When it comes to stealing bases, Red Sox smarter than your average team
Dustin Pedroia played along for a while.
The Red Sox second baseman talked about the team's baseball intellect and how it has helped in stealing bases -- lots of them -- at a success rate rarely seen since the advent of the live-ball era.
"Our team studies the game," Pedroia said. "We're trying to do anything we can to learn, and that's basically it."
But how? What's the most crucial thing to look for?
"Just watch the game," Pedroia said. "Watch it with a purpose. As players, if you're not hitting that inning, don't go inside and hang out and watch TV. Watch the game. If you do that, you can pick up keys here and there. You get more intelligent."
So you mean go to school on the pitcher's moves, his habits, almost like picking up the tells from a poker player?
By then, Pedroia had reached his breaking point. "It's not rocket science," he said. "If you watch it long enough, you might figure something out. We play a lot of games."
These observant Red Sox tend to win most of them. Aside from a talented and deep roster, the players point to this "baseball junkie" mentality as another reason why they advanced to face the Tigers in the ALCS, which began Saturday night at Fenway Park.
Sure, the Red Sox scored 853 runs during the regular season -- 57 more than runner-up Detroit -- and their .349 on-base percentage led baseball. Those numbers explain plenty, but one of the better indicators of what makes the Red Sox tick was their ability to steal bases at an amazing 87 percent clip.
The Red Sox finished fourth with 123 -- the Royals were tops with 153 -- but were caught only 19 times. When Daniel Nava was thrown out trying to swipe second in the eighth inning of Tuesday night's ALDS Game 4 against the Rays, it ended a streak of 45 straight stolen-base attempts without being thrown out.
Factor in that the 2013 MLB success rate for steals was 72.5 percent and you get the sense that the Red Sox, as Pedroia suggested, may have figured something out.
"I think it's baseball knowledge," Jonny Gomes said. "How else do you really explain it when [Jarrod] Saltalamacchia has bags or [David] Ross has bags? You don't get fast in an offseason. You don't get smart in an offseason. It's just gone along with this team being baseball junkies and paying attention to details.
"You give us an inch, we'll take a mile. You don't worry about a guy on the basepaths, he's gone. Anyone -- one through nine. It's just another tool we have."
Gomes and Ross each went 1-for-1 in stolen-base attempts. Saltalamacchia grabbed four and was nabbed once. The real difference-makers were the Red Sox's top three hitters: Jacoby Ellsbury (52), Shane Victorino (21) and Pedroia (17).
When a member of that group gets on base, it quickly changes the feel of an inning. Once the opposing pitcher has to think about something other than what's happening at the plate, the Red Sox work to exploit that edge.
"It definitely has an impact on what pitches he throws to the hitter," Ellsbury said. "If he comes over numerous times, stepping off, out of his rhythm, that sort of thing. A lot of times it allows maybe a pitcher that would have thrown a curveball in a count, he's distracted a little bit and leaves a fastball right over the middle."
The Red Sox used that to their advantage in the course of a long season, but during the playoffs, that practice can really yield dividends. Teams are working on tight margins in October, and exerting this kind of additional pressure through aggressive baserunning can decide games.
To eliminate the Rays in Game 4, the Red Sox scored what turned out to be the winning run on a wild pitch, a stolen base and an infield single that Victorino earned by a half-step.
John Farrell worked to cultivate that mind-set in his first spring training as Boston's manager, and it developed into a clubhouse-wide religion. "The one thing that stands out with the base-stealing and the overall tone of the baserunning is to try to put as much pressure on the opposition as we can," he said. "And that means running smart. Not just giving outs away."
Maybe it's not rocket science. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. And no one does it as well as the Red Sox.