June 16, 2014
Painting the Black
Lessons of a Bad Basestealer
You've heard some variation of the idea that you need to endure the clouds to enjoy the sunshine. That sentiment applies in baseball, too. For us to appreciate how good a basestealer Dee Gordon is, you need to experience the inverse. Because Gordon at his best is a high-volume, high-efficiency thief who creates a sense of invincibility—there's nothing you can do to stop him—the inverse is a player who runs often and succeeds rarely. This player doesn't have to be slow, or inept at the physical act of running, he just has to be inefficient and irrational. Lucky for us, Alex Rios fits the description.
Rios made a cameo appearance in last week's piece, serving as the ugly duckling of the most-likely-to-run club. Unlike the others, Rios' rate of success did not justify his attempts per opportunity percentage. Yet those failures have not persuaded the Rangers outfielder to tone down his aggressiveness: Rios has opted to run more often than he had in the past few seasons—more, even, than in 2013, when he stole 42 bases in an uncharacteristically efficient manner.
While Rios' mistakes have been plentiful, they have not occurred in vain. There are lessons to be learned and questions to be asked about his failures, just as there were about Gordon's successes. Such as: why has Rios been so poor at stealing bases—and why does he continue to run so much?
To answer the first part, consider what might be the worst stolen-base attempt of the season:
Little of what Rios does here can be classified as good. The problems start with his jump. The pitcher, Matt Albers, employs a high leg kick and isn't the quickest to the plate. Rios doesn't begin his movement once Albers lifts his leg, or even when he raises his glove. His reaction is delayed, leaving him to start toward third at about the same time that Albers' leg hits its apex, this putting more pressure on his speed and acceleration.
Rios won't leave the camera view until Albers is nearing foot strike. To his credit, Rios did choose a non-fastball to run on; however, the location of the pitch works against him. Catcher Carlos Corporan is able to position his body before the pitch arrives, allowing him a quicker transition from receiver to thrower. Add in that the batter is left-handed and not swinging, and Corporan has a clear path toward third base.
By now Rios is a fish on a hook. His only hopes of reaching safely rest on Corporan bobbling the transfer or throwing the ball away. The latter almost happens, as the throw fades toward the second-base bag, but the ball arrives in enough time for Matt Dominguez to recover and apply the blockade-like tag.
That would have qualified as a poor attempt no matter what the situation was, but here's the uppercut: Rios was caught stealing third in the eighth inning of a one-run game, with nobody out and Prince Fielder at the dish. His thought process had to go something like this: If I steal third, then a grounder to the right side or a moderately deep fly ball can tie the game. That's fine and dandy, except he could have advanced to third base on either play, which would have set up the same scenario with one out. (Fielder, it should be noted did ground out to second base after the caught stealing.) Rios only should have tried the steal if a success was a near-given. It wasn't, he was caught, and the Rangers went on to lose by a run.
The best basestealers are those who marry good-to-great speed with God-given instincts. Gordon showed the ability to notice the subtleties in a pitcher's delivery, and differentiated between a pickoff move and a legitimate move toward the plate. Rios showed less ability to discern between the two. He was picked off twice, with both instances coming against southpaws who employed head fakes. In each case, the pitcher only needed one attempt during the sequence to nail Rios. Here's Hector Santiago:
And here's Mark Buehrle, who gets extra credit for ignoring Rios through most of two at-bats:
Another noticeable difference between Rios and Gordon is raw speed. Rios is faster than the average runner, but he's closer to him than he is to the Gordons and Billy Hamiltons of the league. He just doesn't have the ability to atone for his mistakes with his straight-line speed like they do, and it shows up on the close calls.
It should also be noted that Rios has suffered from a few unfortunate breaks. He had one stolen base changed into a caught stealing through replay, and two other (likely) steals aborted by hit-and-run attempts, in which the batter fouled the pitch off. In both cases, Rios ran later in the at-bat and was thrown out. The generous among us could pardon those two caught stealings; others among us will question whether Rios made the right decision, from a risk-benefit standpoint, to run in an at-bat after his hand was shown. The poor feller can't catch a break—not even on a first-and-third double steal, where the umpire ruled he was tagged out before the other runner crossed the plate.
Questionable reads, less-than-elite speed, and a few bad breaks. Mix it all together with some water, and you have the reason Rios has been a disappointment on the basepaths. That's not to suggest he'll continue to be a 60-percent stealer—it's possible he's just going through a dry spell, plus the 50/50 calls should even out over time—but that he hasn't shown good enough qualities for us to believe he's going to replicate his 2013 success anytime soon.
So why is Rios so willing to run? It might not fall on him—at least not entirely. The Rangers as a whole have served as a macrocosm for Rios' season. Despite ranking 27th in success rate, Texas has attempted the second most steals in the league. Ron Washington, never a stranger to small-ball tactics like steals, bunts, and hit-and-runs, has seemingly ignored the repeated failures in order to give his injury-depleted team a spark. Unfortunately, for Washington, that decision hasn't worked. Perhaps the real takeaway here is that Washington, and not Ron Roenicke, should be nicknamed Runnin' Ron.