Improved baserunning contributes to Pirates' success
Which of the following baserunners would you rather have on your team?
• Player A stole 23 bases in 33 attempts, a 70-percent success rate, and was picked off four times over 158 games. While on base, he took an extra bag on a single or two extra on a double 38 percent of the time and scored from second on a single 76 percent of the time.
• Player B stole 20 bases in 25 attempts, an 80-percent clip, and was picked off once over 90 games. His extra-bases-taken percentage was 69, and he crossed home from second on singles 87 percent of time.
Player A is Andrew McCutchen in 2011. Player B is Andrew McCutchen in 2013, and, yeah, he'd rather have Player B, too. That's why the Pirates' center fielder has put time into the subtleties of rounding the diamond to supplement his trademark speed.
“It's just about studying the game, studying the pitcher,” McCutchen said. “It's the biggest key.”
McCutchen's growth is part of a team-wide trend of improved baserunning that's seen the Pirates' National League ranking rise from 12th in stolen-base percentage and 14th in extra-bases-taken percentage in 2011 to fourth and third in those categories, respectively, in 2013.
Manager Clint Hurdle said first-base coach Rick Sofield has challenged players to get out of their comfort zones this season.
McCutchen and teammate Starling Marte, who's taken 18 percent more bases and converted 3 percent more steal attempts in higher volume than his rookie year, have been two of the biggest success stories, which Hurdle attributes to focus on the finer points over relying simply on their blazing speed.
“They've both worked very hard on their turns and their cuts around bases,” Hurdle said. “They've both worked extremely hard on their first-step quickness and crossover quickness. Secondary leads are just as important, and they've paid great attention to that, so there's a lot of ways (they've improved).”
But the team is better, too, which has translated not only into moving more runners up but getting them home.
The Pirates are scoring from second on singles 65 percent of the time this season compared to 59 percent in 2011. They're also getting home from first on doubles 50 percent of the time compared to 33 percent two years ago.
The improvement hasn't been limited to the times the Pirates have pushed opponents with the running game. They've also scaled back their caught stealing numbers and are on pace to cut down their times picked off by almost a third.
“If you don't get a good jump, don't go,” McCutchen said. “You don't always have to go.”
That's the type of cool Sofield likes to see. And as the Pirates move forward, his biggest emphasis is on runners seeing the right moves for given situations and not so much being aggressive or conservative for the sake of either.
Whether its studying opposing pitchers' tendencies to see chances to run or knowing when to not run into outs, he thinks it's all part of keeping runners' numbers going in the right direction, even if hitters sometime struggle.
“I think what they're learning more than anything is to relax in those spots,” Sofield said. “They recognize opportunities to be aggressive, they recognize opportunities when they've got to play the scoreboard, and we're running the bases well.”
Adam Bittner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.