Stealing a run

Arguably the most exciting play in baseball, the straight steal of home is rarely seen these days. It happens so infrequently that Jacoby Ellsbury successful attempt against Andy Pettitte became major news— although the Yankees / Red Sox rivalry probably has a little something to do with that. Not to be outdone, Jayson Werth accomplished the feat a little more than two weeks later, to somewhat less fanfare.

Seeing two successful attempts in the first six weeks of the 2009 season has caused some to ask whether we’re seeing a rebirth of the steal of home. Being unable to see the future, I can’t answer that question, but it did spur my interest in past attempts to steal home. I wanted to focus only on straight steals of home, and not double steals, busted squeeze plays or anything that doesn’t involve the runner breaking down the line while the pitcher waits to deliver his pitch.

Determining a straight steal of home from the play-by-play record can be a daunting chore. The official record doesn’t capture whether the runner broke on the pitch, or whether he took off because of a pickoff throw to first. It doesn’t record whether the batter squared to bunt and pulled back, or if the runner attempted a delayed steal by waiting for the catcher to lob the ball back to the pitcher.

Because of this difficulty, I supplemented the Retrosheet play-by-play data with game recaps whenever possible. Since freely available recaps become harder and harder to find the further back in time we go, I limited my look to the past decade, starting in the year 2000.

Since 2000, the straight steal of home has been attempted no more than 25 times. Unfortunately that’s as specific as I can be because descriptions of failed attempts are even harder to find than of successful ones.

In the past 10 seasons, 12 times the runner on third was caught stealing at home with the line reading “1-2″ (pitcher throwing him out to the catcher). I wasn’t able to find recaps for most of the games that mentioned the play at the plate, so it’s a mystery in most cases whether the play involved an aborted suicide squeeze or an attempted delayed steal, or was truly a straight steal attempt. I was unable to classify nine of the attempts because of lack of information. For the sake of analyzing whether the attempted steal of home is a good idea, let’s assume that all nine were straight steal attempts.

On the positive side of the ledger, we can tally 15 successes. One man, Omar Vizquel, accounts for three of those (although he also tallies two caught stealings). And Jayson Werth doesn’t make the list because his was a delayed steal.

We’ll delve into each of the stolen bases in more detail in a little bit, but first let’s look at some aggregate numbers.

Here’s a list of possible straight steal attempts of home since 2000. I’ve marked the ones I’m unsure of with a *.

Date Runner Pitcher Success
May 26, 2000 Scarborough Green Eric Milton Yes
June 12, 2000* Turner Ward Darren Dreifort No
Sept. 20, 2000 Omar Vizquel Rheal Cormier Yes
Sept. 22, 2000* Felix Martinez Frank Castillo No
April 17, 2001 Raul Mondesi Randy Keisler Yes
April 22, 2001* Vladimir Guerrero Armando Almanza No
May 16, 2001* Tom Goodwin Britt Reames No
May 6, 2002* Omar Vizquel Sean Douglass No
June 29, 2002 Roger Cedeno Ted Lilly Yes
July 3, 2002 Kerry Robinson Trevor Hoffman Yes
July 4, 2002* Albert Pujols Kazuhisa Ishii No
Aug. 26, 2002 Mike Sweeney Andy Pettitte Yes
May 27, 2003* Milton Bradley Nate Cornejo No
May 27, 2003 Omar Vizquel Steve Avery Yes
Sept. 11, 2003* Reggie Sanders Phil Norton No
May 7, 2004 Omar Vizquel Erik Bedard No
Aug. 26, 2005 Grady Sizemore Dustin McGowan Yes
July 2, 2006 Orlando Cabrera Chad Billingsley Yes
July 5, 2006 Carl Crawford Jason Johnson Yes
May 29, 2007 Aaron Hill Andy Pettitte Yes
July 20, 2007* Milton Bradley Adam Eaton No
Sept. 17, 2007 B.J. Upton Kelvim Escobar Yes
June 13, 2008 Omar Vizquel Greg Smith Yes
April 26, 2009 Jacoby Ellsbury Andy Pettitte Yes

Out of the 25 attempts, there were 15 successes and 10 failures—a 60percent success rate. It’s possible that actual success rate is higher, since many of the 10 failures were difficult to classify as actual straight steals.

We’d assume a runner on third has an easier chance of stealing home with a lefty on the mound than a right hander, since the southpaw’s back would be to the runner. The results seem to back up our intuition. More steals were attempted against left handers—13 to 10. Of the successful steals, nine were against left-handed pitchers and six were against right-handed pitchers. Only four of the times the runner was caught were against left handers; the remaining six were against righties. The bottom line of the success rate by pitcher handedness is 50 percent against right handed pitchers and 69 percent against southpaws.

