Some teams make limiting the running game a point of emphasis for pitchers from the day they sign. Others let them worry about throwing strikes and refining their secondary stuff before working on slide steps and pickoff moves at a higher level of the minors.
The Mariners are one of the clubs that emphasizes holding runners, and the results are obvious. Their high Class A High Desert club leads the minors in caught stealing percentage, while low Class A Clinton ranks third overall.
“We put a lot of emphasis on controlling the running game,” Clinton pitching coach Andrew Lorraine said. “As a club who plays in a big ballpark, from (major league pitching coach) Carl Willis on down, our pitchers know every base is important. To pitch for the Mariners you have to be quick to the plate and you have to do different things.”
Lorraine doesn’t like the term “slide step,” but he does work with his pitchers on a quick step to the plate. He said most any pitcher can get his time down to 1.2-1.3 seconds if he works on it.
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“One thing I’ve never seen is a correlation between being slower to the plate and having better stuff,” Lorraine said.
The Mariners have good catchers as well, but in no way is this the work of one or two strong-armed backstops. Four of Clinton’s five catchers this year are throwing out 40 percent or more of basestealers, as are all five catchers who have caught for High Desert.
“The Mariners do a great job of getting their pitchers to be quick to the plate. It helps us out a lot,” High Desert catcher John Hicks said. “It definitely starts with the pitcher. If they are quick to the plate, they give us a shot to throw them out.”
Stephen Pryor is a perfect case study. When the Mariners drafted Pryor in the fifth round in 2010 out of Tennessee Tech, he was a lost cause when anyone reached first base. During his junior college season, basestealers were a perfect 14-for-14 against him because Pryor was a glacial 1.9-2.0 seconds to home. With that kind of delivery, anyone but the slowest catcher could think about stealing a bag.
The Mariners worked with Pryor to speed up his times to home, and he now consistently turns in times of 1.2 seconds. He has climbed the ladder all the way to Seattle this year, and he has allowed four stolen bases in 48 innings.
“It tooks us a while, but his stuff didn’t detrioriate at all,” Lorraine said.
While the Mariners’ ability to nab basestealers stands out, the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A Reno staff stands out in a different way. Thanks to an emphasis on holding runners close, the Aces lead the minors in fewest stolen base attempts allowed.
“The Reno team is the best I’ve ever seen at holding runners,” noted Blue Jays basestealer Anthony Gose said. “Everyone for them has a slide step to the plate, and the catchers throw well.”
Gose singled out Reno’s Tyler Skaggs as the toughest pitcher he’s ever run against. “Skaggs is one of the best lefties I’ve ever seen at holding runners,” Gose said.
The numbers bear that out. Skaggs had not allowed a stolen base in eight Triple-A starts, and only one player has even tried to steal. Skaggs did allow five steals in six attempts in 14 Double-A starts. The Gose-Skaggs battle in their first matchup was quite a cat-and-mouse game. Gose is quick to point out that he did get Skaggs to balk when he took off to steal a base.
“When he got me to balk, I was holding it and he started going. He already had the bag stolen, but it is what it is. It was a split-second decision, it was so fast,” Skaggs said. “By a split of a second I messed up or else I had him picked off. I saw him going, but I was already past the line (to go home).”
Skaggs also remembers what happened the first time Gose reached in that game, however. “Ask what happened in the first inning? We got a double play because I held him close to the bag. If a guy gets a huge lead, that might kill an outing with a double play that may have been turned,” he said.
Skaggs said he has improved at holding runners as he’s climbed the ladder, in part because he knows that the Diamondbacks emphasize it.
“Kirk Gibson is huge on holding runners,” he said. “Going quick to the plate, slow to the plate. It’s varying your moves. Hold it for five seconds and then the next time for one second. You slide step without looking at him, then the next time you look at him twice and then go home. There are many different things you can do.”
Gibson’s emphasis appears to be paying off. With a .441 caught stealing percentage, the Diamondbacks led the majors. Their 38 steals allowed is best in the National League.
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