successful onroughly three out of every four attempts. By that measure, even though playersare running less than in decades past, we are in something of a golden age oftheft. The average efficiency in the majors this season is 73.4%, second inbaseball history only to last season's 74.4%, and the most prolificbasestealing teams this season are all playoff contenders: in order, theRockies, Rays, Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Red Sox and Angels. They're also themost 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 ofyear when an extra run here or there can mean the difference between an Octoberspent playing ball and one watching it, that can be a huge advantage. "It'sa great weapon, but the key is to use it correctly," says Lopes, who stole47 bases in 51 attempts for the Cubs at the age of 40. "It's a matter ofbecoming a student of baserunning. People associate speed with basestealing,but I've known a lot of guys who had great speed but were terrible basestealers. There's an art to it."

SO WHAT is thatart? Well, everyone knows how not to steal a base: jump too early and getpicked off, go too late and get gunned down or just be plain dirt slow. In theannals 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 firstbaseman Will Clark, a sublime hitter who nonetheless put together perhaps themost unsightly basestealing season in history. In 1987, Clark broke for thenext bag 22 times. Only five times did he successfully make it. (In hisdefense, Clark explains that it was partly a managerial thing. "We hadRoger 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 ahit-and-run on, whatever you do, don't get picked off.' So you rarely got agood lead.")

How to steal,however, is a discipline that has evolved over the years, from the days of TyCobb to Maury Wills—who had more stolen bases (104) for the Dodgers in 1962than 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 someway by Henderson. Even kids who weren't fast wanted to be like him. "Iremember everyone in Little League, they'd all buy his Mizuno [batting]gloves," says Giants second baseman Kevin Frandsen. "They werefluorescent green and you'd wiggle the fingers, just like Rickey. You thoughtyou were faster because of that, that maybe your hands were faster."

Likewise, as aboy growing up in Oakland, Rollins idolized Henderson, who first came to famewith the A's. Rollins would crouch in his living room during A's games andmimic Henderson's moves, stepping out to a lead, then creeping, creeping acrossthe carpet. "He'd just be inching along, and I was like, Don't they see himover there?" says Rollins. "It was almost to the point where I couldlook at him on TV and be like, He's about to steal."

Henderson'sarrival changed the nature of the pitcher-runner relationship. Not only was heputting up preposterous numbers—130 steals in '82, 108 in '83—but he was alsoentirely fearless. Once, in 1982, he got thrown out three times in one gameand, upon reaching base again in the ninth with two outs, ran again. (He wassafe.) 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 hisretirement remains confident that he could "easily" steal 40 basestoday. "If there were two times I got thrown out, then I had to use, 'Imissed the sign,' and [A's manager] Billy Martin would say, 'You ain't missedno sign' and I'd say, 'Sure I did.'"

To combatHenderson, pitchers developed new routines. They'd hold the ball or step offor—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 thatstuff up when I came in the league. They were like, We got to stop that crazybrother."

Another, moresubtle anti-Rickey tactic was for the home team to water down the dirt aroundfirst base so that he couldn't get a good jump. Henderson responded like abored Labrador, digging holes until he found purchase again (and irritatingmany a first baseman in the process). It's a strategy that lives on. Accordingto Rollins, a couple of teams still do this, primarily the Braves. SaysRollins, "New York used to, but then they got Jose Reyes and suddenly,wouldn't you know it, it stopped."

Reyes is one ofthe 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 thanraising it). Even so, he is young (25) and prone to mental errors. Afterstealing 78 bases in 2007, he had 47 through Sunday and had been caught 13times, tied for the second-most in baseball (behind the Rays' B.J. Upton), asign that he's relying more on pure speed than strategy. Henderson, who was theMets' first base coach last year and a mentor to Reyes, says, "He reads andthen he takes off," rather than having the two things happensimultaneously.

To Lopes, this isthe 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 actcan be. Before each game, Lopes watches video of the opposing pitcher—heprefers a camera angle from down the first base line but usually has to make dowith 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 inparticular the back of the left knee for righthanders. (It's often stiff if thepitcher is coming to first and bent if he's going home.) "It could be howhis feet are spread, his elbow, his body rocking back, anything," saysLopes. "As a base stealer, I want something concrete, that tells me that99.9% of the time he does this, he's coming to first base."

Lopes then meetswith his charges, in this case Rollins, Shane Victorino (31 stolen bases in 41attempts) and outfielder Jayson Werth (14 of 15), to discuss strategy. Once thegame 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 runnerstands off first. Then, if the chance is missed, "What are you still doinghere?"