The average leverage index for a steal attempt was 1.8, substantially higher than the average for all steal attempts (1.2). Of course that’s largely because you have to have a runner on third to be able to steal home, which will raise the leverage index. Attempting to steal home was worth an average of .03 wins.

Enough of the raw numbers. Let’s dive into the weeds on the successful steals of home.

Scarborough Green

Date: May 26, 2000
Opposing pitcher: Eric Milton
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 1.23
Win value: 0.07
Break-even point: 35 percent success rate

The situation: The Rangers had just taken a 1-0 lead over the Twins in the top of the second inning on Green’s two-out double. He moved up to third on an error by the catcher. Luis Alicia was at the plate with a 1-0 count when Green stole home.

The reaction:

“I’m not really sure what happened. I’d have to look at the replay. I was just trying not to rush and to keep the ball down. I tried to forget about that and just shut them down.”
—Eric Milton, courtesy of CNN/SI

Notes: Green stole five bases on Sept. 28, 2000, which is the record for steals by a rookie (matched by Dexter Fowler this season).

Technical interlude

You may be wondering how the break-even point is calculated. The Rangers had a 57.8 percent chance of winning the game after Green’s double and the error left him at third. Successfully stealing home raised that to 64.5 percent. If Green were thrown out, the chance of winning would have dropped to 54.2 percent. The break-even point is simply the value of the failure event divided by the spread in value from success to failure. Or, in this case, (54.2-57.8)/(54.2-64.5), which is roughly 35 percent. That means Green should attempt the steal if he has at least a 35 percent chance of making it successfully.

Of course this is an extremely simplified way of figuring the break-even point, since it assumes that there are only two outcomes—success and failure. There’s actually an additional option: Don’t attempt a steal. The average value of staying put is captured in the starting win probability when the runner is on third, but there are lots of reasons why the actual value may differ from that average.

Let’s assume that the bases are loaded with two outs, and the calculated break even point is 50 percent. So in the normal situation, a steal attempt makes sense if the runner can make it home safely half the time. But what if the match-up is Albert Pujols against Sidney Ponson? The chance of Pujols reaching base is probably pretty close to 50 percent, and that would score at least the one run that a steal would bring in. And while the steal is limited to a single run, there’s a fairly good chance that Pujols could bring home multiple runners with a base hit.

Now, the value of the steal is reduced compared to the alternative of staying put and letting Pujols swing away. It’s possible to construct a more accurate break-even point based on the upcoming events, but that’s way too involved for this survey. I’ll continue to use the simple break-even point for the rest of the events, but keep in mind that the situation is a lot more complex than this analysis makes it sound.

Omar Vizquel (No. 1)

Date: Sept. 20, 2000
Opposing pitcher: Rheal Cormier
Base state: Bases loaded
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 3.8
Win value: 0.08
Break-even point: 56 percent

The situation: After the Indians closed their deficit to a single run in the top of the fifth, and a walk to Manny Ramirez loaded the bases, the Red Sox brought in Rheal Cormier to face Jim Thome with two outs. The shift was on, leaving Lou Merloni as the only infielder left of second base. This allowed Vizquel to take a huge lead off third. He took off for home and scored to tie the game without ever drawing a throw.

The reaction:

“I tried to scream (to Cormier) but he had already gone. It was a great play on (Vizquel’s) part.”
—Lou Merloni, courtesy of the Boston Herald by way of ESPN

Raul Mondesi

Date: April 17, 2001
Opposing pitcher: Randy Keisler
Base state: Runners on second and third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 2.34
Win value: 0.08
Break-even point: 46 percent

The situation: In the bottom of the third inning, the Blue Jays were trailing the Yankees 3-2, and had runners on second and third with two out. With Keisler pitching out of the windup, Mondesi broke for home and scored easily as the pitch sailed high.

The reaction:

“I didn’t swing so I didn’t kill him. It wasn’t rehearsed, I’ll tell you that much.”
Jose Cruz, courtesy of ESPN

Roger Cedeno

Date: June 29, 2002
Opposing pitcher: Ted Lilly
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 0.84
Win value: 0.05
Break-even point: 31percent

The situation: With the Mets already holding a three-run lead in the top of the fourth inning, the Yankees and Lilly probably didn’t expect Cedeno to try for home with Edgardo Alfonzo at the plate. Lilly chose to pitch from the windup, and that gave Cedeno the jump he needed to scamper home safely.

