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When Coco Crisp stepped to the plate last season, his walk-up song was “Who Gon Stop Me." The chorus served as a legitimate question once Crisp reached base. Not many have showed the ability to stop Crisp in recent seasons. He went 39-for-43 on stolen base attempts in 2012, pushing his three-year total to 120 steals in 136 attempts. That’s an 88 percent success rate on 45 attempts per season. None of the six other players with at least 45 attempts since 2010 succeeded more than 83 percent of the time. Rickey Henderson never had a three-year rate of more than 86 percent throughout his career.  

The highest levels of baseball performance tend to have impressive streaks built in. Crisp’s basestealing in recent years has two worth noting. From July 10, 2011, until June 21, 2012, Crisp stole 36 consecutive bases without failure. Ignore pickoffs and Crisp’s streak creeps into August 2012 and encompasses another 15 steals. (The only catcher to stop Crisp in 2012 was Jose Lobaton.) Those high levels of performance leave us bewildered and curious. How is it that Crisp—who had a career 74 percent success rate prior to 2010—has turned into the league’s most efficient and prolific thief? Is it with Billy Hamilton-like speed, or Henderson-like wits and hubris*, or something else?

I watched each of Crisp’s stolen base attempts in 2012 in an effort to find out. My initial plan was to write descriptions of each attempt while timing the pitcher and catcher, then to assign blame to the slow one in the battery. Yet by the time I finished reviewing Crisp’s final 10 stolen bases on the year (I worked backward), it was clear that the catcher was rarely at fault. Opposing backstops managed throws on just three of those final 10 steals, leaving Crisp to swipe seven bags without a challenge. On the season, Crisp stole 20 of his 39 bases without a throw, including four double-steal situations.

As part of the review process, I kept track of a few variables along with the throw. Most notably, I reported the trigger on each attempt. If Crisp took off before the pitcher started his delivery, it was typically after a glance or two, so I recorded it as Crisp running on the look. If the pitcher had begun his delivery by the time Crisp took off, then it went down as Crisp running on the move.  Here are the results in full:

Coco Crisp Stolen Base Log, 2012

Date

SB/CS

Inning

Look/Move

Throw

4/9

SB

7th

Move

Y

4/16

SB

6th

Move

Y

4/27

SB

8th

Move

Y

4/28

SB

1st

Dbl Steal

N

5/27

SB

7th

Look

N

5/27

SB

7th

Move

N

5/29

SB

3rd

Look

Y

6/7

SB

6th

Dbl Steal

N

6/13

SB

9th

Look

N

6/15

SB

1st

Move

Y

6/19

SB

4th

Look

Y

6/19

SB

4th

Move

Y

6/19

SB

6th

Move

Y

6/22

SB

1st

Look

N

6/22

SB

1st

Move

Y

6/28

SB

3rd

Move

Y

7/18

SB

5th

Look

N

7/18

SB

5th

Move

Y

7/22

SB

8th

Move

Y

7/24

SB

7th

Move

N

8/3

SB

8th

Move

Y

8/7

SB

5th

Move

N

8/8

SB

6th

Dbl Steal

N

8/8

SB

1st

Move

Y

8/10

SB

1st

Move

N

8/18

SB

3rd

Dbl Steal

N

8/20

SB

3rd

Move

Y

8/22

SB

3rd

Look

Y

8/29

SB

3rd

Look

N

9/1

SB

4th

Move

N

9/2

SB

3rd

Move

N

9/7

SB

4th

Move

Y

9/8

SB

4th

Look

N

9/13

SB

8th

Unclear

N

9/21

SB

2nd

Look

N

9/25

SB

9th

Move

Y

9/29

SB

8th

Look

N

9/30

SB

3rd

Look

N

10/1

SB

5th

Move

Y

Excluding double steals, Crisp ran 12 times on looks and 22 times on moves. (One couldn't be determined without a replay.) He drew four throws on look-triggered steals and 14 throws on move-triggered steals. When Crisp went on looks he was near unstoppable, in part because he focused on getting a good jump over getting a good lead. He knew he could make up for the step or two with a running start. Take the steal below against Tim Lincecum as an example:

The outer image shows Lincecum after completing a glance at Crisp. While Lincecum is staring in at the plate, about to begin his delivery, Crisp is dashing toward third. By the time the pitch is crossing the plate, the inner image, Crisp is about three-fourths of the way to the base. Ivan Rodriguez in his prime would’ve held onto the ball. The kicker is that Lincecum knew Crisp was in a running mood because he had swiped second the pitch before. Even with that knowledge Lincecum couldn’t stop him or make it a close play.

