You may have heard Jon Lester doesn’t have a great pickoff move. Francisco Lindor exploited this fact in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series, stealing second base and eventually scoring the first run of the Series, leading to a Cleveland victory. At the time, it seemed almost unfair to pit Lester against a team with Cleveland’s base stealing prowess.

Since then, however, Lindor has been caught stealing twice, with the most recent failure occurring in the sixth inning of an Ohioans rally in Game 5. Lindor, who represented the tying run, proved instead to be the final out Lester would record.

So how did this happen? How does a skilled base stealer get gunned down by a guy who refuses to throw over on the mound?

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In order to examine a steal, it’s important to attach some numbers to the various segments of the action. Using a stopwatch and the magic of DVR, I have broken down each of the following steals into digestible segments so that we can see how the results fluctuate as the variables fluctuate.

The first segment is what I’ll call “Steal Time.” Steal Time begins when the pitcher initiates his pitching motion and ends when the runner makes contact with the second base bag. Range: <3.1 seconds = Elite, 3.25 = Fast, 3.4 = Average, 3.55 = Below Average, > 3.7 = Billy Butler.

The next three segments are all dictated by the defense. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to them as follows (all times are estimates):

Pitch Time – Starting on the pitcher’s first movement and ending when the catcher receives the ball. Range: <1.0 seconds = elite, 1.15 = fast, 1.3 = average, 1.45 = slow, >1.6 = eephus.

Pop Time – Starting when the catcher receives the ball (the pop sound the ball makes hitting the glove) and ending when the infielder receives the ball. Range: < 1.75 seconds = elite, 1.85 = fast, 1.95 = average, 2.05 = below average, 2.15 = hand grenade.

Tag Time – Starting when the infielder receives the ball and ending when a tag has been applied to the runner. Range: This can vary widely based on the throw accuracy, but a head-high throw will take approximately 0.2 seconds to slap down on a sliding baserunner.

Pitch Time + Pop time + Tag Time = Total Defense Time. So when Steal Time > Total Defense Time, the runner is out, and vice versa. (Mobile users may need to scroll through the tables.)

Runner

Pitcher

Steal Time

Pitch Time

Pop Time

Tag Time

Tot Def. Time

Difference

Result

(average)

(average)

3.4

1.3

1.95

0.2

3.45

-0.05

Coin flip

Below are the breakdowns of some steals from Game 5 to help explain where Lindor’s attempt went awry.

 

Steal #1: Rajai Davis v. Jon Lester

In the sixth inning, Rajai Davis successfully stole second base in 2.9 seconds. That is an ultra-fast time. As it should be; Davis is a premier base stealer with a gargantuan lead off of first and zero concern for getting picked off.

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For his part, Lester rushes the ball out to Ross at a speedy 1.15 seconds, but even doing that still only leaves less than 1.75 seconds for Ross to get off a throw and Baez to apply a tag. Ross knows he has to hurry the throw and, in his haste, mishandles the ball during the transition from mitt to hand. Davis reaches without a throw.

Runner

Pitcher

Steal Time

Pitch Time

Pop Time

Tag Time

Tot Def. Time

Difference

Result

Davis

Lester

2.9

1.15

N/A

N/A

N/A

N/A

Stolen base w/no throw

 

Steal #2: Dexter Fowler vs. Cody Allen

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This steal, an inning after Davis’, illustrates a clear contrast in methods to the Davis/Lester matchup. The first thing to notice is the lead Fowler gets. Compared to Davis’ lead, Fowler looks like he’s still standing on the bag like a Little Leaguer. There are a number of reasons Fowler could be so conservative in his lead:

  1. He respects Allen’s pickoff move and/or is unfamiliar with his move
  2. He does not want to attract Allen’s attention so he can steal without fear of a pick
  3. He knows Allen is slow to the plate, so he feels he can steal the base without maximizing his lead and risking getting picked

Fowler’s steal time of 3.5 seconds is decidedly slower than Davis’. However, Allen is also much slower in his delivery, with a pitch time of 1.5 seconds, thus leaving 2.0 seconds for Perez to nab him. Perez’s pop time is 1.84 seconds – with the ball easily beating Fowler to the bag.

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However, the throw is offline and takes a tough hop on Kipnis, costing him precious fractions of a second before tagging Fowler. The tag time clocks in at 0.4 seconds, ample time for Fowler to slide into the bag safely.

