Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/26/13
The big secret isn’t much of a secret. As a base-stealer, Billy Hamilton has seemed automatic — but he did get thrown out in the minors. In fact, he got thrown out a whole mess of times. Since debuting in 2009, Hamilton was thrown out stealing in the minors on 84 occasions, and his overall success rate was right around 82%. Granted, that’s excellent. Granted, maybe Hamilton has improved his ability to pick spots and read pitchers. Granted, who knows the contributions made by minor-league umpires or minor-league field conditions? But Hamilton had been thrown out stealing before. Plenty. It was going to happen to him eventually in the majors. That was inevitable. Major-league players are better than minor-league players. But most people didn’t expect Hamilton’s first caught-stealing to come on Sept. 25. No one would’ve expected the opposing battery to consist of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Juan Centeno. Hamilton’s first steal came against Yadier Molina. People don’t even know who Juan Centeno is. More people know about him now. Centeno is the first big-leaguer to throw out maybe the next generation’s best base-runner, and Centeno himself might not be long for the big-league spotlight. Naturally, the play has to be examined: There’s not a lot I need to tell you about Hamilton. The guy’s quick. But here’s something you might not have realized: Hamilton has stood on first, with second base unoccupied, 15 times. Fourteen of those times, he’s attempted to steal. The one time he didn’t, the next batter made contact with the first pitch, so Hamilton didn’t have a chance. Five times, he tried to steal on the first pitch. Hamilton, basically, hasn’t missed an opportunity. He goes in there expected to run, and he runs. Matsuzaka, predictably, hasn’t been great about the running game. Runners have been successful 82% of the time. He’s generally deliberate with his motion, and Hamilton became the first runner thrown out with Matsuzaka on the mound since Sept. 26, 2010. That spans a couple dozen starts. As for Centeno? He’s key to all this. Observers have always liked his arm. In the minors this year, he threw out 56% of would-be base-stealers. Last year, he was at 41%. For his career, he’s at 42%. Terry Collins has said before that Centeno can control the running game. So while Centeno was a virtual unknown before Wednesday, it makes sense that he would be first to gun down Hamilton. But how did it actually happen? What set this apart from Hamilton’s 13 consecutive successful steals? You’ll note that it’s not like Hamilton stumbled anywhere. He got a quick first step and he ran the usual route. This time, he wasn’t fast enough. Let’s examine the components. The Expectation This might be the unspoken bit. One of the amazing things about Hamilton’s steals is everybody knows ahead of time that they’re coming. But, everybody knows ahead of time that they’re coming. I’ll repeat that Hamilton has tried to steal second 14 times out of 14 legitimate opportunities. The element of surprise is reduced. It isn’t eliminated — Hamilton can pick when he wants to run during an at bat — but opponents can try to prepare for him. They all have a sense he’s going to go, and here’s Matsuzaka throwing over, before throwing the first pitch of the next matchup: In a way, it hurts Hamilton for the other team to know he’s going to run. In a way, it makes things stressful for the opponent. But when you reduce surprise, it makes some sense that you also reduce your advantage. I guess it’s an open question as to how Billy Hamilton could take other teams by surprise. In theory, this makes sense; practically, it’s more complicated. Let’s just agree that, when Hamilton is on base, he’s preparing to run against a team that knows he’s preparing to run. The Delivery Stolen bases are all about timing, so preventing stolen bases is also all about timing. Stripped down, a stolen-base attempt takes X number of seconds. It takes Y seconds for the pitcher to get the ball to the catcher. It takes Z seconds for the catcher to get the ball to the shortstop or second baseman. The steal is successful if X Y + Z. A pitcher, then, can work on getting the ball to the catcher faster. Some of this is pitch selection. Some of this is pitch location. Some of this is delivery type. Matsuzaka went with a slide step. Below are two images of Matsuzaka pitching with a runner on first. On the left, it’s Hamilton running. On the right, it’s just Matsuzaka. With Hamilton on, Matsuzaka didn’t raise his glove as high. He got the ball out faster, and he released the ball five frames sooner. It’s all about hundredths of a second, but those hundredths matter, every last one of them, and Matsuzaka helped himself out. Not only did he get the ball to Centeno quicker — by changing his look, he might’ve given Hamilton a slightly worse read. Which, again: hundredths of a second. Hamilton hadn’t seen this delivery yet. The Pitch Star-Ledger: Making his second major league start, Centeno, who threw out 30 of 54 runners with Triple-A Las Vegas this season, assumed Hamilton would try to steal immediately. He instructed Matsuzaka to throw a fastball up and away to afford him the best opportunity to throw Hamilton out. The advantage of a pitch-out is that the catcher is already standing up as the pitch is on the way, so it reduces his “pop” time. Instead of waiting to stand until after the pitch has arrived, the catcher can come to his feet and catch simultaneously, allowing for a quicker turnaround. The pitch Centeno caught wasn’t an actual, official pitch-out, but it was a high fastball. Centeno could get up, catch the ball in front of his chest and throw almost all in one motion. You’ll see him catch the ball in front of him, and to his arm side. In this way he initiated the ball transfer. This was effectively a pitch-out that didn’t surrender all chance of being called a strike. The Throw This is the most visible part of any defense’s attempt to stop a stolen base. Catchers, generally, like to try to throw out base-runners. With a guy like Hamilton on, though, catchers can rush themselves and make mistakes. That’s part of the pressure aspect of Hamilton’s presence. Let’s look at the throws for Hamilton’s 13 successful steals: High and wide. Coming up on a bounce. Drawing the glove up, instead of down. No throw, dropped. No throw, dropped. Not a bad throw, but wrong side of second. Wrong side of second. No throw, wild. Wide, behind Hamilton. Accurate throw, but late. Wrong side. Wrong side. Bounced, and late. No throw, dropped. Second base is far away. It’s much greater than the distance from the mound to the plate. We know how much trouble pitchers can have commanding the ball, and they’re throwing on their own time. They can get comfortable with their grips. Catchers have to throw much farther, immediately, with little warning. They also have to throw the ball over a guy on a little hill in the middle of the lawn. Catchers are incredibly accurate, when you think about it. A great throw is an amazing throw. Here’s Centeno’s throw, to nail Hamilton: That’s almost perfect. The throw was very strong. It had the perfect height. It was between 6 inches and 12 inches from the ideal location, but it was good enough in this instance, which means it would’ve been good enough in probably all instances. Centeno didn’t make a perfect throw, but he made an excellent throw. And he did it with a whole lot of strength. Hamilton was thrown out, barely. This is how Billy Hamilton was caught, and this is how Billy Hamilton will be caught in the future. Sometimes, he’ll just stumble. Sometimes, he’ll get picked off. Other times, he’ll break clean, but the pitcher will get the ball to the catcher quickly, and the catcher will throw a heater down to second just in front of Hamilton’s foot or hand. As long as Hamilton is this fast, the battery will have to be just about perfect to wipe him out. The pitcher will have to vary his motion. The catcher will have to anticipate the attempt. The throw will have to be in just the right area. But there are ways to get Hamilton out. Now we’ve seen it — and because of a guy who’s been in the majors for just a few weeks, we’ll remember a guy who’s been in the majors for just a few weeks. Centeno might not end up with a long big-league career, but this is one way to make an impression. Also, on Wednesday, Jay Bruce twice stole second. In Centeno’s only other big-league game, he and Aaron Harang allowed a steal to Buster Posey.
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