In the fourth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, after smacking a run-scoring single, 33-year-old starting pitcher Cliff Lee stood at first base. As Jimmy Rollins faced Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, Lee took off and stole second base. Only an inning before, Juan Pierre had stolen second base and third base in the same at-bat, forcing an errant throw by catcher Jesus Flores to third that allowed Pierre to score.
When an opposing pitcher steals a base, it’s clear that other teams have figured out a weakness. And for the Nationals, holding runners on base and throwing them out has been an obvious flaw this season.
The Nationals have allowed 72 stolen bases so far this season, which is close to the major league average. But the issue has been slowing, and as a result catching, the runners. The Nationals have caught only 13 runners, the second-lowest total in the majors. In relative terms, they have caught only 15 percent of base stealers — the second-lowest rate.
Manager Davey Johnson insists the catchers aren’t to blame. Instead, the responsibility rests with the pitchers, who haven’t been effective at keeping runners honest on the bases and, especially, have a slow move to the plate. But, overall, Johnson insists he is not concerned because Nationals pitchers have been so effective at getting batters out.
“The guys that are doing it, they got a quicker move,” Johnson said. “But they’ve also been very successful with what they’re throwing. So it ain’t changing.”
The Nationals have worked with Strasburg, telling him to vary his move to the plate. Once he puts his hand in his glove on the mound, the start of his motion to the plate, Strasburg has committed to throwing home, and runners have noticed and stolen on him, Johnson said. Opponents have stolen 12 bases on Strasburg, the most against any Nationals pitcher.
“When his first move starts to home, he’s like 1.1 [seconds to the plate], but they know that he’s going home,” Johnson said. “You can count it. Once he starts, he does the same thing, he looks away and then he goes. So they run on him.”
Added Strasburg: “I have a tendency to do that anyways. It’s something that I’ve just been working on. It’s a process. And they really kind of took advantage of me not keeping the guy close as much as I should have.”
Nationals starters have allowed their fair share of stolen bases but the relievers have been the worst culprit. Opponents are successful in 25 of 31 attempts against Nationals starters, while they are successful in 40 of 43 attempts against the relievers. Craig Stammen and Henry Rodriguez have been among the slowest to the plate, Johnson said.
“There are some other guys that can be quicker to the plate but they’re just trying to make sure they get the most on it and hit their spot,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to worry too much about it.”
Johnson sounded almost indifferent about the stolen bases, citing how pitchers such Dwight Gooden and Greg Maddux neutralized their slow times to the plate by being stingy pitchers. He said he has spoken with second baseman Steve Lombardozzi about when to hold a runner on base and when to not worry about it.
Last season, the Nationals were tied for the fourth-highest caught stealing percentage (34 percent) and that’s because they “had some veteran pitchers that were quicker to the plate,” Johnson said.
Catcher Sandy Leon said if a pitcher’s time to plate is around 1.3 seconds, a catcher has enough to time to try and make a good throw to the base. But Nationals pitchers are generally closer to 1.5 or 1.6 seconds to the plate, he said.
Nationals last caught a runner stealing on July 27 when Leon threw out Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy at second base. Before that, however, the last time a runner was caught stealing by a Nationals catcher was a month and a half before that, on June 12. That’s a span of 35 attempts.
Even if the pitchers are slower to the plate, Leon said the best approach is to either hold the ball or make a calm throw to the base, even if the runner will be safe. It’s something that should be addressed, Leon said, but can’t necessarily be altered all that much.
“It’s hard because that’s how they pitch,” he said. “If you do something different and try to change something that they know, it’s too hard.”
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