Grow Your Tool Box: Invest in a Stopwatch

Every baseball broadcaster should invest in a stopwatch.

A reliable stopwatch allows you to paint a clearer picture in the mind of the listener about that night’s stolen base possibilities.

stopwatch

The Oslo M537

Whether you’ve seen it on television, or noticed it during a game you were actually broadcasting, you have probably witnessed a first base or third base coach using a stopwatch.

Scouts and coaches utilize stopwatches for several measurements, but in the case of the first base and third base coaches, they’re using a stopwatch to time how fast the opposing pitcher delivers the ball to home plate from the stretch or “set” position.

The industry standard used by talent evaluators is 1.3 seconds from when the pitcher begins his motion to when the ball reaches the catcher’s glove.  The slightest deviation from this number makes an enormous difference in the success, or lack thereof, in the opposition’s running game.

A delivery that is just one-tenth of a second longer (1.4) puts greater pressure on the catcher to make a perfect throw, and is usually viewed as a “green light” for the offensive team.  Likewise, a delivery that is just one-tenth of a second quicker (1.2) might be enough to stop the offensive team from trying to steal bases in the first place.  1.3 seconds is considered the magic number, because it gives the catcher an honest chance of throwing out a runner with above-average speed.

The significance of a pitcher’s time to the plate is common knowledge among players and coaches, and stressed due to its effect on wins and losses.  Preventing a stolen base not only keeps a runner out of scoring position, but it also maintains the chance of a double play.  A delivery that is consistently slower and leads to an abundance of steals will make it tougher for that pitcher–and his team–to prevent runs.

For the longest time, I saw the base runner’s foot speed and the catcher’s arm strength as the only parts of the stolen base equation.  The runner was safe either because he was really fast, the catcher didn’t make a strong throw, or some sliding-scale combination of the two.

The pitcher’s delivery time to the plate is just as important to the equation, and as mentioned earlier, can prevent a runner from taking off at all.

With the advent of Statcast, I’ve seen delivery times referenced on some recent MLB telecasts, but I can’t recall the topic being discussed on a radio broadcast, and I have never seen or heard of another radio announcer using a stopwatch for this purpose (if you’re currently using a stopwatch on air, please let me know, and I’ll provide full credit).

Let’s build a new trend and make things better for all listeners.  In our in-depth review of mechanics, we discussed the expectations every listener has for a baseball broadcast.  Imagine a world where all listeners (the ones who cannot attend a game in person or watch it on TV) expect to know how fast a pitcher is delivering the ball to the plate.  Industry-wide change for the better is part of Growcasting’s vision.

Let me point out that using a stopwatch to time a pitcher’s delivery does not make you an expert on base stealing.  There are also other variables that play a role in whether or not a runner is safe at second.

With that being said, incorporating a stopwatch into your broadcasts arms you with an objective means of predicting how much running might take place on a given night.  It also provides you with substantial and relevant context that you can pass on to the listener.  It gives you the same number the first base coach is reading off his own stopwatch down on the field and whispering into the base runner’s ear.  Lastly, a stopwatch gives you an informational advantage over the other broadcasters in your league–at least until it becomes the industry standard we believe it can be.

I’ve worked extensively with two managers in the last nine years, both of whom would often mention during our pre-game interviews that a particular pitcher was either “slow” or “quick” to the plate.  I sort of grasped the concept of what they were saying, but unfortunately, I didn’t really begin to apply it until 2015.  I let the full meaning of what they were trying to tell me go over my head, and in the back of my mind, I still believed  the only things that really mattered when it came to base stealing were the runner’s speed and the catcher’s arm.

If you’re like I was prior to 2015, then you probably referenced how many stolen bases a player had when he reached first and what the catcher’s caught stealing percentage was.  If the runner had 10 stolen bases a month into the season, you’d say something along the lines of, “he’ll be a threat to take off…”  If the catcher had a strong arm, you would follow that up with, “…but Johnson leads the league with a 45% caught stealing rate.”  It’s not that these statements are inaccurate or irrelevant, but they ignore the pitcher’s role in the running game.

I had seen our coaches use stopwatches for years, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I finally asked our pitching coach if there was a target number they were looking for.  Jamie was gracious enough to explain the importance of 1.3 seconds, and I went out and bought a stopwatch the next day.

Once I was able to file 1.3 seconds into the brain (and come up with a routine for using the stopwatch without missing any action), it immediately paid dividends.  I was able to provide the listener with information that could only be obtained from the ballpark, and it helped answer questions I’m sure all of you have pondered while watching or listening to a game.

Let’s say the team you’re broadcasting for leads the league in stolen bases.  You have several players in the top-10 in steals, and it’s common for the team to swipe three or four bags per game.  One night, several of those prominent base stealers reach first, the opposing catcher has an average caught stealing percentage, but your club appears reluctant to take off.  Why aren’t they running?  There’s a good chance the opposing starting pitcher is quick to the plate.  Remember, even one-tenth of a second in either direction makes a huge difference.  It’s the reason why a “slide step” can be so effective.

This past year, Winnipeg ranked second in the American Association in stolen bases (136 stolen bases in 100 games).  There was a pitcher in our league whose natural delivery from the stretch was more or less a slide step every time.  He was constantly around 1.1 seconds to the plate.  Not only did our speedy club not attempt a stolen base against him, there wasn’t a single player who tried to run on this pitcher in the entire league!  This is more spectacular when you consider that he led the league in innings pitched.  He was literally on the mound more than any American Association pitcher, and not one base runner even tried.  In fact, Mark Hamburger has gone 257.1 innings without allowing a stolen base attempt, a streak that dates back to July 28, 2014.

