The most glaring example of how difficult it is to throw out a would-be base stealer at second came last week, when the Cincinnati Reds swiped five bags against the Orioles and catcher Adley Rutschman.
He threw down each time, but none was particularly close. Two balls bounced and were blocked from reaching center field. Another sailed far wide of the diving Adam Frazier and made its way to Cedric Mullins. The Reds took off early and often, and by doing so they inflated the numbers against Rutschman in one game.
This season, Rutschman has caught 10 of the 52 runners who have attempted to steal against him — a caught-stealing rate of 19%. On first blush, that’s below average. Statcast supports the assertion, listing Rutschman at negative-1 caught stealing above average, a metric that accounts for the distance of the runner from second base at the time the catcher catches the ball, the location of the throw and the aptitude of the tag.
But even then there’s much more at play in preventing a stolen base than just Rutschman’s throw — and the new rules have only exacerbated the variables.
“A lot of different stuff” goes into whether a catcher can throw out a runner, Rutschman said.
Some of that stuff: What kind of jump does the baserunner have? How fast is he? What are the location and pitch type? What’s the break time of the pitcher? How good is the tag?
Add all of that up, and there’s plenty more at play than just Rutschman’s throwing. It gives credence to the idea that runners steal off pitchers rather than catchers, taking much of the responsibility off Rutschman’s arm.
“So, really, the 19% throw-out rate is not indicative of how he’s throwing,” said Jerry Weinstein, a longtime catching coordinator with the Colorado Rockies who watches catchers from across the league.
Around baseball, the number of stolen bases is higher — and it’s by design.
Last season, Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo led the American League with 35 stolen bases. At the halfway mark of the 2023 campaign, Oakland Athletics outfielder Esteury Ruiz already has 42 steals. In 2022, baserunners stole a total of 2,487 bags. They’ve already reached 1,828 this year, well on pace to break most yearly totals despite only now approaching the All-Star break.
Several factors have played a role in this rise. For one, Major League Baseball instituted a two-pickoff rule, limiting pitchers in how many times they can throw over or step off with a runner on base. The addition of a pitch clock, giving pitchers 20 seconds with a runner on base, actually helps the runners. And the bases are slightly bigger, reducing the distance between first and second by 4 1/2 inches.
“The baserunners see the pitch clock just like the pitchers see the pitch clock, so when they see that thing running down ... they can move before the pitcher moves,” Weinstein said. “Traditionally, the baserunner doesn’t take his first step until the pitcher is totally parallel with the ground with his stride leg thigh. Now, with the new rules, they’re allowed to move earlier in the process because they anticipate the pitcher pitching it.”
A common tactic to keep a runner at first base was to have a pitcher vary his timing to the plate. He could hold, hold, hold and force the baserunner to become static. There’s less ability to hold the ball for extended periods now, which allows a baserunner to gain momentum toward second far earlier than when the catcher used to catch the pitch.
It’s unclear, at this juncture, whether some pitchers (or entire pitching staffs) have deciphered a way to mitigate the changes. Less than half a season is a very small sample compared to all the games played before the rule changes.
Across the league, the average pop time — the time between when the pitch reaches the catcher to when the ball reaches the fielder at second base — is two seconds. Rutschman, at 1.92 seconds, holds the 12th-best pop time in baseball. He has improved in that territory compared to last season, when his average pop time was 1.93 seconds. Still, Rutschman caught 39% of the runners against him last season — 20 percentage points better than his current rate.
But other players have realized similarly dramatic and difficult-to-explain changes; Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto led the league in pop time last season (1.82) and has been slightly better this year (1.81.) Last year, he led the league by throwing out 54% of runners at second. This year, he’s 19th with a caught-stealing percentage of 24.
MLB’s rules have created more steals but also more variables to consider when determining who is responsible for allowing a stolen base.
In Rutschman’s case, part of it comes down to the fact runners are on average 1.4 feet closer to second base when he receives a pitch than they were in 2022. In 2023, Rutschman has caught just eight of the 41 runners who have attempted to take second base against the Orioles.
Rutschman ranks 42nd in catcher’s caught stealing above average, grouped with backstops whose average pop times are several milliseconds slower than Rutschman and whose velocity is several ticks slower than his average of 82.2 (down from 83.7 mph last year). The results haven’t gone his way, though, even if he has positive metrics in throwing speed and pop time.
“There’s always that internal clock,” Rutschman said. “You see a guy, you see his jump, so you have that internal clock going of how quick do I need to be to have a chance to get this guy out. It’s kind of the game you play as a catcher when you see a guy go.”
That keeps plays close, even if the reality for Rutschman is most runners have the base stolen before the pitch even reaches his mitt.
Of the 41 attempts to steal second against Rutschman, eight have come with All-Star closer Félix Bautista on the mound. Rutschman hasn’t caught one runner working with the towering reliever. Another six attempts each have come against right-handers Mike Baumann and Dean Kremer, although Rutschman has nabbed three of those 12 stealers.
Right-hander Bryan Baker has the best rate, with Rutschman catching all three would-be stealers when the reliever was on the mound. Statcast gave Rutschman a projected 18% chance to catch those runners based on their speed and distance from second, but he made up for the long odds with his strong pop time.
In other instances, the odds are far too long.
Rutschman still throws, though, in hopes of making it close. Maybe then, should that runner reach base again, he’ll be less eager to test the arm behind the plate, even though the art of holding runners has as much — if not more — to do with the pitcher.