Despite ugly numbers, Cards improving in preventing running game -

Despite ugly numbers, Cards improving in preventing running game

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ST. LOUIS ( -- Yadier Molina ended 2016 with an unusual blemish on his defensive resume.

His caught stealing percentage, 41 percent for his career, was a brutal 21.

In 2015, he had a mark of 41, in 2014 it was 48, the best percentage in the league. But last season, the best defensive catcher of his generation suddenly fell off a cliff when it came to stopping the running game.

His pop times weren’t any worse, and his arm was a strong as ever. But he wasn’t getting the same kind of help from the mound. So this season, the Cardinals set out to fix the problem.

“They’re more conscious, I think we all are,” Mike Matheny said. “Guys are tired of giving away free bases. They’re doing a much better job.”

This spring pitchers worked relentlessly on varying their looks to first base, honing their pickoff moves, and practicing their throws. That work continues into the regular season, and Matheny and the coaching staff are not relenting.

“When it’s their work day here at home, they’re working on getting quicker. We’re keeping times on how quick, from their first movement to the ball in the glove at first base ,” Matheny said. “I think we are better. You could maybe throw some stats at me that would call me a liar.”

In a way, he’s correct in both statements.

Through 37 games last season, the Cardinals had allowed nine stolen bases and caught seven runners stealing. That’s a prevention rate of 43 percent. Through the same amount of games this year, the Cardinals have allowed 17 stolen bases and caught the same amount of runners (7). That’s 33 percent.

In that light, the numbers make Matheny look wrong. But there’s more to it.

Visually, this is not the same kind of running prevention as last year. For one, runners are taking much shorter leads. A man on first will venture out as far as he feels comfortable based on everything he knows about the pitcher on the mound. Last year, they were emboldened.

This year, they’re staying closer to the bag, largely because the pitching staff is being reminded to bother them.

“We’re making everybody throw. We’re making everybody show that they will make a move over there,” Matheny said.  

The result has been uncertain runners. The jumps are slower, and the distance to cover is longer, even if a few more are getting the extra bag in the early going.

The goal for the frequent throws is also to build comfort for pitchers. Last year the Cardinals gave away several bags by simply throwing pick-off attempts into the ocean. Part of that was a product of unfamiliar motions. Pitchers weren’t used to checking a runner, so when they had to, it was a mess. This year, the plan is simple: practice practice practice.

“Even [have them] throw over first pitch or on non-running situations. Just comfort in being able to make that throw, to make it quickly and accurately. When the heat gets turned on, he has a better chance of success,” Matheny said.

Despite the hot start last year, the Cardinals eventually became one of the league’s worst teams at stopping the steal. This season’s numbers don’t appear promising in a vacuum, but the tale of the tape tells a different story.

“They’re giving Yadi a chance,” Matheny said. Historically, that’s all he’s needed. He just never had one last year.

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