Base Stealing

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Baseball season starts in seven days. I’m writing a book on my love for baseball (as a breather from writing the book on grief). This is the first in a series of posts/excerpts between now and Opening Day.

Also, I’m sharing my experience of baseball. Feel free to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m describing what it was like for me, not offering tips to would-be Major Leaguers. I’m sure I did a lot wrong. I wasn’t a prospect. But I loved playing.

“Swinging from the heels” was one of Dad’s favorite baseball terms. It means swinging as hard as you can, not simply attempting to make contact and put the ball in play, but “trying to kill the ball,” to “knock the cover off it” and hit it over the fence. Often swinging from the heels involves “pulling your head,” another Dad term, meaning your head turns with your rotating shoulders and torso when you swing and you lose focus on the ball. Dad didn’t use “swinging from the heels” as a compliment.

Dad’s son loved–and loves–baseball, but God did not build me to be a power hitter, especially when I was in high school. I was skinny then and my game was about making contact “Hit ’em where they ain’t,”* Dad also quoted to me, and I adopted that philosophy of hitting…then running like mad to first. I wasn’t a strong hitter but I was decent at getting on base. Measured by the statistical paradigm shift that changed baseball in the late-90s/early 2000s, as depicted in the book and movie Money Ball, I was a decently valuable player. My on-base percentage was stupidly out of proportion to my batting average, and thus coaches usually had me batting either ninth or lead-off, depending on which one they noticed more.

I was a decent bunter, though I would have liked to be better. That would have made me far more dangerous. When I got down a good bunt, I could usually beat it out. A strong bunt threat makes a pitcher’s job that much harder. It means that even for a weak hitter, the pitcher can’t just fire the ball by you down the middle, because those are easier pitches to bunt. The hardest pitches to bunt are high pitches just at the top of the strike zone (short batter, remember), pitches that curve or drop a lot, or ones that jam you inside and make the angle of contact much more difficult. And maybe come in on your fists so hard they break your finger. Some guys got offended when given the signal to bunt. I just wanted to get to first–it didn’t matter how.

I was short and I absolutely believed another of Dad’s aphorisms, “a walk is as good as a hit.” Not true for the player’s batting average, but certainly for the team’s overall chances to score runs and, in the long run, win. If you can get on base 40% of the time by always looking for walks or bat .300 by swinging away but then only get on base 30% of the time…you’re hurting your team by being more aggressive.**

Of course, having a .300 batting average looks a lot cooler than hitting .240 and walking a lot. Walks don’t look cool unless perhaps you’re a massive home run hitter and pitchers walk you out of fear of the damage you’ll do with your swing. I walked because “Damn, he has a small strike zone!” I did. I even crouched a bit in my batting stance, copying Pete Rose, to exacerbate that problem for the pitcher. I also crowded the plate a bit. I got hit by pitches more than my share. Guess what? Hit-by-pitch is as good as a hit…and maybe even better in terms of getting in the pitcher’s head. I’m fortunate that I never got injured being struck by a pitch–plus, the pitchers I faced weren’t throwing 100 MPH***–and because that’s true, I can honestly say I was happy to get hit.

You just put me on base.

Two steps…three steps… Right-handed pitcher looking over his shoulder, has to spin all the way around to throw to first, big disadvantage…

Once on base, life got way more fun for me. I mean, adrenaline-burst, excitement-sparked-by-fear type fun. I was quick more than flat-out fast. Coach W. once timed each of us running all the way around the bases and I was far from fastest. In fact, after I rounded first, I heard Daron W. shout, “Short legs!” But when I did get on, I could lead off with the best of them. Three, four, five quick steps, bouncing on the balls of my feet, grabbing the pitcher’s attention, preferably driving him nuts. The pitcher whirls and fires to first and I’m launching back toward the bag. I had no qualms about diving back to base four or five times. More throws over meant I was doing my job. A dirty uniform said I’d played for real. If you come home clean, what did you do?

I believe quick is more important than sheer speed for stealing bases. I consider this to be Baseball Truth, but like so much of baseball philosophy and strategy, it is arguable–and well argued. I have no idea what my stolen base percentage was–we were well before advanced stats, or even some of the more basic ones–but the coaches usually had me try to steal whenever I got on.

“Hey, Pitcher! Right here. No pitcher!”

Yeah, I’m talking to him. I do that whether I’m stealing or just leading off and feinting; otherwise it’s a tell, right? Trying to keep my voice the same, even when my heart comes pounding up my throat because I’m about to race him and the catcher–actually race the ball, which has to travel pitcher’s mound–>home–>second baseman’s glove–>me while I only have to run straight from here to there. If I can get just one more step…and maybe one more… The shorter my distance, the better chance I win this race.

