How Yasmani Grandal Stole Third Base

In the first 2014 regular-season baseball game played in the Northern Hemisphere, the Padres hosted the Dodgers. A 1-0 game became a 1-1 game late, and then Yasmani Grandal got on and stole third base. Moments later he scored the go-ahead run, and the Padres held on to win 3-1. That steal happened to be the first of Grandal’s major-league career. It also happened to be the first of Grandal’s professional career. Grandal is a slow-moving catcher and he’s coming off knee surgery. You’re right to identify this as an unlikely turn of events. It was also, in part, the consequence of an unlikely turn of events.

Not long ago I wrote a few posts about the challenge of bunting. Bunting, see, has the reputation of being something absurdly easy to do, but it’s really quite hard, even if certain position players don’t do it enough. Sunday night’s attempted bunting was a mixed bag. There were seven attempts overall. There were two successful sacrifices. There was one blown sacrifice, where the lead runner was thrown out. Two bunts went foul. Another bunt went foul into a glove on the fly. One attempted bunt was missed completely. That missed bunt, by the Padres, was instrumental in the Padres earning the win.

In the bottom of the eighth, Grandal pinch-hit and walked with none out. Everth Cabrera put down an easy sac bunt, but Brian Wilson couldn’t pick the ball up cleanly, and that doubled the number of runners. Up came Chris Denorfia, and Denorfia’s task was to move the runners another 90 feet. All Denorfia had to do was bunt the ball softly on the ground, and Wilson gave him a pitch in the zone.

GrandalSteal1.gif.opt

Denorfia whiffed. Grandal moved up anyway on the same pitch. Shortly thereafter, Cabrera took second, and then Denorfia singled both runners home. Had the plan gone as intended, the Padres would’ve been in a good spot. The plan going awry put the Padres in a commanding spot instead.

I know now, better than I ever have, that bunting presents a challenge. I’ve played with the numbers over a handful of hours. But something about this still struck me as unusual, as the majority of bad bunts I came across went foul. Back I went to Baseball Savant. Last season, with runners on base, position players attempted nearly 1,500 bunts on pitches in the zone. About 55% of those attempts were bunted fair. All of 3.5% were missed. Or, 52, out of 1,473. Based just on that data, Denorfia missing completely was a 1-in-28 shot. It was highly unlikely that Denorfia would blow the bunt in that fashion, making it all the more remarkable that Grandal got himself to third. Most times, he doesn’t even have the chance.

So, about the steal. It lifted the Padres’ odds of winning by about ten percentage points. It also opened second base up for Cabrera to take, so that was an extra small bonus. Based on my own calculations, the break-even rate was right around 65%, meaning Grandal needed to think he could make it safely twice out of every three identical attempts. One key was that Denorfia bunted right through the ball. Another key was that Denorfia was bunting in the first place, which drew in Juan Uribe.

GrandalSteal2.gif.opt

It wasn’t quite enough that Uribe positioned himself far away from the bag. Grandal moved off second aggressively, but he broke for third only when he noticed that Uribe charged hard toward the batter, anticipating a live bunt. At that point, Grandal figured he could sprint to third faster than Uribe could reverse momentum and get back. Uribe, of course, wouldn’t have been too concerned about Grandal being in motion. On the one hand, it’s somewhat remarkable that Grandal did this on the first pitch. But then, he’d also seen Uribe’s bunt behavior when he was on base and Cabrera dropped one down, and also, this is presumably pretty ordinary for third basemen. Grandal didn’t need Uribe to forget about him — Grandal just needed Uribe to not be worried about him. One way to be fast is to run a split-second quicker than your peers. Another way is to just make reactions a split-second slower.

Daniel Murphy had a big baserunning season in 2013 not because he was fast, but because he ran smartly and aggressively. Grandal:

“I had a couple of things they weren’t expecting,” Grandal said, smiling. “One, I’m coming off of ACL surgery. Two, I’m a catcher. And three, I’m pretty slow.”

Bud Black:

Grandal’s steal of third, the first theft of his career, was “huge,” Black said. “He’s an instinctual player. He saw [third baseman Juan] Uribe in for the bunt. We talk a lot about game awareness.”

