The change it produces is small enough that even the most ardent fans aren't aware of it, and it really only affects a minor subset of professional players. But if you watch Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders take his lead from first base, you can see the differences it generates in the game.
Saunders doesn't take his lead with the normal feet pointed straight ahead, body squared to the plate position. Instead, his feet point toward second, making him look more like a sprinter than a baserunner.
The point of all of this? Ultimately, to be better at stealing bases.
"Everybody has their theory behind it," said chief architect and Mariners first base coach Mike Brumley. "If you look at the real good base stealers in this league right now, Juan Pierre -- who's not here now, but was in the American League for a long time -- Coco Crisp, those guys, all take more of a sprinter's stance than the traditional staying square. Not worrying about, but being more thoughtful of getting back on a pick than moving forward.
"So we just got a little more aggressive in the stance. I feel like it puts you in a better position to get to your first step and try to be a little quicker in your direction."
Brumley developed this technique with current Brewers manager Ron Roenicke when the two were Minor League coaches in the Angels organization in the early 2000s. Although Saunders takes the approach to the extreme with his stance, it's prevalent among other players to some degree.
For instance, Chone Figgins learned the technique coming up through the Angels system and utilizes it. As do his current Mariners teammates Dustin Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Brendan Ryan. These players don't fully take on the sprinter's stance, though, just take bits and pieces.
"I've kind of tinkered with some stuff before, but I think the way my setup has been, I feel comfortable [the old] way," Ackley said.
But Saunders takes it to the extreme, with almost his entire body pointed toward second base.
"He always taught, why not, not worry about losing that step and have everything towards second base?" Saunders said. "And not being a burner -- there's some guys in the game that can just outrun the ball or outrun the stakes or whatever it may be -- I got to really get all the advantages I can get. That's one of them. It's my intent [to] not already lose that first step and already be angled toward second base so hopefully I can gain a step otherwise that I'd have lost."
Saunders, who is 12-for-15 in stolen base attempts this season, first started working with Brumley when he joined the big league club in 2009. Prior to that, he'd always found success stealing bases in high school and college. When he arrived in Class A Everett to begin his professional career, though, he was anything but successful. That first year in Everett, he was caught stealing seven times in nine attempts.
For a player that doesn't consider himself a "burner," Saunders was more or less saved by Brumley. Saunders is quick to point out, however, that just changing a stance doesn't automatically fix everything.
On top of the endless hours of practice, Saunders is aided by countless hours of research by Brumley. Before each series, Brumley estimates he spends about five hours going over video of the opposing team's pitchers.
"What we're doing, the type of sequences that the pitcher likes to use, certain situations whether he's going to use his breaking ball or do we feel like he's got a chance to waste a pitch somewhere and where is that going to be?" said Brumley of what he's looking for.
"I'd say 95 percent of [pitchers] have a tell, whether or not they know it," Saunders said. "It's just a matter of really studying it, breaking it down. We'll put up his pickoff comparatively to when he's going home and we'll try to figure out the differences, what he's doing, whether or not it's a glove positioning, shoulders turned, is he head-bobbing.
"Every day he's got something new for me. We'll go over it together, we'll take a look at pitches and then typically I got it and I know what to expect. If I do get on first base, I'm ready to go, instead of having to wait a few pitches and trying to pick it up then."
So far it's working, as the main problem has been getting on base in the first place. But when they do, beware, because Brumley has the Mariners ready to run.
Josh Liebeskind is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less