Pitcher Theft in 2012: an Examination

I don’t know what you know about Collin Cowgill — for all I know, you don’t know anything about Collin Cowgill, aside from his name, now. Cowgill is an outfielder, and last year, in the majors, he successfully stole three bases, and was caught trying to steal four times. He finished with 116 plate appearances. Major-league pitchers finished with 5,913 plate appearances. As a group, they successfully stole three bases, and were caught trying to steal four times. This is going to be another article about pitchers not pitching.

It fits a theme of the week. At Baseball Prospectus, Sam Miller wrote about the non-pitching value of pitchers. Here, Jack Moore looked at pitcher hitting in certain detail. Featured below, you will find Cliff Lee, Anthony Bass, and Jake Westbrook. Discussed will not be their arms. Discussed will be their legs, or at least something their legs allowed them to do. Their legs, their heads, and the heads of their opponents.

You’ve figured it out, surely. Lee, Bass, and Westbrook are the three pitchers who successfully stole bases in 2012. For each, it was their only steal attempt, and for Bass and Westbrook, it was their first-ever successful steal. For Lee, it was his second career successful steal, after pulling one off in 2011, too. Cliff Lee attempted his first major-league stolen base at 32. Westbrook attempted his at 34. I wanted to look at each of these three steals to find out how they happened. After all, one doesn’t steal a base accidentally. It requires planning, it requires an idea, and these pitchers intended to advance. They pulled it off, despite there being opponents, where other pitchers prefer to proceed with caution. As a rule, pitchers tend to move on the basepaths only when they have to. These guys didn’t have to, and they did it anyway.

I’ll begin by noting that all three successful steals were of second base. These pitchers were aggressive, but they weren’t insane. We’ll now go in order, which is simply the order in which I have my tabs open.

Cliff Lee

Opposing pitcher: Stephen Strasburg
Opposing catcher: Jesus Flores
Date: July 31


There’s not a lot of mystery here. Lee wasn’t being held on by the Nationals’ first baseman, because the Nationals’ first baseman didn’t expect Cliff Lee to take off. Nobody, I’m guessing, expected Lee to take off, which was the whole idea. The throw was fine, but late, because Strasburg wasn’t paying attention to Lee and was focused instead on the task at the plate. At the end of the .gif, maybe that’s Strasburg looking sheepish, embarrassed for having not paid enough attention, but most of the time you don’t have to pay attention to pitchers on the bases. Pitchers are terrible on the bases. This probably isn’t going to happen to Strasburg again for a long time, even if he pays no attention at all.

This is a screenshot of a successful base-stealer:


All business. This wasn’t Cliff Lee’s first base-stealing rodeo. This was Cliff Lee’s second base-stealing rodeo.

To be honest, it was just an odd half-inning. Cliff Lee got a hit against Stephen Strasburg. Cliff Lee stole second base against Stephen Strasburg. The next pitch after the steal was ripped by Jimmy Rollins into right field for an inside-the-park home run. On consecutive pitches, by Stephen Strasburg, a pitcher stole a base, and a batter lined an inside-the-park dinger. I don’t blame you if you don’t believe me, because, what?

Anthony Bass

Opposing pitcher: Yu Darvish
Opposing catcher: Yorvit Torrealba
Date: June 20


No attention paid by Darvish, and no attention paid by the first baseman, again. And again, for good reason. Bass was still nearly thrown out, because Bass isn’t a burner, because pitchers aren’t burners. Yet, interestingly enough, Bass this past season had both a stolen base and a triple. There were only seven pitcher triples. Of the ten combined pitcher triples and steals, Anthony Bass had two of them, and he threw just 97 innings. I don’t know if this is the most interesting thing about Anthony Bass, but it’s the most interesting thing about him that I know.

This is a screenshot of a successful base-stealer:


Bass: I ran the bases
Bass: I feel like a position player
Bass: What do position players do now
Bass: /places hands on knees, leans forward

Anthony Bass tried to look all business after his steal, and sure enough, he did. Maybe that’s the sportsmanlike thing to do. On the other hand, in front of dozens of Japanese media members, with all attention on the infield, Anthony Bass — a pitcher — stole a base. There are few opportunities within a baseball game when it would be appropriate to bust up laughing, but I feel like this would be one of them. Live a little, Anthony Bass. What you did, few do.

Jake Westbrook

Opposing pitcher: Erik Bedard
Opposing catcher: Michael McKenry
Date: May 3


Let’s see that again:


This isn’t only a pitcher stealing a base — this is a pitcher stealing a base against a lefty, and not even having to slide. This is a stand-up stolen base by a pitcher off a southpaw. That’s just…I’ll let the Cardinals broadcast do the editorializing.

One guy: We’ve seen the Cardinals do this by design, and you can look at it two different ways. One, is he trying to get in a rundown, or two, is it truly a delayed steal, which is you take your secondary lead, and then you go, and you catch everybody napping.

Other guy: Well whatever it is, it’s an embarrassing result for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Nobody moved. Nobody even tried. Look at McKenry’s body language in the first .gif. Look at Bedard’s body language in the first .gif. In fairness, a perfectly-executed delayed steal makes everyone on the other team look moronic, and in fairness, you can’t pay 100% attention to everything all of the time, so you can forgive the Pirates for paying less than complete attention to Jake Westbrook, but the symbolism is strong with this one. Last year’s Pirates allowed a league-leading 154 steals, and they threw out a league-worst 19 would-be thieves. It just wasn’t something they really cared about, I hope. To represent the Pirates’ collective ineptitude when it came to controlling the running game, I present to you a stand-up stolen base off a lefty by Jake Westbrook.

