The Phillies have led baseball in stolen-base percentage for each of the past three seasons, and it probably isn’t a coincidence that Davey Lopes has been their first base coach for the same period of time. An elite baserunner during his playing days, Lopes was both prolific [557 steals] and efficient [83 percent], and he now tutors a team that may not be the fastest in the game, but is among the smartest. His charges aren’t running as often this year—they have just 32 steals—but their 89 percent success rate once again tops both leagues. Lopes discussed the importance of running the bases intelligently, including the art of the stolen base, when the Phillies visited Fenway Park earlier this month.
David Laurila: You’ve received a lot of credit for the team’s improved baserunning in recent years. What have you done in that regard?
Davey Lopes: Actually, just getting them to pursue going first to third, and the guys that we feel have base-stealing ability—getting them to utilize their speed more. Over the last few years, it’s been pretty successful, but this year we’re a little bit slow for whatever reason.
DL: Slow in what way?
Lopes: The numbers. Mainly the stolen-base attempts are just not there like they have been in the last three years that I’ve been a part of the organization. One reason is that Jimmy Rollins is hurt and he’s our main guy as far as attempting to steal bases. Vic [Shane Victorino] is starting to pick it up. And Jayson [Werth]—and I use the term loosely—is not very aggressive at all, for whatever reason, this year. Chase [Utley] has been hampered by a little bit of a knee injury. That’s more than likely why our numbers are down, but it’s still confusing to me as to why they haven’t been as aggressive in attempting to steal.
DL: How much of the earlier success can be attributed to improved technique?
Lopes: Well, you work on technique if you feel that you can make an adjustment to help somebody. If someone is being successful, you don’t really mess with them just to put your label on it, so to speak. Technique is not so much something we work on during the course of the season unless something is glaring, that I catch on video, or… I just know from past history that these guys have had opportunities to run and for whatever reason they haven’t attempted to steal, and that’s confusing to me.
DL: Is when to run dictated more by who is on base or by who the opposing pitcher and/or catcher are?
Lopes: We don’t worry about the other team. The game situation dictates what you attempt to do or don’t attempt to do. Who is at the plate… for instance, we’re not going to take off if Howie [Ryan Howard] is up at the plate and he doesn’t have a count on him—it‘s the first pitch or something—because then they end up walking Howard. So if we steal a base… it’s not to our benefit to do something like that. You have to take into consideration the game situation, pretty much, as to who is hitting and who’s not hitting. Once you factor in those types of things, you get a pretty good idea of what you should and should not be attempting to do.
DL: Say that Shane Victorino reaches first base. When he gets there, does he know the pitcher’s time to the plate and his pickoff move?
Lopes: Yes, he should. He knows both prior to going into the game. Now, something may alter that because something on video doesn’t show up as easily as it does live. So my job would be, if that happens, to point it out to him as quickly as possible in order to allow him to have that knowledge so that he can attempt to steal a base.
DL: Is it standard fare around baseball that a player has that information when he reaches first base?
Lopes: Times are very universal. That’s pretty easy to do; that’s simple to do. The other aspect of picking up what a guy does, what idiosyncrasies he has when he shows you going to first versus home plate, is not as easily done. I don’t know how many people utilize it, or how many are capable of doing it. In my experience, there aren’t very many first base coaches that are capable of doing that, so I really can’t speak to what other organizations do. But the times are very simple; that’s a no-brainer, because all you have to do is stopwatch it and then you know what a guy is doing speed-wise.
DL: To what degree can you help a player improve his baserunning skills?
Lopes: Well, first of all you have to develop the confidence in them that they are able of going. Just because you don’t have great speed doesn’t mean you can’t be a good baserunner. I remember working with Mark Loretta, who isn’t known for his foot speed, and for whatever reason he was hesitant to go from first to third. We had a talk one day and I said, “Try it in spring training and see what happens; just go from first to third on virtually every play unless it’s a shot right at the left fielder.” I think that a lot of guys get caught up on the speed aspect of it and feel that if they’re not fast they can’t do certain things, and that’s not necessarily true.
DL: How much of being a good baserunner is from the neck up?
Lopes: A lot of it. It goes hand in hand. You can have great speed and be a terrible base runner, because you can run yourself right into outs. The key to quickness isn’t body movement; it comes in your ability to recognize keys that the pitcher is showing you. The quicker that you recognize a key that the pitcher is showing you, that he’s coming to first base or going home, the better your jump is going to be and the less opportunity you have to get thrown out. So the quickness doesn’t necessarily come from the body movement, but rather it comes from your ability to recognize, and see things, and react to them. The quicker you react to them, the quicker you can get out there.
DL: It sounds like stealing against a left-handed pitcher shouldn’t be any more difficult than stealing against a right-hander?