The reactions:

“Bobby (manager Bobby Valentine) yelled, ‘Roger, go!’ One guy whose voice I can recognize is Bobby’s. I looked over at the dugout like, ‘You sure?’ I just took a chance. I’m glad it worked. You’ve got to make things happen.”
—Roger Cedeno
“That was me. I just fell asleep at the switch. He should have been pitching from the stretch.”
Joe Torre
“I had no clue he was coming. Lilly looked at him twice, but I didn’t know until just at the end. I went down to catch the ball and tagged him. He never touched home plate, I don’t know how he could be safe.”
—Yankees catcher Alberto Castillo
All quotes courtesy of CNN/SI

Kerry Robinson

Date: July 3, 2002
Opposing pitcher: Trevor Hoffman
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 1
Leverage index: 0.41
Win value: 0.01
Break-even point:65 percent

The situation: The Cardinals already had a 3-1 lead against the Padres when Kerry Robinson led off with a triple. After Fernando Vina grounded back to Hoffman, Placido Polanco stepped to the plate. On the third pitch, Robinson broke for home. Polanco checked his swing and the ball bounced away from catcher Wiki Gonzalez, allowing Robinson to score easily.

The reaction:

“I definitely broke early. I feel bad because Placido almost got his head taken off because of my mistake. He doesn’t get any reward out of it and I feel more bad than good, but it worked out for us.”
—Kerry Robinson, courtesy of the AP and USA Today

Mike Sweeney

Date: Aug. 14, 2002
Opposing pitcher: Andy Pettitte
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 2.13
Win value: 0.13
Break-even point: 33 percent

The situation: Sweeney drove in the tying run off Pettitte in the top of the sixth inning with a double. He moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Joe Randa. With two outs and Aaron Guiel at the plate, Sweeney took advantage of Pettitte repeatedly looking down at the ground. He gained a big lead and then headed home. While Pettitte was able to get the ball to the plate in time for a play, Sweeney managed to get in safely before Jorge Posada‘s tag, allowing the Royals to take the lead.

The reaction:

“It’s obviously frustrating to give them a run like that. He made a great slide. I thought he’d be out. I couldn’t believe he was safe.”
—Andy Pettitte, courtesy of the The New York Times

Omar Vizquel (No. 2)

Date: May 27, 2003
Opposing pitcher: Steve Avery
Base state: Bases loaded
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 5.58
Win value: 0.20
Break-even point: 42 percent

The situation: The Indians and Tigers were knotted at two with two outs in the eighth inning, but Cleveland was threatening with the bases loaded. With Ben Broussard at bat, Vizquel decided to take the game into his own hands. Avery was so surprised by the move that he didn’t even get a throw off, and Vizquel scored easily. Avery, rattled, promptly gave up a triple to Broussard, bringing home two more runs. At least that’s my take on the story. An alternative narrative is that the steal didn’t matter because Broussard hit the triple. Take your pick.

Note: Milton Bradley was thrown out attempting to steal home in the first inning of this game.

Grady Sizemore

Date: Aug. 26, 2005
Opposing pitcher: Dustin McGowan
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 1.29
Win value: 0.07
Break-even point: 32 percent

The situation: The Blue Jays hadn’t even had a chance to bat when Sizemore stole home with two outs in the top of the first inning. After reaching on a leadoff single, he moved up on a bouncer back to the mound and wild pitch. He started for home before McGowan even began his windup, and scored without a tag.

Orlando Cabrera

Date: July 2, 2006
Opposing pitcher: Chad Billingsley
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 1.28
Win value: 0.08
Break-even point: 31 percent

The situation: Cabrera reached third after his double and an error by J.D. Drew in right field allowed the Angels to take a 1-0 lead. With Vladimir Guerrero at the plate, Cabrera recognized that Billingsley was pitching from the windup and not paying him enough attention. On the second pitch, Cabrera stole home without a throw.

The reactions:

“After the first pitch, Orlando openly told me, ‘This guy’s doing something that’s giving me a chance, so please get out of the way. I always look to the third base coach. I saw Orlando, he said a word or two in Spanish. His hand gesture was really enough.”
—Vladimir Guerrero
“When he goes into his windup, he has this routine where he steps back and looks down. I guess Cabrera picked it up because as soon as he put his head down, Cabrera took off. And by the time he picked his head up, Cabrera was already starting to slide. So we didn’t really have a chance.”
Russell Martin
Both quotes courtesy of ESPN

Note: Cabrera’s double allowed him to reach base for the 59th consecutive game, the longest streak since Ted Williams in 1940.

Carl Crawford

Date: July 5, 2006
Opposing pitcher: Jason Johnson
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 0.72
Win value: 0.05
Break-even point: 30 percent

The situation: The Rays were ahead 4-1 of the Red Sox in the bottom of the fourth when Crawford found himself on third with two outs. The previous night, with Crawford in the same position, Curt Schilling pitched from the windup. On the first pitch to Jorge Cantu, Johnson did the same, and Crawford decided to try for home on the next pitch, without cluing anyone into his plans. He made it easily.

