Xs and Knows: The art of stealing bases


LOS ANGELES – Dee Gordon inches away from first base. He’s relaxed but focused, gaze locked on the pitcher.

At the first sign of movement, he takes off. His cleats churn up the infield dirt as he glides toward second base, sliding head first for the steal. Gordon has taken second base so handily that the catcher doesn’t even bother to throw. Instead, he and his pitcher turn their focus to stopping the Dodgers speedster from swiping third.

Stealing bases is a skill, and Gordon is better than most. Entering Tuesday’s game his 30 steals are more than 16 teams in MLB. It helps to have blazing speed, with which Gordon is certainly blessed.

But it takes more than wheels to swipe a bag. If it were that simple, someone would have signed Usain Bolt as a pinch runner by now. If it were that easy, Yasiel Puig – who could probably give Gordon a run for his money in a 100-meter dash – would have a stolen base success rate better than 58 percent (Gordon’s is 81 percent).

IT TAKES MORE THAN RAW SPEED

“You need to have intangibles, picking up keys, like little things,” says Gordon. “You’ve got to pick up the little things in a split second, because the guy might give it to you again, and you can go. You’ve just got to pick up on the little things as quickly as possible.”

The good thieves learn how to read the pitcher, much like a poker player looking for a tell. Is he bluffing, or does he have a hand? Is he going to throw over? Or is he going home?

Gordon is reluctant to share any information that could find its way into the hands of the enemy, saying only that he looks for “a lot of little things I can’t really give you. I can’t give away any secrets.”

Asked if pitchers give away when they are throwing home, Gordon offers a coy smile. “Yes, sometimes. Sometimes you’re just going on a hope and a prayer.”

SportsNetLA analyst and former shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is more forthcoming. Garciaparra, who stole 95 bases in a 14-year career, including 22 as a Boston Red Sox rookie in 1997, says there are a number of specific movements a base runner looks for.

“Sometimes it’s his hands when he comes set, some guys might lean a little bit before they go,” says Garciaparra. “Generally, this (the front foot or knee) is what they key off. Because that’s usually what goes first when they’re in their motion to go to home plate. So when he comes set, I get my comfortable lead, I’m looking, knee breaks and I am gone. Stolen base.”

At its most simple level, it all comes down to math. The base runner knows how long it takes him to get safely to second base. He knows how long it takes the average catcher to throw to second. The variable is the pitcher. Some are quicker to the plate then others. The first base coach will time the pitcher and relay that time to the runner.

If the time is slow enough for the runner to go, it’s time to go to work. If not … well you had better just stay put.

“I just try to get the pitcher’s time,” says Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford, who led the AL in steals four times as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, “because if you get a good jump off the pitcher, there’s really nothing he (the catcher) can do, you know, if you have good speed.”

HOW DO YOU STOP THEM?

Pitchers, of course, know all of this. They’re not dummies. They watch tape. They know which players will cause them trouble on the bases. But if they start worrying about where their elbows are, or if their knee is giving them away, they’re liable to toss the ball into the stands, or – even worse – right down the middle of the strike zone.

On the pitcher’s side of things, it’s about keeping things simple: Be quick. Be quick. Be quick. And … be quick.

“I don’t worry about any of that,” says Dodgers reliever Chris Withrow. “I’m not going to sit here and change where my elbow goes, or where my knee is and all that. That’s messing with what you do naturally. If they want to stare at different parts of me, that’s fine. I’ll do the same move.”

The key for Withrow and other pitchers is to get the ball to the plate as fast as possible without sacrificing the quality of the pitch, giving his catcher a chance to throw the runner out. It’s something Withrow says is a constant part of his focus in training.

“You have to work on it,” says Withrow. “If you’re a guy who throws 1.5 (seconds) to the plate, and then you have a base-stealer on so your move now needs to be 1.3. It’s a difference in your mechanics, so you have to know what it feels like. You have to practice that, whether it’s an inside session or dry work or whatever it is, so that way you know when that runner does get on and you need to be 1.3 to the plate, it’s more of a natural move for you.”

Orel Hershiser, the SportsNetLA analyst and 1988 Cy Young award winner, says there is one other thing pitchers can do to give themselves an advantage: Switch up their rhythm, vary their timing, if not their technique.

“The key really is to make sure I stop you (the base runner),” Hershiser says. “I can’t get into a rhythm where you can time me and get a rhythm with your lead and your jump.”

SPEED KILLS

The stolen base has grown out of favor since the early 1990s, as teams shifted away from the risk of swiping bags toward the safer approach of getting runners on base and mashing homers behind them.

No player has stolen as many as 90 bases since Rickey Henderson had 93 in 1988, and you have to go back on 1987 to find the last 100-steal season (Vince Coleman, 109).

The Dodgers are doing their part to bring back the steal, leading MLB through May 26 with 58, 17 more than Cincinnati and Kansas City, both tied for second. They’re a long way from the days of Henderson and Coleman, though, and if you ask them, MLB will never return to that era.

Consider this: Henderson stole an MLB-record 1,406 bases. A player would have to average 70 steals a season for 20 years just to approach that mark. In the last decade, only two players -- Jose Reyes (78, 2007) and Jacoby Ellsbury (70, 2009) have stolen 70 bases even once.

The reason for the decline, says Crawford, is an increased attention to controlling the running game, including in-depth scouting reports, slide-steps moves to the plate, and deceptive moves to first, particularly from left-handed pitchers.

“I’m not taking nothing away from Rickey, but he played in an era where, with the high leg kick, you could pretty much walk to second base,” says Crawford, who has stolen 456 bases in 13-plus seasons. “I’m just saying I don’t think we’ll ever see a guy steal 100 bases like that again because of the pitchers. You just can’t. It won’t happen like that.”

With 30 steals through 52 games, Dee Gordon is on pace to steal 93 bases. Can he prove Crawford wrong? It will be fun to find out.