Don Mattingly:

“We’ve got to get back to third,” said Mattingly. “He was caught too far off when he bunts through.”

Of course, the response to Grandal’s steal is hopelessly biased by the result. Had Uribe hurried back, and had Grandal been thrown out, people would’ve been wondering why a catcher coming off knee surgery was trying to steal a base with a good bunter standing at the plate. But many decisions in baseball are borderline, the right call and the wrong call separated by only a few percentage points. No throw to third was even attempted. Grandal did a good job of reading the situation, and he wasn’t even particularly close to being gunned down. Grandal stole third base with the ease of Billy Hamilton and the speed of Dan Uggla. It’s a lot easier to out-run the play when the play doesn’t expect a live runner.

Over the course of a full season, most good baserunning plays and bad baserunning plays cancel out. The spread in team baserunning tends to be fairly small, and last year the Padres were five runs better than average, and no more than that. But while baserunning is a little thing, a single game is also a little thing, and within one little thing, another little thing looks a lot bigger. Yasmani Grandal stealing third was critical to the Padres’ win, and that’s why Black and other managers are so keen on running aggressively. Do it smartly enough, consistently enough, and maybe it will be a huge factor. More bad can be avoided. More good can be seized.

In the first game of his fifth regular season, Yasmani Grandal stole his first professional base. It happened because he was aware, but it also happened because of an unlikely missed bunt. And because of that missed bunt, and because of that steal, the bunter got to swing and he immediately swung home the winning run. You never know what could happen in a baseball game. So you never know what could happen in a baseball season. Happy baseball season, everybody.




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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.


30 Responses to “How Yasmani Grandal Stole Third Base”

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  1. Bil Bo Baggins says:

    why did they concede the stolen base to everth? taking the DP out it seemed odd.

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    • LHPSU says:

      Risk of runner on 3rd advancing to home on the throw, also a normal GDP still results in the run scoring unless you get the runner out at home.

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  2. K says:

    This almost seems like a trick play. with a RH batter you can whiff the bunt on purpose and maximize blockage of the catcher. 3b comes in and its an easy SB especially with a fast baserunner.

    any thoughts?

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    • tz says:

      I think an MLB team would be smart to snap you up as an advance scout/game analyst.

      The idea itself should work well until someone figures out the counter-strategy. No obvious one that I can think of.

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      • triple_r says:

        I’m not clear on the rules, but couldn’t obstruction be called, somehow?

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        • Jarrod Saltalamacchia says:

          Who the @#$! knows.

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        • Dustin says:

          If he actually obstructed the throw, yes. But just standing there he obstructs the catcher’s vision, buying the runner a little more time.

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        • The Ancient Mariner says:

          I would think the umps would have to be able to prove intent, which would be a tricky thing to do — as long as you didn’t try this too often, anyway.

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        • SimonSays says:

          I was always told that the batter has the box. As long as he doesn’t make a move to interfere with the throw it shouldn’t be a problem. There also has to be an attempt at a throw for it to be called.

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        • Terence says:

          Intent does not matter in obstruction or interference calls. 7.08(b)comment.

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        • Terence says:

          The batter does have his box, however this thread is talking about the advantage Denorfia gained after he missed the bunt and left the batter’s box. Had Cabrera taken off for second, and Ellis attempted a throw in this situation, Interference would have been the correct call. Denorfia would be out and the runners would have to return to their bases.
          6.06 (c)

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    • Steven says:

      I think this was an abnormal situation. If Uribe is going to charge that hard, Ramirez has to cover 3rd (usually known as the Wheel Play), but Mattingly called out Uribe not Ramirez. Thus, the play must have been Gonzalez charges and Uribe stays home unless the bunt gets down. This play only works if Uribe messes up.

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      • The Ancient Mariner says:

        With Denorfia screening out the catcher, I doubt they would have gotten Grandal even if Uribe had been standing on the base.