Crisp doesn’t just succeed when the pitcher neglects to look back at him. He feasts on patterns. There were instances this season where pitchers would throw over, fake a throw, step off, and offer multiple glances before delivering the pitch. Crisp would soak this information in, along with the position of the shortstop or the second baseman, and then make his decision to run later in the at-bat. Crisp’s confidence in his read is such that he took off on Rafael Betancourt after a fake pickoff attempt:

I left the score bug in to show the importance of the situation. Crisp would have heard about it if he'd been caught stealing, and the A's would have been doomed if Crisp had made that second out. Yet Crisp trusted himself and took off. And not only did he swipe the bag, he did it without a throw. He scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly later in the at-bat.

Who should get credit for Crisp’s stolen base genius? It’s unclear whether he’s a good guesser, a good video scout, or a good reader who took advantage of his team’s apparently über -detailed scouting reports.  The most likely answer is a mix of all three. Crisp seems to have an advanced feel for reading a pitcher’s movements and identifying the point when the pitcher shifts his attention from preventing a stolen base to throwing his pitch. Whether that skill comes from study or from attention to the front office doesn’t matter.

While the genesis of Crisp’s brilliance is unknown, his Kryptonite is clear: Three of his four caught stealings were on pickoffs by left-handed pitchers, and in each instance the pitcher used his head in a manner that deceived him. First, Clayton Kershaw turned his head toward home plate while stepping and throwing to first base. Crisp took off on the head turn and was nabbed at second. Then Charlie Furbush got away with a head-nod prior to starting his delivery, the move led Crisp to start his attempt, and the Mariners were able to tag him out. Boone Logan picked off Crisp twice in the same at-bat, though the speedster beat a pickle to return to first safely the first time. A few pitches later, Logan got Crisp again when he used Kershaw’s head-fake:

PECOTA projects Crisp to add 5.5 runs with his legs next season and finish with the best BRR in baseball. So who’s gonna stop Crisp from continuing his assault on historically low caught stealing rates? If anyone can, it will be the pitchers who realize their head can be their best friend or their worst enemy against him.

*The best part of the exercise is when Oakland’s broadcast would show Henderson after a Crisp steal. Henderson, for his part, never appeared impressed. 

