Stealing a Base, with Billy Hamilton and Jose Molina

Typical  Billy Hamilton story outline: Ordinary introductory paragraph noting Hamilton’s speed when running the bases. Reference to Hamilton’s record-breaking stolen-base numbers in the minor leagues. Note regarding Hamilton’s immediate base-stealing success in the majors. Cautionary remark pertaining to Hamilton’s limited offensive potential at the plate. Renewed appreciation of footspeed. Statement that Hamilton could be one-of-a-kind, at least for his generation. Explanation that — while base-running scores tend to be close to zero — Hamilton looks like an actual valuable weapon. Insert joke that Hamilton is so fast he’s already finished reading this article.

Run-of-the-mill paragraph pointing out how slow Jose Molina is. Note that Molina is perhaps the game’s slowest runner. Obligatory reference to Molina’s high-quality pitch-framing. Joke that Molina slows the game down in more ways than one. Acknowledgment that no one expects catchers to be able to run; decent speed is just gravy. Acknowledgment of Molina’s relatively advanced age. Note that this is not intended as a criticism. Statement that this is just a fact, to which Molina would certainly admit without shame.

Predictable musing about how Hamilton and Molina might compare.

It feels natural, it feels too easy to write a post comparing Billy Hamilton’s and Jose Molina’s speed. It feels like the sort of thing a million people would think to do, and for me that’s kind of a turn-off. But, still, here we are. It’s fun to compare opposites, even if it isn’t necessarily creative. You know who’s really fast? Peter Bourjos. You know who was really slow, and probably still is really slow? Bengie, another Molina. Here’s a quick post comparing Bourjos running and Molina running. This isn’t trailblazing: this is following a path. It’s probably already been written up and described in hiking manuals.

Hamilton’s been in the majors for just a few weeks, and as Sam Miller recently pointed out, he already has more career big-league steals than J.J. Hardy. Granted, Hardy is still active, so he could catch up, but as unpredictable as baseball is, I’m going to guess that won’t happen. Hamilton is out of control, in that he’s completely under his own control. Hamilton takes bases when he wants to take bases. I don’t know if he’s baseball’s fastest runner, but he’s probably already baseball’s best runner.

Jose Molina is not. The Fan Scouting Report asks for an evaluation of speed. It’s on a 1-100 scale, basically. Last year, Adam Dunn got a 20. Raul Ibanez got a 22. Prince Fielder got a 25. Here are the most recent Molina speed ratings:

  • 2009: 16
  • 2010: 14
  • 2011: 11
  • 2012: 15

Interestingly, Molina has 17 career steals. He has two this year, and he had three last year. He has a career high of four. Molina still has more career steals than Hamilton, for the time being. It’s not, however, because Molina is deceptively fast. It’s that Molina is a heads-up player, and he takes advantage of opportunities given to him because the other team doesn’t expect him to go anywhere, on account that he is Jose Molina. Teams seldom hold him on because he’s Jose Molina. Teams seldom pay attention to him because he’s Jose Molina. Teams still don’t worry about him, even though he has demonstrated he will run. That’s how much teams expect Jose Molina to stay put. You don’t judge books by covers, or countries by maps, but you can look at Jose Molina and reach a conclusion about how he moves.

Let’s get to the comparison part. This is Hamilton stealing a base and Molina stealing a base. I’m not trying to reach a broader conclusion. I was just interested in seeing the differences. I think my favorite Hamilton steal so far was one of his steals against the Houston Astros, when the Astros pitched out. You’re going to see that one. My favorite Molina steal so far was from this past April, against the Texas Rangers. The Rangers didn’t pitch out. You’re going to see that one. Times are approximations, based on frame rates and math. Let’s watch Billy Hamilton go.


This was a pitch-out. The pitcher got the ball to the plate pretty fast. The catcher got the ball down to second pretty fast. The throw could’ve been better, but the throw wasn’t bad. Hamilton was safe, because — from first move — he reached second in roughly 3.1 seconds. Every so often, Hamilton is probably going to stumble or maybe he’ll get bogged down in some wet dirt. But he should average about 3.1 seconds from first to second, which is going to make him almost impossible to throw out. It’s going to require either perfection on the battery’s part, or a mistake on Hamilton’s.

Now, Molina:


Here’s a high throw to second — and the quality of the throw matters — even though it’s Jose Molina running. From first move, Molina reached second in just about 3.6 seconds. So we’re looking at a half-second difference between Molina and Hamilton, which might seem small, given that we’re observing total opposite extremes. It is small, but in baseball, there are small differences between good and bad. Put another way, Molina got to second base 16% slower. That makes the difference seem bigger.

Incidentally, Molina has a career steal success rate of 71%. Yuniesky Betancourt‘s at 50%. Gerardo Parra’s at 63%. Didi Gregorius is 0-for-2. Bourjos is at  76%. Baserunning is about more than how quickly you can move your legs. But anyway, let’s examine those Hamilton and Molina steals a little further.

I left out important details in my earlier descriptions. Here’s Hamilton, right around when he made his first move:


The Astros had already thrown over. Hamilton was being held on the bag. Everyone understood Hamilton was a threat, as evidenced by the pick-off and the subsequent pitch-out. Hamilton had to remain somewhat close to the base — and he had to be certain the pitcher was going home. It’s tricky, stealing bases when the world expects you to steal bases. This is why stolen bases in high-leverage situations are of particular note. Not everybody can pull them off.


And this is Molina, right around when he made his first move. Molina was not being held on, and there existed virtually no threat of an attempted pick-off. Molina could take a bigger lead, and, just as important, Molina could give himself something of a head start. You see in the .gif above, Molina started slowly walking toward second while the pitcher still had the ball. He never squared to the mound, meaning he never had to pivot and drive. He just started running. This is how Molina managed to be within half a second of Hamilton. He covered less physical distance, and he was able to get off to a cleaner start, because he didn’t have to begin by facing the pitcher. If Molina started in a crouch, facing the mound, it would’ve taken him more time to accelerate. What we don’t have is a clean comparison of Hamilton and Molina doing exactly the same thing. We’ll probably never have such a comparison, with steals, because people will always expect Hamilton to take off, and they’ll expect Molina to grow roots and loom where he is forever like a big oak.

In case you’re curious, as I was, here’s Molina’s position after the amount of time it took Hamilton to make contact with second:


So, by this point, Hamilton was in there. Molina is beginning his slide, with second base and Ian Kinsler having come into the picture. This is the gap, despite Molina getting two different kinds of better head starts. You know what it means when a guy trying to steal gets thrown out by a mile? It means he was late by a few tenths of one second. Everything happens quickly. A half-second is meaningful, and by true talent in this instance, the difference is much greater than a half-second.

In conclusion: Conventional summary statement. Brief review of important details, for purposes of driving points home. Sentence about broader significance, given certain obvious and less-obvious implications. Convincing explanation that this is the most important piece of baseball writing of the young century. General expression of amazement.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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