What’s His Time?

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.

“Uh oh.”

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 says,

“He is a 1.2”

I reply,

“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.”


65 Comments on “What’s His Time?”

  1. Rick Groves says:

    Great stuff, Morgan. This is precisely the kind of insight that us fans crave and have little access to. Really enjoying the blog.

  2. Robert Brown says:

    You nailed this one. This really explains why being intelligent is just as important as being able to run fast.

    • Robert so many Managers feel like they have to do everything right when they manage. But I know that a manager needs to be able to set a player up for success. Part of that is to teach and then get out of the way. That manager is a players dream.

      Morgan

  3. Bill Ivie says:

    Great work, Morgan. I love the way you tell the story and give us all some insight into pieces of the game we wonder about so much.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Good to see you here Bill. Don’t you think more people would watch baseball if they were just taught the game? I think the television coverage could be so much better if they tried to teach instead of saying the same old stuff.

      Morgan

      • Morgan, I agree with your commentator comment. I am a Cubs fan and when Bob Brenly was an announcer for us, he would always dissect the play and explain it. The only usual thing about Brenly was he would follow up the explanation with a story from when he was a player. But, they were never boring or useless stories. They would help you learn the game and understand it better. I would enjoy the game much more if national commentators were like that, instead of showing ONE replay over and over and over.

  4. David says:

    Here’s something I’ve always been confused about: How is it possible to steal home when the catcher doesn’t have to make a throw? It would seem to be infinitely harder to steal home than steal second because of that. If it takes 1.4 seconds to pitch and 3.4 seconds to go from 1st to 2nd, how do you make it from 3rd to home in about 1.4 seconds?

    • David- It takes 3.4 seconds total. The 1.4 is from pitcher to home….the 2 seconds is from catcher to second base. I stole home when the pitcher was in the “wind-up” so the time I had to beat was closer to 3.6. So…if I can run about 80 feet in 3.6 seconds then I will make it. That isn’t that hard and I am not even fast.

      Morgan

  5. Paul says:

    David,

    You’re stealing on the pitcher who is in his full wind-up, *not* from his stretch. It takes a lot longer than 1.4 seconds from the start of the wind up to the time the ball hits the catchers mitt. (Around 3.4 seconds, actually.)

  6. Kevin in Toronto says:

    Hi Morgan,

    I just discovered your blog off a link from The Common Man, and I just have to say: great stuff! Consider yourself bookmarked. It’s always great to come across a ballplayer who can speak/write intelligently and with humor about the game he loves.

    Kevin

    • Kevin I love the game and think fans just want to learn. I hope that you will continue to comment and ask questions. My plan is to teach and be accessible. How do you think this blog could be better?

      Morgan

  7. Andy R says:

    Great entry Morgan. I’m a huge fan of Joe Maddon, and he’s doing great things with the Tampa Bay Rays organization. What I found most interesting about todays entry was the paragraph on signs. I’d be interested to hear more about how managers pick signs, and what they all mean. One question, however. Since you never played under Joe Maddon, how did you hear about the conversation involving the baseline?

    • My fault on that Andy. I was with Tampa Bay in 2009 Spring Training. This was a talk he was having during spring training. I should have put that in the piece.

      Morgan

  8. tideturns says:

    absolutely my favorite post so far!

    when you asked the question on twitter- i told you i couldnt answer definitively because of all the variables involved. thanks for lining them up so concise and easy to understand.

    keep up the great work

  9. TroyM says:

    Great Stuff Morgan! I got to see some of your bombs in 2005 with the ‘Stros at Minute Maid. Great year! I’d like to hear some of the logic that goes through a hitter’s mind in different pitch counts 3-1, 0-2 etc.

  10. Matt Lentzner says:

    Morgan,

    This is really interesting. I’ll be stop-watching all the pitchers for the next couple games I watch. It’s these details where you can really “add value”. Excellent.

    An article about base running, going first to third, second to home, would be cool. Do you guys keep release times on outfielders as well? The saber guys feel that most teams run the bases way too conservatively – especially going home. Taking an extra base during a play is just as good as stealing it.

    When I think of other blog topics I’ll email them to you.

  11. Patrick Nance says:

    Morgan,

    Any chance we’ll see a follow-up post about the requirements for stealing third? I’m also interested to hear how the players can tell the difference between a first motion and a pick-off move. Is it just that most pitchers don’t show their keys in their pick-off moves? Exactly what effect does a lefty/righty pitcher have on steal attempts?

    This is all excellent information. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us.

    • Patrick I don’t know if I understand your questions. Pick off moves are different from a pitchers key. There is always a movement before the pitcher makes an action. I should probably explain that.

      Lefty’s you pick a time and go on his first move as long as it isn’t a “slide step”. It is simply a gamble that he isn’t going to throw over. The righty is similar, but you go on his “key”.

