Catching Billy Hamilton

The big secret isn’t much of a secret. As a base-stealer, Billy Hamilton has seemed automatic — but he did get thrown out in the minors. In fact, he got thrown out a whole mess of times.

Since debuting in 2009, Hamilton was thrown out stealing in the minors on 84 occasions, and his overall success rate was right around 82%. Granted, that’s excellent. Granted, maybe Hamilton has improved his ability to pick spots and read pitchers. Granted, who knows the contributions made by minor-league umpires or minor-league field conditions? But Hamilton had been thrown out stealing before. Plenty. It was going to happen to him eventually in the majors. That was inevitable. Major-league players are better than minor-league players.

But most people didn’t expect Hamilton’s first caught-stealing to come on Sept. 25. No one would’ve expected the opposing battery to consist of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Juan Centeno. Hamilton’s first steal came against Yadier Molina. People don’t even know who Juan Centeno is. More people know about him now. Centeno is the first big-leaguer to throw out maybe the next generation’s best base-runner, and Centeno himself might not be long for the big-league spotlight.

Naturally, the play has to be examined:

HamiltonOutStealing.gif.opt

There’s not a lot I need to tell you about Hamilton. The guy’s quick. But here’s something you might not have realized: Hamilton has stood on first, with second base unoccupied, 15 times. Fourteen of those times, he’s attempted to steal. The one time he didn’t, the next batter made contact with the first pitch, so Hamilton didn’t have a chance. Five times, he tried to steal on the first pitch. Hamilton, basically, hasn’t missed an opportunity. He goes in there expected to run, and he runs.

Matsuzaka, predictably, hasn’t been great about the running game. Runners have been successful 82% of the time. He’s generally deliberate with his motion, and Hamilton became the first runner thrown out with Matsuzaka on the mound since Sept. 26, 2010. That spans a couple dozen starts.

As for Centeno? He’s key to all this. Observers have always liked his arm. In the minors this year, he threw out 56% of would-be base-stealers. Last year, he was at 41%. For his career, he’s at 42%. Terry Collins has said before that Centeno can control the running game. So while Centeno was a virtual unknown before Wednesday, it makes sense that he would be first to gun down Hamilton.

But how did it actually happen? What set this apart from Hamilton’s 13 consecutive successful steals? You’ll note that it’s not like Hamilton stumbled anywhere. He got a quick first step and he ran the usual route. This time, he wasn’t fast enough. Let’s examine the components.

The Expectation

This might be the unspoken bit. One of the amazing things about Hamilton’s steals is everybody knows ahead of time that they’re coming. But, everybody knows ahead of time that they’re coming. I’ll repeat that Hamilton has tried to steal second 14 times out of 14 legitimate opportunities. The element of surprise is reduced. It isn’t eliminated — Hamilton can pick when he wants to run during an at bat — but opponents can try to prepare for him. They all have a sense he’s going to go, and here’s Matsuzaka throwing over, before throwing the first pitch of the next matchup:

HamiltonPickOffAttempt.gif.opt

In a way, it hurts Hamilton for the other team to know he’s going to run. In a way, it makes things stressful for the opponent. But when you reduce surprise, it makes some sense that you also reduce your advantage. I guess it’s an open question as to how Billy Hamilton could take other teams by surprise. In theory, this makes sense; practically, it’s more complicated. Let’s just agree that, when Hamilton is on base, he’s preparing to run against a team that knows he’s preparing to run.

The Delivery

Stolen bases are all about timing, so preventing stolen bases is also all about timing. Stripped down, a stolen-base attempt takes X number of seconds. It takes Y seconds for the pitcher to get the ball to the catcher. It takes Z seconds for the catcher to get the ball to the shortstop or second baseman. The steal is successful if X < Y + Z. The steal is unsuccessful if X > Y + Z. A pitcher, then, can work on getting the ball to the catcher faster. Some of this is pitch selection. Some of this is pitch location. Some of this is delivery type. Matsuzaka went with a slide step.

Below are two images of Matsuzaka pitching with a runner on first. On the left, it’s Hamilton running. On the right, it’s just Matsuzaka.

matsuzakahamilton

With Hamilton on, Matsuzaka didn’t raise his glove as high. He got the ball out faster, and he released the ball five frames sooner. It’s all about hundredths of a second, but those hundredths matter, every last one of them, and Matsuzaka helped himself out. Not only did he get the ball to Centeno quicker — by changing his look, he might’ve given Hamilton a slightly worse read. Which, again: hundredths of a second. Hamilton hadn’t seen this delivery yet.

