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Pregame: Pirates looking to control opponents' running game

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Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Controlling the running game

Anyone who has followed the Pirates this season knows they are having trouble controlling the opposition's running game. They have allowed the most stolen bases (107) in baseball and rank 26th in throwing out base stealers, with a 23 percent rate.

Opponents are attempting a stolen base 8.5 percent of the time that they have a man in position to run against the Pirates, the third-highest rate in the league. And they are successfully taking a base 6.5 percent of the time they are given the opportunity, which is the second highest.

Here is the breakdown of how the Pirates compare to league average and last season's pace:

Team Successful SB per Opportunity rate Caught stealing % SB attempts per opportunity rate
2015 Pirates 6.5% 23% 8.5%
2014 Pirates 4.9% 31% 7.1%
2015 League Average 4.1% 30% 5.7%

Who's to blame?

Certainly, one reason for the Pirates' problems preventing stolen bases is the loss of the Russell Martin. According to Fangraphs' Stolen Base Runs Saved (rSB) statistic, Pirates catchers saved six runs above average and ranked second in baseball. This season Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart grade out as league average at zero rSB.

While that is a fairly steep decline, the bigger issue is with the Bucs' pitching staff. Pirates pitchers have allowed six runs over average and rank last in baseball. Last season, they prevented three runs and ranked fifth.

Here is a breakdown of rSB:

Team rSB Catchers rSB Pitchers
2015 Pirates 0 -6
2014 Pirates 6 3
2015 League Average -0.1 0.43

(Without going into the gory methodological issues, rSB can be broken down into how well both pitchers and catchers perform relative to league average in defending stolen bases. There will always be some overlap, but the attempt is made to untangle them as much as possible.)

Hurdle Reacts

Over the weekend, Hurdle said that the coaches are going to "revisit" the team's "CRG (controlling the running game) programs" with the pitching staff.

"We revisited it in St. Louis," Hurdle said Friday. "We're going to revisit it here. And then we're going to go hammer it down when we get home."

-Bill Brink,

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

This afternoon Hurdle repeated that controlling the running game would be an area of emphasis the rest of the season.

"We didn't throw anybody out for about a month," Hurdle said. "I got two men behind that plate working their backsides off that, for me, are being taken advantage of. I'm going to make sure everyone understands that I'm not happy with it and we're going to do something about it."

Raising the issue has already had an impact.

"We got everybody's attention in New York," Hurdle said. "Every pitcher worked quicker and was more efficient. I think they understand that it's as big a part of anything we do as part of run prevention. I think every once in a while they need to be reminded."

Diagnosing the problem

For Hurdle, the problem lies primarily with pitchers focusing too much on executing pitches instead of allocating their attention between both the runner and the batter. Indeed, he believes that focusing too much on the next pitch is counterproductive.

"Yes, your execution of pitches is important," Hurdle said. "But I still believe a pitcher pitches better when he's not focused solely on executing pitches."

The theme of dividing attention between the hitter and the runner was reiterated by Brad Fischer, who is in charge of the Pirates' CRG program.

"I think the thing we needed to brush up on was that we put so much emphasis on our pitchers making pitches when they have to, and that's detracted from some of the other things that kind of fell apart," Fischer said.

In particular, he noted that some of the pitchers were falling into the habit of slowing down their delivery to the plate when they needed to make an important pitch or were in a jam. Ideally, the delivery times would remain the same regardless of the situation.

Echoing Hurdle's comments, Fischer explained that to effectively stop the running game pitchers need to be able to mentally multitask: keeping a sharp focus on the runner while preparing to make the pitch.

"If you look at the game, it is filled with these refocus times," Fischer said. "You go from being a hitter to a baserunner. You go from getting your lead or hitting a double and then you're tired and then you have to refocus. There's all kinds of refocus points. So as a pitcher, where you're standing out there feeling nude, like you don't have any clothes on, it's hard. You go from throwing a pitch to, OK, this time I've got to hold this guy. Just going to hold it for three seconds. Three second count, 1,2,3 go. It's an interesting dynamic."

Fischer was quick to point out that what he is talking about doesn't necessarily involve throwing over to first more often. Rather, he wants to see more variability in the timing between coming to the set position and a pitcher starting his delivery.

"Quite honestly, the throws to first base do very little," Fischer said. "In fact, often what they do is just give the runner more information. He learns what your move is."

So, Pirates coaches see the nub of the issue as lying in too much focus being placed on making the perfect pitches. What they want is more multitasking and more attention placed on holding, but not necessarily throwing over. As Hurdle said a few weeks ago, a good hold is the best defense a pitcher has against a base stealer.

"In talking to guys like [Omar] Moreno, Davey Lopes, Willie Wilson, Vince Coleman, [I asked], 'What was the one thing that challenged you the most in your base stealing efforts?'" Hurdle said. "'Pitchers who could hold the ball well.' It comes out every time. ... [T]hat is one of the things that we do and we're trying to get better with."

The Diamondbacks are second in baseball with 102 stolen bases.

Hart in town

Corey Hart was walking around the clubhouse and was greeted by multiple teammates this afternoon.

Clint Hurdle said that he was in town "to be seen" and will work out with the team for a few days before heading out to Indianapolis for another rehabilitation assignment.

"He going to give [rehab] another shot," Hurdle said. "We anticipate him getting [to Indianapolis] on the 20th."

Hurdle would not commit to Hart re-joining the team in September

"We're going to let it play out," Hurdle said. "We've got to give it some time."

Mercer and Harrison updates

Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison are "making progress," according to Hurdle.

"Without complications, I would anticipate them here before Sept. 1," he added.