Every pitcher has a “tell" in his delivery, something that gives away what -- or where -- he’s about to throw. Vince Coleman used to study them. Whenever, say, Coleman saw Frank Viola fan his glove, he knew that the left-hander was about to throw a changeup. When Dave Stewart came up high over his head with his glove, his next offering would be a split-finger. But when Stewart stayed below his chin he was throwing a fastball. And Coleman still remembers, clear as day all these years later, that when Dwight Gooden looked into his glove it meant that the Cy Young Award winner was about to throw a breaking ball -- but when he didn’t peek, Doc was bringing the heat.
“Pitchers’ moves are predetermined,” Coleman said. “They are creatures of habit. We had a book on them. That was our sabermetrics, our analytic numbers.”
Those giveaways also helped Coleman -- who led the major leagues in stolen bases four times and the National League six consecutive years -- get a jump on the basepaths. Doug Drabek would turn his toe in, as would Charlie Nagy, said Coleman, when they were about to throw home instead of to first base. When he was on base, all the clues Coleman needed to help him determine when it was time to steal were right there at their feet.
“There were so many different things we knew about pitchers that gave us an edge,” said Coleman, whose 753 career stolen bases still rank sixth all time.
Have today’s baserunners lost that edge? The number of stolen bases across baseball last year was historically low. In 2015, Major League Baseball players stole 2,505 bases, the lowest total since 1974 (2,488) when there were six fewer teams. Last season's per-game average of 0.52 stolen bases per team was the lowest since 1973. There were 259 fewer stolen bases in 2015 than in 2014 and a whopping 724 fewer stolen bases in 2015 than in 2012.
One American League executive said that the significant increase in information available for game preparation has played a huge role in curtailing base stealing. Video is better, data is more revealing, pitchers are more aware of their delivery time to home plate and the confluence of information has allowed teams to shrink the window of time available to steal, thus making it much harder for players to get good reads and jumps as Coleman once did. An NL executive agreed: Defense of the running game continues to evolve.
The decline in steals isn’t, however, just a result of quicker deliveries and catcher pop times. Those numbers aren’t dramatically different than they were five years ago. Players did not suddenly get slower across the board. The average success rate on steal attempts didn’t change much from 2008 to 2014, but in 2015 it was down significantly, as were the total attempts. Teams have more tools to help them understand their own tendencies and those of their opponents, and this has shown up in all facets of the game, including baserunning:
Coleman, who is now a baserunning coach with the Chicago White Sox, says sabermetrics is partly to blame. Stolen bases are not generally valued highly by advanced stats, which suggest that the consequence of an unsuccessful stolen-base attempt -- the player is not only knocked off the basepaths but also costs his team an out -- typically outweighs the benefits.
“If there’s a Billy Beane who says, ‘Well, we’ve got 27 outs, and out of the 27 outs one of them is not going to be a [failed] stolen base [attempt],' then the baserunner plays with fear,” Coleman said. “Therefore, the manager is going to pick the pitches for him. As a base stealer you can’t have that. You can’t have a manager picking pitches for you.”
The NL team executive notes that MLB teams today focus on run-scoring probabilities. What is the value of an out versus the value of gaining 90 feet? Numerous statistical studies have shown that the break-even success rate for steals (the rate at which an attempt to steal is neither helping nor hurting the team in terms of total runs scored) is about 70 percent. If you’re not reaching that benchmark, as sabermetricians would suggest, you’re wasting too many outs.
No wonder players are running scared, said Coleman. “When players came up through the minor leagues, or in Little League, or college, they had all this confidence as a hitter,” Coleman said. “They were oozing with confidence. But as soon as they got on base in the minors the first thing that a manager or coach said to them was, ‘Don’t get picked off. Don’t make the first out at third base. Don’t get doubled up on line drives.’ So, now, they get on base and are like, ‘What the hell do I do?’”
Coleman says that the instincts, rhythm and timing needed to be a successful base stealer has to come from the player -- and not his manager or the data crunchers.
“It was all based in my lead or my jump, and I knew I had to go and build those instincts all by myself,” Coleman said. “I couldn't have someone do that for me. If someone else is controlling me while I’m on the bases, then I can’t be successful.”
Coleman says that players have to be taught how to take a lead and have to learn -- through countless repetitions -- how to avoid getting picked off. He also wants every player to understand how to get a jump and perform a delayed steal. The player’s speed (or lack thereof) shouldn’t matter.
“You don’t have to be fast to be a great baserunner,” Coleman said. “You just have to be smart, alert, aggressive and [able to] anticipate.”
Coleman says any player can learn how to steal a base. Success is all in the lead and the jump. He sees too many of today’s players taking false steps.
“There’s a certain position, and I wish all athletes had it, but they have to be taught it,” Coleman said. “If I can get every base stealer to be in the dorsiflex position, his first step is going to be electric, and that’s what stolen bases are about.”
In the dorsiflex position the toes pull forward and the first step is where the player quickly separates and gains distance. Coleman sees too many players today starting flat-footed, thus making them a second late.
“Because now they have to restart their engine when the pitcher lifts his leg to go to the plate,” Coleman said. “You have to be in a certain position to anticipate, and anticipate for the pitcher to break his knees and legs giving you the indication to go.”
Another aspect of the game that wasn’t as much of a factor when Coleman played is the slide-step.
“It slows the pitcher's velocity to the plate,” he said. "If I’m a base stealer, I still get my same lead. The pitcher will think I’m going, the catcher will think I’m going. Now, the batter knows what I’m doing -- because I have a relationship with him -- and when the pitcher slide-steps and is a little quick to the plate, the batter will be ready to hit that fastball.
“Nine times out of 10 when there’s the slide-step the second baseman or the shortstop knows what he’s going to throw. Well, they relax and that’s when I put on the delay steal. So, there’s ways to defuse that. You’ve got to be prepared for it and always [be] ready.”
Coleman believes that teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, who led the NL in steals in 2014, with 138, but dropped to 59 last season, should run more this year because they have players like Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier who have the right skill sets. And he believes that, just as it did when he roamed the basepaths, a robust running game can have a significant repercussion in today’s game.
“My mentality, once the game started, was go out and be the best base stealer that ever played this game,” he said. "I was going to dominate the whole game just from me being on base. You could pitch out, you could throw over 10 times in a row, it didn’t matter. I was going on the first or second pitch. Did that have a mental effect on those pitchers? Of course it did.”