2/25/2013 4:50 P.M. ET
Bucs out to control the bases this season
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Seven decades after Ralph Kiner, of the Pirates of course, said that "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords," it might be time for a postscript to that iconic assessment:
"Yes, but those who do all the little things drive off with the loot."
We do not yet know whether a Giants revolution is brewing in baseball. What we do know is that in 2012, San Francisco became the first team in 30 years to win a World Series after finishing dead last among Major League teams in home runs. The previous team to accomplish that were the 1982 Cardinals, managed by someone always held up as a mentor by Clint Hurdle -- Whitey Herzog.
The Giants did so by making productive outs, by never missing the cutoff man, by making opponents earn what little they could get at bat, by being fundamentally sound in the field. Herzog's Cardinals had added rampant basestealing to that blueprint.
Hurdle's Pirates seem to be turning over a new leaf, by turning back the clock.
The manager saw the Bucs hit the cover off the ball last season, and it wasn't enough. With 170 homers, they were fourth in the National League, matching their best showing since being third in 1982.
On the downside, the 2012 Bucs had difficulty manufacturing runs, as they lived and died by the long ball. Situational hitting has been a major Spring Training theme, and the Bucs have had a run-scoring out in each of their first three exhibitions, plus a perfect hit-and-run single by Jordy Mercer set up the first run of Monday's games here against the Twins.
More importantly, last Spring Training Hurdle had endorsed a tolerant attitude toward both sides of the running game -- have pitchers just focus on hitters, without whose help those steals don't turn into runs; have his own runners go aggressively, without fear of repercussions should they get thrown out -- and that misfired badly.
Time for a new order.
Pirates players with the speed have crammed on the technique of successful basestealers. Pirates pitchers are minding the mandate to control the running game 24/7, even in practice.
That explains why you might spot James McDonald holding onto the ball for different intervals when simply playing catch in the outfield. He's practicing one of the ways to disrupt the timing of runners taking their leads off of first base.
"Even in drills, I'm hold-hold-hold just so I can feel comfortable doing it when I get on the mound, so it doesn't feel awkward," McDonald said. "Trying to find a comfort zone, so I'll do it whenever, wherever. When I'm playing catch or in PFP [pitchers' fielding practice], I might hold-hold-hold, and vary the times so I feel comfortable doing it. Doling that will help me and everyone on the team."
McDonald was relatively tough to steal on last season, as thieves were successful on 12 of 16 attempts. Compare that to A.J. Burnett, against whom they were technically 38-for-40 -- but the two caught-stealings were actually pickoffs at first by him.
"He sets the bar extremely high for himself, and wants more for the team. We'll address with him controlling the running game," said Hurdle, indicating no one is exempt.
"We've got to do a better job. It's not just about being quicker to the plate," Hurdle added. "It's about varying tempos, paying attention to runners, and understanding why it's important and actually going out and executing that. It will be a focus for us this year."
Having their attention diverted from the hitter could be a tough sell for pitchers. Their bottom line is drawn by what happens in the batter's box.
As McDonald said, "Controlling the running game is big, but there comes a point where you just gotta make pitches. You'll get in a situation where, 'All right, I need to make this pitch, and I should focus on that.'"
Hurdle wants his pitchers to accept that sometimes that won't be enough.
"We won't always be able to make that wipeout pitch," said Hurdle, meaning the clutch pitch that kills a rally. "We've seen the last two seasons, especially in the second half. We weren't making the same pitches and runners complicate the deal. We'll still sellout to the pitch when we feel it's appropriate, but [minding the runner] is part of the package. It's never all on the catcher."
The new catcher, Russell Martin, raised his eyebrows and frowned when informed opponent runners last season were successful on 154 of 173 steal attempts against the Bucs.
"That's not good. Not very good at all," Martin said, then quickly added, "I honestly don't care what happened last year. But if it's something that needs to be worked on, as a team, to make us better, then we need to work on it. If we keep guys from getting extra bases, it'll help us win games.
"We always try to blame somebody, but it's done as a team. The pitchers hold runners, vary their times, work quicker to the plate, mix in slide-steps once in a while -- if they do that, catchers will have a better chance of throwing guys out, consistently. Now, it does help to have a catcher who can catch and throw well, but if you work on both ends, your chances are even better. So if we can work as a team, it improves your odds."
They've worked on it as a team, and it's working. Minuscule sample size: Pirates catchers have erased two of four runners (not counting Martin's pickoff at first of Atlanta's Blake DeWitt on Sunday), and their own runners have swiped three of the five steals they have attempted.
"Exhibition games are the best time to tinker with things, to try and contain that running game," Martin said. "Just working on stuff is sometimes harder than just going out there and potting things in practice."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.