Pirates pitchers told to hold runners better this season

Rob Biertempfel
| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 11:30 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Pirates catchers took a lot of heat last season for the team's inability to control the running game. Opposing base-stealers had an 89 percent success rate, making the Pirates by far the easiest team in the majors to run against.

However, manager Clint Hurdle doesn't point a finger at the guys behind the plate.

“It's never all on the catcher,” Hurdle said. “It's more on the pitcher. There were times when our catchers had no chance.”

That's why Pirates pitchers have been working from the first day of spring training on ways to keep runners in check. Being quicker to home plate is a good place to start.

“If you can unload at 1.3 (seconds), we should have a chance to throw them out,” Hurdle said. “When you go 1.4 (seconds), you've really decreased your odds. When you're over that, you really have no chance.”

There are other ways to frustrate a baserunner. Holds, slide steps, throws to the bag and varied tempo can cause shorter leads and poorer jumps.

“It's about paying attention to it, understanding why it's important and then going out and actually executing it,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “That is going to be a focus for us this year.”

Although Hurdle stresses the pitchers are most responsible for any improvement, the addition of catcher Russell Martin also should help. Over seven seasons, Martin has thrown out 30 percent of baserunners.

“It's done as a team,” Martin said. “If the pitchers hold runners, vary their times and are quicker to the plate, we're going to have a better chance of throwing guys out. It helps if you have a catcher who can catch and throw, as well.”

When right-hander James McDonald was on the mound last year, opponents were successful in 12 of 16 steal attempts. So far this spring, he's put a lot of effort into controlling runners, even when he's not on the mound.

“If I'm playing catch or doing a PFP (pitchers fielding drill), I'll hold, hold, hold so I feel comfortable doing it,” McDonald said. “That way, when I'm on the mound, it doesn't feel awkward. It's really helped.”

So far, the results have been mixed. McDonald has at times struggled with his command when pitching out of the stretch.

“Controlling the running game is good,” McDonald said. “But I think there are some situations when you've got to make (executing) pitches the key focus.”

Hurdle disagreed.

“They're not always going to hit their spots or make that wipeout pitch,” Hurdle said. “That's what we've seen in the second half of the past two seasons. We had a lot of situations in the first half when things could've gotten complicated, but we made pitches to get out of it. We didn't make those same pitches later.

“It is a touch and a feel. It's part of the package that they're trying ... no, not trying — they're going to improve. There will be times when they get no sign, and we sell out to the pitch. We'll do that when it's appropriate.”

But, more often than not, keeping the runner grounded will come first.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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