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Manprin
12/18
How about Rickey Henderson who is a special assistant to the A's and worked with Crisp the last two seasons?
Bellis
12/18
My thoughts exactly. As an A's fan I can tell you I'm thrilled seeing Rickey around the team and still part of the organization. A's have been pretty successful basestealers the last few years in general. Have to think Rickey gets some credit.
jdeich
12/18
Comparing the three big base stealers (accounting for more than 2/3 of the team SB) for the 2010 Rickeytastic A's for their previous, Rickeyless seasons: Cliff Pennington: 7:5 in 2009, 29:5 in 2010. Drastic uptick. Rajai Davis: 41:12 in 2009, 50:11 in 2010. Uptick. Coco Crisp: 32:3 in 2010 (75 G). 13:2 in 49 G in 2009, and 20:7 in 118 G in 2008. Uptick. Oakland was very efficient in 2012 as well, with their 79% success rate trailing only PHI (83%), LAA (80%) and MIL (80%). Like Davey Lopes, Rickey showed he could still steal bases long after his legs had aged. (Lopes stole 47 at age 40, in only 99 G.) That process of learning to rely less on blazing speed and more on careful observation and deception should make for a great coach. Not even Rickey could teach a young player to run like Rickey, but if he can pass on even a fraction of his mental game, he's well worth whatever they're paying him. Maybe the Reds will hire Rickey, and see what he can turn Billy Hamilton into. I expect catchers will just receive the pitch and sob into their mitt.
LlarryA
12/18
+1 just for the last sentence...
RJAnderson
12/19
Good point.
bgrosnick
12/18
I *really* like this article. And the image of the Lincecum pitch crossing the plate while Crisp is almost at third is pretty amazing. You'd almost think Crisp belongs on a team where he can play every day, based on his unbelievable running ability. At the very least, if he's going to be a reserve on the A's, they should use him as a pinch-runner as much as possible.
Manprin
12/18
Who said anything about Crisp being a reserve?
SlackerGeorge
12/18
I here that St. Elsewhere is going to retire Crisp's # after his next DL stint.
SlackerGeorge
12/18
Great article, R.J. Did crisp betray his jumps at all in your review? Wondering if better pitcher/catcher communication can stem the onslaught.
RJAnderson
12/19
I might be misunderstanding your question, but there were occasions where he'd start going then retreat for whatever reason. He did it at least once or twice during at-bats where he'd steal the base later on anyhow.
BurrRutledge
12/19
I think he means "did you find a 'tell' that Crisp showed on his attempts that an observant catcher could communicate to his pitcher for a pitchout or a pickoff?"
RJAnderson
12/19
Ah, that does make more sense. Thanks. I didn't notice an outright tell. There were instances where he'd get antsy in forward movement, but it was prevalent. He seemed to check the middle infielders on each pitch regardless of whether he intended to go or not, so that's not one, either. It's also possible he tipped them off and I (and they for that matter) failed to notice.
RJAnderson
12/19
The Lincecum image is my favorite part. I could've included another twoor three—one off Matt Lindstrom, I believe, but I may be wrong on that—where Crisp had similar jumps. Also, when Crisp stole off Matsuzaka. It was move-based, but he smoked him. It made me feel bad for Lavarnway (and whoever has to catch Matsuzaka heading forward).
gjhardy
12/18
I wonder if BP could come up with a new stat: Pitcher ERA with Coco Crisp Maybe Stealing (PECCMS). Everyone talks about what a distraction or disruptor a great basestealer can be to the pitcher, and you can look up Pitcher ERA with men on base, but has pitcher performance ever been pegged to a specific baserunner?
Bellis
12/18
Another guy who has absorbed whatever basestealing lessons the A's are dishing out is Cespedes. He had some ridiculous jumps to second and also to third this year. He stole second and third standing up on back to back pitches this year and it was thrilling.
RJAnderson
12/19
I noticed Cliff Pennington went on a look as well. But it was a one-time instance (on one of the double steals mentioned here) and I didn't follow up on it. I wouldn't rule it out as a team philosophy.
hmckay
12/18
Very interesting article. I note that Ichiro has a 45/2 season a few years back and was in the mid 80% range for a sustained period of time. Also, I recall a comment somewhere that there were 4 botched pickoff attempts while he was on base. While re-doing this analysis on Ichiro is probably too time consuming, the contrast between Ichiro's high rate and Crisp's is the element of risk as represented by Crisp's susceptibility to the pick off.
RJAnderson
12/19
You know, finding out which players caused the most botched pickoff players would be an interesting piece. Part of it is luck, obviously, but part of it is 1) being dangerous enough to draw throws and 2) being skilled enough to bait the pitcher/catcher (if we're including catcher pickoff attempts).
bobbygrace
12/18
It's interesting that the two successful steals shown here are of third base. Do we have stats for success rate in stealing third? And do we know how teams/players with high base-stealing efficiency compare to the low end in terms of (a) how often they attempt a steal of third and (b) how often they succeed?
RJAnderson
12/19
We do. A user asked for Crisp's numbers on stealing third earlier and he's 31-for-33 since 2010 (SB3, CS3): http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/crispco01-bat.shtml#batting_baserunning::none The league-average in 2012 was 81 percent, so Crisp is ahead of the pack there if that average remains static (or close to it) over a multi-year sample: http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2012-baserunning-batting.shtml
bobbygrace
12/19
Thanks! That's impressive. And I'm surprised at the 81% success rate around the league. I would suspect it has to do with teams' attempting a steal of third only when there's a high expectation of success.
hotstatrat
12/18
Yes, an interesting look at base-stealing, thanks, but I must have misread the premise. Didn't Mike Trout steal 49 out of 54 bases last year? My calculator says that is 91%.
RJAnderson
12/19
He did. The premise covers players that averaged 30+ attempts (not just steals) over the past three seasons). Trout's the obvious favorite to surpass Crisp over the next year or two.
RJAnderson
12/19
I feel compelled to mention Desmond Jennings as another candidate. He had a 94 percent success rate this season (31-33), though a 20-26 season in 2011 weighs down his average puts him at 86 percent over the past two seasons.
RJAnderson
12/19
I also feel compelled to make silly editing mistakes on my comments.
hyprvypr
4/11
Henderson kept thinking, "Rickey had 42 steals by June!"