World Series Game 3: How baserunners decide when to steal

A look at slide steps, inward turns and stopwatches...

Gotta confess, these four-hour, nine-inning games are killing me. I love baseball, but if I’m falling asleep in the seventh inning there’s no way I’m making it through the ninth, so I figure go ahead and hit the hay and check the final score in the morning.

Clearly, I would be shitty at resisting torture because if the Nazis wanted to know where my children were hiding and they kept me up past 11 PM I’d probably tell them just so I could go back to bed.

Sleep deprivation and I don’t get along and when MLB can get someone like me to turn off a World Series game, they have a problem.

But that’s another column and I think I’ve already written it.

So anyway, I woke up this morning and tried to figure out what to write about Game 3 and the thing that jumped out at me was the Astros stealing four bases off Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki which seems kinda noteworthy because the Astros don’t exactly run wild on the base paths.

The Astros attempted a total of two steals in the first two games and Suzuki was catching both those games, so what was different about last night?

There are other factors – score comes to mind – but the short answer is the pitchers on the mound and to understand why we have to do some arithmetic.

The importance of the pitcher’s front foot

Start with the runner.

If the runner is major-league average and has a 12-foot lead off first base it’ll take him about 3.4 seconds to run to second base – your mileage may vary.

If the catcher is major-league average he’ll take about 2.0 seconds to receive a pitch and throw it to second base.

Those two numbers remain fairly constant, so everything depends on the pitcher and how fast he gets the ball into the catcher’s mitt and that depends on the pitcher’s front foot.

When a pitcher lifts his front foot up high it takes longer to get it back down and now that I write that out it seems pretty obvious, but I’m operating on short sleep so give me a break.

If the catcher can get the ball to second base in 2.0 seconds and the runner is going to take 3.4 second to arrive there, the pitcher needs to deliver the ball in 1.3 seconds or less; deliver it in 1.5 seconds or more and the runner is going to be safe.

That’s why first base coaches have a stopwatch; they know the pitcher’s delivery times from the past, but recheck it every night to see if he’s gotten any faster or slower.

When people were stealing 100 bases a year, pitchers were taking 1.7 to 1.8 seconds to deliver a pitch so some genius came up with the “slide step” – barely picking up the front foot and sliding it toward home plate – which can get a pitcher’s delivery time down to 1.0 flat.

That tends to stop the running game dead.

On the other hand, because the pitcher’s front foot gets down sooner his arm might not catch up and hit the release point on time and a lot of pitches thrown out of a slide step delivery are hit a long way.

With all the numbers being thrown around baseball you’d think somebody would keep track of a pitcher’s ERA out of slide step, but once again that’s a different column.

How about Suzuki?

We tend to judge players and coaches on the parts of the game that we can see and measure and ignore the parts of the game we can’t see or don’t know how to measure.

Which brings us to catchers.

If a catcher throws out runners we think he’s a good catcher because we can see that and understand that. But some of the best throwing catchers – guys fans think are awesome – are considered bad game-callers because they get obsessed with throwing out runners, call too many fastballs and pitchers don’t want to throw to them.

So keep that in mind when you think about catching.

If a catcher throws out about a third of the base runners who try to steal off him that’s considered pretty good and by that standard Kurt Suzuki has been below average for the past six years.

In 2019 opponents attempted 50 steals with Suzuki behind the plate and succeeded 45 times. So at this stage of his career, Kurt probably needs some help from the pitchers to keep guys from running wild.

That means more pickoffs, holding the ball in the set position and getting the ball to home plate in a hurry. Last night we saw Anibal Sanchez throw over to first base a lot, but he and Kurt still gave up a couple steals and here’s part of the explanation.  

Anibal Sanchez and the inward turn

One of the ways pitchers get in trouble is allowing their body to start toward home plate too soon; it often happens when they get over-amped and muscle up on a pitch. Start your body to the plate too soon, and as I pointed out with the slide step, the arm might not catch up and the pitch will be left up in the zone.

One of the ways you fix a pitcher’s tendency to rush to the plate is adding an inward turn to his delivery to slow his body down and Anibal Sanchez uses one.

But every silver lining has a cloud.

The inward turn takes more time to deliver the ball which is at least part of why Michael Brantley – who stole three bases all season – was running and running successfully last night.

Now let’s look at what happens when a pitcher is quick to the plate.

In Game 2 Jose Altuve tried to steal third base and Suzuki threw him out because he got help from pitcher Stephen Strasburg — Strasburg used a slide step and got Suzuki the ball in a hurry.

And speaking of getting in a hurry…

In the sixth inning of last night’s game Kyle Tucker stole second base and Suzuki threw the ball into centerfield when he rushed his throw.

If the catcher tries to make up time and go too fast because he saw the runner get a huge jump – Fernando Rodney was on the mound – the throw to second base might get released before the catcher gets his hand on top of the ball and when it’s released with the hand on the side of the ball, the throw tends to sail to the right side of second base.

And my point is?

OK, when I started writing this I was almost sure I had a point or two and now I’m trying to remember exactly what they were.

Wait…got it.

Point 1:

When someone attempts a steal it’s not just the catcher who matters; if the pitcher takes too long to deliver a pitch home, the catcher has no chance. So keep an eye on the pitcher’s front foot and you’ll have a better idea of whether or not someone is about to steal a base and who gets the credit or blame for what happens next.

Point 2:

Throwing out runners isn’t the only thing a catcher does. Max Scherzer has an ERA of 2.08 with Suzuki behind the plate and an ERA of 4.09 when his catcher is the better-throwing Yan Gomes.

Suzuki left the game after he strained a hip flexor last night and despite his injury I hope he got more sleep than I did because I’m dragging this AM.

And right now I’m going back to bed.

Enjoy tonight’s game.