Andrew Baggarly

Despite off-season focus, Giants aren’t getting baserunners up to speed

Last week, BASG contributor Joey McMurry identified what might amount to a shift in offensive philosophy: small ball. Nate Schierholtz went so far as to assert that this season’s team is “built around speed and athleticism.” Such hyperbole notwithstanding, the Giants do seem suited to be more active on the basepaths than they have been in the recent past. In “Fallen” Angel Pagan and Melky “The Melk Man” Cabrera, they have indeed acquired two very proficient base stealers (81% and 77.3% success rates, respectively).

What’s more, new promoted strength and conditioning coordinator Cark Kochan (say that 10 times fast) has placed a new emphasis on building speed. As described CSN Bay Area’s Andrew Baggarly, Kochan has been utilizing parachutes and sleds to improve player speed, while also emphasizing “leads and jumps.”

Unfortunately, as with Zito’s new offseason regime, Schierholtz and company’s focus on speed is slightly misguided. In fact, a study by Kazuyoshi Miyaguchi, Shinich Demura, Kazuya Nagai, and Yu Uchida of Ishikawa Prefectural University revealed that sprint training does help runners “maintain their own maximum sprint speed due to the low digression rate of speed,” but “does not always lead to good baserunning.”

While speed is certainly an important aspect, it is, as Takaaki Kato of Keio University discovered, not the key to successful base stealing. Consistently successful base stealers, according to Kato, “moved their eyes predictably adjusting to pitcher’s motion, used a systematic visual search strategy, and utilized properties of ambient vision system.” Or, in other words, a base stealer’s most important skill is perception.

Vince Coleman explains this more simply: “The pitcher is going to indicate some kind of movement to the plate, and that’s what you key off, that’s what you analyze. Once you’ve analyzed that and pick it up, you take off right away.”

In 2010, the Oakland A’s invited Rickey Henderson to training camp, hoping he could teach the nuances of the art of stealing. While Henderson did note the importance of getting a “good jump,” he also noted that base stealing is “not just speed but the ability to concentrate on pitchers.” Such concentration, as told by Cliff Pennington, manifests in paying attention to intricate movement, such as watching the pitcher’s elbow.

And so, increasing the speed of players like Schierholtz is unlikely to yield more successful stolen bases. Instead, players ought to spend more time learning to analyze the minutiae of the game, such as a pitcher’s tendencies and ticks. They need to learn that physical traits, like speed, don’t always translate to success, like stolen bases.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Giants coaching staff is apt to teach such analysis.

In any case, the Athletics’ emphasis on base stealing brings a question to the forefront: Does focusing on base stealing amount to more victories? To find out, click here.

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