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September 19, 2013

The Lineup Card

Nine of Our Favorite Base Stealers, Stolen Bases, and Caught Stealings

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Pudge Guns the Rickey
It was April 17, 1992. I was 14 years old. Sandwiched in a crowded section behind home plate, next to my mother and a man that looked like a less-refined and far-less-athletic Buddy Bell, complete with golden locks, baby blues, and an ill-fitting Buddy Bell jersey. I was raised to respect the pageantry of a spectacle, and the local spectators arrived to oblige, as our seats were in the designated Bukowski section of the stadium, where advanced alcoholism was encouraged and fanatical eruption was spewing toxic lava before the first pitch.

Fast-forward to the seventh inning, and the crowd was swimming in a pool of cheap beer, cheap emotions, and the promise of a young Puerto Rican catcher named Ivan Rodriguez. The previous season, Pudge was a 19-year-old rookie phenomenon, a gunslinger behind the dish whose precocious abilities encouraged the football-hungry fan base to wet their sports whistle with a little baseball action in Arlington. With the strings of the game pulling tighter by the pitch, Rickey Henderson singled to plate a run and push the tying run to third with two outs. With Kevin Brown on the mound, the crowd breaking most acceptable social laws, the Rickey on first representing the go-ahead run, the Buddy Bell’s lookalike’s hand on my left-thigh, and my mother focusing on the game rather than the public pedophilia about to jump off, baseball reached its most intense and magical moment.

The sign was accepted and the ball released, and on cue, the Rickey broke for second base. The stadium went from a psychotic frenzy to drug-induced psychosis, and I remember rising to my feet in the silence as Pudge’s rose to his, delivering a laser to second to gun down the greatest base stealer in the history of the game. The mute button was disabled and the crowd once again allowed their lunacy to live; a stadium just gave birth to a baseball memory that could never fade. A 20-year-old kid just ended a rally by throwing out the Rickey, while 30,000 celebrated the moment as if their lives would be forever changed as a result. I never forgot the moment, the memory, or the magic of that special throw. —Jason Parks

2. Ryan Howard's First Steal
You might never be able to get him to admit the connection, but it can’t possibly be a coincidence. On August 21, 2007, MLB.com beat writer Ken Mandel went into the Phillies clubhouse and interviewed Ryan Howard for a piece on Howard’s historic(-ally low) stolen base rate. Not in a mean-spirited way, just that he’d already won a Rookie of the Year and an MVP before he’d stolen his first base and he was up to 1,568 plate appearances without a steal—fifth most all-time for somebody with a zero. (Russ Nixon is the king of the category at 2,714 PA and 0 SB.)

So that night, what did Howard do? As if either he was out to prove a point with the writer or he just didn’t know he was allowed to do that until somebody mentioned it to him, he stole a base that night just after the story was posted on the website. He stole second off Rudy Seanez and Russell Martin of the Dodgers.

By the way, to make this even weirder, check out Howard’s stolen bases by season: 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 8, 1, 1, 0, 0. —Zachary Levine

3. Kelly Shoppach Faceplants into a Stolen Base

Kelly Shoppach has one career stolen base, indeed one career stolen base attempt. It came last year for Boston, against the team he had played for the previous season, the Rays. But that doesn’t really explain it. Nothing does. You just have to watch it for yourself. —Adam Sobsey

4. The Night Alex Cole Stole Five Bases
Alex Cole will always have a special place in the history of the Cleveland Indians.In 1990, he was a rookie sensation who stole 40 bases overall that year despite appearing in only 63 games. He parlayed that speed into a seven-year career as a fourth outfielder who could run like the wind. But my oh my that night... On August 1, his eighth game in the big leagues, he stole five bases. He seemed to take them at will, and for a franchise that was so beaten down waiting for anyone with talent to arrive, here was a guy with one elite-level tool. I remember the buzz that this guy was the future of the franchise. Apparently, management caught the fever, too. In 1991, the ill-fated Alex Cole experiment saw the Indians move the fences back at Municipal Stadium to give this guy some room to patrol center. It famously led to the Indians hitting a grand total of 22 home runs at home all year (to go with 105 losses that year). By 1992, he was a Pittsburgh Pirate and Kenny Lofton was the speedy new center fielder (who actually did turn out to be the future of the franchise.)

It's amazing how much one night of getting to third base a couple of times can ruin the next two years of a person's life. But that night with the five steals, it honestly felt like Cleveland was on to something. —Russell A. Carleton
5. Jose Molina's Overshadowed Steal
The underrated Jose Molina has stolen 17 bases in the major leagues. That’s not very many bags. During his career, baseball pitchers have thrown 36 no-hit games. On any given day since 1999, we were more likely to see a no-hitter than a Jose Molina stolen base.

On August 8, 2010, Jose Molina swiped the 10th base of his career. With two out in the bottom of the fifth and an 0-2 count on Dewayne Wise, Molina torpedoed for second base, his agile legs cleanly beating the throw.

It was awesome. Rogers Centre applauded as he flashed a smile. Finally, 10.

