Seeing the Stolen Base Signs

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

From Dave Roberts in the 2004 American League Championship Series to Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League, the stolen base has long been one of the more exciting plays in baseball, a potential momentum shifter with every 90’ in the game.

As the game has changed in recent years, so has the stolen base and the propensity for teams to use it as a weapon. Gone are the days of players like Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman stealing over 100 bases in a single season. The idea behind the stolen base to get into scoring position has been negated a bit by the argument that- in this offensive era of doing damage at the plate- the runner is already in scoring position at first, able to score on an extra-base hit.

Regardless of the climate for stolen bases in Major League Baseball, there will always be an appropriate time and place to look for bags at every level of the game. And it’s being aware of those times within the situation and the accompanying signs from the game that are indicators of whether or not you can steal. With the underlying baserunning idea that every 90’ is 90’ closer to scoring a run; that run which may be the game-winner; that game, maybe the World Series clincher; your players’ ability to steal a base might just be the difference between you winning a title or watching your opponent celebrate one right in front of you.

Every game for a manager or a baserunner with a green light, the question looms: what is the appropriate time and/or situation to attempt a stolen base? While every coach may have their unique philosophy on the stolen base, one thing that is likely universal for all is picking a time and/or situation when they think the runner has a good chance of being safe. With that in mind, here are a few ways to steal bags against some different signs of the game:

The oldest bag in the book. Take the pitcher’s time to the plate (anything 1.3 seconds and lower is considered quick), add the catcher’s pop time to second base (2.0 and below is very good), and you have their combo time. To get an idea if that combo is suitable for the steal, you can get your runner’s steal time in practice, starting from their lead and stopping on their slide into the base. If that time is quicker than the pitcher/catcher combo time, that’s a good opportunity to be safe.

Some catchers struggle to make a strong and accurate throw to second. In the current age of one-knee stances, other catchers don’t put themselves in a good position to throw when runners go. By paying attention to the catcher from the dugout, you may be well prepared to steal a base by the time you get to first, regardless of how quick or slow the pitcher may be to the plate.

Pitchers are creatures of habit, and catchers can become pretty routine in their game-calling as well. A pitcher often tries to put away every hitter with the same pitch in the same count, or their catchers call for that same pitch accordingly. When a pitcher’s kill pitch is an off-speed pitch down and out of the zone, that makes for a great pitch to run on because of the difficulty of simply catching the ball for the catcher.

Pitchers are creatures of habit not only with the way they sequence their pitch arsenal against opposing hitters but also how they control the running game. A great jump by the baserunner makes it that much harder for the catcher to throw that runner out, no matter how quick a pitcher is to the plate. So if before delivering a pitch, a pitcher consistently comes set for two seconds every time or only looks once when that runner is on second base, that consistency enables a baserunner to get that great jump that usually results in a stolen base.

Creating an edge on the bases often comes from using the eyes in the dugout. In many cases, when players and coaches pay attention to the nuanced details of the game, those game-changing stolen bases start well before a runner even gets on base. It’s not only a matter of players wanting to steal; it’s as much a matter of them seeing the signs within the game that tell them when it will be appropriate to do so.

Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.