One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.
The steal is one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, and thrilling events in all of sports. When a quick runner gets on first and begins to take his lead, the entire stadium sits in nervous anticipation, thinking along with the runner: Which pitch should I go on?, How big of a lead should I get?, and in the case of a pickoff move, Get Back! Get Back!
The true Picasso’s of the steal, Ricky Henderson, Maury Willis, Lou Brock were impossible to gun down on the base paths, and could nab any base off of any pitcher at any time. These players, if used properly by managers, could be used as baseball’s point guards, shifting the defense around, irritating the pitcher, and allowing other players to pick up hits. Today’s top thieves include Brett Gardner, Dee Gordon, Coco Crisp, and Juan Pierre. Each of these players are slap hitters who rely on speed, not power, to attack an opponents pitching game. If any of the hitters can get on base, pitchers should be proceed with extreme caution, or have their pocket picked.
There are many variants to stealing bases: the steal of 2nd, 3rd, home, a double steal, a delayed steal, and even the rare triple steal, a feat not performed in over 100 years. Today we’re going to look at a couple examples of the double steal.
The double steal is a particular treat, and was performed to perfection yesterday by the St. Louis Cardinals, completely catching the unsuspecting Reds napping. Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, a speedster in his younger years, easily swiped 2nd and 3rd last night, contributing to a big 1st inning, which put the Cardinals up for good at 3-0. Beltran saw something in the delivery from Mat Latos and was able to jump the pitch, taking 3rd without a throw. Berkman, always a heads up player, followed his teammates lead and hustled into 2nd.
About a week ago two of the fastest players in baseball were also able to pull off the feat down in Miami against the Houston Astros. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio each led off the game with singles and put the pressure on immediately, taking 3rd and 2nd in one maneuver. Reyes has fantastic speed, and if he can get a good jump, he will almost assuredly take any base. Even with a good throw down to 3rd, Reyes was still safe, and Bonifacio wisely followed his example taking 2nd base.
Another version of the double steal, in which runners begin on 1st and 3rd is a particularly risky, but rewarding play if executed properly. The Yankees ran this to perfection with two excellent base runners, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter, in 2010 against the Red Sox. The Yankees were able to pull this play of without a hitch, because of the speed of Gardner at 3rd base, and the jump Jeter gets at 1st. When Jeter reads the pitcher properly and gets a fast start toward 2nd base, it forces Martinez to react immediately, without looking the runner at 3rd base back. As soon as Martinez stands up to fire toward 2nd, Gardner takes off and is easily able to take 3rd base.
The middle infielder on the play is taught to come in to receive the throw in front of 2nd base so he can fire home to nab the runner. Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox shortstop attempts this maneuver, but because Brett Gardner’s jump was so excellent he has no chance at getting him at home. Jeter is able to take an extra pause to try to distract the fielder, and in doing so completely freezes Scutaro out, taking 2nd base to complete the double steal. This is a textbook version of the double steal of home, and it makes one wonder why more teams do not resort to this play in close games.
Around the League
-Boy that Cliff Lee-Matt Cain duel was a doozy wasn’t it? In a game seemingly from a previous era, the Giants were able to edge the Phillies 1-0 in 11 and it only took a tidy 2 and 27 minutes. Lee went 10 innings, throwing only 102 pitches with an astonishing 81 going for strikes. He allowed 7 hits, walked no one, and struck out 7, but got nothing to show of for his efforts. Matt Cain was similarly excellent, throwing 9 innings, scattering a measly 2 hits with 1 walk and striking out 4. The Giants won the game on a Melky Cabrera base hit 1 inning after Lee was removed from the game.
-The Washington Nationals won another 1-run game, their 5th already on the young season, beating Houston 3-2. They improved their record to a National League best 10-3, and look every bit the part of a contender. Adam LaRoche, Jason Werth, and Ian Desmond are all having nice bounce back years so far, and once Ryan Zimmerman gets it going the offense could be scary. The pitching staff has proven to be as strong as it looked on paper, allowing the 2nd fewest runs in all of baseball, behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and company. The schedule has been a little cushy so far, with the Mets, Astros, and Cubs all figuring to be bottom-feeders, but give the Nats credit for taking care of teams they believe they should beat.