The reactions:

“I said it’s going to be do or die. I’m going to take this chance right here. If I’m out, I’m out. If I’m safe, everybody will be happy about it.”
—Carl Crawford
“It’s just a tough thing to watch”
Red Sox manager Terry Francona
Both quotes courtesy of ESPN

Aaron Hill

Date: May 29, 2007
Opposing pitcher: Andy Pettitte
Base state: Runners on first and third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 3.18
Win value: 0.18
Break-even point: 35 percent

The situation: The Blue Jays and Yankees were knotted at one in the bottom of the seventh inning. Hill reached third with two outs after an Alex Rodriguez error trying to complete a 5-3 double play kept the inning alive. Although Pettitte was pitching from the stretch, he still glanced over to first base in the middle of his motion. As his back was turned, Hill took off from third and slid under Posada’s late tag.

The reactions:

“I definitely felt my heart beating, that’s for sure. I’ve never done that. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just pictured the umpire calling me safe and hoped that’d give me a little extra boost.”
—Aaron Hill
“You’ve got to go as soon as you can when any left hander turns his back to you. Obviously, you can’t wait until he comes set or anything like that. He’s looking forward, and right when he starts to bring his hands up and starts looking at first base. That’s really the only time you can go.”
—Hill
“This isn’t the only situation that we’ve had a plan. It just so happened that everything was right. We had an aggressive baserunner at third base and we had a runner at first base. We were deep into the game and (Pettitte) had really pitched well, so it was kind of one of those roll-the-dice type things where you hope that you get the right break.”
—Blue Jays third base coach Brian Butterfield
“I know someone stole home off of me a long time ago in the windup. But to be out of the stretch, what can you say? It’s embarrassing. The guy’s able to get home and cost you a ballgame.”
—Andy Pettitte
All quotes courtesy of MLB.com

B.J. Upton

Date: Sept. 17, 2007
Opposing pitcher: Kelvim Escobar
Base state: Runner on third
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 1.51
Win value: 0.09
Break-even point: 32 percent

The situation: With the scored tied at three in the top of the third, B.J. Upton watched Kelvim Escobar use a slow windup to deliver to Brendan Harris. After timing the release for a few pitches, he stole home under the tag of catcher Jeff Mathis

Omar Vizquel (No. 3)

Date: June 13, 2008
Opposing pitcher: Greg Smith
Base state: Bases loaded
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 2.89
Win value: 0.07
Break-even point: 51 percent

The situation: In the bottom of the second inning of a scoreless game, the Giants had Oakland’s Greg Smith in a tight spot. Although there were two outs, the bases were loaded and Jose Castillo was at the plate. Rather than risk losing the scoring opportunity, Vizquel stole home easily.

The reaction:

“I had checked (Vizquel) before but I had things on my mind. He picked the right time to go. I didn’t hear a thing. For some reason, him not being on third relaxed me.”
—Greg Smith, courtesy of ESPN

Jacoby Ellsbury

Date: April 26, 2009
Opposing pitcher: Andy Pettitte
Base state: Bases loaded
Outs: 2
Leverage index: 2.67
Win value: 0.08
Break-even point: 45 percent

The situation: The Red Sox had taken a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning against the Yankees. With two outs and runners on second and third, Kevin Youkilis was intentionally walked to get to J.D. Drew. With Pettitte pitching from the windup (didn’t he learn his lesson from Aaron Hill?), Ellsbury decided to go for it, and beat Pettitte’s curve ball to the plate.

The reactions:

“It could be one of the worst baserunning mistakes if you don’t make it, but I was pretty confident I could get in there and make it, so that’s why I went.”
—Jacoby Ellsbury
“What we have is a really fast player with some guts.”
—Terry Francona
“Obviously, that’s frustrating. Jorgie (Posada) had just told me to watch him, and I was in the windup. I should have been in the stretch. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and just didn’t think I needed to go to the stretch. I saw him take off and sped through my windup to kind of throw a ball in there. I thought we might have a chance to get him, but obviously he’s extremely fast. He got in there.”
—Andy Pettitte

Summary

The straight steal of home appears to be an underused weapon. Players seem to be successful at least 60 percent of the time; you need to be successful roughly only 30-35 percent of the time for the tactic to be worth it. The break-even point is higher if the bases are loaded (between 40 and 60 percent generally), but the chance of success may increase if the pitcher pays less attention to the runner on third. As Pete Palmer and John Thorn say in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “the two-out steal of home is the unknown great percentage play.”

And if you really want to be successful stealing home, be sure to go when Andy Pettitte is on the mound.

References & Resources
Prior to 2009, the Win Expectancy and Leverage Index data is licensed from http://www.InsideTheBook.com.
2009 data is from http://www.fangraphs.com

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