Somewhere along the line in their development, pitchers are instructed to try to control the running game. At younger ages, pitchers are more able to stop runners than catchers are, since the catchers aren’t very good and the runners aren’t very good. At upper levels, catchers tend to get most of the credit, and indeed catchers bear a lot of responsibility, but for the most part it’s still pitchers on whom the fate of a running game depends the most. Controlling the running game is one of the ways in which Mark Buehrle excels. It’s one of the ways in which Johnny Cueto excels. For Tim Lincecum, it’s a weakness. Nothing’s more critical for pitchers than pitching, but how you manage baserunners can grant an extra advantage or disadvantage, depending. Every little run’s important, if any run is important.
It’s a weird thing, trying to control runners on base. You don’t want to allow steals, but you do want to allow steal attempts, so that you might be able to get baserunners erased. Better for a pitcher to have one stolen base and one caught steal on his record than zero of both, because the value of a caught steal is considerably higher than the value of a successful steal. If you’re too good at controlling runners, you won’t really throw runners out. Now take a glance at this year’s leaderboard. Leading the majors in caught steals is Madison Bumgarner, with nine. Just six steals against him have been successful. Three pitchers are tied at eight caught steals. Against Drew Smyly, runners are 14-for-22. Against Max Scherzer, they’re 11-for-19. Against Hisashi Iwakuma, they’re 0-for-8.
It’s weird for two reasons. One is that 0-for-8 is just a terrible record against anybody. And then there’s the matter of Iwakuma being right-handed, and on top of that he doesn’t exactly have a dynamite pickoff move. This isn’t something you’d expect. This isn’t even something you’d think about. But now, quietly, Iwakuma is closing in on a record, albeit the kind of record no one discusses until someone else stumbles upon another pitcher closing in on the same record.
Against Iwakuma, runners have a success rate of 0%, and they’ve been thrown out eight times. The highest caught-steal total in a single season to go with a 0% success rate is nine. In 1968, against Luis Tiant, baserunners went 0-for-9. In second we find 2014 Iwakuma, tied with 1953 Dick Littlefield. Runners were successful 60% of the time against Tiant over his career. They were successful just 43% of the time against Littlefield over his career. Iwakuma’s career is more new than old, but his rate stands at 47%. It was 63% before this season started.
Is this mostly because Mike Zunino‘s really good? Is Zunino mostly responsible for these numbers? Against Zunino and Iwakuma, runners are 0-for-8. Against Zunino and anyone else, runners are 49-for-61. Which doesn’t prove anything — maybe Zunino’s just happened to make his best throws with Iwakuma pitching — but, obviously, Zunino isn’t a guy with a reputation for controlling the running game yet. Runners are 16-for-19 against Zunino and Felix Hernandez.
Is this mostly the specific runners? The eight different guys are obviously 0-for-8 against Iwakuma, but they’re 78-for-104 otherwise. You’ve got Jarrod Dyson. You’ve got Elvis Andrus and Alex Gordon. To get a more solid and thorough understanding of this, we’ve little choice but to watch the steal attempts themselves. I’m not sure what this’ll show, but it’s unlikely to show nothing.
- Alex Gordon
You see Iwakuma hold set for a few seconds. Before beginning his delivery, he looks a little down and to the left, letting the runner know he’s aware of him. Fernando Rodney says he wears his hat to the side in part to confuse any runners on first. Iwakuma might accomplish a similar effect. But, Gordon might very well be safe here were it not for Zunino uncorking a basically perfect throw. Iwakuma paid attention to Gordon and he was quick to the plate, but Zunino’s throw couldn’t have been better.
Same hold, same look down. But Mike Zunino dug this pitch out of the dirt and then threw along the right line to Robinson Cano, who casually applied a tag. With a worse pick, or a non-pick, Gonzalez is in scoring position.
Here you get a side view of Iwakuma’s little pre-delivery glance. It doesn’t seem like Romine’s jump was meaningfully delayed, and the throw down was almost perfect, only a few inches high. One starts to get the sense that Iwakuma’s strength is being so fast to home. He doesn’t get the ball there in an elite-level 1.1 – 1.2 seconds, but his delivery with men on base is simple and abrupt.
A failed hit-and-run! A failed hit-and-run is usually a recipe for a failed stolen base, because the runner looks in as he’s going. Iwakuma got the ball home in a perfectly adequate amount of time, and the pitch was located okay and the throw wasn’t bad. As it arrives, Roberts isn’t even in the picture, as by then he’s elected to try to return to where he was. He didn’t make it back safely, but I left that part out of the .gif because I didn’t want him to get hurt in a looping animated rundown.
- Elvis Andrus
Iwakuma, ever so subtly, does mix up his set times, as pitchers are instructed to do. Sometimes he’ll hold the ball set for three seconds. Sometimes he’ll hold the ball set for more like five seconds. It’s all part of an attempt to keep the runner from getting the timing down, and here Iwakuma’s timing was different from what it was on the previous delivery. Additionally, watch his head bob as he looks down and slightly to the left. There’s an extra hitch there, but ultimately, the throw was good too and right into Andrus’ sliding line.
- Jarrod Dyson
For Iwakuma this made unsuccessful steals in three consecutive games, and in five games out of six. It’s always easier when you’re pitching out, and the Mariners saw this steal attempt coming. Zunino’s throw arrived right above Dyson’s butt, allowing for the tag to be easily applied to Dyson’s butt.
They break stolen bases down into tenths of a second. A stolen base takes something like three and a half seconds to develop, but you don’t end up dealing with differences of three and a half seconds — you deal with differences of hundredths of a second. With the slightest hesitation, a runner is out. With the slightest throwing mistake, a runner is safe. On this play, David Lough was thrown out. If this play were repeated a hundred times, how many of those times would David Lough be thrown out? Everything on the Mariners’ end was executed perfectly, but I suppose in the major leagues, you can on some level expect perfection.
The most recent steal attempt against Iwakuma was a busted hit-and-run involving the White Sox’s starting catcher. He was thrown out pretty easily. He was thrown out by a fraction of a fraction of one second, but relative to how most stolen bases are decided, this one was a gimme. I just now noticed how Zunino had to throw the baseball over the ducking batter, who had just struck out. This .gif gets more amazing by the loop.
What do I feel like we’ve discovered? The fact is that, against Iwakuma, would-be base-stealers are 0-for-8. That has Iwakuma closing in on a record. Looking at the attempts, you can see how Iwakuma has benefited from some good luck, like a pitchout and a couple busted hit-and-runs. Zunino has made some tremendous throws down to second base. But pretty much all record pursuits involve some skill and some luck, because records by definition are extraordinary and the extraordinary needs to be regressed to the mean. Iwakuma mostly does what he can. He varies his set times. He’s quick to home, he makes the odd pick-off throw, and before he starts his delivery he looks down and a little toward first so he can get an idea of what might be happening over there. By running game true talent, Iwakuma presumably isn’t a 0% kind of guy. But he might be, say, a 50% kind of guy, and for a right-handed pitcher, that puts him in rare company. He doesn’t have Cueto’s move to first, but Cueto’s move to first is the best in the league.
In terms of the running game, Iwakuma is approaching a bit of a record. As things stand, he’s also posting one of the lowest walk rates in history, especially for a guy capable of getting a strikeout. Iwakuma isn’t good at the things that would make him a household name, but he’s good at the things that can make him a hell of a reliable starter. The running game on its own doesn’t make much of a difference, but Iwakuma doesn’t put that many guys on in the first place. So those are opportunities you don’t want to run yourself out of.
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