Unfortunately, his double-digit accomplishment was overshadowed by Brandon Morrow, who just couldn’t let Molina have the spotlight that Sunday afternoon. Morrow threw a 17-strikeout one-hitter against the Rays, which Molina also caught. In fact, he significantly contributed to Morrow’s career day by framing five balls into strikes. So not only did Molina steal his 10th career base that day, he stole five strikes. No one remembers these facts, because selfish Brandon Morrow had to go for his no-hitter.

Maybe Morrow didn’t realize Jose Molina stolen bases were rarer than no-nos. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for a Jose Molina celebration party. Post-game, Morrow didn’t even thank Molina for his golden catching. The accolades went to Morrow and his killer slider, while Jose Molina sat unnoticed with his stolen base, stolen strikes, and game recap footnote.—Andrew Koo (with thanks to Ben Lindbergh for GIF support)

6. Babe Ruth Gets Caught
Picture this: the Detroit Tigers meet the St. Louis Cardinals in this year’s World Series. The series is tied at three games apiece, and the Cardinals hold a one-run lead in Game Seven with two outs in the ninth. Cabrera on first, Martinez at the plate, Wainwright on the hill. Wainwright rears back to throw a pitch… and Cabrera takes off for second base. That’s Miguel Cabrera, the greatest power hitter of our generation, trying to swing the Tigers’ win probability with his legs. (His very, very slow legs.) And, of course, he gets thrown out, delivering another title to St. Louis.

This hasn’t happened (yet!), but there was quite the analogue in 1926, when Babe Ruth was famously caught stealing to end Game Seven and, consequently, the Series.

Fresh off his complete game in Game Six, Grover Cleveland Alexander entered Game Seven in the seventh inning to stymie a potential Yankees rally. Two innings later, Alexander walked Ruth after retiring the first two batters in the inning. With Ruth on, left fielder Bob Meuselan offensive force in his own rightstepped to the plate. Ruth took the bat out of Meusel’s hands on the first patch of his at-bat, taking off for an ill-fated steal. Legend has it that Ruth was out by 10 feet, turning his attempted heroism into situational comedy.

Admittedly, Ruth was generally considered a decent baserunner in his day (though the data to prove it is lacking), whereas Cabrera is not. But even so, with a Victor Martinez analogue at bat in Meusel, Ruth was a little too bold in his effort to reverse the Yankees’ fortune.

Needless to say, the basepaths have not been kind to the Yankees in the postseason. —Nick Bacarella

7. Bryce Harper Steals Home
The date was May 6, 2012, and 19-year-old Bryce Harper was playing just the eighth game of his major-league career. The uber-phenom brought a Bunyan-sized reputation with him to the show, and Phillies starter Cole Hamels welcomed Harper to the stage with an HBP in the small of the rookie's back on the first pitch of his initial plate appearance. It was the first plunking of Harper's career, and after the game Hamels admitted that he was sending a message with a purpose pitch that was designed for hazing.

Harper's response was several degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon's “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” After advancing to third base on a single, Harper decided to enact his immediate revenge on Hamels and the Phillies, further cementing the competitive fire that Harper wears on his uniform sleeve. Hamels has one of the better pick-off moves in baseball, and when the southpaw made his play to shrink the lead of Jayson Werth at first base, Harper broke for home plate. Phillie first baseman Laynce Nix was caught off-guard, and Harper slid in cleanly to beat the throw and give the Nationals an early 1-0 lead.

It was the first stolen base of what could become a Hall-worthy career, and with it Harper sent his own message to Hamels and the rest of baseball, demonstrating the will to rise to any challenge on the field of play. —Doug Thorburn

8. Vince Coleman Swipes Home Off of Sid Fernandez
Sometimes a play becomes so etched in your memory that even after you forget the day, month, or even the year when it happened, you can still see the events frame-for-frame in your mind’s eye. Vince Coleman stealing home plate against Sid Fernandez was one of those plays.

Vince Coleman was overrated in his time. In his best season (1987), he was a 2.8 WARP player, yet because of his blazing speed many thought he contributed more to the game than he did. However, whenever Coleman reached base his flaws melted away and Coleman was what we all hope Billy Hamilton can be: a game changer.

Sid Fernandez was a left-hander, but he never had a particularly good move to first base. His size always meant that his athleticism was always in question, and watching Sid’s pick-off move often felt like watching a pitcher in slow motion.

1988 wasn’t the first time Vince Coleman had reached third base against Fernandez, but that night it seemed clear that Coleman was going to try and steal home. As a left-hander, Fernandez had a poor line of sight to Coleman and wasn’t used to making pick-off throws to third the way a right-hander was making throws to first. Coleman eventually took off and attempted the steal. Fernandez’s motion to the plate wasn’t particularly fluid and while the play was close, Coleman’s speed won out. Of Coleman’s 752 career stolen bases, this was one of the most exciting. —Mike Gianella

9. Billy Hamilton
There have been better base stealers than Billy Hamilton. But maybe none faster, or none who could supply the same inevitability of the attempt. Hamilton's Wednesday night performance against the Astros could be packaged and sold as a base-stealing instructional tape, though Hamilton's speed, sadly, can't be taught. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hamilton became the first hitter in post-Deadball days to have four stolen bases in his first career start, and he now has almost as many steals as he has plate appearances.

The best part: Houston couldn't catch him even with a 94-mph pitchout right to Carlos Corporan's target. Now we just have to hope that Hamilton can keep working his way on. —Ben Lindbergh

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