Lopes: Not if he’s giving you a key. Absolutely not. Most guys get scared of left-handers because they’re looking right at them, but there are certain basic things that left-handers do that are universal throughout the game of baseball, whether it’s college ball, minor- league ball, or major-league ball. It’s pretty standard, so it’s just a matter of being confident in attempting to do it. Of course, there are some guys that really conceal, like [Andy] Pettitte; he’s pretty good at concealing what he does, definitely, when he goes to first base versus home plate. There are guys who may give you a little trouble, so you just tip your cap to them, but for the most part they’re not all like that.
DL: You once stole five bases in a game, and the opposing pitcher was a left-hander.
Lopes: Well, I screwed up, because I should have had six, and then I could have gone for seven, but I kind of hesitated and I still kick myself in the butt to this day. But I can’t remember who it was. I know that it was against the Cardinals, but beyond that I can’t remember. [Editor’s note: The pitcher was John Curtis and the game was played on August 24, 1974.]
DL: When did you truly learn the art of stealing bases—I assume you didn’t come to the big leagues with that facet of your game well-honed?
Lopes: I knew, because I had learned things in the minor leagues, through trial and error, and that’s how you develop a philosophy as to what you should and shouldn’t attempt to do. It’s not something that just grows once you get to the big leagues. Usually, guys who steal bases in the minor leagues steal bases in the big leagues, just like it is with a home run hitter. That’s pretty constant. I was doing that as a minor leaguer.
DL: Looking at the numbers, your success rate wasn’t as good in your first two seasons as it was throughout most of your career.
Lopes: That might have just been my unfamiliarity with the pitchers, and probably making stupid rookie mistakes, basically. You make mistakes and those things happen, but when you study your craft and become a student of the game—a student of that particular area that you’re working in, or that you excel in—usually with experience things get better for you.
DL: You mentioned that the team isn’t running as well this season. Is that reversible, or indicative of a team that is maybe getting a bit older and slower?
Lopes: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s not reversible, but the only way that it’s going to get any better is to, a) Get Jimmy Rollins back and he’s healthy; b) The other guys that aren’t attempting to run need to start putting pressure on the defense by running. Now, I can’t force them to run. All that I can do is point out certain things, and then it’s up to them. But Victorino is starting to come along, and right now he is really the only one running, or attempting to steal, because Jimmy is hurt. Chase has had some problems with his knee, and Jayson has had a horrendous slump for the last month or so. So I think that once they just get back to hitting, and back to winning—these things help us win. When you get on base and the opposition presents you with an opportunity to steal a base—if we don’t capitalize, we’re only defeating what we’re built around.
DL: With the so-called “Steroid Era” behind us, more emphasis is being put on the running game. Is that good for the game of baseball?
Lopes: I’ve always felt that it was good for baseball. If you use stealing the way it should be used, it is a tremendous asset. What you have to remember is that baseball is a very boring game to watch, and if you’re going one base at a time, waiting for that three-run home run, or guys who bang the ball out of the ballpark—it doesn’t happen too often. So unless you love the game and grew up with the game, this game can become very monotonous, very quickly. To draw people—new fans to the game—youngsters, middle-aged, women, whomever—the game has to generate some kind of speed; it has to pick up the pace. You hear the commissioner talking about the pace of the game continuously, and there are reasons for that. To make the game more lively, and make it more exciting to the overall fan, you need to do that. And if you want to attract new fans… it is very hard to attract new fans when everything is very methodical and lackadaisical, almost, unless you have a no-hitter going, or something like that. The game was built on steroids—on home runs—for the last 10-15 years and now it’s gotten away from it. You have to be able to compensate, and I think that most good teams have a combination of speed to go along with their power. All good teams have that.
DL: You mentioned the stolen base “the way it is should be used.” What is the wrong way to steal bases?
Lopes: Just for numbers, just to steal. We’ve had opportunities, many times, to steal a base just to be stealing a base. You should steal a base to help your team win. For instance, there is no challenge when you have a four-run lead, and there are two outs, and you try to steal third base and there’s not even a throw. Basically, they’re giving you the stolen base.
There are certain times that I’d love my guys to steal third base, but you need to get there early in the count, otherwise it doesn’t really benefit you. Getting over there on, say a 2-2 count, now you really can’t say that if a pitcher throws a split-finger, or a good curveball—you may take a pitch away from the pitcher, or make him a little hesitant to throw it if you’re on third versus second. There are a lot of people who played the game, or supposedly are booking the game, that will say that you can score from second just as easily as you can from third, but that’s a bunch of bull. That’s a bunch of bull. If I’m going to steal third base, or have someone attempt to steal third base, I want them to get there early with two outs, and it’s got to be a 99 percent chance that you’re going to make it, and they’re doing it for a reason, not just to be stealing third base. There should be a reason for them getting over there. Running intelligently helps you win baseball games.