Shutting Down the Run Game: Hundley, Grandal, Rivera and Hedges

Base stealing is an art. The greats like Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Vince Coleman created beauty when they ran the bases and caused havoc on opposing pitchers, catchers and managers.

A successful stolen base requires three things: a good jump, all-out commitment to the steal and a crafty slide. On the other end of things, catching a runner on the base paths requires constant focus from the pitcher and a catcher armed with the physical gifts to erase the base runner seeking a competitive advantage.

The 2013 Padres finished 14th in Major League Baseball in caught stealing percentage at 29%, but their 25th place finish in total stolen bases allowed (107) shows opponents ran without much concern. The 2012 Padres finished 21st in the league in CS% (24%) and ranked 29th in baseball with 152 steals allowed.

Luckily, the road to improvement seems pretty simple. When you start to look into base stealing what you quickly realize is that you’ve got a math problem on your hands. It takes an “average” base stealer between 3.3 and 3.4 seconds to get from first to second base*. What that means is that we’ve got to figure out a way for the Padres to get the ball from the pitcher to the catcher to the second-base bag in somewhere between 3.25-3.3 seconds just to be on the safe side. We’ve got work to do…

*going from second to third is an entirely different animal, so we’re just going to focus on the play that happens much more frequently

Here’s a quick reference chart showing stolen base success rate by time. As you can see, there’s a direct correlation between the variables:

Combined Time

SB Attempts

SB Rate

< 3.25 seconds

687

61.4%

3.25-3.40 seconds

757

68.7%

3.40-3.55 seconds

617

73.9%

> 3.55 seconds

493

77.1%

*Via BIS

Here’s a cheat sheet to get a better idea of what those times mean:

  • Slow Runner – 3.5+ (think bad jumps and guys who would be on the backend of a double steal)
  • Base Stealers – 3.3-3.49 (most guys fit here that actively steal – think Jason Kipnis or Hunter Pence)
  • Elite Speed 3.0-3.29 (super elite speedsters – think Billy Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury or Mike Trout)

Let’s start with the pitcher.

The pitcher on the mound is the first line of defense when stopping the run even though he is far from directly involved in the throw from home to second base. MLB pitchers are expected to have a diversified arsenal of tricks they can use to keep a runner’s lead short, including: pickoff moves, varied times of holding the ball before starting their windup and a slide step – or similar mechanism to quicken their delivery.

Elite pickoff moves are often possessed by quick-footed pitchers and deployed as a tool to both tire runners and shorten their lead due to the constant attention being paid. Varying times between receiving the pitch call from the catcher and beginning the windup mostly comes with experience and requires only minimal focus for even the most novice pitchers to execute. Slide steps and other quickening mechanisms are extremely efficient in shaving precious tenths of a second off delivery times, but this often comes at the expense of a deterioration in movement, velocity and location.

So after deciding that the pitcher is the starting cog in this entire process, what we’re left with is the realization that we (meaning humans analyzing the situation, not the Padres “we”) can’t ask pitchers to do much more than they’re currently doing.

On to the catchers…but first a video of puppies vs. stairs so not everyone’s bummed out…ok, we good? Don’t worry, we’ll pick up the stragglers later that fell down the puppy video black hole.

Let’s look at the Padres catching crop one at a time.

Nick Hundley – while respected as a serviceable defensive backstop – has never possessed great catch-and throw skills. For his career, Hundley has caught just 28% of runners. His total of 331 steals allowed ranks 8th among catchers since Hundley made his debut in 2008. Moving in to the scouting end of things we see that Hundley routinely posts pop times* between 2.1-2.3 seconds. Going back to our math problem from before we can now see that when Hundley is behind the plate Padres pitchers have between 1.2-1.3 seconds** to deliver a pitch in order to nail average runners at second base.

*”pop time” simply refers to the time it takes for the ball to travel from the catcher’s glove to the second baseman’s glove

**most MLB-level pitchers will get the ball to the plate under 1.5 seconds. 1.3 or lower are the elite guys.

Yasmani Grandal has undergone an interesting shift in his defensive skills since entering professional baseball. As a collegiate catcher Grandal’s superb athleticism allowed him to consistently post better-than-average pop times in the 1.9-1.95 range. As Grandal added muscle and focused on other aspects of his defensive game – to great success – his pop times began to worsen, settling in to the 2.1-2.2 range in the last few years which has led to a 20% caught-stealing rate with the Padres.

Rene Rivera perfectly fits the mold of a backup catcher. Not only are his game-calling and framing skills above average, but Rivera is consistently able to post sub-1.9 pop times. This led to an eye-popping 56% caught-stealing rate in a 21-game cameo in 2013 and a 42% rate for his career.

Looking towards the future a bit, Austin Hedges may well be the best of the bunch. He consistently posts sub 1.85-second pop times through elite mechanics and a lightning quick release.

Once again going back to the math discussed earlier, you can begin to see why so many are excited about Hedges’ potential on defense and why it may singlehandedly turn around the Padres’ run defense. Assuming Hedges is able to maintain at worst 1.9-second pop times on average means Padres pitchers will have between 1.4-1.5 seconds to deliver the ball to the plate to catch a 3.3 second runner at second base. This would allow Padres pitchers to keep their desired delivery pace, which would better maintain their effectiveness with runners on base.*

*With runners on base in 2013 Padres pitchers ranked 21st in both strikeout rate and xFIP while tying for the 12th highest walk rate

Let’s take a look at a few examples in practice:

Tyson Ross to home: 1.51 seconds
Rivera to second: 1.79 seconds
Andrew McCutchen from first to second: 3.32 seconds

Of course the absurd accuracy of Rivera’s throw helps:

Rene Rivera Throw

0:27 second mark:

Pitcher to home: 1.61 seconds
Hedges to second: 1.75 seconds
Runner from first to second: 3.4 seconds (as best we can tell)

Jason Marquis to home: 1.3 seconds
Grandal to second: 2.11 seconds
Ben Revere from first to second: 3.3 seconds

Video here (sorry)

Brad Boxberger to home: 1.55 seconds
Hundley to second: 2.1 seconds
AJ Ellis from first to second: 3.8 seconds

As you can see, having catchers like Rivera and Hedges in the fold bodes extremely well for the future of San Diego’s run defense. While it’s not as large of a part of today’s game as in year’s past, it’s easy to see why prospect evaluators value a guy like Hedges so highly before he’s even shown a consistent offensive game.

Defense will always be a huge factor in the Padres’ success due to their home ballpark and division. Controlling the run game is a small but crucial aspect that the organization needs to improve if they’re going to capitalize on every possible advantage.

*****

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