Commentary

Jacoby Ellsbury: Sultan of swipe

Red Sox speedster studies craft of stealing bases with amazing success

Updated: October 2, 2013, 3:57 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- He stole 52 bases this season. He was caught four times.

"I'm disappointed I got caught those four," Jacoby Ellsbury says.

He's smiling when he says it, but you're inclined to believe him. Maybe it's because you remember Ellsbury's high school baseball coach in Oregon, Jim Reese, telling you that Ellsbury was never thrown out stealing in high school ("I don't ever remember sliding," Ellsbury once said), or that he stole 25 consecutive bases in the big leagues before being thrown out the first time.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJacoby Ellsbury has 52 steals in 56 attempts, a success rate of 92.8 percent.
"You steal enough, you're going to get caught," Ellsbury adds, "but 50-plus bases and caught four times? That's a pretty good number."

It's a historic number, is what it is. No player in at least 62 years has stolen as many as 50 bases with a success rate higher than Ellsbury's 92.8 percent. Only four other players with 50 or more steals have cracked the 90 percent threshold since 1951, the year "caught stealing" began to regularly appear in box scores.

Ellsbury turned 30 on Sept. 11. If he's slowing down, no one has noticed, although the small chip fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot might make him less inclined to run this October than otherwise would have been the case. Ellsbury's time between first and second base, according to major league scouts, has been clocked at between 3.34 and 3.39 seconds, and that's on a computer. The big-league average is around 3.55. Those times might be a bit faster on hand-held devices.

You've heard about Billy Hamilton, the 23-year-old rookie sensation with the Cincinnati Reds who in 2012 stole 155 bases in the minors and was 13-for-13 in steals last month in the big leagues before finally being caught?

Hamilton was timed at 3.17 in the minor leagues. That's where Boston Red Sox catcher David Ross was, on a rehab assignment, when he threw out Hamilton. Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger was on the mound and gave Ross a slide-step fastball on which to throw. Without the help of the pitcher, Ross said, he'd have had no shot.

"He's fast, he's definitely fast," Ross said. "I think they were all scared after I threw him out, the rest of the team. He was too. He didn't like getting thrown out."

Ross has played with some fine base stealers -- Dave Roberts and Michael Bourn, to name two. Roberts may have the most famous stolen base in postseason history, no worse than runner-up to Jackie Robinson's steal of home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series. Bourn stole 42 bases as Ross' teammate in Atlanta last season.

Ellsbury belongs in a different conversation, according to Ross. "Ellsbury by far is better, much better than those guys," Ross said.

Maybe the younger and apparently a hair faster Hamilton will one day write Ellsbury and everybody else out of the record book. Or maybe, says Ross, a guy who threw him out, Hamilton still needs to learn it's about more than just speed.

Ellsbury knows. He studies pitchers. He knows catchers' throw times to second base. He reviews the reports that the Sox scouting staff prepares and is presented by the coaching staff. He watches video, but not much, because he has learned that pitchers are apt to act differently on the mound when he's on base than when someone else is. With another base stealer, for example, a pitcher might never attempt a pick-off throw. With Ellsbury, he might throw over three times in the same at-bat.

"We're so proud of Jacoby, he's such a tremendous student of the game," bench coach Torey Lovullo says. "What [Sox base stealers] do as a group is have an incredible understanding of when it's time to take a risk and when it's not, because if you run into an out at the wrong time, it can be devastating."

The Red Sox have stolen 39 consecutive bases without being caught. That's the longest streak since such things began to be reliably tracked 62 years ago.

"One thing that Ells has that base stealers don't necessarily have," Lovullo said, "is an overall awareness of watching and interpreting. His eyes tell him a great story. He takes the information we give him and trusts his eyes, and that's a powerful combination."

Ellsbury, who stole fives bases in one game against the Philadelphia Phillies in May, acknowledges he's a bit of a quick study. "I can analyze a pitcher and get a read on him very quickly, I guess," he said.

Ross, the graybeard catcher, says he and Ellsbury talk all the time. "I just try to give him little extra pieces of info about catchers and pitchers that might help him," he said.

An example: Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who has one of the best throwing arms in the game, tends to call for an off-speed pitch on the first pitch when there's a stolen-base threat on so he can call for fastballs on the next two pitches to give him a better chance to throw the runner out. Armed with that knowledge, Ellsbury might take off on the first pitch.

"But he's just so talented," Ross said. "I tell people all the time, I've faced some of the best baserunners in the game, and he steals the bag when everyone knows you're running. He steals that bag. A lot of guys don't do that. To run and be safe when everyone knows you're going? That's tough to do."

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
AP Photo/Steven SenneStudying pitchers' trigger points and catchers' tendencies have helped Jacoby Ellsbury fuel the Red Sox's offense.
Red Sox manager John Farrell habitually speaks of how Ellsbury at the top of the order changes the dynamic of Boston's lineup. He gets on base, Farrell says, and the pitcher is distracted, the defense gets on edge, the hitter sees more fastballs and a rally often begins to germinate.

"What became really apparent in spring training," Farrell said, "was his thirst for trigger points in a given pitcher's delivery, and paying attention to that. He also has a feel for when to run and not to run, depending on who's at the plate.

"His approach to stolen bases isn't solely about stealing the most bases. Because of that willingness to pay close attention to the detail, that clearly plays into the efficiency."

Arnie Beyeler, the Red Sox first-base coach, is doing more than simply directing traffic when he's in the coach's box. He knows pitchers' times to the plate and catchers' throwing times to second, and is engaged in the process of trying to identify a pitcher's trigger point that Ellsbury and the other Sox baserunners might exploit.

Beyeler will share that information before a series with Ellsbury and the others.

"It's not a matter of, 'I'll pick a pitch and take off,"' Farrell said. "He's going in with an exact plan against a given guy." That's the science of base stealing. Then there's the psychology of the elite base stealer.

"They have a fearlessness about them," Farrell said. "They don't worry about getting caught. There's no indecision. There's a freedom of mind that allows them to be as explosive as possible, rather than wondering about a situation. It's not predetermined, but in some ways it is -- I know I'm going here. It might be a higher risk situation, but he's willing not to play it safe."

Then there are those situations where he refuses to run. Funny to look back on it now, but there was concern expressed in some quarters during spring training that Ellsbury hadn't attempted to steal. Was he hurt? Was he hiding something?

"Oh, I remember," Ellsbury said. "I told you guys, I don't steal bases in spring training."

Fair enough. Fifty-two and 4 in the regular season speaks for itself. And it suggests that there will be more to come in October.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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