Baseball Men - The Leadoff


Posted Nov 29, 2006


Our exclusive “Baseball Men” interview series continues with Tim Raines, a seven-time All-Star who stole 808 career bases.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans’.

 

 

Tim Raines wasn’t the most prolific base stealer in Major League history, but he may have been the most effective thief the game’s ever seen.

 

Four players stole more bases than Raines’ 808 total, but it’s Raines’ 84.7% stolen base success that rates #1 on the all time list among those with more than 300 career bases. To put that mark into perspective, consider that Rickey Henderson and Hall-of-Famer Lou Brock put up career rates of 80.7% and 75.3%, which would be the equivalent of falling behind a career .300 hitter with .286 and .267 averages or a 500-home run hitter with 476 and 445 longballs. Henderson and Brock were among the best of base runners, but Raines may have been the very best.

 

Add that heady speed to a hitting that surpassed legends like Brock and Pete Rose in categories like on-base percentage (.385), slugging (.425) & home runs (170), and you have the makings of a Hall of Fame-caliber career as a leadoff man. Raines may not have earned Rickey-type headlines while playing 12 years in out-of-the way Montreal, but the seven-time All Star may well have been Henderson’s overall equal as a player for the 1980’s or any other era.

 

The jovial, well-liked Raines currently serves as a coach / base running instructor for the 2005 World Champion White Sox. Recently, he discussed leading off:

 

 

When you were growing up in Florida, you were a superb all-around athlete who was highly recruited in both baseball and football -

 

Yeah.

 

How did you make the right choice?

 

(chuckles) I loved football and I was highly recruited, but I basically chose baseball because of my father’s example. He played semi-pro ball when my brothers and I were growing up, and that got us started. I just loved playing the game.

 

Also, when I was 16, 17 years old, Joe Morgan won his MVP awards, and that really got me, in particular, interested. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he had some pop in his bat, could steal bases, and could field his position [at second base], so I kind of modeled my game after him.

 

Was there a particular time when you started to establish yourself as an exceptional base stealer?

 

It’s funny, I didn’t put any special emphasis on that until, I want to say, my second season in the Minors [1978], in Double-A Memphis. By the time I was first called up to Montreal, in September ’79, I knew, at the very least, I could establish myself as a pinch runner. I felt I could keep up with speedy guys like Ron LeFlore and Rodney Scott, who were batting #1 and #2 at the time.

 

Soon enough, you were hitting leadoff for the Expos. Was your approach at the plate different than it would have been if you were hitting further down in the lineup?

 

Well, before Ron left for Chicago, he’d already gotten me thinking about my approach at the plate, just in the way that he was looking to get on though either a walk or a hit. It didn’t matter to him, and I said, ‘Hey, that makes a lot of sense’. I knew that, anyway, from a young age, but my early days in the Majors really reinforced the thought.

 

Was my hitting approach different than it would have been different than it would have been in the #5 spot? Probably. I measured my success in the times I got on base and, even more importantly, in scoring runs. Batting average and power numbers were very nice, but the main idea was to score more runs than the other guys.

 

Do you believe there’s a special mental poise involved in leadoff hitting?

 

I’d say so. It’s important to force pitchers to show all their pitches, so very often you have to go deep into counts. Even good hitters can get a bit nervous about hitting with two strikes and they may not have the same kind of patience. Either that, or they’re just not willing to cut down on their swing to make contact. Me, personally, I wasn’t too worried about that.

 

With guys like Andre Dawson and Gary Carter on your early Expos teams, did that make you more comfortable as a leadoff hitter?

 

No doubt about it. I knew what they could do in hitting for power and driving in runs, and it made me more comfortable in concentrating in my switch hitting, on-base, steals, and base running. I settled into the leadoff role relatively early, and I focused on becoming the perfect leadoff guy.

 

How do you mean?

 

Put it this way - I loved being a guy that could disrupt a whole game. I loved the fact that, right off the bat, pitchers were worrying, ‘I can’t walk Raines, but he can hit, too, and what if he gets on base, he’ll mess up the infield defense . . .’ To me, that was the heart of team-based offense, the way that the #1 hitter can shake things up for the follow-up guys.

 

As fast as you were, you may have been just as heady in the way you ran the bases. I’m sure you know that you had one of the highest steal success rates of all time at 85%.

 

That’s when you have to talk about the craft of base running.