The Pitch

Star-Ledger:

Making his second major league start, Centeno, who threw out 30 of 54 runners with Triple-A Las Vegas this season, assumed Hamilton would try to steal immediately. He instructed Matsuzaka to throw a fastball up and away to afford him the best opportunity to throw Hamilton out.

The advantage of a pitch-out is that the catcher is already standing up as the pitch is on the way, so it reduces his “pop” time. Instead of waiting to stand until after the pitch has arrived, the catcher can come to his feet and catch simultaneously, allowing for a quicker turnaround. The pitch Centeno caught wasn’t an actual, official pitch-out, but it was a high fastball. Centeno could get up, catch the ball in front of his chest and throw almost all in one motion. You’ll see him catch the ball in front of him, and to his arm side. In this way he initiated the ball transfer. This was effectively a pitch-out that didn’t surrender all chance of being called a strike.

The Throw

This is the most visible part of any defense’s attempt to stop a stolen base. Catchers, generally, like to try to throw out base-runners. With a guy like Hamilton on, though, catchers can rush themselves and make mistakes. That’s part of the pressure aspect of Hamilton’s presence. Let’s look at the throws for Hamilton’s 13 successful steals:

hamilton1

High and wide.

hamilton2

Coming up on a bounce. Drawing the glove up, instead of down.

hamilton3

No throw, dropped.

hamilton4

No throw, dropped.

hamilton5

Not a bad throw, but wrong side of second.

hamilton6

Wrong side of second.

hamilton7

No throw, wild.

hamilton8

Wide, behind Hamilton.

hamilton9

Accurate throw, but late.

hamilton10

Wrong side.

hamilton11

Wrong side.

hamilton12

Bounced, and late.

hamilton13

No throw, dropped.

Second base is far away. It’s much greater than the distance from the mound to the plate. We know how much trouble pitchers can have commanding the ball, and they’re throwing on their own time. They can get comfortable with their grips. Catchers have to throw much farther, immediately, with little warning. They also have to throw the ball over a guy on a little hill in the middle of the lawn. Catchers are incredibly accurate, when you think about it. A great throw is an amazing throw. Here’s Centeno’s throw, to nail Hamilton:

hamilton14out

That’s almost perfect. The throw was very strong. It had the perfect height. It was between 6 inches and 12 inches from the ideal location, but it was good enough in this instance, which means it would’ve been good enough in probably all instances. Centeno didn’t make a perfect throw, but he made an excellent throw. And he did it with a whole lot of strength. Hamilton was thrown out, barely.

This is how Billy Hamilton was caught, and this is how Billy Hamilton will be caught in the future. Sometimes, he’ll just stumble. Sometimes, he’ll get picked off. Other times, he’ll break clean, but the pitcher will get the ball to the catcher quickly, and the catcher will throw a heater down to second just in front of Hamilton’s foot or hand. As long as Hamilton is this fast, the battery will have to be just about perfect to wipe him out. The pitcher will have to vary his motion. The catcher will have to anticipate the attempt. The throw will have to be in just the right area. But there are ways to get Hamilton out. Now we’ve seen it — and because of a guy who’s been in the majors for just a few weeks, we’ll remember a guy who’s been in the majors for just a few weeks. Centeno might not end up with a long big-league career, but this is one way to make an impression.

Also, on Wednesday, Jay Bruce twice stole second. In Centeno’s only other big-league game, he and Aaron Harang allowed a steal to Buster Posey.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Rip Webber
Member
Rip Webber
2 years 10 months ago

I kept looking at the GIF of Matsuzaka trying to pick off Hamilton waiting for the next pitch. It never came. Perhaps the most depressing GIF ever. :(

bsball
Guest
bsball
2 years 10 months ago

I notice from the pictures that Hamilton sometimes slides head first and sometimes feet first. I thought most people generally did one or the other all of the time. Is Hamilton unusual in that or do other people do that?

dragbunter
Guest
dragbunter
2 years 10 months ago

Since sliding feet first is safer, you’ll see it when there is no throw or when the runner knows he’s toast. If a throw is on time but off target a runner will slide head first to avoid a tag–arms are easier to move and smaller targets than legs. Even though that was a close play, Hamilton could tell from his look-in that the catcher’s release was early, and he could see it was on target in front of him. He’s done this enough times to know when he will be caught stealing.

