1. Welcome to SportsJournalists.com, a friendly forum for discussing all things sports and journalism.

    Your voice is missing! You will need to register for a free account to get access to the following site features:
    • Reply to discussions and create your own threads.
    • Access to private conversations with other members.
    • Fewer ads.

    We hope to see you as a part of our community soon!

Breakdown of a stolen base

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by e_bowker, Dec 22, 2008.

  1. e_bowker

    e_bowker Member

    Found this story while going through papers for our year in review stuff today. At the time it was written, I thought it was probably too long, but after seeing it again it read a little better than I thought. Figured I'd see what others thought.
    Basically, it's a breakdown of what happens during a stolen base attempt. Everything from pickoff throws and their purpose, to what the pitcher, catcher, runner and infielders see, do, and look for.
    Critique away, and thank you.
    (And here's a link if you'd rather read it that way: http://www.vicksburgpost.com/articles/2008/04/13/sports/sports01.txt)

    Like so many things in baseball, a stolen base looks simple.
    On the surface, the runner runs, the pitcher pitches and the catcher throws. A tag is attempted, the runner is safe or out, and the game goes on.
    Scratch the surface, though, and an intricate dance comes out.
    It's a battle of wills between pitcher and runner, a high-stakes poker game where blinking at the slightest bluff can mean the difference between winning and losing. It's a 90-foot race between the runner, pitcher and catcher in which every tenth of a second matters. It's a split-second decision on how, when and where to slide. And all of it is set up by scouting and preparation that are days, weeks or even months in planning.
    In about four seconds, the time it takes to read this sentence, it's all over.
    "There's so many things that go on, from who's hitting, who's running, who's on the mound, to is the guy at the plate a good bunter ... It's more than just breaking for the bag," Warren Central coach Randy Broome said. "There's a lot of things that go into a simple, 'Let's steal a base.'"

    The duel
    As soon as the runner reaches first base, it begins.
    The runner stares at the pitcher, looking for a twitch that will indicate a throw home. The pitcher stares back at the runner, trying to keep him close to the bag. Like two gunfighters on a dusty street, time stands still for a moment as they try to figure each other out.
    Finally, the pitcher blinks. He tosses softly over to first as jeering taunts erupt from the dugout. Inside, the pitcher quickly shakes them off. That pickoff throw wasn't supposed to come close. It was a warning shot, intended to make the runner inch back closer to the bag.
    Pickoff throws, especially several in succession, often draw frustrated groans from the crowd as they grind the game to a halt. Most have little chance of success, but they do serve a greater purpose. By making the runner think a throw is coming his way, a pitcher can keep him a step closer to first and give his catcher an extra tenth of a second.
    "I'll pick off a couple of times. You like to make them think about it a little bit. If it's in their mind, they'll stay close," said Vicksburg High pitcher Stanton Price. "To me it's more of a mental thing, getting them to think you're going over there."
    To keep the edge, pitchers will mix up their pickoff throws. Most have several moves, ranging from a quick snap throw to a long pause, followed by a soft throw. If a pitcher is lucky, his move will fool a runner and he'll have a chance at an easy out. Most times, though, mixing up moves is just a way to confuse the runner so he doesn't pick up on the pitcher's motion toward the plate.
    "Just keep mixing up your looks. Hold it, pause a little longer. You can do a lot of things to get in his head," St. Aloysius pitcher Ryno Martin-Nez said. "If you know he's a good base stealer you want to change up your looks and don't let him get a good jump. You want to work his legs and make him a little tired."
    That can be easier said than done, though. Price said he has three different pickoff moves and tries to mix them up, along with different moves to the plate. Still, he said he and other pitchers often fall into patterns that runners can pick up on.
    "Watching the game, you pick up on rhythms. You can usually feel it. How long they hold the ball, how they move their feet," Price said. "I try to mix it up. Try to hold it a little more. But sometimes pitchers get in a groove and don't realize it."
    While the pitcher is throwing over to first, the runner is trying out some tricks of his own. Taking bigger leads, leading off at different angles, and faking a steal are all techniques runners use to throw a pitcher off his game.
    "Sometimes they try to get in front and make it look like they're not as far off the bag. They'll play a little mind game with you," Price said.
    Ideally, the runner is just waiting for the right moment to run. Trying to steal a base against a well-placed fastball is almost impossible. Most coaches will wait for a slower breaking pitch, preferably one low in the dirt, to give the steal sign. That's where scouting and preparation come into play.
    By knowing an opposing pitcher's tendencies, or just being aware of the situation, a coach and runner can anticipate which pitch is best to run on. When the pitcher is behind in the count, he's likely to throw a fastball. When he's ahead, he's more apt to waste a pitch with a curveball in the dirt in an attempt to get the batter to swing.
    "Ninety-five percent of our stolen bases occur on the count," Vicksburg High coach Jamie Creel said. "Most of the time when we run on a fastball situation, we'll have some type of protection like a bunt or a hit-and-run. When you're running on a change-up or a breaking ball situation, it's almost impossible to throw somebody out."
    There are also certain times and places to steal a base. In a close game, a team might be more aggressive as it tries to manufacture a run. A stolen base and a sacrifice can quickly move a runner to third and set up a run. In a lopsided game, sportsmanship or common sense prevail. If a team is well ahead, stealing a base is seen as rubbing it in. If a team is behind, it's an easy way to short-circuit a rally.
    "I have several guys with the green light all the time. But you don't steal a base when you're down three, four, five runs. You try and get baserunners and make things happen," said Porters Chapel coach Randy Wright, whose team has nine starters with more than 10 stolen bases apiece.

