The art of stealing home (cont.)
Another, if less serious, impediment to stealing home is that teams almost never scout it, meaning players are often forced to decide to go or not on their own. Several players said their teams don't even mention it during advance meetings before each series, nor is it something they work on in spring training. The Blue Jays are one notable exception. When Aaron Hill stole home two years ago, it came as a direct result of a flaw in Pettitte's delivery detected by third base coach Brian Butterfield that he mentioned to his team before the game. "It was one of those things that we talk about in advance and you're like, 'Yeah, right,' " said Hill with a laugh. "That night I got to third and they said, 'If it gets to 1-0, you're hot.' I was like, 'What?!'"
Butterfield had watched tape of Pettitte and found that the game's best pickoff artist could be taken advantage of in the right spot. "I guess I can let the cat out of the bag because [Pettitte] won't let it happen again," Butterfield said. "When he comes set, he would drop his head over in the direction of first base. Watching the video, there was a time frame where he would drop his head before he would start his delivery so we tried to time it so as his hands were coming set we could make our break toward home."
Hill was all set to run on the 1-0 pitch, but Pettitte stepped off the mound and called time. Had Hill broken as planned, he would have been picked off. When Pettitte got back on the mound, the next pitch was fouled off, and on the 1-1 count, Hill took off and scored easily. In the rush of adrenaline, he didn't even notice until he was back in the tunnel that he had hurt himself when he slid into Posada's shin guards.
Indeed, scoring is a rush, and a potentially huge momentum swing, but getting caught is a sure way to blunt a rally and draw the ire of a manager who didn't call for it. In April, the Diamondbacks beat the Giants 2-0, and San Francisco's Emmanuel Burriss was thrown out at the plate on an attempted straight steal of home in the first inning. "We had nothing on and we had our cleanup hitter [Bengie Molina] up," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "You know young players are aggressive, but that was overaggressive."
Despite the limited success rate stealing home has -- officially, players are 8-for-22 this year, though that number includes all forms of steals of home and not just straight steals -- it is actually a very difficult play to defend. "The pitcher has to do three things," said Butterfield, whose helpful hints aided not only Hill in '07 but also former Diamondback Luis Gonzalez in his steal of home against the Giants in 1999. "Step off the mound when he hears his teammates yelling at him, which he has to do through the crowd. He has to do it without balking because a guy might flinch a little bit when people start yelling at him. No. 2, he's got to locate the runner so we're telling him just keep sprinting toward home. And No. 3, he's got to throw a strike toward the plate."
About the only thing a pitcher can do before a steal attempt is pitch from the stretch, rather than the windup, so that they get the ball to the plate as fast as possible. But because of the inherent danger of giving up a run, pitchers are often given the option (especially with the bases loaded) of pitching from the windup if they feel more comfortable that way. Matthews' steal Sunday was only made possible when Scherzer went to the windup with two strikes and two outs. "[Third base coach] Dino [Ebel] told me they gave the green light from the dugout," Matthews told MLB.com. "He said, 'Take a shot if you want.' With two strikes, I thought I could get a really good jump and be on top of everybody before he had a chance to swing the bat on me. I tried to time it right and got a pretty big lead. We pulled it off."
Another element making the play easier is that most teams don't even practice ways to guard against straight steals of home (though they do have plays for first-and-third situations to defend double steals, or delayed steals of home). Unlike other infielders, keeping runners close is not a high priority for third basemen, who are focused more on defensive positioning against the batter than on holding the runner on. Similarly, catchers are too busy calling games and working with pitchers to worry much about something so rare. White Sox backstop Ramon Castro said catchers can't keep an eye on the runner before he takes off and can't do much more once he does. "You don't have time to do anything other than catch the ball and look for the runner," Castro said. "It's 1 in 1,000."
That's not far off. This decade there have been 37,417 attempted steals in major league baseball and only 459 have been of home plate, just 1.2 percent. Even that number is misleading because steals of home are often grouped together as one category, whether or not they come by straight steal, double steal, or other forms. Part of what makes the play so unique is that it is one of the few plays that defies easy categorization, and is thus difficult to quantify statistically. For instance, this year's eight steals of home have come in at least five different varieties. Ellsbury and Matthews had straight steals, but Getz's came on the aforementioned broken play. There was one by Houston's Michael Bourn on the back end of a double steal and one by the Astros' Kaz Matsui, who broke for home after a pickoff attempt at first base.
As rare as the straight steal is, it is practically normal compared to what Jayson Werth did May 12 against the Dodgers. After striking a single, Werth stole second and third. Once at third base, he noticed catcher Russell Martin was lobbing the ball back to pitcher Ronald Belisario. "After the first pitch I knew he wasn't paying attention to me, so on the next pitch I kind of got my steps," said Werth, whose widening secondary lead surprised -- and alarmed -- Sam Perlozzo, his third base coach.
"I wondered what he was doing," said Perlozzo. "He had gone way down the line a couple of times, kind of sat there, and I was a little nervous he wouldn't get back because I didn't know what he was doing. He had me completely surprised. It was one of the best plays I've ever seen."
With a 2-1 count on Pedro Feliz, a right-handed batter, Werth waited until after Martin returned a called strike to Belisario before he broke. He slid in well ahead of Belisario's throw and headed to the dugout where he would be summoned for a curtain call. It was the first time in his career, at any level, that Werth had tried to steal home, and it may well be the last. "I'll probably never get another chance to do it," he said. "It was one of those things where I had it all planned out in my mind and everything kind of unfolded as planned. One second I'm on third base and the next I'm high-fiving my teammates. It was awesome."
For the victims, it is far from awesome. "Man, that was frustrating," said Pettitte, who with 95 pickoffs in his career -- the most in baseball since the stat has been recorded in 1974 -- would seem to be the least likely pitcher to be victimized.
Those on the wrong end can find immortality in their suffering. Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame player, a pennant-winning manager and a beloved figure in the game's history with a hilarious, if often unintentional, sense of humor. But if there is one thing Berra will never joke about, even 44 years after his playing career ended and 20 years since he last wore a uniform in the big leagues in any capacity, it is the one play during his long career that is most familiar to the modern fan: him trying unsuccessfully to stop the most famous steal of home in baseball history. In Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, Jackie Robinson, a base runner of unsurpassed daring who was well past his prime, took off from third against Whitey Ford. Robinson was called safe. Berra exploded in protest. "The ump [Bill Summers] never saw the play good," Berra said recently via e-mail. "He was short and never got out of his crouch. The hitter [Frank Kellert] even admitted later that Jackie was out. And he had a great view."
Asked what he recalled most about the play, the old man gave a hint to the competitiveness and humor of his youth while touching on the lasting impact the steal of home will always have in the memories of those who witness it. "Mostly," Berra said, "I remember he was out."
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