PITTSBURGH, Pa. — After starting the season off by stealing 13 bases, but getting caught 10 times, Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle knew the club needed to refocus. The Pirates were still getting caught about 50 percent of the time in the month of May. Pittsburgh isn’t built with a lineup full of threatening bats, and being aggressive on the base paths is a huge part of the teams identity, Hurdle said.
“Not that we’re going to lead the league in stolen bases,” he said. “We want to be smart with that. I think we’ve gotten much better with our stolen base percentage in the last two weeks. We were hovering around 50 percent over the first 40 games.”
Jose Tabata, who stole 16 bases last season, has been one of several speedy players that has struggled on the bases. Tabata has swiped eight bags, but has been caught seven times.
“I’ve got to focus more,” Tabata said. “A lot of times when I’m at the top of the lineup, I’ve got to do my job and do something for my team. I need to steal bases. Today, I’m leading off and I’m going to focus on being Jose and being on the bases for team.”
Since the few rough months to start, the Buccos have recorded 15 stolen bases in the last 10 games and lead all Major League teams with 20 stolen bases during the month of June. And it’s not just Andrew McCutchen — who leads the club with 14 swipes. Four other Pirates (Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata) have swiped at least three bags apiece this month.
“I’m committed to it,” Hurdle said. “There were times when you bite your tongue. We don’t do as well as we like to do, but it’s a mentality. You’ve got to establish the mentality first and they’ve got to understand that when they make mistakes they’re not going to be taken to the wood shed for them outside. It’s just not a smart mistake. We’ve got to be aggressive. We’ve got to be moving. [Josh] Harrison adds that element when he’s in the lineup.”
In the Pirates 7-2 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, the Pirates picked up three, two of them came from Harrison. A double steal pulled by the utility man and McCutchen in the 5th inning proved to be huge in what was a close ballgame at the time.
Harrison roped a single into left field and quickly swiped second base. But the infielder didn’t just stop there. After McCutchen walked, both pulled off the double steal off former Bucco catcher Ryan Doumit. Harrison went on to score after Casey McGehee hit a sac fly to center field.
“We knew that was a big spot,” Harrison said. “It was a one run game at that time. We had a pretty good feel for that guy and tried to pick the right times to run. I felt that was the best time to go. Me and Cutch, he kind of knew I was going. It ended up being big for us because Casey was able to get a sac fly.”
But while the Pirates have seen improvement running on the bases, they haven’t been able to control the opposing team from running. Catchers Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry have each only caught two base runners a piece attempting to steal out of a combined 42. What’s worse is six have been no throws, and the other club has swiped 27 bags straight since the last time a Bucco catcher has nailed one.
“Guys know that they’ve got to catch it, and they’ve got to get it in the air,” Hurdle said. “There’s no time for bobbles. There is no time for misses. There’s no time for clanks…One of the first things that will come in scouting reports is these guys are going to move on the bases. We’ve got to be sharp. We’ve got to handle the ball. We’re not there yet. We’re going to get there if it kills me.”
“The pitchers are doing a better job this year at holding guys on and varying their times, giving us an opportunity,” McKenry said. “Stealers are going to get their stolen bases. We’ve got to utilize that when we do have a chance, to take advantage of it.”
While the club has allowed a lot of stolen bases, the runs allowed are low. Hurdle said that is due to the focus of making quality pitches on the mound, rather than worrying about the runners on the base paths.
“Normally they don’t score because of good pitching,” Hurdle said. “We’re going through a transition where we’re getting our pitchers in a good place, repeat deliveries, to try and minimize release times, but to throw strikes and make quality pitches. We’re not spending a whole amount of time on really trying to speed that process up. We’re doing different things with holding the ball longer, throwing over at different variances because we really put our focus on making good pitches. That’s probably one of the areas we’ve been taken advantage of.”
“Neither one of our catchers has thrown above average also to this point, both when they’ve had chances. It hasn’t been a strength so far. That being said, once they’ve gotten to second, we’ve been very good at stolen bases not scoring. And that pretty much goes back to our pitchers making quality pitches when the guys do get to second base. We’re willing to give up one, for the other right now.”