The Braves, Pickoffs and Controlling the Running Game

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How do the Braves stack up?

There was one thing that Braves pitchers did better than any other team last season -- pick runners off. They led the entire league with 18 pickoffs, 17 coming from pitchers and one from a Gerald Laird back pick at 1B.

Picking runners off and holding them from advancing are each an interesting concept. On one hand, someone who is good at picking off runners might be slow to the plate and therefore poor at preventing advancement on the bases. Others may not have the greatest pickoff move in the world, but change the timing on their delivery well and are quick to the plate and very effective at keeping runners from advancing. You also have the good/good and the bad/bad quadrants.

Controlling the running game is an overall skill that is dependent on the pitcher, catcher and even the middle infielders to some extent, so it is tough to divvy up credit to where credit is due. Aside from that handedness, catcher pop time (time from catchers glove to the second baseman/shortshop's glove) and pitcher's time to the plate (first movement to catcher's glove) are the most important factors. At the end of the day, the old-fashioned stopwatch is the best way to gauge this ability.

In general, the average pop time for a catcher usually just under 2 seconds. The better catchers in the league consistently get the ball from glove to glove around 1.85 seconds. Pitchers in the stretch on the other hand average just above 1.4 seconds tip the ball reaches the plate. Combining those two, you can get a relatively good estimate of how successful a battery will be at limiting the running game. John Dewan wrote an article last April 2013 detailing pitcher + catcher times and the stolen base success rates of each. Below is the table recreated.

Combined Time SB Rate
< 3.25 seconds 64.1%
3.25-3.40 seconds 68.7%
3.40-3.55 seconds 73.9%
> 3.55 seconds 77.1%

Small changes in times can make a huge difference in stolen base success rate. Adding or subtracting tenths of a second can translate into a large swing of chance of the runner being safe our out.

I decided to dust off the old stopwatch and get times on the projected Braves starters and catchers. To get those times, I ran through as much video from last season as possible, clocking each player multiple times, to get an average reading on each player. Below are the results from each starter/catcher, as well as the combined times for each battery and the career CS% for catchers. Of course, this is subject to human error, but the number of samples should yield a decent average.

Pitcher Time Catcher Time CS %
Kris Medlen 1.39 Christian Bethancourt* 1.80 37%
Brandon Beachy 1.45 Gerald Laird 1.90 35%
Mike Minor 1.47 Evan Gattis** 2.00 33%
Julio Teheran 1.48 Ryan Doumit*** 2.13 24%
Alex Wood 1.55

P/C Combo Time
Medlen/Bethancourt 3.19
Beachy/Bethancourt 3.25
Minor/Bethancourt 3.27
Teheran/Bethancourt 3.28
Medlen/Laird 3.29
Beachy/Laird 3.35
Wood/Bethancourt 3.35
Minor/Laird 3.37
Teheran/Laird 3.38
Medlen/Gattis 3.39
Wood/Laird 3.45
Beachy/Gattis 3.45
Minor/Gattis 3.47
Teheran/Gattis 3.48
Wood/Gattis 3.55

*Of course, Bethancourt's numbers are based off minor league data.

**Gattis threw out 28% of runners in the minors.

***I did not include Doumit in the second chart because I don't expect him to catch much, especially with the starters.

As you would presume, Bethancourt could help out a lot, and to be honest, there have been reports out there clocking him in the 1.7s. Laird was right around 1.9, but was as low as mid-1.8's during the playoffs when he threw out Dee Gordon at second. Gattis actually wasn’t half bad when the ball was around the bag and sat right around 2.0 in the video I watched.

With pitchers, Medlen was the quickest to the plate. Lefties Minor, a lefty, Beachy and Teheran all hovered around the mid 1.4’s. Wood and his funky delivery was the slowest, but it doesn’t hurt him as much because he’s a lefty with a solid pickoff move. None of these times came off a slide step. The success of limiting the running game would appear to be a repeatable skill from year to year. Pitchers are either quick or slow (or somewhere in between) to the plate; it doesn't really vary much.

Last season as a team, the Braves threw out 28.8% of runners, 13th best in the league, compared to the league average of ~27%. Longtime Brave Brian McCann threw out 23.8% of base stealers over the course of his career, this will be one very small area where the team may not miss him much considering some of the rates above. Again, a very small piece of the puzzle.

Pickoffs, on the other hand, are a different animal. There is a great chance this season that Julio Teheran will not record eight pickoffs again this season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be as or even more effective preventing advancement on the bases. I will get more into Teheran’s move in another post, but teams eventually adhere to the scouting report, "Hey this guy is good at picking runners off, stay closer to the bag!" The threat of the pickoff simply makes him more effective.

Picking off runners and controlling the running game do overlap, but I think it’s important to differentiate. Preventing a run is just as important as scoring a run, and holding and getting free outs on the bases are are small part of that prevention equation. The Braves look to set up to be relatively okay in this area.

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