 

It definitely starts with speed, and I had a God-given gift in that, but it didn’t take me too long to realize it wasn’t nearly enough. Maybe in my first or second year in Montreal, I’d work with a first-base coach by the name of Steve Burris, and he’d sit me down and go over his book on pitchers. We’d talk about their throwing motions, their pickoff moves, their times to the plate. He was one of the first to do that and, soon enough, I started keeping my own book.

 

I have to say, as I became more and more successful, I got pretty confident. When I’d face a new pitcher, for instance, I’d intentionally take a bigger lead off first, just to challenge him to throw back to the bag and see what he had. If he didn’t throw back enough, that was fine, too, because it’d make it easier to steal.

 

Again, you were doing your best to disrupt the game.

 

Exactly. Constantly disrupting the defense, constantly setting the tempo. Running hard, forcing errors.

 

When you did go for steals, what was the difference between taking the bag and getting gunned down?

 

Oh, tenths of a second. Most of the time, a split second, one way or the other, would be a lot.

 

I believe that, in those early years, the Expos were one of the first teams to time pitchers’ motions, down to tenths of a second, and that helped me look for steal opportunities. The exact number, I believe was 1.3 seconds. If a pitcher couldn’t get through his motion and get the ball to home plate in less than 1.3 seconds, I could almost always take second with the right jump.

 

Were you stealing on the catchers as well?

 

I felt I was stealing on pitchers, mostly, not the catchers. If I was worried about a quick-release pitcher or a strong-armed catcher, that’s when I would start focusing in on counts, looking for spots where they might try to sneak in an off-speed pitch.

 

Because you were looking to gain another fraction of a second that way.

 

Right. The idea is - if you can’t gain an advantage in a pitcher’s motion, find something in a pitcher’s throw to the plate. Off-speed pitches are just a bit slower but, more importantly, they’re more likely to get down in the dirt, or at least force a catcher into a lower crouch.

 

How did you respond to pitchers’ new slide-steps in the ‘80’s?

 

Oh, that’s when they started getting smart. Bruce Sutter was one of the first to come up with a slide-step.

 

Most slide-step motions were about 1.1-1.2 [seconds]. Under those circumstances, I’d have to concentrate even more on ‘tells’ in pitchers’ going to the plate, whether that be a twitch or a lean or hand placement. Anything that told me how they were committing to home plate. It could be any little advantage. Some pitchers, if you followed their eyes, they gave themselves away. There were things they’d do - they didn’t even know they were doing them.

 

Sometimes, on the bench, I’d ball hands over my eyes, as if I was watching through a telescope, watching nothing except the pitcher and his give-away’s. Me and him.

 

What pitchers stand out in your mind as the toughest guys for you to steal on?

 

Generally, it was the lefties who hung their leg in mid-motion, just waiting for me to make my move before they committed themselves. It was almost a balk and we’d tell the umpires as much, but they got away with it. The best of the best defensive pitchers repeated their throwing motions in such a way that you couldn’t read their pickoff move at all.

 

Fernando Valenzuela comes to mind. Jimmy Key. Later, Andy Pettitte. Those guys could pick you off even if you weren’t necessarily thinking of running. Nowadays, [Mark] Buehrle is doing a good job against runners.

 

Who were the easiest guys to steal on?

 

Power pitchers with big windups. Nolan [Ryan], [Dwight] Gooden, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, those type of guys. They generated velocity with their legs, so they couldn’t really couldn’t cut down too much or slide-step.

 

With Clemens, it was funny. The first few times I faced him, he tried to alter his motion and cut my leads off the bag, but that threw him off own game, and he didn’t like that too much, so he decided, ‘OK, I’m just gonna throw my pitch and strike out the batter’. And, plenty of times he did - that’s how he dealt with runners!

 

Did you ever talk to your pitching staffs about what you were doing as a base runner, or ask them what they were trying to do against opposing runners?

 

Not really. I could be friends with pitchers on my teams, and we had respect for each other as ball players, but we didn’t talk about on-field stuff too much.

 

Did you rely much on your coaches when you were out on the base paths?

 

Not really. Once I established myself in the Majors, I made a point of learning the finer points on my own. I learned who had a great arm, how to read contact off the bat, the different parks’ dimensions.

 

Good base running is about good preparation and good instincts. It’s up to the player to know what to do in the moment. That’s the game. My attitude is - if you’re waiting for a first base coach to tell you to get back on a pickoff throw, or [waiting for] a third base coach to tell you to advance, you’re going to be out, anyway.

