O's to focus on stopping steals in '09
Pitching coach Kranitz preaches importance of keeping eye on first
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hold the ball. Look over. Step off. Throw to first.
It's a simple checklist, but it's one that can save the game. The Orioles have been near the bottom of the league's charts in allowing stolen bases over the past two seasons, and pitching coach Rick Kranitz has made it a priority this spring to make sure his staff knows how important it is to control the running game.
And from his perspective, it doesn't mean altering the way you pitch or taking concentration away from the man in the batter's box. Kranitz wants his pitchers to be vigilant and to not allow baserunners to get too big a lead from first base, and he wants them to be able to employ a host of different methods to do it.
"It's not even having a great move as much as disrupting the timing of the runner," Kranitz said Thursday morning. "Pitchers are creatures of habit, and when they get out there without working on it, they become predictable. All you have to do is make it a little bit tougher for that guy to run. Some guys are going to get their steals.
"But the more you can keep them on first base, the better chance you have at a double play."
And that lesson matters even more when you consider the specifics. The Orioles have walked more batters than any American League team in each of the past three seasons, and over the past two years, they've allowed more stolen bases (239) and caught runners at a worse percentage (21.4) than all but the Padres and Yankees.
Departed catcher Ramon Hernandez, who allowed 99 stolen bases last season, got a lot of blame for that statistic, but the fact is that most bases are stolen before the catcher even gets the ball. Kranitz and starting catcher Gregg Zaun both agreed on that sentiment, and Zaun took things a little bit further.
"Ninety-nine percent of the bases that are stolen in the big leagues are stolen off the pitcher," said the veteran backstop. "They're either not quick enough to the plate or they don't vary their times to the plate. They fall into patterns, just like everybody else, or they tip their pickoff move or tip when they're going to the plate."
Zaun elaborated, saying it all comes down to simple mathematics. Most catchers need at least two seconds to get the ball to second base, and most pitchers deliver to home plate in 1.3 seconds or shorter. Anything more than that is all but giving a base to a speedy runner, which explains why extra vigilance is necessary.
"It's almost like a batting average," said Zaun. "What they call a respectable caught-stealing percentage is over 30 percent, which means seven out of 10 guys are still getting there. There's a reason for that. There's a coach standing there with a stopwatch. They know how fast their guy is at first and they know how slow the pitcher is to the plate. I can do simple math and know it's going to take a perfect throw to get him. And there's some situations where even a perfect throw doesn't do it, and that's when you see guys go in there with no reason to throw.
"You can't outrun the baseball. A two-second throw should get most guys. But with a burner like [Rays outfielder] Carl Crawford, the pitcher's got to be quick, the catcher's got to be quick and the throw's got to be accurate."
So how can pitchers cut into the margins? As Kranitz said, their best bet is to make the runner uncomfortable. That means looking over to first more than once in some cases, and pausing five seconds before you pitch one time and throwing immediately another. More importantly, it means making it a priority to hold the runner.
"Working quick is not just getting the ball and throwing," Kranitz said. "Working quick is getting the ball and getting on the mound; being ready, not walking around. If you do it right, you can still work quick and hold the ball."
And if preaching that mantra wasn't enough, Kranitz saw his young staff get an object lesson in Wednesday's exhibition against the Dominican Republic. Veteran ace Pedro Martinez showed them everything in the textbook on how to frustrate a hitter, and Kranitz said that watching that unfold in front of them should make more of an impact than 1,000 lectures.
"There's a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher doing it," said Kranitz. "He disrupted all of Adam Jones' timing at first base, and that's all you try to do. He threw over, but he probably didn't have to. That, to me, was just a learning tool for our guys. If they didn't get anything out of that, that's their fault. You've got to watch the game."
Jones, the foil of that lesson, got plenty out of it, too. The center fielder has said that he wants to steal more bases this season, and he also said he learned a lot from trying to get a jump on Martinez.
"He was annoying," he said. "He changes up everything. The first time, he held it for four seconds. I wanted to go, so I'm on my toes, but he's holding the ball and my legs are getting tired. It gets to my heels, and then I have no momentum. And then he'd just go quicker, and he'd mix it up better than anybody I've ever seen."
While modern-day analysis has downplayed the significance of the stolen base, Zaun said he figures that each theft counts as "a quarter of a run" because the runner is one base closer to home. Zaun also said that stealing third base is easier than second, largely because the pitcher can't keep as good a tab on the runner.
Nowadays, many teams preach the slide step, a one-step cure-all that some pitchers just can't master. And if they can't do it, Zaun said they need to find a different way to keep the runner anchored in place.
"It has to start early in their career," he said. "Especially in the AL, there's such an onus on quality pitches. There's just a lot of guys in the game who can't be quick to the plate and make quality pitches. When you can't do that, you have to focus on what your strengths are. If you're not a guy who can make quality pitches and be quick, you have to vary the time you hold onto the ball. You need to make the runners wait for you and get on their heels. You need to concentrate on getting the first guy of every inning out, and especially if they can run.
"There are guys that can really slow down a running game because of how well they throw behind the plate, but for the most part, the actual art of holding runners is 100 percent the pitcher's responsibility."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.