      That probably doesn’t make too much sense. Maybe I will follow up.

      Morgan

      • Matt says:

        Maybe I can help out a little bit Morgan with how I explain it to our J.V. guys.

        When stealing second with a righty pitching, you have to make sure he is committing to the plate especially with a man on third so that he doesn’t fake to third and get you in between bases. This can be from noticing a slide step going forward or his knee or front foot breaking the plane of the rubber. However, with some of our faster runners, they are going off of his first movement or “key” as Morgan explained, especially against a fast pitcher with a good slide step or catcher that is quick to second. A lot of it is timing and getting a good jump like Morgan has explained. Probably the second slowest kid on the team is our best base runner and can steal at will because of his ability to time and get a good jump.

        Now with a lefty, that’s a whole different story. Like Morgan said you’re going off of first movement whether it’s his hands, front foot, either knee, whatever. If you take off he can’t fake to first or step off. If he is moving he has to deliver to the plate or throw completely to first, so you’re going on the first movement that you see.

        Stealing third to us is a combination of a few things. First we’re probably only going on an off-speed count for that pitcher. Second, we better have a smart base runner that can get a good lead and has good timing/jump skills. Third, the batter at the plate needs to be smart enough to “delay” the catcher, by rule, he can’t impede the throw but there are little things you can do to disrupt him. Fourth, hopefully their third baseman has his head in the clouds which most do when it comes to a runner on second, and is late getting to the bag.

        Maybe this helped explain it a little more. I spend all my time down beside first base with a stopwatch, and it’s a great feeling for the kids whenever they put everything together, get a good jump, steal second or third and have the biggest grin.

  12. Danyah44 says:

    Wow. This was a terrific post. Having never played, I’ll have to reread a few times to digest it all. Fascinating!

    • Danyah there is a lot going on out there. I am so happy that you like to learn. My heart has been telling me that fans would watch and enjoy the games so much more if we would teach them the game. There is more where that came from.

      Morgan

  13. Ashitaka says:

    Hunter Pence is only about a 58% success when trying to steal, but it’s pretty obvious he’s athletic and a fast runner. Could it be what you were talking about? Is he just guessing wrong or not getting good jumps?

    • Ashitaka- This will depend a little bit on what the pitchers times are and his jumps. My guess is that he is running on fastball counts and getting bad jumps at the same time. This all comes down to noticing patterns and you have to be taught how to do that. Hunter hasn’t been taught that.

      Morgan

      • Ashitaka says:

        Today Pence was caught leaning a bit, and JD was commenting on how the pitcher (Kyle Lohse) was possibly balking by moving his front knee (his…key?) just a bit but then turning and throwing to first. Maybe you could talk about the balk rule sometime, there seems to be a lot of controversy over it and, frankly, the whole thing is a bit confusing.

        • Ashitaka I can get to that down the road. Every pitcher balks.

          Morgan

          • Matt says:

            You mean every GOOD pitcher balks lol. Glad I could try to help and explain it a little, I’m just like you I love teaching the game. I haven’t played at the same level and surely don’t have the years on you yet but I love passing along what I know.

  14. CC says:

    Great stuff, Morgan. Can’t get enough of this blog. Bravo, sir. Would love to hear how you and other teammates attacked a pitcher based on the scouting report. Were there keys in the delivery or counts or location? You made mention of knowing 1-1 off speed was coming when you were on the bases, just thought maybe you could expand on that from a hitter’s perspective and give us some insight on a big league report. Thanks…keep up the good work. CC

    • CC- I knew he liked 1-1 offspeed because I watched the pitcher on video during his last couple of starts. Couple that with being able to peek into the catcher to see his signs and it would confirm my thinking.

      Morgan

  15. […] when they are trying to decide whether to try to steal or not?  Ensberg’s fantastic article “What’s His Time?” gives us some invaluable insight.  In this article Ensberg details the information which a runner […]

  16. Zachary says:

    Very insightful! Thank you very much! Now I understand how big slow players can snag a base by being smart. It throws me off seeing a player like Pujols have double digit steals in a season.

    I would love to see you discuss your thoughts on fantasy baseball and whether you think it helps the game, hurts the game, and how other players view it. Are there leagues within teams and so forth?

    Thanks again!

  17. Kelsey says:

    I’m loving this blog more and more every time I check it out. What is your take on situational hitting? Are you a fan? Obviously outs are the most precious commodity in baseball and all outs are supposedly created equal, but do you think some are more productive than others?

  18. Mike says:

    You need to turn all of this into a book one day. The blog title would work great for the book title.