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      • Jason says:

        HanRam goes immediately to 2nd in that 2nd gif. I deduce that since Mattingly didn’t call Ramirez out that that was by design, putting the blame on Uribe (or maybe Mattingly).

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      • Jonas Fester says:

        Exactly, this was just a botched play leaving 3B unoccupied. That’s just heads up baserunning seeing that and taking advantage.

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    • Max says:

      My son’s little-league team practices having the shortstop cover third in that situation (he has to beat the runner over). I think this is where the play went wrong….

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      • Dag Gummit says:

        To me, this is definitely an issue of the defense being caught in a Catch-22. Ramirez either breaks for third for the Wheel Play or to second for the much more likely force out. Because the pitcher was RH’d and Denorfia’s history as a good bunter, I could get how there are far fewer (perceived) opportunities for the Wheel Play to work. Denorfia’s goal is to bunt the ball down the 3B line and the RH Wilson has a much more difficult time getting to it than a LHP would.

        However, by breaking the SS to second, almost anyone who could field the ball cleanly and quickly may have a shot at the force there. If that works, a DP could get out of the situation without giving up a run.

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      • deacondrake says:

        It really depends on the design of the defense… the initial intend was double play depth, which puts Ramirez in a much better position to cover second with the corners charging… a bad bunt still could have resulted in two outs.

        Thee Padres played percentages against percentages and came out with an unlikely, but best result… kind of like when the kick returner lets the ball bounce, forcing the coverage team to overrun and overcommit, giving a free “push up” TD.

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    • Spencer00 says:

      My coach has had us do this in babe ruth games every once in a while, pretty effective, losing a strike is better than losing an out.

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      • tz says:

        Watching the GIFs again, I swear it looks like Denorfia is measuring his steps backwards after the missed bunt so as to distract Ellis without actually running into him.

        So even if Uribe was covering third Grandal the throw itself might not be 100% quick or accurate.

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  3. Poach says:

    Regarding how the steal “lifted the Padres’ odds of winning by about ten percentage points. It also opened second base up for Cabrera to take, so that was an extra small bonus” – the opening of second base would already be accounted for in Win Probability.

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    • jruby says:

      It would, but WPA is player-neutral, right? So it would account for the opening, but not the fact that there’s a plus base stealer on first, so the bump in WPA by that would be understated.

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  4. Jon says:

    The fake bunt/steal third play is standard stuff in softball, though it is MUCH easier for the SS to cover 3B in softball where the runner can’t break until the pitch is released.

    But posts above are right. Ramirez screwed up the play. Never bother covering a base that there won’t be a throw to. I doubt you’d ever see a throw to second in that situation but with a bad runner on 2B and a good one on 1B, there’s no way. They’re not even holding the runner on 1B. Ramirez either breaks for third or HOLDS his ground in case of the fake bunt/swing away.

    Dang shame when you’re supposed to be the best team in baseball, you just finished spring training, and you don’t know your bunt coverages. Course Hanley’s not getting paid for his glove or his head.

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    • Dan says:

      It’s not a screwup by Ramirez.

      SS has to cover the (second base) bag to stop the exact thing that happened – the baserunner being able to advance too far towards third without risk. 2B can’t do it as he has to cover first if/when the 1b has to go in to field the ball.

      The pitcher has 3b line (i.e. has the responsibility to field the ball bunted down third base line) UNLESS it is bunted too hard for the pitcher to get it. Then it is Uribes to field and throw to 1st with it.

      Uribe screwed up by going too far in. He needs to be able to get back to a) take the throw from the catcher in a steal (exactly what happened) or b) take the bag if the catcher/1b/pitcher fields a badly bunted ball where a force-out can be thrown to 3b.
      He thought he had more time due to Grandals slow foot speed but he was wrong. Simple as that.

      Uribe went too far

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      • Jon says:

        Sorry but no. There’s no such thing here as the runner on second being able to go to far without risk. What’s the threat? Catcher throws the ball to third, runner has to go back to second. It’s not like the bunt with a runner on third where the runner follows the 3B down the line unless the SS covers to keep him close while the 5-3 out is made. On this play there’s nothing for Ramirez ever to do at 2B. No throw will be made there. Pickoff throw would go to 1B. Bunt would be thrown to 3B or 1B. He should stay home if they’re not going for the force at third, and cover third if the wheel play is on.