What have we learned from this exercise? The key to a successful pitcher steal is the element of surprise. This is also the key to pretty much any successful steal by anybody. So what we’ve really learned from this exercise is nothing. Except that Jake Westbrook stole his base standing up. Man, Pirates. How very Pirates.

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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.

26 Responses to “Pitcher Theft in 2012: an Examination”

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  1. Pirates Hurdles says:

    Its funny to look back at the Bucs decision to ignore the running game in 2012. The strategy worked well for about 4 months when teams were running against the Bucs at a normal frequency. Dave Cameron even wrote an article on how it wasn’t hurting the Pirates run prevention. However teams then realized just how easy the Bucs were making it and started running constantly. The Brewers started the trend. All of sudden more runs started scoring and the Bucs started losing. It wasn’t the only reason for the historic collapse (losing Walker, JMac imploding, Cutch returning to earth), but it was a significant one.

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  2. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    I cannot tell you how many times I had to watch the second Westbrook GIF just to fully comprehend how absurd that steal is. He starts running after the pitcher throws the ball, and nobody responds at all. Incredible.

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    • binqasim says:

      They were all probably in shock, ‘what is this guy doing?’.

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      • chuckb says:

        It helped that there was a runner on 3rd and the lefty-hitting Jon Jay at the plate against the lefty Bedard. They probably weren’t sure how to defend it.

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      • SKob says:

        Yeah, but the middle infielders didn’t flinch. This wasn’t even an ‘oh crap’, this was a ‘whatever man, have the bag!’ Awesome strategy Bucs!

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      • rusty says:

        I think @chuckb has it right — it’s the Little League thing, where you steal second with runners on the corners, because if they throw the other guy can take home.

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  3. binqasim says:

    Nationals pitchers were terrible at holding runners back, from starters to relievers. Storen and Clippard both take notoriously a long time to deliver their pitches. Don’t believe me? take a look at Descalso swapping 2nd base in game 5 of NLDS.

    If I am not mistaken, Lee also swapped a bag in a WS game as a Phillie.

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  4. Spencer says:

    I’m going to project that Kris Medlen becomes the best non-pitching pitcher in 2013. He is a really athletic fielder as an ex-shortstop. He has arguably the best right handed pickoff move in baseball. (Does that count towards non-pitching/fielding stats?) And he can actually kind of run. He’s also a pretty darn good contact hitter. I suspect that with a full season on Medlen doing non-pitching pitcher things, he will take this crown.

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  5. Anon says:

    Seems lazy not to find the names for the Cardinal broadcasters.

    Also, the first person is right. The goal of the Westbrook steal is a rundown, which would give the runner on third a chance to go home.

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    • chuckb says:

      That “insight” is reflective of normal commentary on a Cardinals broadcast. State the obvious — “it may have been a delayed steal” — and then act like you’ve said something profound.

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    • JR says:

      Do the broadcasters change the article? Seriously, immaterial.

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  6. Canard says:

    Cardinals were probably going for a double steal there, trying to draw the catcher into throwing to second so the guy on third could come home. You can see in the second GIF Jay prepare to make a dash for home only to let up once he sees the catcher wasn’t stupid enough to throw to second. Jay had 19 stolen bases last season so he was certainly capable of pulling it off.

    The lateness by Westbrook in going for it makes the Pirates look silly, yes; but Jay stealing home against them would look sillier.

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  7. Cidron says:

    Not buying that he (Westbrook, in the third one) was trying for a double steal, rather, luring a throw from the catcher. The catcher didn’t even look down the 3b line to see if the runner was readying himself to come down the line. The catcher (McHenry) was fooled, plain and simple.

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    • jj says:

      He may have been fooled, but I think the intent was still there from the Cards. It is 2 outs and a 2 strike count, lefty on lefty. i think the Pirates did the right thing after realizing they were fooled why make more of a fool of yourself, just get that 3rd strike – which if you look it up, Jay actually ended up working a walk to bring up Holliday with the bases loaded. He also worked the count full before grounding out to Bedard. Pirates would go on to win the game as STL would not score again until plating a run in the 9th after giving up 6 after this inning.

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  8. Greglpdx says:

    Chris Archer attempted a stolen base in late June for the Rays. He had it too, but overslid the bag.

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  9. Doug Lampert says:

    “What have we learned from this exercise? The key to a successful pitcher steal is the element of surprise. This is also the key to pretty much any successful steal by anybody.”

    Ricky would have disagreed. I’d also guess Billy Hamilton wasn’t surprising anyone most of the time last year either when he started going (155 SB in 132 games at A+ or AA), was anyone really surpised when a guy stealing well over one per game started moving?

    Now a pitcher stealing, I’ll agree, that’s a surprise.

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  10. Bip says:

    I can just imagine Lee saying to Strasburg after that “welcome to the big leagues, kid.”

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  11. Dan Greer says:

    Lee looks like he has pretty good speed.

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  12. Ruki Motomiya says:

    NL Pitchers should learn to steal more. For amusement purposes.

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  13. Zac says:

    3 SBs and 4 CS by pitchers in 2012, btw. Archer was already mentioned. Other 3 CS were by Hamels, Wolf, and Correia.

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