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Art of the Steal
September 15, 2008
Speedsters (and even a few sluggers) have ushered in a new era of base thieving, a crime wave that could pay off big come October
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September 15, 2008

Art Of The Steal

Speedsters (and even a few sluggers) have ushered in a new era of base thieving, a crime wave that could pay off big come October

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Having a basestealing aficionado like Podsednik for a teammate has helped, too. Before each game Holliday checks in for a scouting report on the night's pitcher. That Holliday is a studious hitter doesn't hurt either, as it allows him to anticipate situations. Is it a breaking ball count? Does a reliever use a changeup as his out pitch? "It's a calculated risk for me," says Holliday. "I usually don't go unless I have at least a couple of variables in my favor."

One advantage he has is that he rarely sees a slide-step, though that may change as his basestealing reputation grows. As it is, some pitchers seem to forget he's even on base. Against the Reds last month, Holliday reached base in the seventh inning with the Rockies down two runs. Knowing that the pitcher, former teammate Jeremy Affeldt, is slow to the plate, Holliday stole second. Not that Affeldt appeared to notice. "The very next pitch I got kind of a big lead, and I realized he wasn't looking at me," says Holliday. "So I started to hop and he still wasn't looking, so I just took off." Holliday made it to third with ease and, moments later, scored on a wild pitch. And with that, the biggest guy on the field had just manufactured a run with his feet. "Who would have thought, right?" says Holliday with a laugh.

As surprising as Holliday's basestealing is, there are players for whom their inability to swipe bags is equally confounding, fast men who can look inexplicably slow. For example, Victorino, so fleet his nickname is the Flyin' Hawaiian, only stole four bases in 462 plate appearances in 2006, his first full year in the majors. (He's since learned the trade from Lopes.) This season Ryan Theriot of the Cubs has swiped 21, but he's been nabbed 13 times. "That's how stealing bases gets a bad knock," says Lopes. "To me, if a guy steals 20 times and gets thrown out 12, you just shut him down."

Another example is Twins centerfielder Carlos Gomez. While with the Mets as a reserve outfielder in 2007, he was renowned for being the only player on the team faster than Reyes. Yet handed a starting job by the Twins in 2008, Gomez had 29 stolen bases through Sunday but had been caught 10 times, or nine more than Holliday. "It's not about speed," explains Henderson. "I was never the fastest, but I was the quickest. Bo Jackson was faster than me, but I was quicker."

Lopes seconds that sentiment. "You hear guys say, 'He's at full speed at two steps.' But nobody does that. Usain Bolt, the guy who just won the Olympics, he isn't at full speed at two steps. If a guy's at full speed at two steps, then he's slow. You follow me?"

Rather, a runner who can read a pitcher merely provides the illusion of hitting top speed early. What has really happened is that he's picked up on an indicator and taken off before the pitcher starts to deliver. By the time anyone looks over, he's in full stride.

Of course, that's if everything works out. Sometimes a player messes up a read or gets a bad jump and all the preparation and technique in the world are useless. Then the art of basestealing becomes much simpler. "Then," says Rollins, nicely summing up the essence of the craft, "it's all about how fast can I get my ass from here on down to there."

Speed Kills

The following are the best (minimum: 200 stolen bases) and worst (minimum: 100 stolen bases) career thieves among active players.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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