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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.