Tribe turns focus to cutting down steals
Pitchers, not just Martinez, responsible for foes' high '06 totals
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Carl Willis understands why standout high school and college pitchers probably don't pay much attention to baserunners.They don't have many baserunners. "If you're a dominant pitcher at a young age, you don't worry about baserunners," Willis said. "Because if you get a baserunner, you say, 'I'll just strike the next three guys out.'" Of course, this attitude doesn't work forever, as the Indians pitching coach can attest. "Eventually," Willis said, "the game catches up to you." It's certainly caught up with the Indians in recent years, as the team has had particular trouble catching up with opposing runners. But while fingers are often pointed at catcher Victor Martinez, who threw out just 13.8 percent of those trying to steal off him last year, Willis believes that his pitching staff shares the accountability. And so, just as it was a year ago, controlling the running game has been an emphasis at Indians camp. The basic idea is to tattoo into each and every pitcher's head the idea of looking runners back to the bag and being quicker to the plate. "We try to incorporate it in every day," Willis said. "Last year, we worked on it in [pitchers' fielding practice], but this year, we're trying to simulate running-game situations every day with our pitchers." This time, of course, the Indians are hoping for better results in the season proper. In 2006, the basepaths were home to a track meet, and the Indians were the reluctant hosts. The club allowed 128 stolen bases last season, second in the American League only to the Blue Jays, who allowed 130. The Indians threw out 34 runners, while the Blue Jays threw out 32. The gaudy stolen base totals are as much a matter of reputation as anything. Teams were far from reluctant to test Indians pitchers and Martinez's arm. The Tribe and the Blue Jays tied for the most attempted steals allowed with 162. Ever since he allowed six stolen bases in a single game against the Yankees last July, Martinez has worked diligently to improve his footwork and his throwing mechanics behind the plate. Those efforts improved his success at nabbing runners, as he threw out 22 percent (11 of 20) runners who tried to steal off him from July 7 through the end of the season. Martinez can't do it alone, though. "It starts with the pitcher on the mound," manager Eric Wedge said. "The catcher has the ability to control the running game as well. But it starts with the guy with the baseball in his hand."
Starting pitchers Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia all had double-digit steals totals logged against them in '06. Runners stole 18 bases with Byrd on the mound, getting caught five times; they stole 16 against Westbrook, with three caught; and they stole 14 against Sabathia, with five caught.Before he was booted off the club in June, Jason Johnson also had trouble keeping his eye on the running game. He allowed 13 stolen bases in 77 innings pitched with the Tribe. In contrast, Cliff Lee pitched 200 2/3 innings and allowed only seven steals, with three runners caught and two picked off. As far as relievers are concerned, Fernando Cabrera (11 steals allowed, six runners caught) and Fausto Carmona (10 steals allowed, two caught) were the two biggest offenders when it came to attempts at stopping the run. To limit the big stolen-base numbers from popping up, a pitcher can try to throw off a runner's timing by varying his looks to the bag or mixing up the amount of time he takes between pitches. "There's so much focus on delivering the ball to home plate," Wedge said. "But prior to that, there are certain things you need to do before you make that decision. If you're holding the ball for 1 1/2 seconds on the mound, I guarantee you it feels like 10 seconds." It feels that way to both the runner and the pitcher. That's why pitchers must draw a fine line between messing with the minds of opposing runners and messing up their own routines. For the Indians pitchers, that's still a work in progress, as the statistics indicate. But Wedge and Willis both believe that the work being done in camp can and will go a long way to improving the Tribe's performance in this area. Because, while preventing the run might not be a regular part of a pitcher's routine in the early stages of his baseball career, the big leagues tend to force the issue. "It has to be a given," Wedge said. "We need to get that in our back pocket and get that taken care of. The more [the pitchers] can do it on their own and make it a learned trait, over time, the more comfortable they're going to be with it."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.