What’s His Time?Posted: April 14, 2010
What’s My Point?
In order to steal a base in the big leagues, an average runner must be able to run from the lead off position at first base and hit the bag at second base in 3.4 seconds or better.
Why Does it Matter?
If a base runner is slower than 3.4 seconds, he will be thrown out at second base by a big league catcher.
Runner is Thinking:
1. What kind of leg kick does the pitcher have? (Does he lift his leg straight up or does he slide step?)
2. How much time does it take from the moment that the pitcher begins his motion to the instant that the ball hits the catcher’s glove?
3. How strong is the catcher’s arm? Can he throw a ball down to second base in (the average) 2 seconds or less?
4. Can the runner see the catcher’s signs from his lead off position? (If he can see that the catcher gives an off speed sign, usually requiring 2,3,4, or 5 fingers, then he knows that the pitch will be slower than 1.4 seconds.)
Needs for an Average Runner to Steal Second
1. The pitcher has to be 1.4 seconds or slower from the time he starts his motion, to the moment that the ball hits the catcher’s glove.
2. The catcher has to take longer than 2 seconds from the time the ball hits his glove to the time the ball hits the middle infielder’s glove.
3. The runner must be able to time his take-off almost immediately following the first move made by the pitcher.
Why Does the First Base Coach Have a Stopwatch?
Have you ever noticed that the first base coach is always holding a stopwatch when there is a runner on first base? He is measuring the amount of time it takes from the instant the pitcher starts his motion, to the moment that the ball hits the catcher’s glove. He is simultaneously watching what part of the pitcher’s body moves first. Here are the usual starting possibilities:
1. Front shoulder
2. Front heal
3. Front knee
4. Back knee
5. Does he lean before he throws?
The first base coach is compiling information in his head so that he can tell the runner what the pitcher’s “key” is. A key is what a base stealer focuses on so that he can time his take off.
Once the first base coach determines what the key is, he can move on to the more important variable; the time. The first base coach will time every single pitch made by the pitcher when there is a runner on first.
What is the First Base Coach Whispering into the Runner’s Ear?
The coach is telling the runner what the pitcher’s time to home plate is and his key, if there has been a previous runner on base. He will then compute the averages in his head and say something like this:
“There is 1 out. He (the pitcher) is 1.4 on off-speed, 1.2 on fastball. He looks like a back knee. Catcher will throw.”
This is the translation:
There is 1 out. The pitcher is 1.4 seconds to the plate or slower on any off-speed pitch. Since we have a scouting report, you (the runner) already know what the pitcher’s off-speed pitches are. He is 1.2 seconds on a fastball so you will not be able to steal if he throws one. The first movement made by the pitcher so far has been with his back knee. Beware, the catcher will throw down to 1st base to back pick you. If you decide to steal and don’t get a good jump you will have to shut down the steal, and as a result you will be further off of first base than you should be on a normal secondary. Knowing that the catcher will try and back pick you, you will have to retreat hard back to first base if the ball is not put in play.
The Delay Steal
The delay steal is used by players who do not have “plus” speed. Traditional steals rely on getting a good jump and beating the throw based on time. The runner is up against the pitcher and the catcher. Whoever is faster wins. But, the delayed steal takes speed out of the equation. It is about tricking whichever middle infielder is covering second base and taking him by surprise.
Infielders are taught that when there is a runner on base, they should be moving a step in some direction after the pitch is made. If there is a man on first, then the middle infielders should be taking a step towards second base after each pitch is made because they are either anticipating a double play or the first base runner trying to steal second base. If there is a man on third base, then the middle infielders should be moving towards backing up the pitcher on a throw back from the catcher. Most importantly, every fielder should be moving in some direction after each pitch when there are runners on base.
During a delayed steal, the runner at first will try and appear to be taking his usual secondary lead. But, once his front foot lands on the second shuffle, he is going to take off running to second base. So picture a runner using this cadence: shuffle, shuffle, go. A traditional steal would simply be: go. With the delay, the runner is trying to time his take-off to the moment that the middle infielder ends his concern with the base runner and begins looking at home plate to react to a batted ball. Once the ball is not hit into play, the infielder will realize that the runner at first has started sprinting to second.
