Stolen bases: an argument of quality versus quantity

In the past, present and foreseeable future, baseball teams that can run, win. Just like power and velocity, speed it is a skill that can be developed, but for the most part it cannot be taught. However unlike velocity and power, speed can be harder to evaluate and may not necessarily transfer to game situations as well.

If aliens visited our planet and reported back on their findings, there are plenty of things that they might find peculiar about us earthlings. Near the top of that list (for our money) would be the fact that a baseball players’ speed is judged largely by how fast they can run a 60-yard dash- in the past, present and unfortunately, foreseeable future.

When is the last time you have seen a player run full-speed for 60 yards (180 feet) during a game? If you have, please let us know (insidepitchmag@gmail.com); we would be willing to bet that something went very wrong. While it can be a tool for evaluating the general foot speed and athletic ability of a player, the 60-yard dash simply cannot factor in base running situations, leadoffs, jumps and many other facets that are vital in the running game.

So what is the best way to determine base stealing ability? Looking at stolen base numbers during (or at the end of) a playing season can be beneficial for scouting purposes, however it can be misleading when applying how well a team actually implements their stolen base philosophy. Much like the 60-yard dash, it can be a challenge to judge just how well a team runs if competition and situation are not taken into consideration.

The purpose of this article is to help players and coaches identify their ability to steal bases and suggest some ways that can promote improvement in those areas.

For players

Developing the ability to steal bases as a player is simple if you can answer the following questions honestly:

  • What kind of foot speed do you have? While it may seem simple, figuring out how fast you are is the first step in understanding what you need to work on to be a better base stealer. Obviously, players that are faster will be able to get away with more in terms of the running game, but that doesn’t mean that players with average speed have to approach the game with a “station to station” approach.
  • Where do you typically hit in your team’s batting order? Do you hit at the top of the order? If so, understand that you’re there to set the table for the middle of the order. Reaching first base is the priority here, but finding ways to aggressively advance remains the challenge. You will have a better chance to take a few pitches before a stolen base attempt than those who hit at the bottom of the order. This is because the middle of the order can typically handle deeper counts better than the bottom of the order.
  • Do you have a feel for the game and situations that call for a stolen base? Just like we mentioned with individual and team stolen base numbers throughout the course of the season, knowing when a stolen base is called for is important. Being able to swipe a bag late in a close game is a big separator for base runners.
  • Do you have the ability to read and anticipate a pitcher’s rhythm and timing from the stretch? If you consider yourself a base stealer, you should be locked in to a pitcher’s timing system from the stretch, whether you are on base or not. Finding tendencies that most pitchers have can enable you to exploit them when it’s time to take off.

For coaches

Coming up with your team’s stolen base “philosophy” is important for a coach. Your team needs to know how aggressive it can be on the base paths. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you develop your club:

  • How is your team built? Do you hit better average-wise or for power? If your team has several players that can hit doubles and home runs, then congratulations: you can afford to be a little more conservative in the running game. On the other hand, if you don’t anticipate having a power-laden lineup, you might think about pushing the envelope when it comes to stealing bases.
  • Who are your best base runners? Legitimate base stealers are not necessarily the fastest players on your team. As previously stated, average runners aren’t necessarily relegated to staying put when they reach base. Keep in mind that players have to reach base before they have the opportunity to run. If your fastest runners don’t reach base at very impressive rates, then they may be better suited as situational base runners off the bench.
  • How do your players interpret the green light and the stolen base signs? Know that giving the green light to base runners can create different mindsets for different players. Some might think that you’re telling them that it’s okay to get thrown out in that situation, while others will take the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned through practice and during the game and use it to advance 90 feet. Further, when you’re calling for the steal from the dugout or the coaches’ box, know how your players will react: some will be more aggressive, some not so much.
  • Know when to put the stolen base sign on, and what is does to your players. Many teams have tendencies in certain counts. Many can fall into trends that can give you a window of opportunity to successfully steal a base. For example, if a team calls a lot of 0-2 fastballs up in the zone, they might follow it up with a 1-2 pitch in the dirt. Some other teams will rarely call back-to-back pitchouts, as they don’t want to concede two balls to the batter. Also, How much do you emphasize timing and reading pitchers during practice and games? If you don’t work on it, why would you expect to be good at it?

When it comes to developing a personal or team-wide stolen base philosophy, you have to determine what your “quality vs. quantity” stance is. For some assistance in that regard, we leave you with this thought: some think that quality is more important than quantity, however others contend that quality cannot be properly identified and defined without quantity.

For players and coaches: have the ability to acknowledge that in the past, present, and foreseeable future, more stolen bases equals more runners picked off and/or thrown out trying to steal: it’s all relative!

Happy stealing!

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