An interesting debate has been generated thanks to the abundant amount of bases swindled from the Twins during their recent west coast road trip. In their visit to Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners ran rampant on the battery, taking 8 bases in as many attempts, essentially stealing all of their runs in the four-game series.
The aftermath chatter focused on Joe Mauer and the possibility that his arm is not quite what it once was. This is quite the swing in the general perception of his stolen base thwarting abilities. According to the Fan’s Scouting Report, Mauer had some of the best attributes of a catcher the two previous seasons. In 2008, he ranked second in release/footwork and accuracy and third in strength. This past season, Mauer was second in release/footwork as well as strength but was third in accuracy. How can it be that someone who had been deemed the second best defensive catcher in baseball suddenly earns a reputation of being easier to steal from than your average baby?
Not surprising, the pitcher on the mound for over half of the stolen bases was Carl Pavano, whose 30 stolen bases allowed in 2009 led the American League. John Bonnes detailed the totals this year noting that of the 17 attempts on Pavano all but two took the base. His 15 stolen bases allowed are currently the third most behind Fausto Carmona of the Indians and Gil Meche of the Royals. As solid of a pitcher that he has been for the Twins, his Achilles’ heel is obviously holding runners. So while Mauer’s caught stealing rate resides at 28% this season, well-below his 37% career mark, this particular member of the pitching staff is doing him little favors.
In this image against the Texas Rangers, Pavano had Josh Hamilton on first, who is not necessarily a known base stealer. Still, from the point of his rather deliberate leg-lift to the release of the ball, Pavano uses 29 frames. What really gives the runner a potentially solid jump is that once Pavano’s leg reaches the apex of his delivery, instead of shifting his weight forward he brings the leg down before striding towards home. This is an added split-second for a better jump.
Compare that to Nick Blackburn who basically lifts his foot and steps forward in a quasi-slide step, eliminating time from first movement to pitch release. As such, from leg-lift to the release of the ball, Blackburn uses 25 frames:
Likewise, Scott Baker also implements a shortened delivery with runners on first. Similar to Blackburn, Baker simply strides forward once he lifts his front leg. From start to finish, Baker takes 26 frames to deliver the ball towards home.
Another factor that makes Pavano such an easy target is that his pitch selection with a runner on first is very fastball-deficient compared to the likes of Blackburn and Baker. Because of both a decrease in velocity and the abundance of tougher pitches to catch-and-throw (sliders, splitters), Pavano makes an ideal target to run on:
2008 w/ runner on 1st:
(via Inside Edge)
Even though Pavano can turn a walk into a double, he’s still demonstrated that he has had better results with his methods versus Blackburn and Baker’s truncated deliveries. With a runner on first with a stolen base opportunity last year, Pavano’s OPS against was .830 while Blackburn was at .930 and Baker at .937. For Pavano, the ends somewhat justify his means.
So, while we’re quick to blame the catcher for the stolen bases, a vast majority of the burden resides on the other side of the plate. In the end, the decrease in the percentage of runners caught by Joe Mauer is greatly influenced by Pavano’s indifference towards would-be stealers and his presence in the rotation.