If done correctly, the infielder is caught off guard and can’t make it to second base in time to tag the runner. Another slow, smart runner just stole second base. The pitcher and catcher are furious.
One Final Point: The Baseline
Joe Maddon, the manager for the Tampa Bay Rays, taught me some amazing things about base running. One of his tricks had to do with where you stand when leading off at second base. One day, he brought the whole team out to second base and taught us his beliefs about running in the baseline.
Here is what he said,
“I think we should be standing in the baseline or just off the baseline. Seems to me that you are closer to third base if you are in the line. Yeah, people say you stand back sometimes to get an angle when rounding the bag, but you guys are athletic enough to make a good turn from here.”
I wanted to start clapping and cheering. Since I started playing the game, I was always taught to back waaaay off the baseline. There were times when I could have whispered to the shortstop, we were so close. But, Maddon nailed it! Being in the baseline put the runner in a better position to get to third base and home plate. The quickest way between two points is a straight line. It was clear and short and made sense.
Maddon then said this about stealing,
“Hey, I think we should be aggressive. If you are out here and you can get to the next base, then go. Let’s put pressure on them to make a play.”
Maddon Takes the Pressure Off
Maddon was clear and logical in his communication. But he said one thing that was genius.
“If you get a jump and get thrown out… I don’t care.”
Maddon understands that base stealing is about giving your players the freedom to fail. Understand how young the Tampa Bay Rays team is. He is telling these “kids” that it is ok to mess up as long as you’re using your head. Players play their best when they get this freedom.
Give Me the Green Light
Basestealing is less about speed and more about paying attention to an opportunity. Maddon knows that stealing bases causes problems, but his bigger lesson was that it is ok to fail if you have exploit an opportunity. Do you understand what this means? He is effectively saying that he is willing to get fired so that a player can use his brain and instincts.
I Can’t Believe We are Doing This!
In the 1998 National Championship Game between USC and Arizona State, I was the runner on third base with the bases loaded. Our coach Mike Gillespie, gave me a “hot sign” and followed it with the steal home sign. You read that correctly. My first thought:
“I can’t believe we are doing this.”
Gillespie is all about communication and he had a specific sign for stealing home so everybody would be certain that he really wanted the runner to steal home. A “Hot Sign” is an indicator that means the next sign he gives will be “on.” This is different from USC’s normal sign system that we would use to just steal a base or hit and run. When a player sees this distinctive indicator, they are certain that a play will be “on.” This sign also helps keeps the opposing team from seeing a pattern in our signs.
With 2 strikes on Wes Rachels, (our second baseman and eventual College World Series MVP) I took my lead at third base and got close to the baseline trying to give myself the smallest distance between myself and home plate. ASU’s right handed pitcher was in the wind up and I was looking at his left foot. I knew his left foot would be the first movement he would make, alerting me to go. He stepped back, and I took off!
“Go…go….I’m going to make it! Slide! Slide!”
I watched my left foot cross the plate as the catcher tagged my left knee.
“Safe!!!! SAFE!!!” The umpire yelled.
I immediately popped up to the standing position and gave a huge fist pump and yelled as my teammates came and almost tackled me.
The first guy I saw was my good friend Brian Vieira and this is what he said:
“You did it man! First player ever!”
At first I didn’t understand what he meant. But then I flashed back a few weeks and remembered a conversation we had. Brian had informed me that no other player in USC history has ever had a 20 homerun 20 stolen base season (a 20/20). I already had 21 homeruns at the time of that steal, but I had 19 stolen bases. The steal of home was the 20th.
Wes Rachels lined the next pitch down the third base line for a 2 run RBI. Gillespie’s brain put us in that position and it was the right call. We won that game 21-14 and clinched the 1998 National Championship. All on a decision based on taking advantage of an opportunity with an average runner.
What’s His Time?
3.4 seconds is the time to beat… But there is a way to bend the physics of that rule to your will if you (the base runner) are willing to think outside the box. Baseball is a game that one can succeed in, if you play outside the margins a little bit. You can beat the averages, by exploiting the weaknesses in your opponent that are brought about by the monotony of the rhythm of the game.
As I hit first base I ask the first base coach,
“What’s his time?”
“He is a 1.2”
“That’s ok. I can see the catcher’s signs and he always throws 1-1 off-speed. I am going to go.”
“Crap! I have the Red Light again.”