Art Of The Steal
When Alexander Cartwright—or whoever first laid out a baseball diamond—put the bases 90 feet apart, he put them at an ideal distance to make the battle between basestealers and batteries a fair fight.
In general, it takes a baserunner about as much time to get from first to second as it does for the ball to take the trip from the mound to home to second.
But every now and then, a guy like Billy Hamilton comes along and screws up the symmetry.
There's a reason Hamilton just broke the all-time professional record for stolen bases in a season (146, topping the record set by Vince Coleman in 1983). A speedy basestealer may make it from first to second in 3.2 seconds. When Hamilton gets a good jump, though, he will do it in a shade less than three seconds. Rickey Henderson was also capable of similar times. All of a sudden, the math of throwing out a basestealer starts to fall apart.
Even if the pitcher does his job, the catcher is going to have to throw quickly and on the money to nab Hamilton.
"With a normal baserunner, it's basically a math game," said high Class A San Jose catcher Andrew Susac, who saw a lot of Hamilton when he was with Bakersfield. "The third-base coach has his stopwatch and times the pitcher. He tries to get the catcher's pop time between innings. With Billy, you can be 1.3 seconds to home and it's still going to be a bang-bang play with a throw on the bag.
"You put the times together, and if you have a guy who is over 1.5 home, with Billy it's done. If a pitcher is throwing a curveball, it better be from a slide step. I've never played against a player of his level and speed."
Pretty much everyone who has faced Hamilton in recent years says that his speed on the bases is pretty unique.
"The only comparison I have for Hamilton is Deion Sanders," said high Class A Brevard County manager Joe Ayrault, who had a long pro career as a catcher. "Seeing him in spring training, he's so fun to watch. You can take bases off the pitcher, and you can take them off the catcher. Hamilton has that rare crazy speed. Everyone changes their game around him."
Watch The Pitcher
In general, though, when you watch a runner dust himself off after stealing second, you may want to cut the catcher some slack. You may think that the mano y mano battle is the basestealer vs. the catcher, but the guy stealing the base knows differently.
"It has nothing to do with the catcher," said Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose, who finished second in the minors last year with 77 stolen bases. "It's on the pitcher and his times."
The best way to keep Gose or other speedsters plastered to first base is to make sure the pitcher has a good move and is quick to home plate. If he's quick enough, most basestealers won't even think about going. And if he's bad at it, the catcher is relatively helpless to slow down the running game.
A speedy baserunner can get from his normal lead to second base in roughly 3.25 seconds. So the time it takes the pitcher to get the ball to the plate and the catcher to get the ball to second must add up to less than that.
A pitcher with an especially good pickoff move may add a tenth or two of wiggle room because he'll cut down the runner's lead.
Another variable is the accuracy of the catcher's throw. Putting the throw on the wrong side of the bag could add a tenth of a second or more to the time it takes to put the tag on the baserunner.
Catchers are certainly discussed more when it comes to talk about controlling the running game, but the dirty little secret is that the pitcher's actions matter more. A strong-armed catcher with good footwork can get the ball from his mitt to the second baseman or shortstop's glove in 1.85-1.9 seconds. Pudge Rodriguez in his prime had a 1.75-1.8 pop time, and Braves catching prospect Christian Bethancourt can also approach that range. A mediocre catcher will put up consistent 2.1-second pop times—anything more than that likely means trading for a first baseman's mitt.
So the difference between a really good catcher and a poor one is generally about two- to three-tenths of a second.
A pitcher with a quick sidestep can get the ball home in 1.1-1.2 seconds. Without the slide step, most teams want to see their pitchers clocking in at 1.3 seconds. A slow pitcher will take as much as 1.5 to 1.6 seconds.
Before a good basestealer will take off for second, he'll have the pitcher's time in his head. See the third-base coach with a stopwatch in his hand? He's checking out how quick the pitcher is coming home. And as soon as he gets a time, you can bet that the speedsters on that team know it too.
"If you hear 1.5-1.6, don't even worry about a good jump, just go. Regardless of if the catcher has the best arm in the world, if it's a 1.75 they can't get you," high Class A Lake Elsinore outfielder Rico Noel said. "I'd say 95 percent of the time you are stealing the bag off the pitcher. You're not worried about the catcher. If he's above 1.3, you've got it."
