- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
To combat Henderson, pitchers developed new routines. They'd hold the ball or step off or—well, let's let Rickey tell it. "There was the back step, the back kick, the fake throw," says Henderson, rattling them off. "They made that stuff up when I came in the league. They were like, We got to stop that crazy brother."
Another, more subtle anti-Rickey tactic was for the home team to water down the dirt around first base so that he couldn't get a good jump. Henderson responded like a bored Labrador, digging holes until he found purchase again (and irritating many a first baseman in the process). It's a strategy that lives on. According to Rollins, a couple of teams still do this, primarily the Braves. Says Rollins, " New York used to, but then they got Jose Reyes and suddenly, wouldn't you know it, it stopped."
Reyes is one of the rare burners today who's fast enough to run on a slide-step (the thieves' Kryptonite, in which a pitcher slides his front leg to the plate rather than raising it). Even so, he is young (25) and prone to mental errors. After stealing 78 bases in 2007, he had 47 through Sunday and had been caught 13 times, tied for the second-most in baseball (behind the Rays' B.J. Upton), a sign that he's relying more on pure speed than strategy. Henderson, who was the Mets' first base coach last year and a mentor to Reyes, says, "He reads and then he takes off," rather than having the two things happen simultaneously.
To Lopes, this is the cardinal sin, as he believes bases are taken with the head, not the feet. To watch him prepare the Phillies is to see how complex a seemingly simple act can be. Before each game, Lopes watches video of the opposing pitcher—he prefers a camera angle from down the first base line but usually has to make do with a shot from centerfield. In particular, he looks for what he calls "idiosyncrasies" that give away either a move to the plate or to first. He watches the pitcher's shoulder placement, head angle, eye movement and in particular the back of the left knee for righthanders. (It's often stiff if the pitcher is coming to first and bent if he's going home.) "It could be how his feet are spread, his elbow, his body rocking back, anything," says Lopes. "As a base stealer, I want something concrete, that tells me that 99.9% of the time he does this, he's coming to first base."
Lopes then meets with his charges, in this case Rollins, Shane Victorino (31 stolen bases in 41 attempts) and outfielder Jayson Werth (14 of 15), to discuss strategy. Once the game starts, he makes sure each player sees the "tell" in action. "See it? Got it?" he'll yell from the first base box as the runner stands off first. Then, if the chance is missed, "What are you still doing here?"
Of course, each base stealer prepares differently. Some are like Scott Podsednik of the Rockies, who stole 70 bags in 2004 and is, in his words, "pretty anal about it." Podsednik studies film daily and tracks every pitcher in the league by tendencies and time. He says the toughest pitcher to run on is Houston's Roy Oswalt because he delivers in 1.1 seconds with a slide-step. Others are less scientific, simply timing the pitcher by counting: literally "1-2-3-run."
Then there are those for whom the key is surprise. As in, "What the hell is he doing running?"
"The most efficient base stealer in the league?" says Giants outfielder Randy Winn, pondering the question at his locker. Winn is an 11-year veteran, a student of the game and an efficient runner himself, having stolen 25 of 27 bases this season. "[The Mets' Carlos] Beltran?" he guesses. "Or maybe [the Dodgers'] Juan Pierre?"
Told the answer, he raises his eyebrows. "Really? Matt Holliday."
YES, MATT HOLLIDAY. The Rockies' 6'4", 240-pound outfielder, who looks more like a WWE star or a tight end than a speed demon. At week's end, Holliday had stolen 25 of 26 bases (96.2%) this season. Only Brady Anderson and Beltran, who were 31 of 32 in 1994 and 2001, respectively, have had more prolific seasons while getting caught just once. Holliday's surprising surge—his career high before this year was 14 steals, in 2005—has come in part because he doesn't look like a base stealer. But just because he's big doesn't mean he isn't fast. And as anyone who remembers him crashing chin-first into home plate—O.K., near home plate—with the game-winning run in the Rockies' playoff-clinching win over the Padres last Oct. 1 knows, he isn't afraid to come in hard and heavy. "Every time he hits the ground I hold my breath," says Glenallen Hill, the Rockies' first base coach. "Because that's one big boy coming in there."