Behind the ScoreboardApril 27, 2009
Ellsbury's Steal of Home
By Sky Andrecheck

Last night, Jacoby Ellsbury pulled off the rare play of a straight steal of home. The feat electrified the Fenway crowd, but was it a good play? It was the bottom of the 5th with the Red Sox leading 2-1. The Yankees' southpaw Andy Pettitte had just intentionally walked Kevin Youkillis to get to JD Drew to load the bases with two outs. Pettite threw a fastball for a swinging strike one, then a breaking ball outside for a ball. Then Ellsbury took off....

Let's look at the factors which affect the chances that a player is able to steal home or not and whether Ellsbury had them in his favor.

1) Speed of the runner. Obviously, this is vital and Ellsbury has great speed.
2) Pitcher's stance. It's far easier to steal home if the pitcher is working from a windup - Pettitte was.
3) Pitcher's handedness. A lefty turns his back to third during his windup, meaning he can't see the runner take off. Pettitte's a lefty.
4) Batter's handedness. It's easier to steal home with a righty at the plate, since he blocks the catcher's view to third base. With a lefty, he can see the runner coming. Drew was a lefty, which was a drawback for Ellsbury.
5) Pitch selection. Obviously a curve or a change-up are the best pitches to run on since they take longer to get to the plate. Previously, Pettitte got a fastball for a swinging strike one and threw a breaking ball for a ball. Ellsbury guessed right on the third pitch as Pettite threw a big slow curve ball.
6) Attention. In order to steal home, the defense has to be oblivious to it. The third baseman was playing well off the bag, and Pettitte paid no attention to Ellsbury. He was able to get an enormous jump down the third base line.

Overall, Ellsbury had 5 of 6 factors in his favor, meaning he had a decent chance to pull off what's become an increasingly rare feat. However, did the game situation call for a steal of home? Let's look at the factors relating to this.

1) Score/Inning. The best time to run is late in the game when the game is tied or you are down by one. The Red Sox were up by one in the 5th, which wasn't ideal.
2) Outs. The play must be done with two outs, since with less than two outs there are plenty of easier ways to get a man home from third. There were indeed two outs in the inning.
3) Other runners. Ideally, nobody else is on base - that way you don't take yourself out of a potential big inning if you get thrown out. The Red Sox had the bases loaded, which means Ellsbury was really gambling by running.
4) The batter. A weak hitter at the plate is ideal since it makes it harder for the runner to score by means other than a steal of home. JD Drew is a good (but not outstanding) hitter, so Ellsbury was also gambling by potentially taking the bat out of his hands.
5) The count. A pitcher's count is best since it limits the chances that the runner can score by other means. The runner can't go on two strikes since the batter must swing, so an 0-1 count is ideal. Ellsbury ran on 1-1, which isn't great, but better than a 2-1 or 3-1 count.

Ellsbury only had 1 out of 5 of these factors really in his favor, meaning while he might be capable of stealing home, it would be a risky play. From a WPA perspective (not taking into account batter or count), the Red Sox had a 72.1% chance of winning before the steal. Afterwards it increased to 79.8%. Had he been thown out, the chances would have dropped to 65.8%. The break-even point for the steal was 45%, meaning that if Ellsbury were safe 45% of the time, it would be a good play.

Stealing home is so difficult, that ideally all 11 factors that I outlined would have to be in a runner's favor before attempting a straight steal of home. Ellsbury had only about half working for him in this case, meaning that while exciting, it might not have been the smartest baseball play ever. But Ellsbury beat the throw (and beat it fairly easily), so it's hard to argue with results - perhaps he knew something we didn't. In any case, cheers to him making the most exciting play in baseball thus far in 2009.


Regarding your second 4), normally I'd agree you don't want to take the bat out of Drew's hands. Last night, though, his previous two at-bats were truly hideous - 2 three-pitch Ks where he seemed to be struggling to pick up the ball. I don't think it's worse to have the inning end with Elsbury out at home than with Drew striking out.

Well done, Sky.

Drew has hit Pettitte well over the years (.345/.367/.759 on 10-for-29 with 3 2B and 3 HR) but has drawn only one walk while striking out 12 times, including the two that Matt mentioned.

I think the key to last night's steal of home was that Pettitte and Berroa weren't paying any attention to Ellsbury, which allowed him to get an enormous lead and jump. With his outstanding speed, I think it was a good gamble, all things considering.

The two amazing things for me about Ellsbury's steal are 1) he took off before Pettitte had started his move towards home and 2) that he tripped before he got to the plate and his momentum still carried him well past it. Nobody was paying him any attention and the kid can just fly.

I saw that play and I agree that it looks rather easy. Just by impression, it looks to me like a 70%~80% play. I think he manages to make a fair decision ability-wise, although not the smartest. And by all means, the Fenway faithful loves it. A sign reads: "Jacoby, can you marry my daughter?"

Some of the factors you list probably correlate negatively with the defense's paying attention to the runner. With a tied score and just a runner on third, I'd think the defense would have an eye on that runner.

This kind of play, like a delayed steal by a slow runner, only works if you have a very strong read on your opponent.

Though probably not the smartest decision (as I thought at the time), Ellsbury made the choice because he was rather sure he could make it. There was almost no attention paid to him, and as he mentioned, during the previous pitch, he had mentioned to the third base coach that he thought he could probably make it. After testing the lead a little bit and realizing nobody noticed, he just bolted.

A scary choice at that, but I trust that he had a damn good certainty that it was going to result well. :)

not 100% sure but didnt aaron hill steal home off pettite a year or two ago?

Pettitte's allowed a steal of home at least once before. Maybe it was Aaron Hill, I don't remember who it was, but I damn sure remember it happening. Andy's just bad about watching the runner on 3rd. And Ellsbury's crazy fast.