pick off

Stolen base

In baseball, a stolen base occurs when a baserunner successfully advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering the ball to home plate. In baseball statistics, stolen bases are denoted by SB. If, however, the defense makes no attempt to put the baserunner out (for example, if the catcher doesn't even look his way), the play is scored as "defensive indifference" and no stolen base is credited to the runner.

Successful base-stealing requires not just simple running speed, but also good base-running instincts, quickness, and split-second timing. The scoring and criteria for awarding a stolen base to a runner is covered by rule 10.07 of the Major League Baseball rule book.

Background

In the 19th century, stolen bases were credited when a baserunner reached an extra base on a base hit from another player. For example if a runner on first base reached third base on a single, it would count as a steal. In 1887, Hugh Nicol set a still-standing Major League record with 138 stolen bases, many of which would not have counted under modern rules. However the first recorded stolen base under modern rules occurred in 1865 when Eddie Cuthbert decided to make it to second base on his own rather than wait for the hit. Modern steal rules were implemented in 1898, and steals are now only credited when a runner successfully takes an extra base while the ball is being pitched, but not already hit. If the ball is dead on the pitch run on, such as from a foul ball (except caught fly-out), the steal is not allowed and the runner returns to his time-of-pitch base. In addition, if the situation of the game is such that the steal is of little use (usually in the late innings when the runner would not change the game's outcome by scoring), and the catcher does not attempt to throw out the runner, the runner is not credited with a steal, and the base is attributed to defensive indifference.

Base stealing was popular in the game's early decades, with speedsters such as Ty Cobb and Clyde Milan stealing nearly 100 bases in a season. But the tactic fell into relative disuse after Babe Ruth introduced the era of the home run – in 1955, for example, no one in baseball stole more than 25 bases. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s base-stealing was brought back to prominence primarily by Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills, who broke Cobb's modern single-season record by stealing 104 bases in 1962. Wills' record was broken in turn by Lou Brock in 1974, and Rickey Henderson in 1982. The stolen base remained a popular tactic through the 1980s, perhaps best exemplified by Vince Coleman and the St. Louis Cardinals, but began to decline again in the 1990s as the frequency of home runs reached unprecedented heights and the steal-friendly artificial turf ballparks began to disappear.

Technique and strategy

A base-stealing runner must begin running as soon as the pitcher has committed himself to throwing a pitch to home plate, neither sooner nor later. If he begins to run too soon, the pitcher may throw to a base rather than to home — in this case, the runner is picked off, and will most likely be tagged out. Before the pitch, the runner will often take a lead-off, walking several steps away from the base as a head start for his next advance. In some cases, the pitcher may hold the runner on by throwing to the base several times before pitching, in the hope of dissuading the runner from too big a lead-off. This action can also result in the runner being tagged out in a pick-off. Another popular strategy is for the runner to attempt a steal while the hitter is instructed to swing at the pitch if it is at all hittable. This hit-and-run play can give the runner a good head start to take an extra base on the hit. But if the hitter fails to hit the ball, the hit-and-run becomes a pure steal attempt, and the runner may be thrown out. Another risk of the hit-and-run is that a caught line drive could result in an easy double play, although this is offset by the lower likelihood of a ground ball double play.

A second and lesser-known technique is the "delayed" steal. This technique, famously practiced by Eddie Stanky of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is where the runner does not break immediately for second when the pitcher commits to the plate. Instead the runner takes two or three large shuffles off the base when the pitcher goes to the plate. This keys the middle infielders and the catcher to let their guard down, as it appears the runner is not stealing, but only getting a good secondary lead in case the ball is hit. In reality the delayed stealer is closing the distance to second base. When the ball crosses the plate the runner breaks for second base, and is essentially stealing the base on the middle infielders who have not covered second base. Additionally, the catcher is not ready to come out of his crouch and cannot throw to second until an infielder gets there. The delayed steal is a deceptive technique that is sometimes executed by even slow runners and many times results in a catcher throwing into center field. The technique is rarely seen at the Major League level but is used effectively by multiple college programs.

Second base is the base most often stolen. It is also technically the easiest to steal, as it is farthest from home plate and thus a longer throw from the catcher is required to prevent it. Third base is a shorter throw for the catcher, and thus more difficult to steal, though a right-handed batter can sometimes help by serving as an obstacle that the catcher must throw around. Third base is generally stolen off the pitcher, since a bigger lead is possible off second base. It is possible for a player to steal home plate, but this requires great daring and aggressiveness as the ball will almost certainly arrive at home plate before the runner. Thus a sacrifice bunt or squeeze play is typically used instead. Ty Cobb holds the records for most steals of home in a single season (8) as well as for a career (54). Jackie Robinson was also renowned for the thrilling feat of stealing home, which he famously accomplished in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. In more recent decades, a pure steal of home is hardly ever attempted, although home plate is still occasionally stolen during a "delayed double steal," in which a runner on first base attempts to steal second while the runner on third base breaks for home as soon as the catcher throws to second base.

The expression "You can't steal first base" is sometimes used in reference to a player who is fast but not very good at getting on base in the first place. Although a batter can run to first base in the rare instance that the catcher fails to catch a third strike, such a play (if the batter is successful) is not recorded as a steal of first base, but as a strikeout plus a passed ball or wild pitch. In baseball's earlier decades, a runner on second base could "steal" first base, perhaps with the intention of drawing a throw which might allow a runner on third to score (a tactic famously employed by Germany Schaefer). However, such a tactic was not recorded as a stolen base, and modern rules forbid going backwards on the basepaths in order to confuse the defense or make a travesty of the game.

Base stealing is an important characteristic of a particular style of baseball, sometimes called "small ball" or "manufacturing runs". A team playing with this style emphasizes doing little things (including risky running plays like base-stealing) to advance runners and score runs, often relying on pitching and defense to keep games close. The Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960s, led by pitcher Sandy Koufax and speedy shortstop Maury Wills, were a successful example of this style. The antithesis of this would be a team that relies on power hitting. The Baltimore Orioles of the 1970s, led by manager Earl Weaver, were an example of such a "slugging" team that aspired to score most of its runs via home runs. Often the "small ball" model is associated with the National League, while power hitting is seen as more associated with the American League. However, some of the more successful American League teams of recent memory, including the 2002 Anaheim Angels, the 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 2005 Chicago White Sox have experienced their success in part as a result of playing "small ball" advancing runners through means such as the stolen base and the related hit and run play. Successful teams often combine both styles, with a speedy runner or two complementing hitters with power, such as the 2005 White Sox, who despite playing "small ball", still hit 200 home runs that season

Measuring Success

One of the difficulties in determining how good a player is at stealing bases is whether to judge the cumulative number of steals or the success ratio of steals to caught stealing. Noted statistician Bill James has argued that unless a player can steal a high percentage of the time, then the stolen base is not useful, and can even be detrimental to a team. A success rate of 67 to 70% or better is necessary to make stealing bases worthwhile.

Judging the base-stealing abilities of players from earlier eras is also problematic, because caught stealing was not a regularly recorded statistic until the middle of the 20th Century. Ty Cobb, for example, was known as a great base-stealer, with 892 steals and a success rate of over 83%. However the data on Cobb's caught stealing is missing from 12 seasons, strongly suggesting he was unsuccessful many more times than his stats indicate. Tim Raines with 808 steals, has the highest career success rate, at 84.7%, of all players with over 300 bases stolen.

See also

References

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