June 22, 2012
A Slide Step in the Wrong Direction
The classic Greek sabermetrician Plato said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” True to form, the slide step was borne from the need to suppress stolen bases at a time when the game was experiencing a record surge of thievery, but I submit that the strategy carries heavy costs that fail to outweigh the perceived benefits. The slide step invention is in dire need of an intervention.
The slide step is an artifact of the 1980s, a time when players such as Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman were surpassing 100 stolen bases with regularity, terrorizing pitchers with constant distractions on the base paths. Since the Dead Ball Era, there have been 18 player-seasons that surpassed the 80-steal threshold, and 15 of those performances occurred in the 10-year stretch from 1979—1988. Henderson and Coleman were the last players to accomplish the feat, having tallied 174 steals between them in the '88 season, and were responsible for 10 of the 80-steal seasons between them, but the base-swiping explosion was hardly a two-man show (see accompanying chart). Today's top rogues of the base paths typically top out around 60 to 70 steals, with Jose Reyes' 78-steal tally of 2007 sticking out like a hitchhiker's thumb on the decade's SB leaderboard. For example, Michael Bourn has led the National League in stolen bases for three straight seasons, though his career-high is “just” 61 steals (accomplished twice). As Henderson told Harold Reynolds after the Mariner second baseman stole 60 bags in the 1987 season, “Rickey stole 60 at the break!”
The above chart covers the past 40 years of base-stealing, detailing the ascension of the steal throughout the 1970s that precipitated the spike of the 1980s. The steal lost momentum as focus turned to the long ball, and league-wide rates have stayed below one steal attempt per game since 2000. Even at the peak of the Speed Era, teams maxed out at just 1.21 steal attempts per contest, yet major-league pitching coaches opted to have their pitchers alter their mechanics for dozens of deliveries per game in order to create an advantage on a single pitch.
The typical big-league pitcher spends about two-fifths of his time in the stretch. In 2012, pitchers have registered 43.6 percent of opponent plate appearances with men on base, with 36 percent coming in typical slide-step situations—with runners on first and/or second base, or with runners at the corners. These situations will often comprise the most crucial pitches of a ball game, with runners on the bags threatening to score, and the first question that comes to mind is why a coach would want to undermine his pitcher's core skills under such critical circumstances.
The cost of a misplaced pitch skyrockets with men on base, where a homer puts crooked numbers on the scoreboard, yet the commonly accepted practice is to sacrifice pitcher mechanics in order to give the runner a lower chance of success on a steal attempt that may never materialize. A pitcher can shave one- to two-tenths of a second with a slide step, which is a significant distinction, as the same time frame separates a catcher with outstanding “pop” times from one who is merely average. Of course, a quick delivery can be mitigated by poor execution by the catcher, a misplay by the infielder, or a great jump by the base runner. Further, all of that effort can go for naught when a player has the raw speed of a demon like Billy Hamilton*, where the guy can beat a throw under ideal conditions.