Whit Merrifield Swipes a Bag

Whit Merrifield has long been one of the best base stealers in the game, but he has seemingly reached a new level of thievery this season, with 33 steals on only 35 attempts. That 94% success rate is the highest of his career and leads the majors among players with at least 20 attempts (Bo Bichette is an impressive 17 for 17). Our base running metric pegs him as the most valuable runner in the game, and he’s on pace to set a new career high in steals (he swiped 45 in 2018) with a chance to become the first player to reach 50 steals since 2017 — and all at the age of 32.

What’s particularly interesting is that, despite a 90th percentile Sprint Speed of 28.7 feet per second, which is about a half a foot per second off of his peak, Merrifield is far from elite when it comes to his short distance split times, which is a good way to gauge a player’s acceleration. His 90-foot split has gone from a peak of 3.89 seconds in 2018 to 3.97 this season, or from the 79th percentile to the 68th. Other elite thieves like Trea Turner, Byron Buxton and Tim Locastro have splits in the 99th percentile. Even Starling Marte, a fellow high success-rate stealer in his early 30s, is in the 81st percentile.

Base stealing is much more than a runner going top speed, though; it’s a mental and physical duel between the base runner and the pitcher. (That’s not to make light of the catcher’s role, but they are often left holding a baton, and the blame, for a race long lost.) What makes Merrifield the best base stealer in the game at a time when he’s far from the fastest player in the game is that he’s a master of this duel.

Exhibit A:

This steal from early June was Merrifield’s 23rd straight, and it wasn’t because he’s fast or because the catcher’s throw wasn’t perfect. He stole that base because he outfoxed the pitcher.

Your inclination when seeing that jump might be to think that Merrifield got lucky or fooled; perhaps he left early by accident. Steals don’t happen in a vacuum, though, and I think the context will show that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Let’s rewind and watch the entire sequence that led up to the steal to figure out exactly how Merrifield got such a good jump. The following clip shows all the events that happened while he was at first after reaching to lead off the game.

Twins rookie Griffin Jax wasn’t simply ignoring Merrifield, as he threw over four times in the sequence. But by the time the fourth pickoff move happened, you can see that Merrifield was already leaning back to the base, correctly anticipating the throw over. At this point, an astute watcher might already know the tell, but let’s look a little closer. The next clip syncs up all the pickoff moves to help us better see a pattern.

It’s now pretty clear why Merrifield began leaning back as Jax was coming set. Jax hadn’t shown Merrifield four pickoff moves; he had shown him one pickoff move four times. Remember, the second pickoff happened off camera, but based on the timing of it, it’s safe to assume it was the same as the other three: a quick pick as the pitcher comes set. That’s a common time to throw over, as the runner is often still extending their lead and might be caught off guard. The problem for Jax is that this pre-set pick is the only move he’s showing; if he had a different move, he surely would’ve used it by then.

Next, let’s take a look at the pitches that Jax made to the batter (Jorge Soler) in the sequence. These are synced up to the point where Jax officially comes set:

There’s little variety in the amount of time Jax is waiting to deliver the pitch. He came set a little slower in the first pitch, but once he’s set, he’s not doing anything to hold Merrifield in the blocks. Based on that, Merrifield knows that Jax is not likely to pick over once he does come set, and on top of that, it seems he will throw to home about one second later without much deviation.

Okay, one last clip to drive the point home. This one shows the pickoff moves overlaid on the clip of Merrifield stealing, so you can see the timing that he was working with.

Once Jax comes set, Merrifield knows that he is going to make his move to the plate in about a second. This essentially frees him up to get a jump start on the throw home.

Once Merrifield is standing on second, he looks back to first base and gives a wry smirk, presumably to Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz.

Kuntz is a rare case of a first base coach breaking out of anonymity. His scouting insights, like figuring out that David Price always took a deep breath before throwing his changeup, became the stuff of legend when the Royals marched to a championship in 2015. Kuntz retired from in-game coaching after 2017 because of an eye issue but made his return to the first base coaching box this season, one in which Merrifield is having a renaissance on the base paths. It goes beyond Merrifield, too; Nicky Lopez is 10 for 10 on steal attempts this season after getting caught six times in seven attempts leading into this season.

Did this massive jump come from advanced scouting of Jax, or was it a game plan that developed live as Merrifield and Kutnz watched the pickoff moves unfold in front of them? The answer is likely a little bit of both. Jax had only made one career pickoff attempt before Merrifield reached (largely due to him mostly pitching in mop-up duty out of the bullpen), and it was that same style of pickoff that he would go on to show Merrifield four times. Oh, and that lone pickoff attempt sailed down the right field line for an error. That’s not a ton of information for the Royals to go off of, but surely Kuntz knew that little nugget.

Back to Merrifield and the steals bonanza he’s been on this season. He’s still finding ways to make the most of his speed, pulling off a few beautifully executed delayed steals like this one.

Merrifield got his steals streak all the way up to 33 before finally being thrown out by the Yankees’ Rob Brantly after over-sliding the bag on Wednesday night. It was a disappointing end to an impressive streak, but it does little to take away from the phenomenal season he is having swiping bags, and at an age when runners aren’t usually at their peak.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lunch Anglemember
1 year ago

This is great stuff! The cat and mouse game between pitcher and batter, pitcher and runner..

I read an interview with Merrifield a while ago on the topic of the new minor league pickoff rules. He wasn’t a fan of the idea of limiting pitcher pickoffs, because then base stealing would just come down to who’s fastest, and basically nullify the advantage that basestealers like he has, in stealing bases through smarts. He also revealed that he spends an hour every day going over pickoff tells and patterns of opposing pitchers. That’s intense.

Lunch Anglemember
1 year ago
Reply to  Luke Hooper

I managed to find it! https://bit.ly/3yKot1j

Lunch Anglemember
1 year ago
Reply to  Luke Hooper

It’s an Athletic piece, you can find it by googling “Stark: How much base stealing is too much?”