It’s too bad that the playoffs have to continue uninterrupted, because I’d be content to think about and write about Tuesday night’s wild-card game for the next month and a half. While it wasn’t actually a demonstration of smallball vs. Moneyball, the Royals resembled a team from the 80s, or more accurately, the Royals resembled themselves, beating the A’s with exactly their own brand of offense. The Royals this past season were the best base-stealing team in the league, and while it’s easy to downplay baserunning as a significant overall factor in determining wins and losses, the small picture doesn’t always work like the big picture, and Tuesday night, stolen bases were very much a huge reason behind the Royals’ stunning advance.
That was a key we all thought to watch for. Aggressiveness was part of the Royals’ game plan, as they tied a playoff record with seven steals. There’s blame going the way of Derek Norris, who replaced an injured Geovany Soto, and to be sure, Norris could’ve had a better game. But something we’ve really come to understand in the past few years is that steals are more off of pitchers than catchers, and this wasn’t so much the Royals taking advantage of Norris as it was the Royals taking advantage of the batteries. The Royals read and the Royals ran, and there was no bigger stolen base than Jarrod Dyson‘s arrival at third in the bottom of the ninth.
Let’s quickly go through these things one by one. Seven steals, excluding whatever it was Billy Butler was trying to do:
This is Norichika Aoki, before Soto came out. Obviously, Soto’s throw wasn’t good, but I don’t think it would’ve mattered. Jon Lester took more than 1.6 seconds to get the ball to home plate. The pitch was in such an area that it wasn’t easy for Soto to quickly get the ball in his bare hand while rising. Lester’s advantage is being left-handed, so runners can’t take super-aggressive leads, but if they don’t think he’s going to throw over, they can get going without much fear, and Aoki stole this off the pitcher.
Bad throw again, here by Norris, but Alcides Escobar had it all beat anyway, and Norris’ pop time wasn’t bad. Norris reacted quickly, and the pitch was a good one to allow for a throw, but Escobar got way too good a jump. With a four-run lead in the eighth, it’s possible Lester just didn’t want to worry too much about one runner with more important hitters at the plate.
Throw was okay, if a bit low, and the pop time was reasonable given the pitch location. Lorenzo Cain mostly stole this off Lester, and considering Cain got there in 3.4 seconds, he would’ve been safe under many circumstances. Lester just isn’t that quick to home, maybe in particular in stressful situations while fatigued.
About 3.2 seconds. You don’t throw out Terrance Gore. He’s one of the fastest players in baseball, see. If you allow a big steal to Terrance Gore, it’s mostly because you’re a baseball team, and Terrance Gore has an open base. Runners are 21-for-21 against Luke Gregerson the last two seasons, this steal included. With Gore and Gregerson combined, Norris didn’t have a chance.
Alex Gordon stole second on this, but Norris didn’t even think about throwing down, not with Gore 90 feet away as the tying run. The priority was getting the strikeout, not letting the ball get by, and keeping the runner on third.
Jarrod Dyson. We’re going to talk about this in greater detail in just a minute, but it’s my belief that Norris couldn’t really do anything with this. This was Dyson reading and stealing off of Sean Doolittle.
I’m pretty comfortable putting that one on Norris. Two pitches later, the game was over.
So, Norris could’ve been better. But the pitchers could’ve been better, and with certain runners, there’s just no one at fault but the math. If a guy can move up in about 3.2 seconds, for example, it’s almost out of the battery’s hands. I can’t blame the A’s for allowing Terrance Gore to advance — the real key is keeping people off bases in the first place. But again, I want to talk about the biggest steal of the game. Maybe the biggest steal of the season? When Jarrod Dyson stole third base in the bottom of the ninth, it was worth .133 WPA to the Royals. When Josh Willingham opened the frame with a single, it was worth .133 WPA. When Aoki brought Dyson home, it was worth .133 WPA. Stolen bases are usually incremental factors, but Dyson got himself to third with one out in a one-run game, and the numbers tell you how important that was. Now let’s look at how Dyson stole the base off Doolittle, leaving Norris almost helpless.
Dyson led the American League this year in swipes of third, with ten. He was topped in the majors only by Billy Hamilton, and Hamilton was caught one more time than Dyson was. Dyson was rather famously picked off at second by Joe Nathan just a few weeks ago, but that wasn’t representative of his skills. Also, Dyson had just been inserted into the game, for a rather obvious purpose. Also, it happened before Dyson could get a good read. When Dyson was caught stealing this year, it was within the first one or two pitches. When he moved up to third, it was always after observing multiple pitches, sometimes several of them. Dyson got to see a lot of Doolittle before he finally took off.
Things began with an unthrown pickoff attempt. Dyson was in basically no danger.
Here’s the thing I want you to watch. Look at Doolittle’s head, and look at his right leg. On this play, Doolittle looks back to second, looks home, waits, and then lifts his leg. That’s going to be our signal.
In the pickoff attempt, Doolittle looked home first, before beginning his motion. Here, he lifts his leg as he turns his head away from second. Dyson’s reading him, and takes a big secondary lead.
Same thing here again. Doolittle checks on Dyson, and then he begins his motion as he looks back to home, picking up the plate on the fly. He turns his head to home slower, slightly changing his look, and Dyson doesn’t hop off as much, but the read is still developing.
Same pattern, and Dyson is picking up on it. Doolittle looks at Dyson, and then he starts his motion as he looks at the catcher. There’s no pause. Dyson at this point is approaching a certain read, but maybe he could use one more indicator?
Doolittle looks at Dyson, then turns to home without beginning his motion. There’s a pause, just like before the first pickoff attempt, and Dyson immediately starts back to second when Doolittle lifts his leg and turns. So what Dyson has seen, to this point: two pauses, two pickoff looks. Three non-pauses, three throws to home. With a 2-and-1 count on Aoki, there’s still a good opportunity to move up. Aoki’s a contact hitter, so Dyson can trust in his ability to put the bat on the ball even with two strikes. And then Dyson can score on almost anything.
Doolittle looks back at Dyson, and then as he turns his head, he starts his motion, and Dyson is off to the races. No pause probably means no pickoff. No pickoff means a pitch, and a pitch means a pretty good shot at getting to third base, unless Norris makes a perfect throw. Norris’ throw was good, and he unleashed it quick, but because Dyson runs so well, and because he had such a good read on Doolittle, he was virtually unthrowoutable. This is why, to be a good base-stealer, you don’t need to be a great sprinter. So much of it is about what happens before the pitch is even on the way. And if you have great speed and great awareness, you’re a great base-runner, and Dyson’s one of the best.
So to review, Doolittle’s look before pickoff attempts:
Doolittle’s look before pitches:
Maybe it’s something Doolittle’s aware of. Maybe it’s not. Most of the time, it’s not something Doolittle has to worry about, but if this is part of his delivery, the last thing he wants to do is alter his routine and motion in the ninth inning of a one-game playoff. Pitchers are going to stick to their habits, and runners like Dyson can pick up on those things. That’s how you make a big stolen base in the Royals’ biggest game in decades, and while there still wasn’t a guarantee of Dyson getting home, it was all about improving the odds with something other than a swing of the bat. Swinging the bat is where the Royals struggle most, so it’s up to the legs to make things as promising as possible.
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