Of course, eachbase stealer prepares differently. Some are like Scott Podsednik of theRockies, who stole 70 bags in 2004 and is, in his words, "pretty anal aboutit." Podsednik studies film daily and tracks every pitcher in the league bytendencies and time. He says the toughest pitcher to run on is Houston's RoyOswalt because he delivers in 1.1 seconds with a slide-step. Others are lessscientific, simply timing the pitcher by counting: literally"1-2-3-run."

Then there arethose for whom the key is surprise. As in, "What the hell is he doingrunning?"

"The mostefficient base stealer in the league?" says Giants outfielder Randy Winn,pondering the question at his locker. Winn is an 11-year veteran, a student ofthe game and an efficient runner himself, having stolen 25 of 27 bases thisseason. "[The Mets' Carlos] Beltran?" he guesses. "Or maybe [theDodgers'] Juan Pierre?"

Told the answer,he raises his eyebrows. "Really? Matt Holliday."

YES, MATTHOLLIDAY. The Rockies' 6'4", 240-pound outfielder, who looks more like aWWE star or a tight end than a speed demon. At week's end, Holliday had stolen25 of 26 bases (96.2%) this season. Only Brady Anderson and Beltran, who were31 of 32 in 1994 and 2001, respectively, have had more prolific seasons whilegetting caught just once. Holliday's surprising surge—his career high beforethis year was 14 steals, in 2005—has come in part because he doesn't look likea base stealer. But just because he's big doesn't mean he isn't fast. And asanyone who remembers him crashing chin-first into home plate—O.K., near homeplate—with the game-winning run in the Rockies' playoff-clinching win over thePadres last Oct. 1 knows, he isn't afraid to come in hard and heavy. "Everytime he hits the ground I hold my breath," says Glenallen Hill, theRockies' first base coach. "Because that's one big boy coming inthere."

Having abasestealing aficionado like Podsednik for a teammate has helped, too. Beforeeach game Holliday checks in for a scouting report on the night's pitcher. ThatHolliday is a studious hitter doesn't hurt either, as it allows him toanticipate situations. Is it a breaking ball count? Does a reliever use achangeup as his out pitch? "It's a calculated risk for me," saysHolliday. "I usually don't go unless I have at least a couple of variablesin my favor."

One advantage hehas is that he rarely sees a slide-step, though that may change as hisbasestealing reputation grows. As it is, some pitchers seem to forget he's evenon base. Against the Reds last month, Holliday reached base in the seventhinning with the Rockies down two runs. Knowing that the pitcher, formerteammate Jeremy Affeldt, is slow to the plate, Holliday stole second. Not thatAffeldt 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 startedto hop and he still wasn't looking, so I just took off." Holliday made itto 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 asHolliday's basestealing is, there are players for whom their inability to swipebags is equally confounding, fast men who can look inexplicably slow. Forexample, Victorino, so fleet his nickname is the Flyin' Hawaiian, only stolefour 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 Cubshas swiped 21, but he's been nabbed 13 times. "That's how stealing basesgets a bad knock," says Lopes. "To me, if a guy steals 20 times andgets thrown out 12, you just shut him down."

Another exampleis Twins centerfielder Carlos Gomez. While with the Mets as a reserveoutfielder in 2007, he was renowned for being the only player on the teamfaster than Reyes. Yet handed a starting job by the Twins in 2008, Gomez had 29stolen bases through Sunday but had been caught 10 times, or nine more thanHolliday. "It's not about speed," explains Henderson. "I was neverthe fastest, but I was the quickest. Bo Jackson was faster than me, but I wasquicker."

Lopes secondsthat sentiment. "You hear guys say, 'He's at full speed at two steps.' Butnobody does that. Usain Bolt, the guy who just won the Olympics, he isn't atfull speed at two steps. If a guy's at full speed at two steps, then he's slow.You follow me?"

Rather, a runnerwho 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 offbefore the pitcher starts to deliver. By the time anyone looks over, he's infull stride.

Of course, that'sif everything works out. Sometimes a player messes up a read or gets a bad jumpand all the preparation and technique in the world are useless. Then the art ofbasestealing becomes much simpler. "Then," says Rollins, nicely summingup the essence of the craft, "it's all about how fast can I get my ass fromhere on down to there."

Speed Kills

The following arethe best (minimum: 200 stolen bases) and worst (minimum: 100 stolen bases)career thieves among active players.

MOST EFFICIENT

PHOTOLENNY IGNELZI/APTHE WHEEL DEAL The brawny Holliday isn't a prototypical base stealer, but he's been successful on 25 of 26 tries in '08.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)