Hamburger’s feat would stand out in the minds of listeners on its sheer impossibility alone, but the fact that a simple stopwatch can provide the context behind the information is what makes using such a tool beneficial to the broadcast.  If you can identify a quicker or slower pitcher early in the game, you’ll have a good handle on whether or not a team will try and steal.

I’ll reiterate that other factors play a role in stolen base success with the runner’s speed and the catcher’s arm being the most prominent.  The pitcher’s ability to vary the amount of time he holds the ball before starting his motion, the number of looks he makes towards first base, the effectiveness of his pickoff move, or anything else that prevents the runner from identifying a pattern can also effectively curb the opposing team’s running game.

If you do start using a stopwatch, you should still take advantage of the available statistics.  The runner’s stolen base totals, the catcher’s caught stealing percentage, and the pitcher’s caught stealing percentage should be incorporated into your broadcast.  Combine this information with your stopwatch readings, and you can paint a vivid picture for the listener.  Just keep in mind that all statistics have their limitations, and base running metrics are no different.

The caught stealing rates for pitchers or catchers can adversely affect each other.  A catcher might have a great arm, but could end up with a pedestrian caught stealing percentage if he’s playing in a lower level of the minors where the pitching staff hasn’t yet fine tuned their ability to hold runners.  Similarly, a pitcher’s caught stealing percentage might be unfairly low if his catcher doesn’t have the strongest arm.

In terms of a base runner’s number of steals, that figure is probably the best statistical indicator of speed without actually watching the player run the bases.  However, even stolen base totals can be somewhat misleading.

Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill were two of the biggest contributors to the New York Yankees’ dynasty in the late 1990’s.  In 2001, Williams was coming off four consecutive gold gloves as a center fielder, and was one of the best all-around players in the game at 32-years-old.  O’Neill was 38, and in his final year before retirement.  By all measures, Bernie Williams was a faster baseball player than Paul O’Neill, but O’Neill finished the season with 22 steals, while Williams had 15.  This is a perfect example where using a stopwatch on a regular basis could answer the obvious question: How did 38-year-old Paul O’Neill steal more bases than 32-year-old Gold Glover Bernie Williams?  Without going back and watching every Yankees game from 2001, I’m willing to bet that O’Neill, who was always considered a very intelligent player, took full advantage of pitchers who were slow to the plate.

The stopwatch’s advantage is that it provides you with objective and accurate information every time.  Statistics can tell you a lot, but they don’t always tell you the whole story.

A stopwatch can also be used to gauge a catcher’s “pop time,” or the time it takes for the catcher to throw the ball to second base.  This is measured from when the ball “pops” into the catcher’s glove and until the ensuing throw “pops” into the middle infielder’s glove.  Coaches look for a pop time of no more than 2.0 seconds in the same way they look for 1.3 seconds from pitchers.  To put that in perspective, Yadier Molina’s pop times during his prime were in the low 1.8s.  That’s less than two tenths of a second separating an average time from arguably the best defensive catcher of this generation.  The fabled “one-seven” is so rare that a catcher like Molina or Ivan Rodriguez may only hit that number a handful of times in a given year.

Pop times are tougher to judge, because there are far less actual steal attempts than there are pitches delivered from the stretch.  You can time catchers when they throw to second just before a new inning begins, but in those cases, the catcher is sometimes focusing on accuracy or release point, and not necessarily velocity.  Those warm-up throws are also under more favorable conditions where the catcher doesn’t have to worry about being obstructed by the hitter or handling a pitch in a difficult location.

If you focus on the pitcher’s delivery to the plate, you should be able to deduce the catcher’s arm strength anyway.  In other words, if the pitcher is a “1.2” and the runner was safe, the catcher is probably above 2.0 seconds (or the runner is exceptionally fast).  If the pitcher is a “1.4” and the runner is out, the catcher has a special arm (or a slower runner took a gamble and lost).

If you’ve never used a stopwatch on a broadcast, it might take some practice, so you can start risk-free by watching spring training games this March.  Come up with a routine where starting and stopping becomes second nature, and you can keep your eyes on the field.  This is the main reason why I recommend tracking pitches on your scorecard as opposed to using a hand counter.

You should get an accurate feel for the pitcher’s range within the first two innings.  Just observe the times during the pitcher’s first five to seven pitches out of the stretch.  You can say something like, “he’s been clocked as high as 1.5 seconds tonight” or “he’s ranged between 1.29 and 1.33 seconds.”  Hit “start” as soon as the pitcher begins his motion, and hit “stop” when the ball reaches the catcher’s glove.

The most interesting thing I’ve noticed since using a stopwatch in the booth is that the vast majority of pitchers fall in line with the “1.3” category.  So when you do catch an outlier in either direction, it really does serve as a good indication as to how much running you can expect that night.

Make sure to invest in a quality stopwatch.  I had a flimsy stopwatch for most of 2015 where the start/stop trigger would misfire, essentially defeating the purpose.  Don’t try to use your smartphone either.  It’s really easy to misfire on the touch screen while keeping your eyes on the field.  I recommend the Oslo M537.  It’s affordable, sleek, never misfires, and can help you in an even greater capacity down the road.

Let a stopwatch become your greatest tool this summer, and we can collectively improve the listener’s experience.

stopwatch-booth

The Oslo M537 before a game at St. Paul’s CHS Field in 2016.

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