One glaring weakness in 2012 was the inability of certain starting pitchers to hold runners. This flaw was all the more noticeable on a team whose offense couldn’t afford to give up undeserved runs.
Ubaldo Jimenez was the worst offender. No pitcher in the American League yielded more stolen bases than Jimenez, who allowed 32 stolen bases in 37 attempts.
Second on the list of the AL’s least attentive pitchers was Justin Masterson, who gave up 25 stolen bases in 32 attempts.
Zach McAllister threw only 125⅓ innings last year but allowed 18 stolen bases, with only one runner being thrown out, tying him for 10th place.
“I talked to Zach over the winter about varying his times, and he did a great job with it,” Francona said.
One weapon used to keep runners close to their bases is holding the ball. If a pitcher hangs onto the ball for varying intervals before he begins his windup, baserunners find it more difficult to time their jump toward the next base.
Probably the most effective method of controlling the running game is the slide step, a technique by which pitchers forgo lifting their front leg in an effort to speed their deliveries. Josh Tomlin, recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery, is the master of the slide step. It is rare that anyone tries to run on him.
“Pitchers who want to be in high-leverage situations have to throw strikes and hold runners,” Francona said.
In his early years as a starter in Cleveland, C.C. Sabathia was extremely derelict in keeping an eye on baserunners.
When they took advantage of his carelessness, Sabathia’s response was, “I don’t care if they steal second or third, they’re not going to steal home.”
He changed his attitude after too many runners stole second or third and scored on a single, ground out to the right side, error or any other play that allowed a runner to take the one base. Last year, only 10 runners stole on Sabathia (in 12 tries), who pitched 200 innings.
As the worst offender in the league, Jimenez has gotten the attention of Francona.
“When he’d reach back for more velocity, he’d get slower to the plate,” the manager said. “He had a little rocking motion out of the stretch to gain velocity. If he stays in rhythm when he’s in his stretch, he’ll have plenty of velocity. I’m not worried about what the (radar) gun says.”
Francona wants his pitchers to be as proficient as they can at keeping runners close to their bases, but it can be counterproductive to put too much emphasis on corrective measures.
Why? If a pitcher worries too much about the runner, he can lose focus on the hitter.
“There are times when a stolen base looks a lot better than a three-run homer,” Francona says.
Brett Myers is joining the Tribe rotation for the first time this year. Last season he split time between the Astros and White Sox, abandoning his usual role to pitch in the bullpen. In 65⅓ innings, only one runner stole on Myers. Two were thrown out.
But Myers has been a starter the vast majority of his career, most recently in 2011, when he yielded 15 steals in 21 attempts, pitching 216 innings. That does not put him among the league leaders in holding runners, but with those numbers he is not really part of the problem.
The Tribe’s fifth starter probably will be either Carlos Carrasco or Scott Kazmir. Neither pitcher should heighten the team’s tendency to give up steals.
Kazmir hasn’t pitched a full season since 2010, when he threw 150 innings for the Angels. That year, he gave up 12 steals in 17 attempts. Carrasco didn’t pitch in 2012 after undergoing elbow surgery. In 2011, the first year he spent the majority of the season in the big leagues, he pitched 124⅔ innings and allowed six steals in nine attempts.
Catchers routinely endure most of the blame for failing to throw out runners, but the responsibility rests at least as heavily on the pitcher. He holds the ball in his hand and has the ability to disrupt the timing of the runner before he sprints toward the next base.