Esteban German is looking for a sign. Not one of a divine nature, but something — anything from the movement of a shoulder to the shifting of weight — that can serve as his cue to leave the safe haven of first base and make a mad dash to second.
Finally, the pitcher delivers, and German takes off, given only a few precious seconds to traverse 90 feet. He slides in just before the tag, safe, another base stolen, another notch in his belt in this game-within-the-game.
Stealing bases is one of the Seibu Lions infielder’s strengths, and he’s among NPB’s best. He spends hours studying pitchers’ motions and unraveling tendencies, all to better know when the throw is going home, or when a pitcher will try to pick him off.
German may at his most valuable on base, because he’s always a threat to steal and can put himself in scoring position without Seibu paying the usual price of an out via sacrifice bunt.
German, who is hitting .326 with two home runs and 46 RBIs, is second in NPB with 28 stolen bases, two behind the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Daikan Yoh. He says there’s no particular secret to stealing bases, only lots of preparation and patience.
“You just have to make adjustments,” German said. “Japanese pitchers are so quick to the plate and they’re quick to turn to first. I have to make adjustments every day, watch a lot of video, and find the right moment to go.”
Attempting a steal in a game with a finite number of outs is an all-or-nothing proposition. The runner either advances safely, or is left to explain how he let one of the team’s 27 outs go to waste. That’s too much risk for many NPB managers, who will often burn an out and bunt a runner over instead of giving the green light.
A skilled base stealer can put pressure on a pitcher, and while a professional isn’t so easily thrown off his game, the more attention the pitcher gives the runner, the less focused he is on the batter, which can lead to mistakes.
The 35-year-old German, who leads the PL with a .429 on-base percentage, says the hardest thing about stealing bases is, “Getting on base.
“You have to get on base first,” he adds, laughing.
From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game.
“They know I’m running, so they’re very careful with me when I’m on base,” German said. “The main thing is to try not to hurry and to take off at the right moment.”
While German waits for his cue, the pitcher looks for a way to either stop him, or pick him off.
“One thing is speed,” Chunichi Dragons hurler Daisuke Yamai said when listing ways to combat a good base stealer. “You’ve also got to be aware of your tempo and make sure your slide steps aren’t the same.”
Sometimes pitchers will repeatedly throw to first to keep the runner honest, but that can backfire against German.
“When they throw over back to back to back, that gets me more ready,” he said, “because there’s always more (chance of a) breaking ball. They try to throw over a couple times. They keep me close to the bag so they can throw a breaking pitch. At that time, I’m taking my chance.”
German played parts of 10 seasons in MLB, but spent the majority of his last three years in the U.S. with the with the Triple-A affiliates of the Texas Rangers — the Oklahoma City RedHawks in 2009-10 and Round Rock Express in 2011 — and stole 129 bases.
He joined Seibu in 2012 and promptly swiped 41 bags, though he feels steals are harder to come by in Japan.
“They care about it,” he says of NPB pitchers. “Sometimes you’re on second base with two outs, and they’re not giving you a chance. Back in the States, If you’re on second with two outs, the pitcher is not worried about you. They focus on the hitter. If you steal third, so what, they have to deal with the hitter. Here, they still keep you close and the middle infielders are always in the game. It’s difficult.”
Yamai has made things hard on a number of runners during his over 11-year career. He rates Chiba Lotte’s speedy Takashi Ogino as among today’s best base stealers, adding, “If I can go back, maybe (former Hanshin star Norihiro) Akahoshi or Seibu’s (Yasuyuki) Kataoka. They’re all very skillful. Their first steps are pretty fast and they have a great feel.
“German is great at stealing as well. He’s got a knack for stealing bases, I think.”