There is no play, in my opinion, more exciting than the straight steal of home. Extremely risky and with a relatively high opportunity cost — you’re already on third base, a hit scores the run — it stands alongside half-court buzzer-beaters and 90-yard touchdown runs among the rarest regularly-occurring plays in sports.
Yankees utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa treated the New York faithful to one of these rare plays earlier this week, stealing home on Mets pitcher Brooks Raley as part of Wednesday’s wild loss in Queens. But how did IKF, whose 27.7 ft/sec sprint speed puts him in the 63rd percentile, manage to pull off one of the most difficult plays of all time?
The answer lies, as one would expect, in good baserunning. But before we look at Kiner-Falefa’s robbery, let’s start with the most recent Yankee to successfully execute a straight steal of home: Jacoby Ellsbury, who stole home against the Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Matt Moore in April 2016 to tie the game at three apiece.
In many ways, Jacoby Ellsbury is the prototype of the player you expect to steal home: he had top of the line speed, and he stole 343 bases over the course of his career (including home twice). But even for a speedster such as Ellsbury, taking home on a straight steal requires recognizing a lapse in judgment by the pitcher/defense and taking advantage of it before anyone notices.
There are two major things happening here. First, and most obviously, the third baseman is not doing a great job at holding Ellsbury on, allowing him to get a fairly sizeable lead. This in itself was not an error, strictly speaking, but a calculated risk. With two outs in the inning, the Rays opted to sit back and put their defense in the best position to record a groundball out, rather than risking a grounder through the infield that could potentially give the Yankees the lead.
On its own, this defensive alignment doesn’t allow Ellsbury to steal home, but it does make the decision to go much easier once he and third base coach Joe Espada recognized the other lapse in judgment. With runners on second and third and two outs, Matt Moore opted to pitch out of the windup. Not expecting the Yankees “to put their scoring opportunity at risk” with Brett Gardner at the plate, Moore opted for the comfort/power of the windup over the speed of the pitching out of the stretch. Ellsbury got a fantastic jump, taking off once Moore stepped his front foot backwards and lifted his glove over his head.
Because of this great jump, Ellsbury was two-thirds of the way down the line before the ball even left Moore’s hand.
To his credit, Moore still delivered a decent pitch to home plate, one that put his catcher in a position to make an attempt to tag Ellsbury. The center fielder, however, was as skilled a baserunner as they came, and he slid around the tag easily.
Now, let’s turn to IKF’s stolen base this week.
Unlike Ellsbury’s stolen base, which was the product of the runner and the third base coach noticing a pattern of behavior by the pitcher and defense, planning an attempt to take advantage of it, and then executing it, IKF’s stolen base is much more the product of seizing the moment.
The first thing you see here is that the third baseman, while not exactly holding IKF on, is in the vicinity of the bag. He remained close enough to at least feign a pickoff move in order to get IKF to get back to third. However, pitcher Brooks Raley is not looking at IKF at all, and instead has his entire focus on the batter.
Fast forward half a second, and you get this:
And then another two seconds:
IKF continued to dance down the third base line, and aside from a small reaction from the third baseman early on, neither the Mets defense nor the pitcher seemed to pay him any mind. By this point, Kiner-Falefa is almost halfway down the line, and should be in the pitcher’s peripheral vision, but still, absolutely no reaction.
Had the pitcher turned to throw over, IKF was dead in the water, an easy rundown that would have made us all go “Isiah, what were you THINKING?!?!?!?!” But the pitcher didn’t even look over at the runner. Because of this, once he begins to rotate his foot and start his motion, IKF is able to take off with one of the greatest jumps you’ll see.
At this point, the pitcher has virtually no chance. Much like Ellsbury’s stolen base, by the time the ball exits Raley’s hand, Kiner-Falefa is more than two-thirds of the way down the line.
Only a perfectly-placed pitch, fielded cleanly by the catcher in a position where he can lunge forward to apply the tag, would have gotten IKF at the plate. As we know, that didn’t happen — the throw was up-and-in, the catcher whiffed on the throw, and IKF slid into home to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.
In many ways, Ellsbury’s and Kiner-Falefa’s stolen bases were very different animals, one the product of foresight and planning, the other the product of “This is a once-in-a-million opportunity.” And yet, in both cases, we see the same overall steps — the recognition that the defense had overlooked something, using that to get an incredible jump that put the runner almost at the plate before the ball had left the hand of the pitcher — that led to the same thing: the Yankees’ third run of the ballgame.