Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/29/13
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One of the best things about really getting into the regular season is that we’re starting to get some meaningful data. One of the best things about getting meaningful data is that it’s accompanied by a lot of meaningless data. True insight can be gleaned from the former, but fun? You can have fun with both. Let’s talk about pitchers stealing bases. A year ago, pitchers combined for seven stolen-base attempts. The year before that, they also combined for seven, and the year before that, they combined for three. Then six, then ten, then 12, then seven, then nine…it isn’t often that pitchers get on base, but it also isn’t often that, once on base, pitchers attempt to steal. Pick your favorite reason, or combine them. They want to avoid injury. They want to conserve their energy. They aren’t properly trained for aggressive base-running. They don’t want to distract their hitters. They don’t want to give up a rare opportunity to not watch from the dugout. They want to actually exchange words with the first-base coach. Nobody thinks about pitchers stealing because pitchers don’t steal. On April 25, Cliff Lee tried to steal. On April 26, Andrew Cashner tried to steal. Last year, there were seven stolen-base attempts by pitchers. This past week, there were such attempts on consecutive days, which we might fairly consider highly unusual. One of the attempts was unsuccessful, which is always one of the fears. The other attempt was greatly successful, and led to a run in a game in which the pitcher’s team won by one. Lee went and got himself tossed out. Cashner singled, stole, and scored. Results aside, both deserve our acknowledgment for trying the seldom tried, and we can discuss in a little greater depth. CLIFF LEE From a different angle: Classic and timeless is the image of a pitcher running the bases in a jacket. A trained base-runner, typically, will break at first move. Lee was trying to break at first move, but instead he broke at no move, leaving himself vulnerable provided James McDonald didn’t balk. This could’ve turned into one of those situations where the announcers lament pitchers’ collective inability to throw to other bases that aren’t home plate, but instead McDonald did what he was supposed to, and Lee was erased. It was close-ish, but Lee was erased. Lee saw an opportunity because he wasn’t being held on: And his explanation: “The first baseman was playing behind me . . . but I got too antsy and took off too early,” Lee said. “I had to wait for him to go to the plate and left too early.” That’s not it, though. See, Cliff Lee just got caught stealing, in a rare attempt by a pitcher, but Lee pulled off a successful attempt in 2012. He also pulled off a successful attempt in 2011. For his career, now, Cliff Lee is 2-for-3 trying to steal, and he’s the only pitcher in baseball over the past three years to rack up at least three attempts. He’s averaged one try a season, and here are those others: In all three attempts, Lee wasn’t being held on, allowing him to take a more aggressive lead. He wasn’t being held on because why would Cliff Lee try to steal a base? In the attempt from 2011, against the Rangers, Lee didn’t even draw a throw. In the attempt from 2012, against the Nationals, the throw was well late. Against the Pirates, Lee simply broke too soon. You know that game where you put your hands over your partners’, and the person with the hands on the bottom tries to slap the hands on the top? I’m sure the game has a name but it doesn’t matter. The person on top will often withdraw his or her hands too soon, anticipating a move where there isn’t one. Lee essentially did the same thing and McDonald stayed composed despite a hell of a surprise. If you’re wondering, here’s what Cliff Lee looks like after a successful steal: Here’s what Lee looks like after an unsuccessful steal: Cliff Lee’s emotions are backwards. One wonders if teams might start holding Lee on. The answer is, no, almost certainly not, because this isn’t something really worth worrying about, but Lee has now attempted three steals in 42 career stolen-base opportunities. That’s a higher rate than — for example — 2012 Rickie Weeks, 2012 Dustin Ackley, and 2012 Curtis Granderson. Lee would have more attempts, probably, if he weren’t so bad at hitting. But he is very good at pitching, so his hitting is no concern. When Lee’s running the bases, he’s not afraid of taking a chance. There’s not a thing Cliff Lee doesn’t do with confidence. ANDREW CASHNER As if Tim Lincecum doesn’t have enough to worry about when he’s on the mound, now he gets to keep in mind the potential reality of pitchers trying to steal bases. This is a delayed attempt by Cashner, and then the throw down to second nearly takes Lincecum’s head off, since the last thing he expected was Cashner trying to bolt. The same goes for the Giants’ middle infielders: What Cashner saw in front of him was an open second base. He also saw a pitch down in the dirt, which was his signal to break. Once having safely arrived, Cashner was most emotive: Shortly thereafter, Cashner would score. Then the Padres scored again, and no one else would score for the remainder. This was a good steal at a big time, not that Bud Black was particularly enthused as the moment was happening: “I looked up when he took off and said ‘Oh, no,” said Black. “When I saw that slide, I said “Oh, no” a second time.” Cashner, for his part, made it sound as if it isn’t incredibly unusual for a pitcher to steal a base: “I’ve always wanted to get a steal,” said Cashner. “(First base coach Dave) Roberts told me to be ready to go if I saw a ball in the dirt. When I saw Buster (Posey) go to his knees, I took off.” [...] “I like running the bases,” said Cashner. “I like being on base, although I haven’t been on that much. I stole bases in high school.” While at TCU, Cashner said he was timed in 6.4 seconds for the 60-yard dash. The only thing likely to hold Andrew Cashner back as a big-league pitcher is his health. To whatever extent that base-running is dangerous, Cashner jeopardized his health in breaking — successfully — for second. He stood up unhurt, and he’d shortly score a critical run. Andrew Cashner ran the bases like Andrew Cashner pitches: he put himself in danger while trying something few pitchers do. Maybe there’s symbolism in Cashner making it safely. Maybe there would’ve been symbolism had Cashner gotten injured. Seemingly whenever pitchers talk about doing something good at the plate or on the bases, they express confidence in their abilities to do it again. Pitchers are not lacking for confidence, even in areas other than pitching. If Cashner is to be taken seriously, this might not have been the last time we see him try to steal second base. But most pitchers are all talk. Rare is a Cliff Lee who tries to steal three times. We’ll see where Cashner goes from here. Provided he ever gets on base again.
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