Sitting down with Randy Knorr in the dugout late this morning, I told the Nationals’ bench coach I’d like to talk about his team’s issues with holding and throwing out runners.
“Favorite topic,” Knorr said sarcastically, a smile creeping across his face.
This is a bit of a tired subject for Knorr, who has been preaching the importance of holding runners to Nationals pitchers and catchers this entire season with little success. Knorr, a former catcher who played parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues, is tasked with handling the opposing team’s running game, an area which he personally knows is crucial, especially as we get deeper in the regular season and towards the playoffs.
Getting many of the Nationals’ pitchers to understand this, however, has been a bit of an issue. A number of the guys on Washington’s staff, including Stephen Strasburg, Craig Stammen and Drew Storen have had issues holding runners this season, which has resulted in the opposition swiping easy bags and turning harmless singles or walks into cheap runs.
“It gets frustrating,” Knorr said. “All year it’s been frustrating. Because when I’ve done this in the past, with my own teams, they’ve actually been pretty good at it. Now, it’s frustrating because I used to be good at it but now I’m (crap) at it. That’s pretty much what it is. I’m tired of putting ourselves in the position. I don’t believe one stolen base and one hit after a stolen base is the reason why we lost the game. But when it happens and it’s preventable, that’s a problem with me.”
The specific issues are different from pitcher to pitcher. Storen and Stammen are very slow to the plate, giving even slow runners a good chance to swipe a bag and allowing Nationals’ catchers little chance to cut down guys with their arm. An acceptable time from a pitcher’s first move until the ball reaches the catcher is 1.3 seconds. Storen was clocked at around 2.0 seconds last night, when Allen Craig and David Freese both stole second in the ninth inning to move into scoring position.
“If you’re going to be a 1.8, 1.9 to the plate, I could throw over 100 times,” Knorr said. “They’re going to key on you once you see that first move that you’re going to the plate (and) they’re going to take off. You’ve got to be aware of that.”
Strasburg has tunnel vision when he’s on the mound, often focusing too much on the hitter and ignoring the runner. When he does throw over, Knorr says, Strasburg doesn’t ever switch up his pattern.
“I tell Stephen, ‘Change,’ ” Knorr said. “Stephen comes set, he throws over. He comes set (and if) he doesn’t throw over right away, he’s going to the plate. So they wait until that moment’s gone, and then they run, because he doesn’t think about holding the ball longer and then throwing over. If he’d do that, it would stop.”
The bottom line, Knorr says, is pitchers need to start taking holding runners seriously. He understands that getting hitters out is a pitcher’s top priority, but he says it’s also the pitcher’s responsibility to make sure he isn’t being taken advantage of on the bases.
“There’s no reason why a pitcher, when he gets set and looks behind second base, and that guy, you could drive a jumbo jet through where he’s standing (and the bag), you would throw the ball home,” Knorr says. “There’s no reason why you would do that. But they do because they’re focused on pitching. I understand that. But their job is to hold runners and be aware of what’s going on around them. Not just throw strikes. And the good ones do that. And that’s where they’ve got to get.
“I tell them all the time. They get caught up in the play. Especially this time of year when you’ve got to relax so you can see things that are happening. You get caught up in this pennant race and all that, it starts to go speed up on you, you miss a lot of things.”
The vast majority of the blame falls on the Nationals’ pitchers, but Knorr isn’t letting Kurt Suzuki or Jesus Flores off the hook.
“I’m pissed off at my catchers, too,” Knorr said, “because they see this guy inching off, all you’ve got to do is say, ‘Timeout.’ But they don’t. I used to do it all the time (when I played). I see him, he’s going to go. ‘Timeout! Watch that guy!’ Last night, Craig was inching off the bag. I mean, I was sitting over here, and if I say it from the bench, (Storen) might balk or something. But if (Flores) tells the umpire, he doesn’t have to scream, go, ‘Hey, timeout.’ Umpire calls timeout, it stops the play. But they don’t think of that.”
Knorr clearly is getting fed up with the same old process. He talks with his pitchers and catchers, tells them to focus on the running game and then sees the same issues pop up again that night. He also knows that a team that has allowed the opposition to swipe a bag safely 85.8 percent of the time (second-worst in the majors) will be picked on heavily down the stretch unless the problem gets fixed.
The Nationals don’t have many issues at this point in the season, but this is clearly one of them.
“I think we’ve been lucky,” Knorr said. “It doesn’t show up a lot because we have one of the best records in the game, so it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal. For me, it’s a big deal, because I think the later we go, I think it’s going to be an issue. They’re just going to start walking into second and it’s going to give them a better opportunity to score. I think it’s something that we need to stop.”