SKob
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

If Billy was being agressive and going in head first to the outer part of the bag, I think it’s a lot closer and he might get the call. I actually don’t think he read that throw well enough. From the fielders position, Billy would have been able to slide head first without worrying about injury.

bsball
Guest
bsball
2 years 10 months ago

Thanks for the explanation, that makes sense. But it looks to me like there are exceptions in the pictures here. For example, in pictures 3 and 4 there was no throw, but he went head first. And in 10 & 11 those look equally close with the throws both on 3b side and one he’s feet first and the other head first.

Jason Bourne
Guest
Jason Bourne
2 years 10 months ago

Honestly, I think in this case he thought he was easily safe so he slid like that. It was a misread.

MustBunique
Member
Member
2 years 10 months ago

I was hoping for this article to be written as soon as he was caught, thanks and good job. Do you have any idea of the breakdown on the times for this play (pitcher to the plate, catcher pop and throw, Hamilton 1st to 2nd)? A lot has been made of Hamilton’s times from first to second being around 3.1 seconds, with times as low as below 3. I am curious to see how this one stacks up. Good analysis of the throw location, too. This was certainly the best throw Hamilton has run into in tha Majors.

Steven
Guest
Steven
2 years 10 months ago

I agree, I wish this had the X, Y and Z times to see if Hamilton wasd slower than usual, Daisuke was faster than any of the other pitchers or Centeno was faster than any other catcher before. Even just comparing it to one of the first ones he had on Yadi would have been awesome.

DD
Guest
DD
2 years 10 months ago

There was an article Cameron referenced in an article the other day that had pop times and such.

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
2 years 10 months ago

Nice to be able to see the jump Hamilton got and it seems like he didn’t get the best one on Matsuzaka.

DD
Guest
DD
2 years 10 months ago

I agree, I’m curious too. The other factor here, though small, is that the hitter made absolutely no attempt to offer at the pitch, backing away as it was coming in, so the catcher had a perfectly unimpeded shot at 2nd. If the hitter had offered at it, the catcher may not hav been able to receive and release so smoothly.

Jim Bouldin
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Agreed, and also on the point that he didn’t get a great jump. Not terrible, but not great either. And Choo has to make him pay for grooving a fastball right down the middle. Hammer that ball! This could be a recurring problem because pitcher’s are well aware that Choo takes a lot of pitches, as does Votto.

Comments were made above that the catcher called for a high pitch and that Hamilton looked in on his steal, but I see no evidence for either.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
2 years 10 months ago

Mostly off topic, but related to the Jay Bruce thing – I wonder how many times in his career Barry Bonds struck out facing a pitcher who during the same game gave up a home run to the opposing pitcher? I bet it happened.

Brent
Guest
Brent
2 years 10 months ago

+1’d this because it tacitly likens Billy Hamilton to Barry Bonds, which I found amusing. Nicely done.

Catoblepas
Guest
Catoblepas
2 years 10 months ago

On the subject of everyone knowing Hamilton’s going every at-bat, I like how basically as soon as the pitch is released it looks like everyone ignores what they’re supposed to be doing and focuses entirely on Hamilton. The pitch looks like a borderline strike to me, but the umpire is just like “He’s going!!!”

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
2 years 10 months ago

I wonder how the pitchselection and location so far was with Hamilton on first base.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
2 years 10 months ago

It seems like several of the pitches with Hamilton on have been the high fastball psuedo-pitchout. I wonder if that changes if Votto or Bruce bats behind Hamilton and, so long as Hamilton is on first, is just sitting on the high fastball. Yeah, I like that idea, up the ante a bit. Your move, Pitcher.

NateW
Guest
NateW
2 years 10 months ago

The move might be for Hamilton to hold and the batter to take on the first pitch. If the pattern is for the high fastball then just take the ball and run or hit and run on the second pitch.

Not to take anything away from Centeno its getting a bit obvious on the first pitch.

Supertom
Guest
Supertom
2 years 10 months ago

Also there is the factor of whether the catcher is righty or lefty, and whether the batter is righty or lefty. I’m wondering if one combination of that creates a lower or higher ‘Z’ time, and could influence Hamilton’s success rate.

za
Guest
za
2 years 10 months ago

In general, you don’t see lefty-throwing catchers.

supertom
Member
supertom
2 years 10 months ago

very true. I see it would be very hard to analyze any situation involving a lefty catcher. Good point.

Russ Proctor
Guest
Russ Proctor
2 years 10 months ago

I’m surprised that nothing was said about the batter leaning and then stepping backwards while the pitch was on its way, creating a clear and easy path for the throw. Small but significant, imho.

