Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thoughts on stealing home

May 18:

... Billy Martin, the Minnesota manager ... had two guys steal home — first Cesar Tovar, then Rod Carew — the first and second times in my career anyone had stolen home on me.

Both time (Mickey) Lolich took a big windup, and after the game, when a couple of reporters asked me, "How come you didn't get those guys?" I said, "Well, sir, there's not a helluva lot I can do without the ball."

Bill Freehan in his diary of the 1969 season, Behind the Mask


Chris Jaffe, in this excerpt from a soon-to-be-published book on managers, details the manic steals of home recorded by the Twins early in the 1969 season. He describes the steals as risky, low-percentage plays that Martin ceased after establishing a psychological advantage over the other teams in the American League.

I, on the other hand, believe that:
  • There are times when the steal of home is a better percentage play than the alternatives. Those moments are not commonplace, but they arise more frequently than the play is attempted.
  • The Twins would have continued to steal home frequently under Martin had opposing pitchers continued to employ the full windup with Carew or Tovar on third base.
  • That rash of steals of home in 1969 changed that detail of pitching, a change that persists today.

I have witnessed in person one straight steal of home. April 14, 1992, third inning, Paul Molitor on John Smiley.

It was, in retrospect, a perfect storm for a steal of home. A left-handed pitcher (meaning that his back was to the runner) with a slow delivery (my memory, which may be faulty on this detail, says Smiley used a full windup on the pitch) on the mound, with one of the most skilled baserunners of his generation spotting the opportunity.

It was still startling.

The play was not close. Even from the center field seats, it was obvious that Molitor had beaten the pitch to the plate.

As with Freehan 23 years earlier, there was nothing Brian Harper could do without the ball.

The batter on the play? Robin Yount.


The baserunning risk in the steal of home is obvious. Even for an outstanding catcher — a Pudge Rodriguez or Johnny Bench — it takes a bit more than a full second for the catcher to receive the pitch and get the ball to second base. That "pop time" — the space between the pop of the ball in the catcher mitt and the pop of the throw reaching the infielder's glove — is zero in a steal of home.

That disadvantage, in early 1969, was nullified by the fact that most pitchers used a full windup with a man on third (unless a man was also on first and second base was unoccupied). In addition — and this is a detail of the game that has shifted markedly in the intervening decades — windups have become more streamlined.

Pitchers in 1969 had leg kicks like this. OK, Juan Marichal was pretty unique. Jim Palmer also stuck his lead foot up like a Rockette. Nolan Ryan had a high leg kick. Big windups were the rule back then. Not so today. Few of today's pitchers lift their knee to belt-level or raise their hands above their heads. Simpler, less elaborate windups are quicker.

When the Twins made swiping home a matter of routine, it was against pitchers using those complex windups. By June, the league had caught on. Pitchers were routinely pitching out of the stretch with a man on third. The percentages had shifted.


Early in the 2009 season, Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox stole home against the Yankees and Andy Pettitte. (As with the Molitor steal, a left-handed pitcher with a slow delivery.) Because it was Yankees-Red Sox and because the game was on ESPN (I know, that seems redundant), the play became a brief sensation.

Ron Gardenhire reportedly felt it necessary to explain to Denard Span why Span shouldn't try the play himself. When Span's on third, the hitter is likely to be someone like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau or Jason Kubel; Gardenhire thinks it's better to let them hit.

But there are times ...

Let's say Span is on third with Kubel up, two outs, and Pettitte is pitching with a full windup.

Kubel's batting average against left-handed pitchers over the past three seasons is .238. That's the relevant number, because he's not plating Span with a fly ball or ground out. If there's a 33 percent chance that Span can steal home successfully, that's the better percentage play. If.

Here's another example, dredged from my memory bank.

There was a game in 2001, Twins at Boston, with Hideo Nomo pitching for the Red Sox. Checking Rotosheet, it had to have been April 26. Nomo was essentially a two-pitch pitcher — he had a fast ball that he generally threw up in the zone, and he had a wicked splitter that he threw in the dirt to get swinging strikes.

I remember three specific pitches during two different at-bats with Matt Lawton on third base and two outs, thinking: He's going to throw the splitter in the dirt. Give the batter the take sign and have Lawton steal.

My notion was that catcher Jason Varitek would have to make a clean scoop of the pitch in order to make the tag. Nomo, even from the stretch, had a notoriously slow delivery. And, finally, Nomo had the Twins hitters buffaloed.

The Twins, of course, did not attempt such a brazen play. Each of the three pitches was indeed a splitter in the dirt; on each pitch, Varitek merely blocked and smothered the ball.

It might have worked. Or maybe not. The at-bats involved left-handed hitters (one hitter, really, Doug Mientkiewicz), so Varitek would have easily seen Lawton coming; Nomo, a right-hander, might have seen Lawton start in time to change his pitch. Lawton was no Molitor in baserunning technique.

What I do know: Lawton reached third twice that night but never scored, and the Twins lost 2-0.

I'm convinced, in my own mind, that the steal of home is underused. But I'm also certain that it takes a certain level of managerial arrogance to prove it.

And even Billy Martin — whose managerial arrogance was probably unsurpassed — backed away from the play.

1 comment:

  1. Molitor steal. Thanks for the memory jog. we had great seats that night. Just behind the on deck circle along the first base line. The sweat was pouring off of Smiley. Molitor had a huge lead. then he just kept walking down the line. Suddenly breaking into a run. The startled look on Smiley's face. Then a look of recognition of what was happening and then a rushed throw. Definitely not a pitch. Us fans knew he was stealing home. It was so obvious to us. Smiley never saw it coming.