    The moment of decision
    After all the pickoff throws and mindgames, eventually the pitcher has to actually throw a pitch. At that moment, the runner takes all of the information he's gleaned from the earlier duel and puts it to use. Seeing a front leg move a certain way, or the way the pitcher holds the ball can tip a runner off and help him get a better jump.
    And the jump is everything. A good high school catcher can get the ball out of his mitt and throw to second in about 2 seconds. Add in another 1.1 seconds for the pitch to reach the plate, and the runner has to cover roughly 30 feet per second -- the equivalent of a 10-second 100-yard dash -- to have a chance at a successful steal. Even an extra half-step can go a long way.
    "You just make sure you've got a good jump. If you don't get a good jump you can't go," said St. Al second baseman Pierson Waring, who had 12 stolen bases in 2007.
    Broome said he teaches his runners not to waste steps. Dipping the shoulder, standing up before they run, or turning their whole body instead of just the left leg as they break can all waste precious time.
    "A lot of times, if it's a bang-bang play at second I guarantee if you go back and watch it on film that there's a false step somewhere," Broome said.
    Most runners agree that a pitcher's feet are the key. Once the front foot moves toward the plate, the pitcher can't throw to first without balking. Seeing that first motion toward home is the sign to take off.
    "Mostly, I watch his front and back foot. He can't pick up his front foot and come back to first, so if he picks it up I go," Martin-Nez said.
    If the runner gets a good jump, there's often little a pitcher can do to overcome it. There are tricks he can use to make it close, though.
    The first is the slidestep. Using it, the pitcher foregoes the traditional wind-up and fires straight to the plate as he moves, or slides, his front leg into his pitching motion. It's as much as three-tenths of a second quicker than a normal wind-up.
    "When we played Central Hinds, we stole second and third every time we got on because their pitcher was so slow to the plate and didn't take advantage of a slidestep," Wright said, referring to a 10-0 win for the Eagles in early March.
    As the pitcher is delivering the ball, he also has to be sure to make a good pitch. Setting up the catcher with a ball that's easy to handle can cut more time off the throw to second.
    "The biggest thing is to hit your spot. If the catcher knows where the ball is coming, he'll have a better chance to catch it and throw," Martin-Nez said.

    Once the ball is out of the pitcher's hand, the foot race begins.
    The runner has about 3 seconds to cover as much ground as he can, while the catcher has about half that to read the pitch, catch it, jump up, avoid the batter and make a strong, accurate throw the 129 feet, 4 inches from home to second.
    By the time the infielders alert each other to the steal attempt with the simple word, "Gone!", a whirling choreography is taking shape. The catcher is already starting out of his crouch. The shortstop and second baseman are sprinting toward second base to await the throw and the pitcher is finishing his delivery and ducking out of the way.
    "There's not a lot of thinking going on. You just hope you catch it, get a good grip and wing it down there. I'm just throwing right to the bag," said St. Al's Sean Weaver, in his fourth season as the Flashes' starting catcher.
    For the catcher, instinct replaces any thought process. There can be no throw without a catch, so making sure you have the ball is first and foremost, PCA backstop Josh Hill said.
    "I can't even tell if they swing sometimes. I'm looking straight at the ball," Hill said.
    Once the catch is made, the batter can become a hazard. If there's a swing, he might drift toward the right and get in the way of the catcher's throw. Both Weaver and Hill said they're dimly aware of that risk while the play is going on, because of the focus on the catch and throw to second.
    "Sometimes they'll dive in front of you. You've got to concentrate on the ball so you don't get smoked with the bat," Weaver said, adding that he has been hit a few times. "It hurts, especially when they get you on the hand."
    While the chances of a broken hand aren't as great for the runner, he too faces peril on the basepaths. As he's trying to beat the throw to second, the runner has to glance back toward the plate to see if the ball has been hit. A line drive or popped-up bunt on a stolen base attempt often ends in an easy double play. A groundball might force the runner to try a hard break-up slide at the bag.
    "You take four or five steps and look in, see where the ball is. If it's in the mitt you've got to go in hard. You've got to see if the hitter swung and see where the ball is," said Vicksburg's Bowen Woodson, who leads the Gators with 18 stolen bases.

