SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Jesse Crain didn’t have a chance to work on one of the White Sox biggest spring initiatives Monday in his first Cactus League appearance.
Lumbering catcher Hector Sanchez, the lone San Francisco Giant to reach base in Crain’s inning, isn’t much of a threat to steal.
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Though Crain didn’t pay much attention to Sanchez’s lead, he knows its imperative to keep a watchful eye on most base runners. Under Robin Ventura’s coaching staff, the White Sox made a concerted effort and limited opposing base runners to 31 fewer stolen base attempts last season than in 2011.
They intend to match the performance in 2013, which is why whether in bullpen sessions or exhibition games, pitchers practice slide-step deliveries, perfect pickoff moves and vary their looks to the bag. Because while 31 fewer stolen base attempts won’t grab any headlines, the team’s pitchers know it affects the bottom line.
“Robin and those guys came in, they had seen the numbers,” Crain said. “At least if we could cut down, we’d save some runs here and there. In a long season, runs here and there end up being a lot. It makes or breaks a few games, which in turn makes or breaks your season.”
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The numbers from 2011 -- the team allowed 135 steals in 172 attempts (78.5 percent) -- needed to and have been addressed. Last season the White Sox cut those figures to 104 of 145 (71.7 percent). The team’s pitching staff allowed 30 fewer runs and the White Sox won six more games than they did in 2011.
Though they know there’s not a direct correlation, the White Sox think limiting their opponents’ steal attempts helps their cause.
“We knew it was a bit of a problem,” pitcher Jake Peavy said. “We did get better at it and it’s a part of the game that’s as big of a part as any.”
The White Sox don’t want to give away free bases. After he pushed the idea last season, bench coach Mark Parent has already found it easier to address pitchers this spring.
“It wasn’t like last year, ‘We’ve worked on this before, but we’ve never used it,’” Parent said. “They worked on it and they used it and it helped. The less attempts, and making teams, instead of just flat out running, give up an out hitting-and-running is as important as anything.”
Parent is pleased with the progress.
He believes 145 steal attempts are serviceable and would approve a similar amount this season. One area where the White Sox can improve is if new catcher Tyler Flowers deters runners with his arm.
Last season, A.J. Pierzynski cut down 27-of-103 (26 percent) runners. Flowers -- who is quick to point out he benefits from the help of his pitchers -- improved to 33 percent (he caught 14-of-42 in 2012) from 24 percent (8-of-25) a season earlier.
“It gives me a chance to do what I practice every day,” Flowers said. “We pick the right spot to slide step, that gives me a chance as long as I make a good accurate throw and we have a pretty good chance at getting them.”
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Pitchers have a great chance to execute a difficult practice during exhibition season.
Most will tell you a slide step and pitching out of the stretch are more difficult than throwing from the windup. Constantly looking runners back and throwing over to first also can distract their ultimate goal: Making a good pitch to record an out.
That’s why Peavy stresses to younger teammates that they work now in meaningless games so mechanics don’t get disrupted when it matters.
“You have to be able to maintain your focus on the batter and execute a good pitch,” Peavy said. “It’s very easy to get away from (good mechanics) and make bad pitches, which gets you into even more trouble than having guys run around the bases. It’s something we practice and it starts right here. If you can’t work on things here, when can you?”
Even though he didn’t work on it Monday, Crain will before the spring ends. He doesn’t think his slide step is great, but he possesses a quick move to first. Between pickoff attempts and looks over, Crain is confident he can hold runners close if needed.
“We’re not going to do it every time, but it’s something to have,” Crain said. “If we’re up a run, I know they’re trying to steal. For me, it’s important that I can slide step, vary my looks, can have a good pickoff move. Hopefully it’s something that will get us some outs.”