Let’s Watch Yoenis Cespedes Steal Third Base by Jeff Sullivan October 21, 2015 Ask Joe Maddon, and he’ll tell you what’s wrong. To this point, the Cubs have simply been out-played. The Cubs have been out-pitched, they’ve been out-hit, and they’ve been out-executed in between. The Mets have played quality baseball, not giving the Cubs very many openings of any significance, and that’s a sure-fire way to end up with a 3-0 series standing. When a team like the Mets blends ability with smarts, that makes for a hell of a foe. Quietly, over the course of the year, the Mets were an above-average baserunning team, but they weren’t much of a stolen-base team. In the playoffs, and especially against the Cubs, the Mets have turned their aggressiveness up, responding to worse hitting conditions by trying to squeeze everything they can out of being on base. Tuesday night, a pivotal play was Yoenis Cespedes stealing third base in the sixth inning of a tie game. The Mets didn’t used to do much stealing of third, but Cespedes would come in to score on a wild third strike, and his would be the winning run. It was an important event, and somewhat stunning for the ease with which Cespedes advanced. This is the kind of thing that could use some background. Here’s Cespedes, sliding in safely: It might be hard to tell from that, but Cespedes was safe by a mile. We’ll come back to that later, but consider now some of the other examples of the Mets’ in-series aggressiveness. I apologize for all the screenshots but I’m afraid there’s no other way. Here we have David Wright stealing second base: Wright was stealing against Jon Lester, and I don’t need to tell you any more about that. The throw beat Wright to the bag, but it bounced and it wasn’t cleanly handled, so Wright wound up safe. Here’s Juan Lagares stealing third base: Lagares, also, was stealing against Lester. The throw beat Lagares to the bag, but it was off-line, forcing Kris Bryant out of position. Lagares wound up safe. Here’s Lagares subsequently scoring on a sacrifice fly: Little bit of a theme here. Lagares was testing the arm of Kyle Schwarber. The throw beat him home, but it short-hopped, putting Miguel Montero in a sub-optimal position. Lagares scored. Moving on, here’s Curtis Granderson stealing second base: Close play. Granderson was stealing against Jake Arrieta, who’s allowed an 82% success rate the last two years. The throw beat Granderson to the bag, but it wasn’t caught cleanly, so Granderson wound up safe. Here’s Granderson stealing third base: The throw beat Granderson to the bag, but it was just a little off, so Granderson wound up safe. We’ve still got more! Here’s Granderson getting thrown out trying to steal second: The throw beat Granderson to the bag, and this time it was right on the money. Granderson also had his hand blocked by an opponent’s foot. So that was an out, but the Mets remained aggressive. Later on, Daniel Murphy scored on a contact play: The throw from Anthony Rizzo beat Murphy home, but it was too far up the line and on the other side of Montero’s body, so Murphy was safe. Rizzo came that close to turning a 3-2 double play. Instead, Montero couldn’t sweep over in time. The point is not that the Mets kept getting lucky. It’s just, in all these cases, the baserunners were beaten by the throws. Thankfully for them, most of the throws were off-target, buying the baserunners extra time to get in safe. Many throws are off-target. Perhaps the majority of throws are off-target. It’s not like you should ever expect the opponent to be perfect. But for the most part, the Mets’ aggressiveness was paying off by a slim margin. With better throws, all these runners are out. And then the aggressiveness doesn’t look so smart. It’s a difficult game, in other words. So many baserunning plays are bang-bang, and heroes are separated ever so slightly from goats. So many close plays. So many of them working out in the Mets’ favor. In contrast to those plays, Cespedes could’ve practically walked to third on Tuesday: The throw was pretty good, but it didn’t matter. The pop time was pretty good, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because Miguel Montero might as well have been entirely uninvolved. Cespedes stole that base on Trevor Cahill, and he stole that base on the Cubs’ middle infield. Look at the jump that Cespedes got: You see Trevor Cahill, at release. And you see Yoenis Cespedes, in a full sprint, somewhere in the vicinity of half the way to third. I saw Statcast measured Cespedes’ time to third at 2.9 seconds. That’s not very many seconds. No one bothered to hold Cespedes on, and Cahill didn’t give him much of a different look, so Cespedes felt secure. And once he saw how slow Cahill was to home, the door was wide open. Cespedes ran on the second pitch. Here’s the first one: Cespedes didn’t threaten to go. He was in strict observation mode, and he would’ve observed Cahill’s high leg kick. He would’ve observed that Cahill took 1.7 seconds (or thereabouts) to get the ball to home. Cahill gave Cespedes one look, and that was it, and there didn’t appear to be any middle-infielder activity. So the opportunity was right there, and Cespedes took immediate advantage. You saw the steal above. Here’s a different angle of it: It’s just an absurd jump that Cespedes got. And as a matter of fact, something might look strange to you. Something definitely looked strange to me. So let’s slow that initial sequence down a bit: Cespedes actually took off before first move. Before Cahill had done anything but return his view to the catcher, Cespedes was turning and beginning his sprint. He didn’t wait on the leg to come up. On the first Cahill pitch Cespedes watched, he started bringing the leg up as soon as he turned back to face the catcher. On the second pitch, Cahill turned back to face the catcher and paused for a moment or two before bringing the leg up, but Cespedes seemed to break as if Cahill would do the same thing the second time as he did the first time. The fact that he didn’t actually made Cespedes’ steal easier. That delay gave Cespedes more time to cover ground, ultimately making his steal a gimme. In theory Cahill could’ve wheeled around and tried to pick Cespedes off, but he wasn’t paying the runner enough attention. After the game, Maddon said the Cubs practically allowed Cespedes to steal third base. It’s hard to know exactly what he meant by that, but I’m guessing the Cubs just made it too easy, by not paying Cespedes more attention. They didn’t run any infielder decoys, they didn’t attempt a pick-off, and Cahill was sufficiently slow to the plate to make Cespedes’ job relatively simple. Cespedes’ jump was so good I kind of want to call it a mis-read. I’m not sure, but it seems like Cespedes took off a moment too early. Sometimes, runners pay for that, but the Cubs didn’t do anything, so now it just looks like Cespedes can see the future. He broke before the pitcher did, and he stole a huge base. It improved the Mets’ odds of winning by five percentage points. I calculated a break-even rate of 65% — that is, it made sense for Cespedes to go, if he thought he’d be safe more than 65% of the time. Given the jump he ultimately got, there was nothing the Cubs could do, once Cahill neglected to turn around. Maybe they could’ve hoped for a ticky-tacky replay review, to see if Cespedes came off the base for a blink. But the play wasn’t even close enough for that. And in the end, getting to third is what allowed Cespedes to get to home. The Mets, to some extent, have gotten some good fortune with their NLCS baserunning. And the Cubs have probably deserved that.