 

As a coach today, I try to make sure that players have their head in the game, and more than anything else, I want them to know the difference between smart-aggressive and dumb-aggressive. I think all our players know when certain situations call for them to try to stretch out an extra-base hit or try for a steal. They don’t do it just for the heck of it.

 

Well, the 2005 White Sox didn’t steal very often, but when they did try for steals, very often, they were successful.

 

If I may say so, I think our base running really helped us win the championship. We won a lot of one-run games, and it was because we were willing to take walks, play team ball, and take our opportunities. We scored runs, sometimes, without a single hit in an inning, and that made a difference.

 

Did steal statistics ever motivate you?

 

Not at all. I wanted to be an all-around threat, in that I could be a good base runner as well as a good base stealer, someone who knew how to take the extra base from first to third or score from second on a single. That might not show up in the numbers, but it would help us win. I took pride in being a team player.

 

Here’s another thing - I went for a steal if, and only if, the situation called for it. If I ran around at will, I’d probably have had multiple 100-steal seasons, but what’s the point in padding individual numbers? I didn’t feel like I had to put up Rickey [Henderson] or Vince Coleman-type numbers for my teams to win. If anything, there were times I tried to get away from the stolen base stats, just because I wanted to be known as a complete player. I wanted them to say, ‘Tim Raines can do it all’.

 

Even so, today’s league leaders might put up half the stolen bases a Rickey Henderson or a Tim Raines put up 20 years ago. How do you see that change in the game?

 

(chuckles) You know where my heart is on that. I don’t like it too much.

 

There is a different player out there today, simple as that. A guy at first doesn’t necessarily have to think about stealing and picking up extra bases too much, just because so many batters are driving in runs through pure extra-base power.

 

I’d like to see more players who can do everything - work a count, work a pitcher, tear up the base paths. The only ones left, maybe, are guys like Ichiro [Suzuki], Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik with the [White] Sox. They’re hard to find. That part of the game is being lost in a home run era.

 

Do you think today’s Major Leaguers don’t know as much about the craft in base stealing?

 

Well, there are some good ones out there, but too many runners pass up opportunities to pressure their opponents.

 

As a coach, I try to say - be smart-aggressive when you’re on base. Get into the details in pitchers’ motions and pickoff moves. Do your best, always, to make the other guy stop you. Don’t pull up before a base - force the fielders to make throws, then take advantage of their mistakes. Also, take secondary leads. Take a lead after the pitch is released, just to be ready for the ball being put in play.

 

I guess it’s easy to forget about the physical punishment involved in your base running, too. How did ‘Rock’ Raines stay so resilient for so long?

 

That goes all the way back to my football mentality. It didn’t bother me too much to take out a fielder on a double play, go all out on a slide, run into a hard tag. In a way, I was a football guy playing baseball!

 

A lot of it was natural gifts, too. I was smaller than some, but I could stay strong without a lot of weight lifting. I did do a lot of stretching, but I was blessed with a good constitution. I missed some games, but generally, the more I played, the stronger I got.

 

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘speed never slumps’. Is there something to that, or were there periods when you were off your game as a runner?

 

Generally, I could stay effective throughout the year. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s that I started to lose half a step, and even then, I did my best to make up for it with even more preparation.

 

Can I ask a kind of silly question?

 

Go ahead.

 

Tell me what you think when you hear ‘hidden ball trick’.

 

Oh, that one. I don’t think anyone ever tried that with me.

 

Not once?

 

Not once, that I can remember.

 

Why not?

 

I guess they figured it would be showing me up.

 

Would they have been right?

 

(chuckles) Yeah.

 

If someone had ever tried to pull that on me, it would motivate me even more. I believe I had a reputation as a guy who kept his head in the game at all times. I hope most of my opponents respected that.

 

I guess the ultimate measure of respect for a ball player is in the Hall of Fame ballot. How do you feel about your chances? As you know, more than a few commentators believe you belong in Cooperstown.

 

I’m very, very grateful for that. I hope it’s true. I’m proud of my career as a player -it was exciting.

 

Some of my best years were in Montreal and I enjoyed my time there, but playing in that small market might have hurt my chances. It’s a tough question, in a way. I guess I’m cautiously optimistic, that would be the way to say it. We’ll see.

 

(Editor’s note: Raines will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration for the first time following the 2007 season.)

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.



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