The secret showdown that could decide the Fall Classic

October 28th, 2022

There’s a quietly fascinating battle brewing in the 2022 World Series, and it starts behind the plate.

On one side: J.T. Realmuto, baseball’s best catcher at preventing stolen bases, nailing 44% of opportunities.

On the other side: Houston’s Kyle Tucker, who stole 25 of 29 this year and has a nearly 87% success rate over his five-year career, and teammate Jose Altuve, who stole 18 times in 19 opportunities this year.

If the playoffs are usually about pitching and home runs — and they are — sometimes, too, they’re about a well-timed stolen base. For all the well-deserved analysis about the battles between Justin Verlander and Bryce Harper, or Aaron Nola and Yordan Alvarez, what about the battle on the basepaths?

“I don’t think I’m extremely fast,” Tucker told MLB.com in July, “but I think I’m decently fast. I just try to get good jumps and pick the right opportunities to try to get a base. You’ve just got to kind of pick the right times to go.”

Kyle Tucker safe after review
OK. When are the right times?

“Just certain situations, like maybe catch the pitcher sleeping. Sometimes they’ll be slide-stepping all the time, and as soon as you see them do a high leg kick, you can take off,” Tucker said. “I mean, it also just depends on how well we’re swinging and stuff like that. If we’re raking the whole time, I’ll probably just let our guys hit.”

Fair enough. But is going against the mighty Realmuto the right time, really ever? And it’s not just Realmuto, is it? Maybe it’s about who’s on the mound, too.

Kyle Tucker’s postseason stats
It’s not terribly difficult to see what makes Realmuto so effective in preventing steals, because the answer is simple: No one gets the ball from home plate to second base faster than he does. And isn’t that most of what catching a runner stealing is about?

We know this, because there are now eight separate seasons of Statcast pop time leaderboards available, and Realmuto has finished in the top three all eight times. That actually undersells it, because he has been all alone in first place for the last five years in a row, finishing this year with a scorching 1.82 seconds to second base. What Giancarlo Stanton is to exit velocity, Realmuto is to pop time.

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What pop time really comes down to is a combination of “how fast do you get rid of the ball after you receive it?” or exchange, where Realmuto has the [tied]third-fastest mark (0.67 seconds), and “how fast does your throw get to the base?” — and he’s got the fourth-strongest arm (87.5 mph). That arm lets him get the ball to second base in an average of 1.15 seconds, tied for the third-fastest.

That’s 0.67 seconds to get it in the air, and 1.15 seconds to get it there, and there’s your 1.82 pop time. That’s how much time the runner has to go … well, not 90 feet. We’ll get back to that part.

For example, on June 4, Realmuto caught Shohei Ohtani running, and among Ohtani’s many, many skills is that he’s one of baseball’s fastest runners. Watch the play first, and then we’ll break down how he did it — on, no less, “a good pitch to run on,” as Joe Davis described it.

Realmuto throws out Ohtani stealing
On this particular play, when Zack Wheeler releases the pitch, Ohtani is 22 feet off first, with 68 feet to go. By the time Realmuto receives the pitch and releases his throw, Ohtani has run another 28 feet, and is now just 40 feet from second base. That’s the situation Realmuto has to work with — throw the ball 120 feet before Ohtani can run 40 feet.

He did. It took his throw 1.14 seconds to get to Johan Camargo — remember that just about no one does this better, and it helps that it was perfectly placed — and Ohtani was out. Realmuto’s pop time was 1.78 seconds.

That is, of course, excellent. But here’s the trick. Let’s split up Realmuto’s numbers by when he throws the runner out, and when he does not. Look at how close everything is — everything except for the final category. (This, as with everything else, will be to second base only.)

On stolen bases

1.83-second pop time
0.66-second exchange
83.1 mph throws
23.8-foot runner lead (at pitch release)
On caught stealing

1.82-second pop time
0.68-second exchange
84.6 mph throws
20.9-foot runner lead (at pitch release)
Realmuto doesn’t really work any quicker when he’s successful. He throws a little harder, which makes sense, but 1.5 mph of extra oomph over 120 feet is relatively small. But for the most part, safe or out doesn’t come down to Realmuto doing much different, in terms of time. The difference, then, is how much of a lead the runner gets. The difference is the pitcher, and batters know that.

J.T. Realmuto’s postseason value
“Most of the time you don’t steal off the catchers, because everyone for the most part has really good arms,” said Tucker, “but if you can time up a pitcher and get a really good jump off that you have more of an opportunity to be safe.”

Which, really, is the key. As Tucker said, he’s not terribly fast (a surprisingly low 31st percentile in sprint speed, though Altuve is at least in the 70th percentile). He does, though, seem to be adept at knowing the right times to go. For example, here he is taking a strong lead (26 feet at pitch release) off Aroldis Chapman, giving Kyle Higashioka little opportunity to throw him out.

Tucker steals off Chapman
Who, then, are those pitchers for the Phillies? There’s a trick here in that you can’t just look at the information on steal attempts, since the best pitchers might just prevent those steal attempts entirely.

Lefty Ranger Suárez is a great example of this, because he threw 155 innings, and allowed only two attempts, and not one success. The average lead at pitch release on a steal attempt is about 22 feet, across all pitchers, and look what happened to poor Aristides Aquino when he tried to steal on Suárez and Realmuto with a mere 16-foot lead.)

Realmuto catches Aquino stealing
It got so bad with the Angels that Noah Syndergaard allowed 25 steals with only one successful caught stealing … and even that was when they guessed correctly on a pitchout. But, it’s worth noting, it got better in Philadelphia. Paired with Realmuto, the pair caught two of seven runners who attempted to go.

The other name to focus on is a more prominent one, Nola, the Phillies’ Game 1 starter. Nola is only slightly better at preventing big leads than Syndergaard (23 feet), and no Phillies pitcher saw more steal attempts against him. He threw the most innings, true; but he also had more than double the steal attempts of any other Phillies pitcher.

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When it comes to Nola, when Realmuto is catching (because let’s be honest, Garrett Stubbs gets in only in case of emergency), the math is clear. On steals of second base, the runner had a 24-foot lead at pitch release. On times caught stealing, the average was 22 feet. Realmuto was excellent either way (1.78 pop on outs, and 1.81 on steals). So it’s really up to Nola to keep the Astros runners close, if he’s going to give his catcher a chance.

If Tucker, Altuve and friends are going to make a difference on the basepaths, they’ll have to time their attempts carefully. Realmuto is a truly dangerous weapon, the best in the business at preventing steals. You can’t go on Suárez, because no one goes on Suárez. No one tries much on Wheeler, either.

But against Syndergaard? Against Nola? Even the presence of Realmuto might not keep the Astros from trying.