What's the secret to becoming an elite MLB base-stealer? (Hint: It's not about the catcher)

MLB's best base-stealers say there's a lot more to it than simply outrunning the catcher's throw. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

When MLB instituted new rules in 2023 in an effort to reemphasize action on the basepaths, stolen base attempts — whether successful or not — reemerged as some of the more exciting moments in any big-league game. In turn, the rivalry between daring baserunners and the catchers tasked with eliminating them from the basepaths suddenly became a much more frequent storyline.

As fans, it's easy to identify the catcher as the player primarily responsible for preventing ambitious baserunners. On the surface, an attempted steal is a race to the base between the runner and the ball, and because the catcher is the one who delivers the ball to the base, it is them the TV broadcast immediately cuts to in the split second after a stolen base attempt. If the runner is caught, an emphatic fist pump from the catcher usually follows. If not, it's a disappointed shake of the head or a frustrated sigh before putting the mask back on. This familiar sequence appears to tell a story rooted in the catcher’s triumph or failure.

But the truth is, the catcher’s ability to throw the ball quickly and accurately to the base is a fraction of the story of a stolen base. And if you ask some of the best base-stealers on the planet, the catchers who we revere or revile as especially good or bad at controlling the running game are rarely the ones to credit or fault.

“You steal 98% of bases, probably, off the pitcher,” Phillies shortstop Trea Turner told Yahoo Sports. With 270 career stolen bases — including a remarkable streak of 41 consecutive steals without being caught that ended earlier this season — Turner is more than qualified to divulge what matters most in calculating when to steal. It certainly helps to have elite wheels, but even the guy who has ranked in the top 2% of average sprint speed in MLB in every season since it has been tracked will tell you that the game situation and the quality of the jump dictate stolen base success far more than how fast you are.

And as far as the opposing personnel goes, it’s all about who is on the mound, rather than who is behind the plate.

“Every once in a while there's a catcher who doesn't throw well or a catcher who throws very well to where you kind of consider that,” Turner said. “But you steal over 90% of your bases off the pitcher.”

Nationals rookie Jacob Young had a Turner-esque streak of his own when he stole 25 bases successfully to start his career before being caught for the first time on May 1 vs. Texas. A certified burner — Young currently ranks in the 96th percentile in average sprint speed — the 24-year-old outfielder knows that speed alone cannot replace the importance of knowing when and when not to run, especially now that he’s in the majors. “I think in high school, college, you can honestly steal on the catcher more often than not just based on arms and skill level,” Young said. “But once you get here, everyone's so good.”

For as efficient as he’s been in the early going, Young recognizes how much more challenging it is to steal in the big leagues compared to lower levels. “I would say all 60 catchers in the big leagues can throw a pretty good ball down to second base,” Young said. “So you're not going to get too much of an advantage there.”

“[The catcher] could be the best of the best,” said Reds outfielder TJ Friedl, who stole 27 of Cincinnati’s MLB-leading 190 bases in 2023. “But if a [pitcher] is 1.4, 1.5 [seconds to home plate], I'm going.”

“Now when a guy is 1.3 or 1.35, where it's a tight window, and if you got a catcher with a really good arm back there, now it's going to be bang-bang,” Friedl said. “But if you get a guy with a good arm who's not consistently accurate, then it's like, ‘OK, I could take more of a gamble.’”

Every data point comes together to create a window of opportunity for the baserunner looking to steal a bag — a window that is constantly changing not just from pitcher to pitcher but also from pitch to pitch.

Reds infield/game-planning coach Jeff Pickler stressed that the catcher is a much smaller piece of the equation for hopeful base-stealers than many would assume. “Most of the time, the catcher's arm strength is a secondary concern. There’s only a handful of guys at most that give you cause for concern.”

Even then, as Pickler explained, the math is rarely in the backstop’s favor. The difference between the catchers with the quickest pop times and those who are merely average is rarely enough to overcome the other factors that carry much greater weight for baserunners trying to decide whether to steal.

“When we talk about someone like JT Realmuto or the best of the best, we're only talking about 0.1 seconds,” Pickler said. “The average guys are gonna be like 1.9, 1.94 [pop time, or how long it takes the catcher to deliver the ball to second base from the time he catches it], and [Realmuto] is gonna be 1.84. So like we're only talking about 0.1 seconds — and a tag takes like .25 seconds.”

