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August 22, 2014

Raising Aces

Police and Thieves

by Doug Thorburn

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The pitcher is only partly responsible for preventing the stolen base, as the process also involves the catcher, the infielders, and the baserunner himself. This reality is a major part of my personal disdain for the slide step, given the importance of pitcher timing and how that is disrupted when a pitcher compromises his delivery in an attempt to thwart the running game. That said, there is certainly an ability to limit opposing base-thieves that varies from pitcher to pitcher, including one's pace to the plate and the quality of a pitcher's pickoff move. These differences are better understood by examining those players who are at the extreme ends of the stolen-base spectrum.

We will be looking only at right-handed pitchers for the purpose of this analysis, as to avoid the additional variables that come into play with a southpaw on the mound. Let's start with the worst pitchers in the game with respect to policing the basepaths this season before we move onto those hurlers who keep runners handcuffed to first.

I encourage the readers to bust out the stopwatch and manually time these deliveries in the images provided. All times are measured from the moment the front foot lifts from the ground through the instant it comes back into contact with the dirt (aka leg lift to foot strike). In addition, the times are given in ranges to reflect both the bounds of human error and the variability inherent in individual pitcher timing. All statistics are through the games of August 19th.

Tyson Ross
2014: 27/33 SBs in 166 2/3 IP, 81.8%
Career: 51/67 (76.1%), one steal every 9.6 IP


The 28 steals that Ross has surrendered this season are the most in the majors, and his vulnerability to the running game is at least somewhat due to a slow delivery that manifests from both the windup and the stretch. He eschews the slide step when opposing runners are in position to steal, sticking with a regular leg lift while maintaining a similar timing pattern. Putting the stopwatch to his stretch delivery, Ross gets from leg lift to foot strike in 1.00 to 1.05 seconds, which is a relatively standard time for a pitcher who is throwing from the windup but is considered to be on the slow side from the stretch. It is worth noting that Ross has been similarly effective from both the windup and the stretch in 2014, giving back about 50 points of OPS when pitching with only first base occupied and a timing disparity between the two motions on the order of 0.10 seconds.

A.J. Burnett
2014: 26/33 SBs in 171 IP, 78.8%
Career: 319/406 (78.6%), one steal every 7.9 IP


There are some clear similarities between Burnett and Ross, beginning with their avoidance of the slide step in lieu of a regular leg lift when pitching from the stretch. Burnett also has a very similar timing sequence to the plate, getting from first movement into foot strike between 1.00 and 1.05 seconds. This stretch timing is much quicker than his pace from the windup, where he takes approximately 0.30 seconds longer to execute the stride phase of his delivery. Interestingly, Burnett has been more effective from the stretch than the windup this season, yielding a lower isolated power by 53 points.

Scott Feldman
2014: 24/28 SBs in 129 1/3 IP, 85.7%
Career: 138/176 (78.4%), one steal every 7.5 IP


Feldman is similar to his fellow lax basepath monitors in his avoidance of the slide step, though he is quicker to the plate than the other two pitchers at the top of the list, with a time into foot strike of 0.85 to 0.90 seconds. Feldman has also thrown 35 to 40 fewer innings than either Ross or Burnett, putting him on pace to far exceed their totals if prorating his stats over the same innings. He has been easy to steal off of his entire career, but Feldman has been especially kind to opposing base thieves this season.

Gerrit Cole
2014: 20/22 SBs 85 2/3 IP, 90.9%
Career: 29/36 (80.6%), one steal every 7.0 IP


Cole receives an honorable mention, as his position at number four (tied) on the opponent stolen base list is more remarkable when considering that his innings count is half that of Burnett or Ross. Cole is giving up a steal every 4.3 innings this season, which is easily the worst mark among pitchers with at least 30 frames on the ledger. His pace to the plate falls between that of Feldman and Ross/Burnett, averaging 0.90 to 0.95 seconds from first movement through foot strike, and he sticks with a natural leg lift with a runner on first and second base open. (His lift leg reaches letter-high regardless of the situation.) It's also worth noting that Francisco Liriano is the lowest-ranking southpaw on the stolen base chart, indicating that Pittsburgh's catchers could be playing a larger-than-average role.

