Chase for perfection

Quick: Who was the only player to steal 20+ bases without getting caught once in 2009? If you said Pablo Sandoval then I’ve got news for you…

You are dead wrong.

The correct answer is Chase Utley. During the regular season, Utley went 23-for-23 in stolen base attempts and just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he went 3-for-3 in the post-season. If you go back to 2008, Utley is 28 for his last 28. Except for the “Chase” part, his name isn’t exactly synonymous with speed, yet he found himself among some of the fastest names in the game last year:

Most Consecutive Steals
2009 Regular Season

Carl Crawford, 30
Chase Utley, 23
Michael Bourn, 21
Jacoby Ellsbury, 18
Ian Kinsler, 17

So how did Utley – a man with 60 career steals from 2003-2008 – find himself ranked with guys who have stolen 60 in a single season? A little bit of speed, surprise, smarts and luck.

For starters, Utley did most of his damage later in at bats. Most of the top base stealers run early and often. As a means for comparison, I took a look at the top three base stealers of 2009 and three successful veterans.

Stolen Base Attempts By Pitch Number

Note: On steals where there was a pickoff attempt, pickoffs were counted like a pitch.

Pretty much all of the base stealers listed above were more successful when stealing on the first three pitches too. Only Ellsbury was slightly more successful running on four plus pitches.

If anything, Utley’s success rate on steals proves how smart of a player he is. Utley picked his spots well, running on fastballs 47.8 percent of the time. Compare that to Ellsbury who ran on fastballs 58.6 percent of his attempts, or Jeter, who ran on fastballs 57.1 percent of the time. He also took advantage of Ryan Howard’s bat, stealing 16 of his 23 bases (plus his three post-season steals) while opposing pitchers were pre-occupied trying to get the slugger out. And does anyone remember that savvy steal of home?

Of course, you can’t ignore the fact that Utley got a little lucky. Two of his stolen bases came after he was picked off, he just beat the throw to second. Ten of his steals were against lefties too, so it’s not like he’s always running on slow delivering right-handers.

His secret is out now and with such a high success rate, pitchers will likely be taking notice. How long can Utley continue his perfect run? We’ll have to wait and see. Needless to say though (and painfully obvious too), the Chase is on…

Programming alert: Today on ESPN, Utley and the Phillies will meet the Yankees at 1 ET.

For further reading, this topic was broached earlier this winter in Hot Stove U.