Runner

Pitcher

Steal Time

Pitch Time

Pop Time

Tag Time

Tot Def. Time

Difference

Result

Fowler

Allen

3.5

1.5

1.84

0.4

3.74

-0.24

Safe

 

Steal #3: Rajai Davis vs. Aroldis Chapman

In the eighth, Davis added a pair of bags off of Chapman. In the interest of comparing apples with apples, I will only examine his theft of second. As you can see, Davis is out to another large lead, but not quite as provocative as the one he took off Lester.

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Davis’ steal time takes a small hit due in part to the shorter lead, but it’s still a blistering 3.03 seconds. Chapman is deliberate to the plate, getting the ball to Willson Contreras in 1.43 seconds. Contreras’ pop time is 1.88 seconds and to the wrong side of the bag. Baez does not bother with a tag.

Runner

Pitcher

Steal Time

Pitch Time

Pop Time

Tag Time

Tot Def. Time

Difference

Result

Davis

Chapman

3.03

1.43

1.88

N/A

3.31

-0.28

Safe w/no tag

 

Steal #4: Francisco Lindor vs. Jon Lester

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This brings us to the fateful attempt by Lindor. It took place in the bottom of the sixth, after Lindor drove in Davis following Davis’ steal off Lester. Once again, the initial lead distance is telling. Lindor’s lead is quite large, yet still a couple steps shy of the lead Davis took against Lester. He gets a good jump, reacting quickly to Lester’s first move, but lacks Davis’ elite speed – his steal time came in at a very respectable 3.2 seconds. Surprisingly, Lester was not as efficient to the plate this time, delivering the ball to Ross in 1.33 seconds.

Here’s where the magic happens.

Ross zips a throw down to Baez in 1.71 seconds. Remarkable, yes, though this number is a bit skewed by the fact that Baez received the ball well in front of the bag – thus reducing the distance Ross’ throw traveled and the corresponding pop time. In theory, when infielders come in front of the bag to retrieve the catcher’s throw, it hurts the defense’s chances of recording an out because a) the throw is probably inaccurate (Ross’ throw was up the line towards first base) and b) a thrown ball typically flies faster than a glove with a ball in it. In practice, however, Javier Baez possesses a Lightning Tag superpower that renders that theory irrelevant.

Baez does this by employing a very unorthodox method of receiving throws from the catcher. Instead of anchoring himself on the bag, as is typical, Baez charges through the bag, plucking the ball out of the air a step or two in front of the baseline before violently backhanding the oncoming runner.

Two other components of Baez’s tags are notable: 1) he is kneeling or sliding by the time he catches the ball and 2) he doesn’t even bother to look at the runner. I cannot say for certain why he does either of these things, but I would guess he feels that being low and limiting his movement to just his gloveside arm (rather than his head and torso) helps to minimize unnecessary motion that could slow down the tagging process.

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In a highlight package shown of Baez’s incredible tags, all of them involved Baez being in front of the bag and making similarly rapid tags. I haven’t watched him enough to determine how frequently he does this, but a scouting report suggestion could be to have baserunners slide as far out towards right field as possible while still being within reach of the bag. Doing so would negate Baez’s quick tags by simply being too far for him to reach.

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For instance, on the Lindor steal attempt, Lindor slides in the middle of the baseline. His left hand makes contact with the corner of the bag closest to the pitcher’s mound. If, instead, he had slid slightly outside the baseline (say, two feet closer to right field), his left hand could have still reached the base, but his body would have been beyond Baez’s reach.

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On this play, his tag is so quick, I was unable to time it with my stopwatch. Instead, I simply paused the DVR and counted the frames between the ball contacting Baez’s glove and his glove contacting Lindor for the third out. To give some context, Kipnis’ 0.4 second tag on Fowler was 32 frames. Baez’s tag? Six frames. That’s it. Just 0.075 seconds.

Runner

Pitcher

Steal Time

Pitch Time

Pop Time

Tag Time

Tot Def. Time

Difference

Result

Lindor

Lester

3.2

1.33

1.71

0.075

3.115

0.085

Out

 

Cause of Death

So, ultimately, what led to the demise of Lindor’s steal attempt? In order of importance:

  1. Superhuman tag from Baez
  2. Relatively conservative lead by Lindor (why not take a lead at least as big as Davis?)
  3. Poor sliding positioning by Lindor
  4. Terrific pop time from Ross (aided heavily by Baez)

Sadly, we are unlikely to witness another Lindor/Lester matchup in this World Series. It has been one of the most entertaining battles since the very beginning.

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