***

Now we move on to the pitchers who have been the toughest to steal against in 2014, as each of the following hurlers has yet to give up a successful steal attempt this season.

Lance Lynn
2014: 0/2 SBs in 151 2/3 IP
Career: 18/37 (48.6%), one steal every 31.3 IP


Lynn's reputation has spread around the game, with only two runners even daring to attempt a steal this season. Having Yadier Molina behind the plate certainly helps, but that excuse has not existed for the past six weeks (during which Molina has been on the shelf), a period that has seen zero attempts across seven starts for Lynn. The right-hander mixes things up from the stretch, varying from a slide step to a half-lift to keep opposing runners guessing, quick-timing his delivery between 0.60 and 0.80 seconds. Many pitchers would struggle with command given the timing variations of using multiple techniques, and though Lynn has a walk rate that is slightly below average, his command profile is actually a tick above, a factor made all the more impressive by his multiple timing patterns.

Doug Fister
2014: 0/1 SBs in 118 2/3 IP
Career: 16/32 (50.0%), one steal every 58.6 IP


Fister has been even more stingy to baserunners than Lynn, both this season and for their respected careers. Fister has an extremely closed stride, which limits his release distance and would appear to be a deterrent to his finding a repeatable release point, but the right-hander has overcome these obstacles to dot the strike zone. He is also similar to Lynn in that he varies his approach from pitch to pitch from the stretch, alternating between a waist-high lift that takes about 0.85 seconds to a knee-high lift that he can execute in 0.75 seconds. The time signature itself is not exceptionally fast, but runners have a tough time reading Fister's delivery in order to get a good jump on a steal attempt, and his performance does not suffer when pitching with runners on the bags.

Yordano Ventura
2014: 0/0 SBs in 139 2/3 IP
Career: 0/0


The next baserunner who attempt a steal off Yordano Ventura will be the first, and the fact that no runner has even tested the waters yet is a testament to his intimidation and power. Not only does Ventura get into foot strike at a rapid pace of 0.60 to 0.65 seconds (typically closer to 0.60), but his raw velocity of 95 to 100 mph (with a 60 percent fastball frequency) gives opposing baserunners even less time to make the 90 foot trek between bases. Ventura does not use a true slide step, but he does shrink his leg lift to about half the usual height when pitching from the stretch, and he will also change it up from time to time with a more natural lift.

And the top mound cop among 2014 pitchers is (drum roll please) ...

Hisashi Iwakuma
2014: 0/8 SBs in 147 IP
Career: 15/32 (46.9%), one steal every 32.8 IP


Iwakuma is an outlier for a number of reasons. For starters, he eschews the slide step completely in favor of his regular lift height, yet his timing from first movement to foot strike is an incredible 0.60 to 0.65 seconds, with such consistency that one could confidently tighten the range to 0.61 to 0.64 seconds. Perhaps most amazing is the timing difference from his windup, as Iwakuma utilizes an exaggerated pause and a double-pump of his lift leg at the top of his delivery when the bases are clear, coming in around 1.50 seconds on average from first forward movement to foot strike.

The second gear of his momentum is very quick from the windup, and the right-hander's stretch delivery is essentially an immediate shift into that second gear in which he bypasses the exaggerated stop at the top in order to shrink his time to the plate. Such an exaggerated timing discrepancy is extremely difficult for a pitcher to repeat, but once again Iwakuma is an outlier in this department, as his ability to find a consistent release point is underscored by his MLB-leading walk rate. He simultaneously demonstrates (A) how to maintain lift height while posting a quick time to the plate and (B) that it is possible to harness two disparate timing patterns, particular if one emphasizes balance within the delivery.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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