    The play at second
    After everything else, it all comes down to a simple throw, catch and tag.
    As the throw comes toward second base, the shortstop and second baseman settle into their pre-arranged positions. Through practice, they automatically know which one covers the bag and which stands behind it to back up the throw. Like the catcher, the first job for the person covering is to make the catch. If the throw is good -- low and to the right side works best, so the runner slides into the tag -- the rest is easy.
    That's when it becomes the runner's job to make it not so easy.
    A good baserunner is also a great slider who can contort his body like an escape artist. Finding a hole in the shortstop's glove or hooking around the tag is a valuable skill.
    "That's the thing that distinguishes a fast person from a good base stealer. You can wrap around the bag, hook slide. You can do different things," Woodson said. "It's mostly just reflexes. What he does, you've got to counter it."
    Or just go through the tag.
    "You can slide around it or slide into it and make him drop the ball," PCA's Matt Cranfield said. "It's instinct, but you've got to be thinking about it the whole way."
    For the infielder, the throw is key. A throw to the left of the base makes it tough to swoop in with the tag in time. A high throw, or one that bounces the wrong way and is tough to handle, can make it impossible.
    "You just stand in front of the bag. You've got to have a good throw, though," Waring said. "It's mostly about the throw. But there's always a way to pick it and make the tag."

    Safe or out?
    No matter the outcome of a stolen base attempt, the shift in momentum is huge.
    An out can derail a budding rally as quickly as it started. A successful steal moves a runner into scoring position without having to sacrifice an out -- and sets up a 2-for-1 deal where a team can give up the out to bunt the runner to third.
    For catchers, throwing someone out is an adrenaline rush.
    "They know they're stealing, think they're going to steal, and you throw them out, that's a great feeling. Catchers don't get to make many outs," Weaver said with a smile. "It can be a game-changing kind of deal if you can throw somebody out. It's a momentum changer."
    Hill agreed, saying it also affects how a team approaches the situation next time. Throwing someone out, especially for a catcher with a weaker arm, can make opponents think twice.
    "It gives you a big mental focus. Plus, they're scared to go again. It gives you a big head," Hill said.
    For runners, stealing a base is more of a relief than a high. It's a big risk, and a big responsibility.
    "It depends on the situation. A lot of times when the throw beats you there and you get around the tag, it's a relief," Woodson said.
    If the runner is safe, he might face the even more daunting challenge of stealing third -- where the catcher's throw is shorter and takes less than 2 seconds to arrive. More than likely, however, he'll have a green light to try for second the next time he's on base.
    "If we've had some success, we're going to push it," Broome said. "We always tell our guys with speed, make them throw you out."
  2. Not bad at all, but I think a piece like this would ideally be done through the eyes of a base-stealer. So that instead of writing "the runner stares at the pitcher, looking for a twitch that will indicate a throw home," it's "Smith stares at the pitcher, looking for a twitch..." IDEALLY-ideally, in fact, I think you'd break down a single stolen base. Film it for the web and for your own reference, take a ton of photos of it, then do detailed interviews with everybody involved - pitcher, catcher, runner, tag-applier, third base coach, whomever - and write a suspenseful narrative. Put the reader in a single moment, then use that micro-story to tell the stolen-base macro-story.

    This piece is solid! Certainly solidly written, you've elicited some excellent insights about things people might not generally think about, and I'm sure the baseball nuts among your readers enjoyed it very much. I just think that by thinking narrative, you'd have broadened its appeal. For what it IS - a non-narrative - I don't have major criticisms.
  3. e_bowker

    e_bowker Member

    Thanks for the feedback, sirvaliant.
    I thought about doing the one runner, one pitcher thing, but I wanted to get some different perspectives in there. I was afraid that would either get lost, or not be possible by zeroing in on one specific play. That could definitely work, though.

    And this was written before we really got our web stuff rolling, but that's a good idea too. We did use a photo sequence with the layout, which gave a sense of motion to it. We had a big five-column picture of the play at second, with one-column photos above of the runner leading off (with the shot focusing on the runner, but the pitcher blurred in the foreground); the runner breaking as the pitcher started his delivery; from behind the runner as he went to second; and from behind the catcher as he made the throw down.
    Had to do it in a controlled setting at practice, of course, and the players were wearing practice unis, but otherwise it looked good. And it would have definitely worked as a slideshow on the web.
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page