I never just took a straight leadoff. I danced. I’m not a good dancer in outside-baseball life, but in this one context, oh yeah. Dance like everyone is watching. Bouncing up and down, moving back and forth means the pitcher can’t quite tell how much leadoff you have at any given moment, because it constantly changes. If he sees you moving, it’s that much more for his brain to calculate while still trying to throw strikes. The trick here is not to have your weight and momentum going toward first when the moment to break for second comes, whether on your teammate’s swing or your steal attempt. If it’s neither of those, you’re always heading back to first between pitches, so then you don’t want to be leaning toward second. A special danger for the dancer-baserunner is having the pitcher see you leaning the wrong way when he gets the return throw from the catcher and is not yet on the mound. That’s a much easier throw than spinning around from the stretch (the particular kind of windup a pitcher uses when holding a runner on, different than his full wind-up). So the moment you know the ball is not going to be in play, you get back to first and stand on that bag until the pitcher gets back on the mound. Check in with your first base coach. Maybe banter a bit with the first baseman.

Then start it all again.

Studying the pitcher helps to steal bases. How quickly does he deliver the pitch? Not only how hard he throws, but whether his movement from the stretch is gradual or rapid. Does he have a tell when he’s going to attempt a pick-off? Does he struggle with control more when he has a runner on? (Oh, we hope so!) Here again, the baserunner has a major advantage. The pitcher needs to keep throwing strikes and must split attention between the batter and the baserunner. The runner need only focus on the pitcher.

All pitchers have different wind-ups. All pitchers have a point in their wind-up at which they’ve committed to throwing the pitch. If the pitcher breaks off from that, whether to try a pickoff, because of lost balance, or just to fake, really for any reason at all, it’s called a “balk,” the umpire stops play, and the runners advance one base. If you as a baserunner can cause a balk, that’s the time to exult! Not so thrilling as stealing the base, but with a balk ,100% of the time you stroll to second base safely.

Guess what? A balk is just as good as a steal. No, not for stats, but for the team.

A “pitchout” is when the pitcher throws an intentional ball, a fastball well outside of the strike zone, so that the catcher can jump up beforehand to receive it and fire to second. Basically, it’s a trade off that the pitcher makes, exchanging giving up a ball to the batter’s count for a better chance to catch the runner stealing. A catcher who has to leap up from his crouch while catching a pitch–that the batter may swing at, and remember, they can’t let any part of them make contact with the bat or batter during the swing or it’s “catcher’s interference” and the batter gets first base automatically–and in the same motion throw to second, has a much harder challenge than the one who gets a head start and a clear path for the throw.

You know what’s really satisfying? Drawing a pitchout when you weren’t stealing.

That’s part of the cat-and-mouse, too. If the coach sends you on the first pitch every time, you’d better be bloody fast, because they’re going to pitch out every time and any team will trade a called ball for an out, especially the out that cuts down the scoring threat of the baserunner. Extra especially if it’s your third out and that ends the inning. But if you wait until deeper in your batter’s count, you’re giving your teammate more of an advantage, especially for a patient batter. If the count is 1-2 (one ball, two strikes) and you can draw a pitchout, you’ve taken away some of the pitcher’s leverage. A pitcher with a 1-2 lead is freer to throw whatever junk might draw a bad swing, or let loose with a fastball that’s difficult to hit but pretty close to the strike zone and thus also difficult to take (not swing at). But a pitcher who has a 2-2 count is only one pitch from a full count; on a full count, several advantages switch to the batter. Thus, a 2-2 pitch is much more costly for the pitcher to “waste” if the batter won’t bite on the pitcher’s tempting out-of-the-strike-zone lure.

So I’m on first, and the coach in the dugout signals to the first base coach, who signals me, some combination of pulling his ear, adjusting his hat, swiping his hand down his leg.

Go.

I have an extremely acute memory for certain things. Not grocery lists–if Kim mentions over three items, I write it down for me or it’s as good as forgotten. But I remember specific games, specific plays, even back to tee ball. The act of stealing bases, though, appears blurry when I try to retrieve it. I’m convinced that’s due to the burst of adrenaline and the fear of getting caught stealing. Standing up at the plate to hit is an exercise in nerves, as well, but one played out slowly, with breaks in between to step out of the batter’s box, take practice swings, rub dirt on your hands, get a better grip on the bat…then step back in. I was obnoxious about how much time I took between pitches, trying to keep a pitcher from getting a rhythm against me. I regret nothing.

