Last week, David Ortiz stole third base for the first time in his career:
Both of these steals depended on the element of surprise. The first case was a long con. Ortiz spent the last 17 years not stealing third base, lulling the American League into a false sense of security. And then he struck. The attempt was so surprising that he made it to third without a throw.
Entering last night’s game, Johnson was a perfect four-for-four in attempted steals of third, so he didn’t have the same hard-earned advantage Ortiz did. He had to come up with some other way to catch the defenders off guard. And stealing on an intentional ball is a pretty ingenious solution, when you think about it. On the one hand, the catcher has plenty of time to receive the ball cleanly, get himself in proper throwing position, and fire the ball as hard as he can. On the other hand, he’s not expecting someone to steal, and the pitch is going super-slow, so there’s only so much he can do. To Rob Brantly’s credit, he wasn’t caught napping. Johnson barely got his toes in before Placido Polanco applied the tag.
Johnson also singled, doubled, and homered twice in the game, but compared to the steal, the hits were anticlimactic.
Our pitch-by-pitch data goes back to 1988, and Johnson’s swipe is our only record of a steal of third occurring on an intentional ball four. However, there have been a few steals that laid the groundwork for Johnson’s pioneering play:
September 7, 2010 (Rangers at Blue Jays): Jose Bautista steals third off Scott Feldman and Matt Treanor on an intentional ball three to Vernon Wells. Today, the sight of Wells being walked intentionally is enough to freeze a defender, but back then it wasn’t so strange.
July 15, 2002 (Reds at Brewers): Adam Dunn singles, then steals second on a called strike. With first base open, Milwaukee’s Valerio De Los Santos starts to issue an intentional pass to Austin Kearns. Dunn steals third on the first intentional ball. Sadly, he’s stranded at third.
Yes, Virginia, Adam Dunn used to steal bases. Unfortunately, this was pre-MLB.tv era, so it’s about as easy to access archival footage of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball as it is to watch this play. Memo to MLBAM: I would pay cold, hard currency to see this sequence of steals.