October 13, 2015
Why Didn't The Royals Steal Home?
Something strange happened in yesterday's Astros-Royals game—well, a lot of strange things probably happened, but one of them particularly caught my attention. Astros' closer Luke Gregerson entered the game in the eighth inning after Houston's bullpen blew a four-run lead, bringing with him a glacially slow delivery.
With the game tied at six, one out, Eric Hosmer at third and Jarrod Dyson at second, Gregerson was called on to face Drew Butera. Gregerson, from the full wind-up, started sloooowly, then he looked down, seemingly studying the composition of the dirt beneath him, he tapped his right foot a few times, then he pounded the ball into his mitt once or twice, then, mercifully, he finally delivered his pitch. It took forever, which, in baseball terms, amounted to about 4.3 seconds.
Without an open base to steal, pitchers often go from the full wind-up, or they at least adopt a more relaxed slide step, so what Gregerson did wasn't anything groundbreaking. The odd part was simply that his wind-up took so darn long, and that he, in many cases, spent a decent part of it looking at the ground. The chart below shows the average times for each of Gregerson's deliveries based on the batter, from first movement to contact/catcher:
*Note that these times are more approximations than exact measurements: throw in some minor lag, user error, mysterious broadcasting issues, etc., and you're bound to get slightly different numbers if you time for yourself.
Here's an example of a Gregerson offering:
My first thought (of many) during one of Gregerson's deliveries: Why the heck don't the Royals try stealing home? Hosmer was at third and, sure, he's no burner. Given the profile, however, he also seems like a good candidate for the surprise steal of the plate. Plus, he's probably more sneakily fast than your run-of-the-mill first basemen—he stole 16 of 17 bags back in 2012, and he's 49 for 64 in his five-year career. Here's video of Hosmer—way back from 2011, mind you—stealing second in just over three seconds. Further, he was throwing mostly sliders, a pitch with movement that generally took his catcher away from the plate and the third-base line.
Notice how Gregerson sped up his delivery with Alex Rios and Alcides Escobar at the plate. That likely had less to do with those batters and more to do with Dyson, who was occupying third at that time. Even a more efficient-to-the-dish Gregerson was still really slow, giving Dyson plenty of time to scamper down the third base line. The TBS broadcasters brought up another interesting point, as they focused on Gregerson's delivery for a good part of the inning: forgetting about the threat of a steal, it gave the base runners additional time to gain a big secondary lead, allowing them to more easily score on a grounder and/or hit, or breakup a double play. In other words, it was a good time for the slide step, but Gregerson stubbornly stuck with the full wind-up for all 24 pitches, directing almost all of his attention towards the batter.
Is Gregerson always this slow? I checked an earlier game from June 7th against the Blue Jays, a game that involved a Gregerson blown save and a similar situation. In that game, when a runner was in base-stealing position (it was noted base thief Jose Reyes), Gregerson went to the slide step, getting pitches to home in anywhere from 1.2 to 1.5 seconds. When the Blue Jays got runners on second and third with one out, down by one, Gregerson stuck with the slide step and delivered a pitch in around 1.4 seconds. It's only one situation, mind you, but it's clear that Gregerson doesn't always adopt an ultra-slow full wind-up with an important (and fast) runner standing at third.
What about when base stealers actually do steal home—how fast are pitchers' deliveries in those situations? I checked on two (straight steals of home are hard to track down) different instances, both with the pitcher going from the full wind-up. Each pitcher got the ball to the plate in around 2.9-3.0 seconds, and the runners were safe (like late-career Paul Molitor, here). In a third case, the ball got there in 2.6 seconds, the runner just narrowly out. That's almost two full seconds quicker than Gregerson's slowest efforts.
Why, then, did the Royals not try swiping home? Besides Gordon, it's not like the thunder in Kansas City's order was up, as both Drew Butera (.188) and Alcides Escobar (.233) own ugly career TAvs, and Alex Rios probably isn't a much better bet against Gregerson's slider-heavy diet. And, as we mentioned, while Hosmer isn't your typical steal-of-home candidate, he isn't the slowest guy on the field. Dyson, meanwhile, is around for his speed, swiping 62 bags over the past two seasons despite sparse playing time.
For one, not stealing home is the safe move there. Imagine Hosmer taking off for home and stumbling, ultimately thrown out by 10 feet. No manager wants to answer to the media or the fans—or their bosses—after making a defensible if risky decision that went disastrously wrong. Further, Gregerson's complete disregard for the runner on third almost makes you wonder if he was up to something. Pitchers often dramatically speed up their delivery once they know a runner is going; maybe Gregerson was stealthily eyeing the runner at third, waiting for a chance to surprise him with a sudden change of pace. Probably not, but the situation almost seemed too good to be true for Ned Yost and the Royals, and they played it safe.
After all the fuss, it didn't matter either way. The Royals scratched out the go-ahead run on a groundout in the eighth, then added on in the ninth when Hosmer, surely outraged he didn't get a chance to show off his wheels in the previous inning, unloaded a two-run shot. It's something to keep an eye on going forward, though. If Gregerson finds himself in a similar situation in Game 5—or at a later postseason date, if the 'Stros move on—someone may test the limits of his leisureliness with a dash toward home.