Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/28/14
Think fast! Tell me something Mike Trout isn’t very good at. If you said “winning Most Valuable Player awards”, you’re not wrong. If you said “ice hockey” you’re also not wrong, probably. But in terms of on-field baseball skills, Trout is across-the-board outstanding. There are, of course, some things he’s better at than others, and one notes that he just had twice as many strikeouts as walks, but Trout hits, he waits, he fields, and he runs. Trout doesn’t have a weakness — he has only relative weaknesses — and as for strengths, while it’s not as sexy as hitting dingers, Trout’s a hell of a base-runner. Our metric gives him 12 extra runs for his base-running in 2012, which is incredible. And of Trout’s 54 attempted steals, he was thrown out only five times. One time, in the season finale, Trout was thrown out stealing by Jesus Montero, and we already wrote about that. It was notable, because Trout’s a good base-runner and for a catcher, Montero’s a heck of a DH.* (*Not really, because his hitting wasn’t good either.) But I wanted now to write a follow-up, about the other times Trout was thrown out stealing. I’ve been supplemented with information from BIS, covering the four times Trout was gunned down trying to take second. He was, for the record, 43-for-47 going for second, and 6-for-7 going for third. The latter situation is different, so we won’t get into it here. Let’s focus on those four. How, exactly, did teams manage to throw Trout out, where so many other batteries failed? Are there any patterns we can observe? We will proceed individually. MAY 26 Pitcher: Felix Hernandez Catcher: Miguel Olivo The key here is that Olivo made a perfect throw down to second base. Olivo made a perfect throw, and still, according to instant replays, Trout might well have actually been safe. BIS provided pop times, measuring how long it took the pitcher to deliver the baseball to home, and how long it took the catcher to deliver the baseball to second. A league-average combined pop time is 3.37 seconds. In this case, Hernandez and Olivo combined for a delivery time of 3.29 seconds, very slightly better. Of note is that, shortly before Trout took off, Hernandez made a pick-off attempt to first. So Trout had Felix’s attention. Here’s where Felix was in his delivery when Trout turned to go: Here’s where Trout’s hands made contact with the ground during his slide: The jump was fine, and the slide was fine. The delivery was quick, and the throw was perfect. Trout might have hesitated on account of Felix’s earlier pickoff. JUNE 4 Pitcher: Jason Vargas Catcher: Miguel Olivo (again!) The combined delivery time here was 3.57 seconds, or two-tenths of a second slower than average. You wouldn’t expect that to be good enough to get Trout out, but there are variables here. Vargas, as you can see, is left-handed. So Vargas could look right at Trout at first base as he took his lead. Before Trout took off, Vargas made a pick-off attempt. Look at where Vargas was in his delivery when Trout turned to go: Against Felix, Trout was going before Felix even had the ball out of his glove. Vargas’ hands are completely separated, and the ball’s about to be moving forward. In other words, Trout got a late jump, costing him time. As Trout turns to go, the ball is just about on its way to home plate. There’s also the matter of Trout’s slide into second: Trout hit the ground earlier than usual on this slide, slowing him down further. We’re talking about a matter of milliseconds, but stolen bases are decided by matters of milliseconds, and this did Trout in. The delivery time was slow, and the throw from Olivo wasn’t great, but thanks to Trout’s late start and his early slide, he was still the second half of an Angels double play. AUGUST 21 Pitcher: Alfredo Aceves Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia The previous two caught-steals were preceded by pick-off attempts. Here, there was no preceding pick-off attempt, but there was a straight pitch-out where the Red Sox accurately sniffed out Trout’s intentions. The combined delivery time was 3.13 seconds, a good quarter of a second faster than average. So Trout was thrown out, despite the throw ending up on the wrong side of second base. The time cost from Dustin Pedroia having to move his glove was more than offset by the time gained from the pitch-out. Trout was still very nearly safe, so this wasn’t a sure thing, giving you some idea of how quick Trout really is. He nearly beat a pitch-out against the Red Sox in the top of the ninth. Here’s Trout touching the ground during his slide: A pitch-out’s a pitch-out. Not much you can do about a pitch-out if you’re already running. OCTOBER 3 Pitcher: Blake Beavan Catcher: Jesus Montero And it’s this play again. The combined delivery time was 3.37 seconds, right on the league average. According to BIS, an expected delivery time for Beavan and Montero would be about 3.39 seconds. Montero’s throw was right on the money, improving matters. In the previous post about this play, we noted that Trout appeared to stumble when he turned. Any stumble, of course, costs valuable time. Here’s where Beavan was in his delivery when Trout turned to go: It’s Trout’s right foot that kicks up a little dirt, indicating slippage. Here’s Trout touching the ground during his slide: Trout might’ve slid a little early, too. And, importantly, we’ll note that, prior to Trout running, Beavan attempted a pair of pick-offs. For all three non-pitch-out Trout caught-steals at second, there were preceding pick-off attempts. Here’s Trout during one of the pick-offs: There’s a slight, visible lean toward second base. Trout was going to go, although he made it back to first in time. Here’s Trout right before his steal attempt: The lean is gone, and Trout is hesitating. He doesn’t turn to go until Beavan’s hands are just about separated, and then there’s the slight stumble. Thanks in part to Beavan and thanks in part to Trout’s iffy footing, Trout got a below-average jump, allowing Jesus Montero to gun him down with a perfect throw. The play was still incredibly close, because there’s no such thing as throwing out Mike Trout by a mile. We’ve looked at four caught-steals, one of which came on a pitch-out and the other three of which followed pick-off attempts. In Beavan’s case, we can clearly see the effect of the earlier pick-offs. In Vargas’ case, we have to consider the difference between stealing off a righty and stealing off a lefty. In Felix’s case, we don’t know what effect the pick-off might’ve had, and Olivo’s throw was genuinely perfect. Trout was gunned down by two perfect throws and a pitch-out, and in the other case he got a late start off a southpaw and slid too early. A lot of things had to come together for a battery to erase Mike Trout from the basepaths. It’s probably worth investigating in greater depth the true effects of pick-off attempts. It would be incredibly complicated, which is why I’m not volunteering, but there are people out there who are smarter than me. It’s also definitely worth considering that nothing on a baseball field is automatic, and everything is conducted by humans, leaving everything vulnerable to human error bars. Sometimes a baserunner will start a slide too early. Sometimes a catcher will make an unusually strong and accurate throw. When the right error bars overlap, Mike Trout gets thrown out stealing. They don’t do that very much.
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