-The best record in the American League currently belongs to the 2-year reigning champion Texas Rangers at 10-2. They plowed over Boston again last night 6-3, and are now allowing the fewest runs in all of baseball, 30 total. Boston on the other hand has been bombed for 74 runs already. If they can’t find a way to get the pitching staff in order it won’t matter what Bobby Valentine is doing or how many runs the offense scores, because team with bottom-5 pitching staffs historically do not make the playoffs and struggle to play .500 baseball. The Red Sox have played a brutal schedule so far, so expect some improvement once they get away from playing the Tigers, Rays, and Rangers, all of whom are good offensive teams.
-Bartolo Colon had a dominant night for the A’s against the Angels in a 6-0 win. At one point during his start he threw 38 straight strikes, and was utterly unhittable. He’s now 3-1 with a 2.61 ERA on the season and if he keeps this kind of performance up he could become very desirable on the trade market in June and July. The offense for Oakland was provided by Yoenis Cespedes, who smashed his 5th homer, an absolute missile to right field that scored 3 runs. Pitchers are starting to figure him out, over the past week and his batting average has dropped down to .238, but he has been having good at-bats for the most part, which is an encouraging sign.
First things first….REAL BASEBALL IS BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ok, now that that’s out of the way. Today was unofficially Opening Day in Tokyo between the Mariners and Athletics. The game was an exciting, low scoring pitchers dual between Felix Hernandez and Brandon McCarthy. Both pitchers were impressive, each allowing 1 run apiece in the 4th inning. When the game went into the 11th inning, still tied 1-1, that’s when things started to get interesting.
Brendan Ryan led of the top of the inning by smacking a double, and then was advanced to 3rd on a sacrifice bunt by the anemic Chone Figgins. Dustin Ackley then came up to bat and smashed a single right back through the box, bringing in the go-ahead run. Ackley had 2 RBIs today, also driving a homerun to deep right-center field. The other Mariner who carried the day offensively was Ichiro, who at this point had a 3-4 day going, and came to the plate following Ackley. That’s when Eric Wedge and two talented base runners made their play.
Ackley was put in motion by Wedge and stole 2nd of Kurt Suzuki. The move was an excellent call by the Seattle manager, because Suzuki only throws out a career 27% of baserunners, a relatively low mark. Ackley has also shown a decent ability to steal bases in his young career and he now stands a perfect 7-7 as a major leaguer. Wedge’s decision paid off when Ichiro was able to line his 4th hit of the game back up the middle.
Ichiro also made a smart base running play as well. After he singled he drew the attention of the defense by immediately heading toward 2nd, ensuring that Ackley would score. The throw from centerfield more than likely wouldn’t have gotten Ackley at the plate, but in the 11th inning all that matters is getting that 1 all-important insurance run. It gives your pitcher an extra margin of error and enhances the pressure on your opponent.
Seattle’s base running in the 11th inning was excellent and is a good indicator of things to come. The Mariners will need to be aggressive all season long in order to succeed. If the Mariners are to surprise in 2012, they will have to get as many runs as they can on the base paths. This team needs to take the extra base on hits, and manager Eric Wedge should be looking to steal frequently, especially against lighter-throwing catchers like Suzuki.
Box Score Thoughts
-The Mariners middle of the line-up, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak, otherwise known as the 2 players offered for Cliff Lee in 2010, struggled. They went a combined 0-9 with 1 K and 6 left on base. Every middle of the order has games like this. Hopefully for Seattle these type of things aren’t too frequent.
-Yoenis Cespedes got his first major league hit, a double in the 7th, but otherwise struggled, striking out twice.
-King Felix looked masterful, and could be a top-3 Cy candidate if he keeps this up. His line: 8 IP, 5 hits, 0 walks, 6 K’s. Granted it was against Oakland, which will probably have one of the two worst offenses in the AL, but this was an excellent way to start the season.