        What you describe assumes the wheel play is not on and you’re accepting that a good bunt down the line will be a successful sacrifice. Wheel play is designed to get an out at third on any bunt other than a good one towards the 1B by charging the 3B early and hard. Ramirez failure to wheel makes Uribe look stupid until you realize how stupid it is for Ramirez to be standing at 2B with nothing to do. Could have been worse of course. A bunt to Uribe and he’d have turned to throw to third with nobody there.

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        • Dan says:

          When the wheel play is not on (which it wasn’t, according to Ramirez at least, perhaps Uribe thought it was) then a good bunt down third base line IS a successful sacrifice.

          If no-one is covering second base the runner can take a massive secondary and either a) give the fielding team no chance of getting the lead runner at third even on a relatively poor bunt or b) he can get back even if the bunt is popped up and caught. That is the threat and that is why Ramirez stays at 2b. You can even see in the replay that the catch initially pumps to throw to Ramirez at 2b as he is expecting Grandal to realise the hitter missed the bunt attempt and to return to 2b. He then pumps to throw to third but stops when he see Uribe can’t get back in time.

          If Uribe hadn’t charged quite so hard then Grandal would have been hung up between 2nd and third. If Ramirez had been wheeling to go to third then Grandal could have just turned around and gone back to second.

          Ramirez also doesn’t wheel to third as he is staying close to second at double play depth in case the hitter does not bunt.

          I’ll agree that it was potentially a missed wheel play by Ramirez (in which case Uribe is correct and Ramirez blew it), but the way I see it Uribe didn’t think it was a wheel, he just didn’t expect Grandal to break for third without seeing the ball on the ground as he doesn’t steal.

          Here is one example of the throw to 2b in almost the same situation (only runner on 2b though, not 1st and 2nd).

          http://m.mlb.com/video/v30765659/houcle-gomes-throws-behind-runner-on-missed-bunt

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        • Jon says:

          There’s a bit more video of it here. http://m.mlb.com/video/v31716813/ladsd-padres-use-power-and-small-ball-to-take-lead/?query=&game_pk=380546

          The difference between the two plays is that in the Hou-Cle clip, the SS is holding the runner on second. The wheel play cannot be on because the runner’s going to beat the SS to 3B. In the LAD-SD game, the 2B is the one who is (sort-of) holding the runner, and Ramirez has to go so far to get to 2B that a pickoff would only work if the runner fell down or something.

          I still think Uribe moved like the wheel play was on, and Ramirez was positioned where it easily could have been. But what we can agree on is that the Dodgers spent weeks at spring training and still managed to blow coverages on a bunt play in the first (US) game of the year. Bad fundamental baseball gives away a game and it didn’t even involve Puig!

          Now, we might be saying similar stuff about the Cardinals errors but for the filthy pitching they had. Well, actually, the rundown was beautiful execution of spring training work, while the errors were WTF physical blunders. On to the next game!

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  5. Lyrok says:

    This is a very tough play to defense. When I played and coached, I would have the 3rd baseman stand 8-10 feet toward home (from the 2-3rd baseline). 3rd baseman has to be turned slightly toward 2nd (to see the runner). 3rd baseman must also tell the pitcher before the pitch that he has 3rd base line on a bunt. Only time the 3rd baseman charges is if/when the ball is bunted toward 3rd and the only play will be at first.

    Another time the bunt situation puts a lot of pressure on the defense is when there is a runner on 1st. With a right handed hitter up, the 2nd baseman generally has 2nd base on a steal and has to cover 1st base on the bunt. By putting a fake bunt / steal on, there is usually no contest on the play at 2nd. Have the hitter square a little bit early and bunt through the ball. Again, I coached the middle infielders to communicate that if the hitter ever shows bunt, ss must cover the steal — something I was never coached to do or did while a player.

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  6. Gyre says:

    Watch this play some more, and then re-think your fantasy that the Doodgers will win the West

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