Statcast: How to catch Billy Hamilton stealing
James McCann's 'pop time' considered elite among catchers
How do you throw out Billy Hamilton? Well, you don't, usually. Hamilton's 31 steals not only lead the Majors, but are more than the total for 11 other teams. Only five times has Hamilton been thrown out, giving him an 86.1 success rate that's a big improvement over his 70.8 percentage from last year, when he was caught a Major League-worst 23 times. Even that's not the full truth, though, because one of those five outs was actually when Sean O'Sullivan picked Hamilton off first base. That means that only four times has a catcher nailed Hamilton trying to steal.
But even the great Hamilton gets caught sometimes, and in Cincinnati's 5-2 win over Detroit on Tuesday night, catcher James McCann and the Tigers (who can be seen against the Yankees on MLB Network's Statcast™ Showcase on Friday night) showed us exactly what it takes. By digging into the data, we can see that in order to catch Hamilton, it takes more than just a good, strong throw from the catcher. We've long known that it's unfair to give the catcher full credit (or blame) for what happens on steals, and now we can quantify that.
Fortunately for McCann, pitcher Alex Wilson did his job, taking only 1.15 seconds to throw a 93 mph fastball waist-high to Kristopher Negron. According to a scout for a National League club, a release time of 1.3 seconds is considered average, and a typical runner has a good chance of a successful steal when it's more than 1.4 seconds. Of course, to nab Hamilton, you need to be better than average. To wit: When he stole three bases against Cole Hamels over two games earlier in June, the release times were 1.25, 1.27, and 1.35 seconds. On a previous Hamilton caught stealing against the Braves, Mike Foltynewicz measured a scorching 1.12. A fast release time doesn't always get the runner caught, but it sure helps, and Wilson's speed mattered.
Hamilton was hardly standing still during all this. It took him just 0.42 seconds to get in motion after Wilson's first movement to the plate, and he was already 18.47 feet down the line (his secondary lead) when the ball was released. While that all sounds great, he's done better. A May 27 steal against Colorado, for example, had a first move of 0.26 seconds and a 19.94 foot secondary lead. When he took second against Jason Motte and the Cubs on June 13, he got moving in just 0.19 seconds and was 21.08 feet off of first when the ball was released.
So far we know that Wilson did his job and Hamilton didn't have one of his best jumps, but he still reached a top speed of 22.4 mph on the play, and McCann still had to deliver. Obviously, the throw to Ian Kinsler was perfectly on target at 80.8 mph, so much so that Kinsler didn't have to waste any time moving his glove to meet the sliding Hamilton. But it's also about how quickly he got the ball out of his glove and towards second, which in this case took 0.64 seconds. The entire process -- McCann's glove to Kinsler's, otherwise known as "pop time" -- took 1.79 seconds.
Let's again compare. McCann, who has thrown out an MLB-best 50 percent of the 24 runners who have attempted to steal on him this season, gave one up to the Reds the day before. When Todd Frazier stole successfully against him on Monday, McCann's pop time was an equal 1.79 seconds, but Frazier had a much better secondary lead (23.55 feet) than Hamilton. When McCann nailed Mike Trout on May 29, it was 1.88 seconds. In what's obviously a limited sample of those three plays, McCann seems consistent. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz, who has thrown out only 20 percent of attempted baserunners, had a 2.04 second mark when Negron swiped second against him on June 3, and a 2.03 when fellow catcher Anthony Recker beat him on May 25.
According to the same NL scout, an in-game pop time of between 1.8 and 1.9 seconds is considered elite, and to get below 1.8 second is considered an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. For McCann, that means his pop time when he nailed Hamilton was just about as good as you'll ever see a catcher have. With Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list the Yankees don't have many candidates who can test McCann this weekend, but it will be interesting to see if Brett Gardner -- who's second in the AL with 15 steals -- gives it a shot.
Gardner is no Hamilton, but he's still fast, and throwing out speedsters like them comes down to tenths of a second that could be saved (or sacrificed) by the pitcher, runner and catcher. They add up to the difference between safe or out. As the Statcast™ data accumulates, we'll be able to put weights to all of this. What matters the most? The pitcher's release time, or the velocity of the pitch, or the runner's jump, or the catcher's pop time? They all do, of course. It's why stolen bases have never been only about the catcher. Soon enough, we'll know what matters most.