Pete
Guest
Pete
2 years 10 months ago

I think many of the bad throws on previous attempts are because the catchers had to rush their throws. Hamilton got a bad jump on this one so Centeno could stay within his mechanics. Still an awesome throw, of course.

attgig
Guest
attgig
2 years 10 months ago

Centeno’s transfer was amazingly quick. I know you referenced the star ledger excerpt but I just wanted to add a little extra emphasis on that great catch and throw.

FeslenR
Guest
FeslenR
2 years 10 months ago

As a Met fan, I am happy that someone will remember a Met play this season.

Centeno has always had a gun in the minors: throwing out more than 35% of the runners every year. This probably cemented Centeno’s job security as backup defensive catcher for a long time to come.

ZB
Guest
ZB
2 years 10 months ago

Assuming Hamilton is more of a true talent .300 OBP player than his current .450 OBP do you hit him in front of the pitcher to get an OBP boost? Does he stilll get that boost considering what a threat he is on the bases?

Suppose he gets on. What if he doesn’t steal on the first pitch? The pitcher is presumably either: 1) rushing his pitch, which I expect makes it more likely to be a ball or 2) pitching out, meaning a guaranteed ball one to the batter. Doesn’t that also force the pitcher to rush his next pitch too? Also, aren’t hitters basically guaranteed a fastball with Billy Hamilton on base when there’s an open base in front of him? The downside of not running is, of course, not being in scoring position, plus the possibility of being doubled up.

It seems like hitting behind Billy Hamilton would offer some pretty favorable conditions. Or is this all theory that wouldn’t show up in reality, e.g. the protection effect?

attgig
Guest
attgig
2 years 10 months ago

it should offer and advantage, and so, you should definitely NOT hit him 8th. it may actually be better to hit the pitcher 8th, and Billy 9th.

Utah Dave
Guest
Utah Dave
2 years 10 months ago

Tony LaRussa agrees.

derp
Guest
derp
2 years 10 months ago

It was quite obvious to me that Billy just didn’t start running on first movement and DK was already well into his throwing motion when he finally took off. Don’t need much more explanation than that. And even then, a nearly perfect and very strong throw quickly handled barely got him out.

I still don’t know how he was caught so many times in the minors when catchers are infinitely worse at throwing out runners, otherwise they would have a back up catcher gig on some team.

SCMF
Guest
SCMF
2 years 10 months ago

Am I the only one who sees the play and doesn’t think that Hamilton was just barely out? I’m reading the comments and they read to me like people see it as Hamilton was just barely out, but to my eye, it looks like Hamilton is out by a good 6-8 feet. He’s sliding just as the ball arrives. Sure that’s a tenth of a second, but considering a lot of close plays on steals are hundredths of a second, it seems like it was a pretty big margin for a big league steal. Am I misreading the comments, or am I really in the minority here?

Brent
Guest
Brent
2 years 10 months ago

To me it looked like the throw beat him by a significant margin, but the tag didn’t. The throw, as mentioned, wasn’t perfect so the fielder had to swipe and ended up getting Hamilton closer to the knee than the foot or ankle so it was a lot closer than it could have been. It certainly wasn’t close enough that there was any doubt whether he was safe or out though. A perfect throw has the fielder sitting there with his glove in front of the bag, waiting for Hamilton to arrive,

SKob
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

By the time the ball hit the fielders glove, I would say Hamilton was 3-4 feet from the bag. Which as that speed is not a sure out. It’s also not the first time a throw beat Hamilton to the fielders glove, the throws were just off.

The points that are mostly being made here are that Hamilton got a late jump, slid feet first, the batter gave the catcher a free pass, Billy always goes on the first pitch, DK sped up his motion, the catcher threw a bullet on target, and it was still fairly close!

Jim Bouldin
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

I don’t think it was a particularly quick tag by the SS there. If you look closely at the footage, by the time he applied the tag it was actually pretty close. He might have been 4 ft from the bag (I’d say 6) when the ball hit the glove, but he’s going ~ 22 ft/sec, so he covers that in < 0.25 seconds.

CleverName
Guest
CleverName
2 years 10 months ago

Agreed, the first time I saw this I swore the SS nearly wasted the great throw, but it looks like he barely snagged him. He should have had him by a solid foot or two more

Kolbe
Guest
Kolbe
2 years 10 months ago

I know this is a weird thought.. but I wonder if Billy didn’t steal if the throw was still automatically going to second. As in, just throw down no matter what, who cares if he is going..

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