  19. John says:

    One of my favorite parts of the game, this cat-n-mouse between pitcher and base runner, so I loved this post. I could still see the split screen with Joe Morgan or Rickey Henderson, when everyone knew they were going. I like how you take time between posts to gather your thoughts. I couldn’t keep up with you otherwise.

    • Thanks John. My thinking is that there is too much senseless commentary out there. Since I don’t have any deadlines I just take my time to really think about how I want to explain baseball. I am glad you like it.

      Morgan

  20. Jeff Clark says:

    I gotta say I never understood the delay steal and why it was done. This at least provides details but being that the average MLB SS or 2B aren’t slow footed people anyway, I fail to see how an average runner cold still beat these guys to 2nd base if they take off late from 1st (especially since the catcher’s throw will only be 1.5 seconds).
    I have seen it done correctly but was astounded to see it actually work. I can see how they would be pissed it worked.

    • Jeff you have to remember that the base runner is shuffling off of first base aggressively. By the time the base runner starts sprinting to second base, he is about 65 feet from second base. He then starts running when the middle infielders are looking at home plate expecting a batted ball. By the time they look up, they realize that the catcher will have to “lead” him the ball on the run. This is very hard to catch for the middle infielder.

      How was that?

      Morgan

  21. Couch Tater says:

    I thought about your post last night when 38 year-old Chipper Jones had his second steal of the year. Chip Caray quipped that Chipper was on pace to have 36 steals, this year.

    The Braves aren’t known for running, but Chipper noticed the pitcher had gotten into a “rhythm” and took advantage. Although, I would suspect Chipper prefers about 3.9 seconds these days. heh, heh.

  22. orlando says:

    wow! great stuff! all those details you just can’t see unless you’re playing, much appreciated Mo!

  23. Stephanie says:

    I enjoyed this read very much MO! Made me think about time and how fast that “time” really means for the pitcher!🙂

    • Stephanie these are the small things that “slow” guys have to think of to be effective. You don’t have to be fast to apply pressure. I am glad you are seeing the game in a new way.

      Morgan

  24. lisa gray says:

    fascinating

    this is the stuff i wish commenters would talk about, ESPECIALLY the former ballplayers.

    instead of talking about their stupid golf game or someone’s granma in phoenix or their worship of ballplayer x for his, uh, non-baseball qualities…

  25. Dave says:

    Absolutely love your articles, Morgan. They’re so insightful, and brilliantly reveal the depth of the game to fans like me who have never played before.

    I do have a question that’s been bugging me for some time now, and I was wondering if you might shed some light on it for me:

    A couple of friends of mine once remarked that the physique of many baseball players (eg. Prince Fielder, C.C. Sabathia) doesn’t appear to be a typically athletic one (ie. lean and muscular).

    In a game where every little advantage over your opponent is sought after and taken into account, I was curious as to why the physicality of a significant number of players doesn’t appear to be as athletic (and therefore have even more of an edge) as it could be.

    Thanks once again, Morgan! All the best.

    • Dave- Since our game isn’t about long distance running, it is about sprinting. Pitchers do run longer distances, and some are great runners, but they do that to build power in there legs and help the body heal. I think we are reaching a point where players are taking their training and nutrition more seriously. But we are still in the beginning stages of that. Great question.

      Morgan

  26. Stephanie says:

    I like the way you responded to me Mo. I have been a fan of the game for a long time and never realized “time’ is a VERY important factor to a pitcher until this post. Thanks again for clearing that one up for me!

  27. […] out this post by Morgan Ensberg for some details on Joe Maddon and baserunning coaching. It’s intricate […]

  28. Kristi says:

    I read about your blog on Alyson Footer’s blog, and finally made my way over to check it out! Thanks for providing such great information. I am a life-long Astros fan, and was very sad to see you leave our team. Your wit, personality, & faith is an encouragement. Keep up the good work! Looking forward to keeping up with your blog!

  29. Thomas says:

    Morgan, this was a very insightful post. Thank you.

    You mention the 2-second difference between the ball hitting the catcher’s glove and it hitting the middle infielder’s glove. Do you have a breakdown for what the average release time is for a catcher? Also, is there a lot of variance for release time in the majors or do most major league catcher tend to have release times within one or two-tenths of a second of each other?

    Thank you.

  30. Mike T says:

    Even though you started this thread two weeks ago, yesterday’s Jays-Rays game came to mind since you mentioned Joe Maddon.

    Don’t get me wrong – I like Joe and what he’s done in Tampa – this is more of a pat on the back to Jose Molina. Jose threw out all four baserunners attempting to steal yesterday, including Carl Crawford twice.

    Gotta love those Molina brothers!

  31. Stephen Luftschein says:

    And now everyone knows what I used to be timing at every game and tryout!
    Another gem, and isn’t it amazing when a manager actually sees the obvious?

  32. Lia Dorkin says:

    Good article, thanks.


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