Ever wonder how the relatively slow-footed Joey Votto could steal 24 bags in 31 tries in Double-A one year? If the pitcher is 1.5 seconds or more to the plate, he's practically inviting an average runner to take off on him. A pitcher taking 1.6 seconds to the plate might as well just tell a speedy runner to go ahead and stand on second base.
"We try not to think about it too much. We have meetings with our pitchers every day and we talk about which guys can steal and which guys can't," High Desert catcher John Hicks said. "It's a math thing. If a catcher is 1.25 to the plate and the catcher is under 2.0, then it all comes down to how quick can the guy get to second base."
As Gose explains, he has a number he's looking for to tell him to go.
"Every pitch I get (the times) when I'm on first and second base," he said. "I'm always looking at (the third-base coach) for those. Is there a red zone? Sure. I'm not going to tell you what it is. If I told you, everyone else would know. But there is one in my head and I know what it is."
As Gose knows (but won't tell), even if a pitcher is quick to the plate and the catcher has a good arm, basestealers can sometimes win the battle anyway. All they have to do is run in a straight line and slide, so they get more consistent results.
The pitcher/catcher combination has many more variables. And a smart baserunner can shift the balance back to his side with a little savvy. These are men, not pitching machines, cranking out the same time to home, pitch after pitch. A good pitcher also varies the times he holds the ball in the stretch before throwing over or going home.
But he also has to worry about the small matter of the batter at the plate.
"When a pitcher falls into a pattern, when they have to throw strikes, then their times get up to 1.5 and 1.6," Reds minor league baserunning coordinator Darren Bragg said. "That's why you try to take advantage of it as a baserunner. You think 'That guy got in trouble 2-0 and that gave him a 1.5 time.' That's a pretty good chance to run if he stays in that pattern. Pitching coaches try to tell them to vary your looks. When the game is slow, it's easy to vary your looks. But as the game speeds up, it gets tougher."
The variables just keep on coming. Is it a fastball or a breaking ball (which is tougher to handle and takes longer to get to the plate)? Is the pitch to the catcher's glove side or arm side? Was the throw to the first- or third-base side of second base?
The Toolsiest MLB Players Of The Past 30 Years
The toolsiest hitters, pitchers and defenders of the past three-plus decades of MLB play, as determined by big league managers, coaches and scouts.
Evening The Odds
Pitchers, catchers and their managers do have a way of striking back. If they have a good idea that a runner is going to take off, they can order up a pitchout, which will shave a couple of tenths off a catcher's pop time, bringing balance to the battle to slow down a guy like Hamilton.
"You get down to the 1.7s with a pitchout," Bragg said. "Even good catchers who can throw in the 1.8s, their best times are 1.8s and 1.9s. Pitchouts cut that down to 1.7."
The problem with that, of course, is that basestealers can sometimes sniff out a pitchout. If that happens, you've just wasted a pitch to the hitter.
"We tried pitchouts (with Hamilton), but he reads everything. Also, if you slide step he shuts it down," Susac said.
As a catcher, Ayrault said he wasn't a big fan of pitchouts. The Braves were proponents of throwing a high fastball away to righthanded batters. It was close enough to the plate to induce an aggressive hitter to swing, but more importantly, it allowed the catcher to use a more normal throwing motion than that of a pitchout.
Susac agreed: "I like using my legs, which is why, for me, a pitcher's high fastball is the best."
Susac did manage to nab Hamilton stealing five times this year, the most times any catcher has caught him. But Susac himself points out that Hamilton was also successful 16 times against him. So he was not sad to see Hamilton moved up to Double-A.
"Billy is dangerous fast," Susac said. "He has so much baseball savvy. He's great at getting great jumps. We try to pick him off a lot and he's always getting back. He's very classy. When he gets thrown out there is no argument.
"I give a lot of credit to the pitcher. The key to getting Billy is getting him caught in between steps since he does a great job of getting that first step. The only times we've throw him out it has been bang-bang with really good throws."
If everything works out perfectly, anyone can be thrown out, even Billy Hamilton. But perfection is a hard goal to achieve, which is why we'll see Hamilton continue to run wild.
"Last year I didn't care if (a pitcher) was 1.0-1.1 (seconds to home). I didn't care," Hamilton said. "Now I ask the coach, can you give me a time? Of course if it's 1.1, it just means I need to get a better jump and get a better lead."