This was supposed to be Billy Hamilton's year. After a 13-game cameo in 2013, during which he stole 13 bases on 14 attempts, the 23-year-old entered spring entrenched as an everyday fixture. Two months into the season, Hamilton has failed to meet expectations. While he continues to inspire think-pieces and fun comparisons, his play—including his basestealing—has disappointed. Hamilton, likely the sport's fastest player, has gone 20-for-26 on stolen-base tries. Good, but not transcendent.
Even with withered efficiency, Hamilton remains eager to run. Hamilton has attempted a steal in almost 60 percent of his stolen-base opportunities (defined by Baseball-Reference as times on first or second with an empty base ahead), the most among players with at least 30 chances. How unusual is that? Only one other player has gone in more than 40 percent of his opportunities; that player, not Hamilton, is the season's pace car. That player is Dee Gordon—the runaway stolen-base king and proxy for all our Hamilton-related fantasies.
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Although Gordon entered the season projected to match Hamilton's offensive output—PECOTA had their True Averages separated by two points—he lacked the promised playing time. Gordon became the Dodgers' second baseman almost by default. Don Mattingly lacked a better option, so he played Gordon; Gordon played well, so Mattingly continued to play him. His offensive numbers continue to represent an improvement over his past marks, albeit after some recent reversion to his old ways. This piece is not about his offensive gains though. For more on that, check out Jerry Crasnick's excellent Gordon profile, in which he quoted the Rafiki of baserunning, Davey Lopes:
"He's a base stealer and there are guys who steal bases, and there's a big difference," Lopes said. "You'll see the value of a base stealer when he's taking attention away from the hitter and everybody is looking at that guy at first base. Teams will pitch out more or quicken their deliveries. Everybody knows you're going, and they still can't stop you."
Lopes stops himself before he utters the phrase "game changer," but he nudges you in that direction. If Lopes had called Gordon a game changer, would he be wrong? Does Gordon not alter the pace, look, and feel of the contest whenever he reaches base? And is Lopes not right that nobody can stop Gordon? To answer those questions, I reviewed each of his baserunning opportunities from May 24-30, including those occasions where he elected against thievery.
For a player described a few years ago as a raw, unrefined talent, Gordon shows surprising nuance on the basepaths. He often goes on or right after the first move, meaning he's not Coco Crisp—few are— yet pitchers were unable to catch him leaning—and it wasn't due to a lack of trying. True to Lopes' sentiment, the hitter sometimes felt like a secondary concern, behind keeping Gordon at first base. Most of the usual tricks were used to keep Gordon close:
- Throwing to the base for appearance's sake
- Legitimate pickoff tries
- Altering timing
- Stepping off the rubber
David Buchanan of the Phillies threw to second on a daylight play where no daylight was visible. The ball skipped into the center-field dusk and Gordon advanced easily. Jonathan Broxton faked the inside move. His teammate, Homer Bailey, tried the inverse of the fake inside move: spinning toward first base and bluffing a throw. The pitchers as a whole changed their tempos, looks, throw velocities, and everything else they could change that would keep Gordon's position on the bases the same.
The unquestioned highlight of the week involved Johnny Cueto, who stops more runners than shin splints. Cueto has picked off 11 baserunners since 2011, placing him eighth in the league among pitchers with at least 500 innings. During that time, he's allowed just six stolen bases; everyone ahead of him has allowed at least twice that. Cueto is clever, devoted to his craft, and employs an arresting balk move. Stealing against Cueto is like pickpocketing a police officer; those who try it are either geniuses or morons, but those who succeed are just lucky:
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Gordon did not try to steal second base against Cueto for good reason. Cueto begins the sequence with a throw over. After a pitch, he does it again. This time it was closer:
A few pitches later Cueto throws over once more, and he might have gotten Gordon with a more accurate throw:
All the while, Cueto is altering his timing and looks. He's holding the ball longer, taking an extra look, and doing everything he can to keep Gordon, who keeps creeping toward second base, from getting a read on an obvious pattern. In the end, Cueto wins. Not only did he keep Gordon at first base for the duration of Carl Crawford's at bat, but he prevented Gordon from scoring. Had Gordon gotten to second base, he would have crossed the plate standing up. As is, he went first-to-third in impressive fashion:
Gordon isn't even with the pitcher's mound when the ball touches grass. By the time Chris Heisey moseys over and touches the ball, Gordon is around second and en route to third. Heisey doesn't make an effort to get Gordon—not that it matters—and by the time the camera angle switches, Gordon is headed into third before the ball leaves Heisey's hand.
In addition to forcing pitchers like Cueto to empty their pockets, Gordon causes the defense to alter their formations. Baseball is in the midst of a shift revolution, where traditional positions are cast aside in favor of gaining an extra advantage. Gordon forces the defense into unfavorable alignments; infielders have to play in on double-play opportunities, and second basemen have to park near the bag in order to keep him close. Speed is often overrated in prospects; Gordon shows why it's desired:
So how do you stop Gordon? Prevention is the easiest solution. You keep him off the base. Shy of that, you hope he slips, or overslides the bag—or that he stayed out too late and can't figure out which pitcher he's seeing is the real one. Otherwise, there is no real answer. Even the three times Gordon has been caught stealing reveal no effective strategies. Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw Gordon out twice: one time because Gordon slid awkwardly heading into second, the other because the pitch enabled Salty to make a quick transfer and a strong, accurate throw. The other catcher to peg Gordon was Victor Martinez. That came on a pitchout and occurred after Anibal Sanchez, of all pitchers, bored him with throws.
That brings up a point of contention: during the week-long observation, no battery attempted a backpick or a pitchout. You can understand the first part: 24 of Gordon's 34 steals have occurred on the first two pitches, including 13 on the first pitch, which makes it tough for the catcher to throw behind him. The pitchout part is tougher to explain. If Gordon is going to run, the odds point toward him going early. It might not make the difference in most cases, but turning a 50/50 play into an out has value. At worst, it's a ball and a stolen base; at best, Gordon is retired or forced to reconsider running the next time he's on.
Until that doubt is placed in Gordon's heart, he's going to continue to change games.