Whereas stealing feels roughly like this:

Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaah!

In my mind’s eye, I see only colors flashing by. I’m focused on second base, forcing myself not to turn my head to see where the throw is, because that can cost the split-second between safe and out, between in there and caught. I hear shouting–infielders always shout when someone attempts to steal–but just barely, because I’m breathing so loudly.

Time sped up during a steal attempt. I prefered diving headfirst, Ricky Henderson style, over sliding.

Waitwait…Now!

Blur, noise, dive! Cloud of dust.

If I get a good jump and the catcher’s throw isn’t great, I’m stretched full-length in the dirt with my hand already on the base as the infielder tags me. He’s going to swat my hand with the glove, because he’s moving quickly and he hopes to knock my hand off the base. It’s expected; I do the same when I’m playing short or second. But my hand is staying put.

If the throw is better, if it’s close, I’m seeing the infielder lunging for the throw as I’m launching myself. Invariably, if the catcher missed the pitch and there is no throw, that infielder is going to pretend to tag me. You know, just to put that little extra fear in me. Again, fair game. If he’s smart and cool under pressure, he may fake the tag on a bad throw that goes into center field. Can’t let me know there might be a chance for third.

This is a theory that I’ve never been able to prove: when I tried to race for a hundred meter dash, I wasn’t particularly fast. Just running in a straight line, I kind of…sputtered. I’d take off fast but, even though I was trying to accelerate, I’d just plateau and guys would race past me. Not that I tried very often; I had neither the long legs nor the thick tree trunks of a sprinter. BUT, my theory is, I run much faster when racing for second or home (or sprinting after a disc). I’m not thinking “Man, I need to run faster.” I’m simply making it happen. Something about the adrenaline, the teamwork, something about focusing on succeeding rather than fearing getting beat.

Anytime I’m standing on second instead of first (assuming I was the only one on base), a double play becomes extremely unlikely, more of a fluke than a strategy. If I’m on second and the ball is hit past the infield, I’m running like hell and in 1/10 of a second looking up to see if the third base coach is raising his hands at me, palms up, the universal stop sign, stop here, gesturing at the ground and shouting “down!” or “slide!” or, I hope I hope I hope, swinging his arm like a mad windmill, shouting “GO! GO! GO!” and I’m veering slightly to my right to cut that base as sharp as I can and still have full speed for home.

Running for home, having no idea whether the throw is about to beat me or if the outfielder has fumbled the ball, maybe a split-second to glance at the plate to see what I’m about to hit. Fraction of a second to decide: run through, collide, or slide.

Running through means you win this round. You scored. Unless…the throw was early-but-off line and now the catcher is racing you to the plate. Another quarter-second decision.

I wasn’t a great collider. Short and skinny, remember? The time I remember best, the catcher, with about six inches and sixty pounds advantage, bent over, hit me with his glove like a football shiver, and flipped me over his shoulder. He held onto the ball just fine. His name was Lonnie. We played on a couple all-star teams together.

You can dive two feet to either side, as long as your fingers can still reach back and graze homeplate. Unlike base stealing, or even running from one base to another on any type of contact by the hitter, with running home you need not keep contact with the base; all you have to do is touch before you’re tagged. If the catcher has to reach for the ball in either direction, you’re flying for the opposite side of home.

But if the catcher is already set, you want to slide, not dive, because a good catcher can block the path to the plate in a way an infielder rarely can. Oh, plus catchers wear armor. Bit of an advantage there.

PS I never had to learn to dive for a disc playing ultimate because I’d spent my youth diving into dirt at someone’s cleats; diving into soft grass for a piece of plastic was a dream.****

*I think Dad believed Yogi Berra first said that, but it was Wee Willie Keeler.

**That’s an oversimplified stat to make a point. It’s always much more complicated than this. A .300 hitter often will get more walks than a .240 hitter, because the former has proven more dangerous and therefore will see more balls than the latter. And yes, in some situations, a hit is much more valuable than a walk. But 1)we’re talking baseball aphorisms here, and 2)I’m not describing an inviolable baseball truth but how my dad taught me to play baseball, which fit well with my God-given abilities.

***We did, however, once turn the JUGS pitching machine up to 99MPH…when our coach was not present…and were lucky to survive. It didn’t have great control at that speed.

****Of course, not all grass is created equal, and diving on the “grass” during dry season in Nicaragua meant a guaranteed ground burn on knee , hip, elbow, for forearm for the next three weeks. Ideally not all of the above.

on the ground,

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