Anthony Volpe Brings the Vault Lead to MLB

Anthony Volpe
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I went to my first game of the season this past weekend: the Yankees hosting the Giants on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the Bronx. In the bottom of the second inning, Anthony Volpe came up to the plate against Alex Cobb and hit an 0–2 slider into left field for his first career hit, drawing a standing ovation from the folks in attendance.

After his hit, Volpe got to moving on the basepaths. In 2022, he swiped 50 bags over 132 games between Double and Triple-A. The limited pickoffs rule and bigger bases aided him, but like any good base stealer, he took advantage of pitchers with slow deliveries and/or catchers with poor pop times whenever he could. As we’ve learned from the first week of games, the combination of those factors can create an ideal environment for aggressive runners. But there is one thing that Volpe does that makes him different from your normal base stealer: the vault lead.

You may be familiar with the vault if you’re a viewer of college baseball, but it’s more difficult to execute in pro ball. Before explaining the fundamentals of it, let’s take a look at how Volpe used the vault on Saturday:

The standard way to take a lead and steal a base is with a three-to-four-step lead that ends up around 12 feet. After that, you try to catch a jump as soon as the pitcher lifts their leg. What Volpe did against Cobb was entirely different. He took a small two-step primary lead, then a quick shuffle step. The timing of the shuffle is crucial: Your goal as a runner is to time it so that the pitcher begins their delivery while you’re in the air or as you’re landing. If your shuffle ends before the pitcher begins their delivery, you simply stop and take a standard lead. Volpe’s lead was slightly different here because he realized in his first small shuffle that Cobb was not delivering the ball. He then adjusted mid-air so he would have time to execute an aggressive shuffle. In doing that, he set himself up to take the base with ease.

There are several reasons why the vault lead isn’t commonplace in MLB. First, if a pitcher knows that you’re a vaulter, they’ll throw over endlessly. If a pitcher throws over as you’re in the air, the odds of you getting caught skyrocket. On top of that, MLB pitchers have better pickoff moves than minor leaguers or college pitchers; they’re more athletic and have stronger arms. And before this year’s rule changes, pitchers were better able to vary their timing to the plate; with no pitch timer, you could hold the ball as long as you wanted to keep the runner flatfooted. The addition of limited pickoffs and the pitch timer have drastically decreased the options for pitchers, but that doesn’t make stealing via the vault lead automatic. You still have to execute your timing well.

Volpe, though, has already proven he has the right instincts to vault lead on a consistent basis. Let’s go back to Opening Day to see how he timed up Logan Webb for a stolen base. Here are the first three pitches of the at-bat:

Webb was far too predictable with his tempo; before he comes set, he taps his lead foot twice. After that point, Volpe is trying to see if Webb remains consistent with his pace to the plate. You can see in the third pitch that he jabs to get his vault going but is a tick too late and instead takes a normal secondary lead.

Webb’s tempo was set, one, two, go; Volpe picked up on this and took advantage on the next pitch:

What a perfect angle to watch him work! He was mid-shuffle as Webb delivered the ball and completed two full steps before Webb broke his hands. Barring a sub-1.70 pop time and a perfect throw, this is an easy bag.

If you’re Webb in this position, you can be better by a few seconds in either direction with varying your timing, but there really is only so much you can do as the clock winds down. If you let it go all the way to one second, the runner can take an aggressive vault anyway. If you use your first two pickoffs and don’t get him, the runner is now fully empowered to take an aggressive vault. It puts you in a sticky situation if the runner understands how to use the lead and draw pickoffs.

Sean Hjelle experienced a similar problem on Sunday with Volpe on second and Anthony Rizzo was at the plate. Here is a three-pitch sequence from the at-bat:

One look, no look, then two looks; Hjelle consistently varied his look backs when holding Volpe. But as Hjelle got ahead in the count, Volpe became more confident that he wouldn’t throw back and took more aggressive leads whenever Hjelle turned back to look at his catcher. That last tidbit is key when using the vault at second base: When the pitcher looks back at you, you either hold your ground or take a step back toward the bag to give the illusion that you’re not looking to take third. When the pitcher turns back home, you take your vault.

Volpe’s fundamentals were perfect during the first few pitches despite Hjelle’s variance. Here is how he ended up turning those fundamentals into a no-throw stolen base:

There are few plays more exciting for a catcher than a runner taking off to steal third with a lefty in the box; they have so much space to throw and can see the opportunity directly in front of them. That excitement heightens if a fastball is thrown to the glove side — the perfect spot to transfer and throw to third. But even with the perfect setup, Blake Sabol couldn’t get a throw off because of Volpe’s huge jump. That can happen on a standard jump as well, but stealing third base off a standstill can be difficult with a lefty hitter at the plate for the reasons I’ve already stated.

The cat-and-mouse game of stealing bases is on full display with this year’s rule changes, and it’s creating an environment for unorthodox ways of baserunning. Bringing the flair of minor league, college and high school baseball styles is great for MLB. Chaos on the basepaths is always exciting, and that’s exactly what the vault lead can do for the game.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

After all the consternation about what Volpe’s true speed grade is, this article is refreshing in that it helps explain (at least partially) why Volpe is able to achieve such a high SB rate even if he has moderate speed.