Statcast measured Realmuto as having the fastest average pop time of any catcher in baseball, yet his 22% caught-stealing rate was only slightly above the league-average rate of 19% and a far cry from Gabriel Moreno’s MLB-best rate of 39%. To Pickler’s point, there is only so much a catcher can control, despite being squarely the center of attention when observing base-stealing attempts. “The hay is usually in the barn by the time the catcher gets the ball,” Pickler said.

Moreno, too, boasts routinely excellent pop times and a strong arm, but Arizona’s pitchers have also done an outstanding job of monitoring and suppressing potential base-stealers, lessening the burden on Moreno. If they didn’t, Moreno’s knack for nabbing base-stealers would become moot far more frequently. “You could have Gabby back there but [a pitcher] who's just traditionally very slow, and that might cancel it out,” said Moreno’s teammate, Jake McCarthy. “And if I'm getting a really good jump on the pitcher, Gabby and his bazooka arm back there get neutralized.”

That doesn’t just apply to Moreno, whose caught-stealing track record is excellent but relatively brief. Consider nine-time Gold Glover Yadier Molina. He is the epitome of “don’t run on that guy” among his generation’s catchers, and his 40% caught-stealing rate across nearly two decades in the big leagues strongly supports that notion from a statistical standpoint, beyond his intimidating aesthetic behind the dish. But Molina couldn’t do it by himself.

“Nobody stole off Yadi, and rightfully so,” Turner said. “But also their pitching staff was really, really good at holding runners on, slide-stepping, being quick to home plate — probably because of [Molina] and he wanted them to be. That's the effect he had on the organization.”

It’s not that Molina didn’t deserve his reputation as a living, breathing stop sign for hopeful base-stealers — it’s just that his rocket arm and pinpoint accuracy weren’t the only factors in play.

“But if [Molina] had a [pitcher] who was 1.6 [seconds] to the plate, it doesn’t matter,” Turner said, “he's probably gonna be safe.”

As for the current base-stealing landscape, it’s no surprise that the D-backs have made it a point for their pitchers to manage the running game in collaboration with Moreno; they know as well as any team what kind of a weapon the stolen base can be on offense. The Snakes became well-known for their aggressiveness on the basepaths a year ago, swiping 166 bags (second in MLB) in the regular season before adding another 23 during their surprise run to the World Series. Arizona has struggled to replicate this fast-paced style as the defending NL champ, with just 21 steals through 50 contests, which ranks 28th in MLB. McCarthy has noticed pitchers being far more diligent about controlling the running game against them in 2024.

“I think teams know we run,” said McCarthy, who stole 26 bases last season but had collected just three entering Friday. “We've faced quite a few [pitchers] this year, and [they] are like a 1.1 to the plate. And it's like, I'm fast, but I'm not going here.”

Meanwhile, Cincinnati, the only team to steal more bags than Arizona in 2023, has continued to run wild this year, with an MLB-best 81 bags through 50 games, led by the supernova known as Elly De La Cruz. Even if you subtracted De La Cruz’s 31 steals, the Reds would rank top-five in MLB. Friedl credits the coaching staff for thoroughly preparing him and his teammates to take advantage of opponents on the bases as much as possible.

“You look at the pitchers' timings and look at what his normal time is to the plate with the fastball vs. off-speed, if he has tendencies of doing certain pitches in certain counts. Then you look at tells, like if he has a head nod, or maybe with two strikes, he does one breath and then goes,” Friedl said. “So you look at all these different things, and we dissect the pitcher. And that's what [first-base coach Collin Cowgill] is amazing at; he does that all for us. So we have advanced meetings where we go over the pitcher and all these little details that simplify the game for us. So when we get out there, it's just all kind of second nature.”

Just as pitchers are sometimes susceptible to tipping what pitch they might be throwing, each has ultra-subtle habits regarding when he might throw over to first base. By the time a pitcher reaches the big leagues, his on-mound mannerisms involved with controlling the running game — in addition to how quickly he delivers the ball to home plate — are often described in distinct detail in scouting reports.

“Whether we're playing poker or stealing bases, there's tendencies,” Pickler said. “And even people that are trying their best to limit those things typically have something. So the preparation is a big piece of, ‘If I am going to steal off this guy, here are the things I need to know to give myself the best shot.’ And I think it's as big of a piece of the puzzle as anything.”