ST. PETERSBURG — When asked to describe in one word the job his pitchers did last season holding runners on base, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “Bad.”
Then he said, “Poor.”
Then he said, “Annoying.”
Maddon talks often about controlling the running game, about how important it is in the run-prevention side of their game.
“Always, and we didn’t do it last year,” Maddon said. “We were bad at it.”
So bad that holding runners on base has been a major emphasis of camp.
“It’s been a struggle for me,” Alex Cobb said. “It’s something, I wouldn’t say ashamed of, but I definitely feel very disappointed in the fact that people know that they can steal off me. I take pride in trying to be as well-rounded as I can, and if that’s an area that’s lacking, I’m a little disappointed in that.”
Opposing runners were 12-for-16 against Cobb in stolen-base attempts in 2013. They were 7-for-7 against Matt Moore, 16-for-18 against Chris Archer, 6-for-10 against Jeremy Hellickson and only 11-for-21 against David Price.
“What we’re about is run prevention. Meaning, not allowing people to score,” Archer said, “but more importantly, not allowing them to get the extra base, because when they get that extra base, then a base hit scores them, or if they get to third, a pop fly scores them. Even an infield hit scores them. Over the course of the season, if we can cut that down to half, that’s a lot of runs saved, and that translates to wins.”
The addition of catcher Ryan Hanigan gives the Rays two catchers who excel at throwing out base-stealers.
“When you have the tools in our grasp with Hanigan and (Jose) Molina, you’re a fool not to use them, and whether you got to work on it day and night, you got to figure out a way to give them a chance,” Cobb said.
Hanigan threw out 40 percent of base-stealers during his career, well above the league-wide 28 percent success rate for National League catchers. Molina has a career caught-stealing average of 34.5 percent, which is fifth-best among active catchers.
Having those two behind the plate is a boon to a pitching staff that can hold a runner on base.
“It’s a tandem. We have to work together,” Hanigan said. “These guys are doing a great job. They’re working at it. There’s going to be times when (the base runner) gets the pitcher or they get me, but for the most part I’ve seen a consistent effort with that and a pretty good job, so far, so hopefully that will improve this year.”
Ideally, pitchers should deliver the ball to home plate in 1.3 seconds. That allows the catcher to get the ball down to second base within 2 seconds from the time the pitcher began his warm-up. That usually is fast enough to catch most base runners.
Pitchers help themselves and their catcher by not allowing the runner to get a jump. He can do that by varying how long he holds the ball once he is set. Being quicker to the plate helps, too. The key is getting the front foot down more quickly. Doing that speeds up the delivery while allowing the pitcher to maintain his mechanics.
“We have a lot of sinker-ball pitchers,” Maddon said. “Sinker-ball pitchers who do not control the running game are hurting themselves and the team, because there’s the string threat of one ground ball making two outs. But if you can’t keep that guy at first base, you take that chance away.”