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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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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