VIERA, Fla. - It was a very quiet morning out on the minor league fields today. Little of note actually went down, as pitchers and catchers took part in a basic rotation of drills that included bunting, pickoff throws to first base, comebackers, pickoff throws to second base and fielding dribblers up the line.
The Nationals give their pitchers two days off after bullpen sessions early in spring, so with the “A” group of pitchers having thrown on Thursday and the “B” group taking the mound yesterday, no one took part in a throwing session today.
Before having his pitchers start the morning drills, manager Davey Johnson brought the group together and delivered a message. He wants to see his guys cut down on the number of stolen bases they allow this season, something that can be aided by spending more time focusing on the fundamentals at this point in camp.
“I’m kind of nipping it in the bud,” Johnson said. “I look at the things as a group that we can improve on, and one of them was not being so easy to steal on.”
Last season, teams playing the Nationals could practically take the extra base at will. The Nats allowed 83.5 percent of the runners attempting to steal to do so successfully, the second-worst mark in the majors. Of the 133 times someone took off on the Nats, 111 resulted in a cleanly-swiped bag.
As a point of comparison, the Diamondbacks led the league last season by allowing just 56.5 percent of runners attempting to steal to reach safely, surrendering just 48 stolen bases all season.
Johnson puts part of the blame for the elevated stolen base numbers on the fact that pitchers these days come up through the minor leagues being told by coaches when to throw over to first base, when to step off the mound and when to hold the ball. They don’t make these decisions by themselves in the minors, instead getting signs from the dugout, and when the onus is more on them in the big leagues, they fall into a standard routine, making it easier for runners to time when they should take off.
“I always hated that,” Johnson said. “I always put a quietus to calling a step-off, throw-overs, hold it. I always want my pitching staff to read and pay attention and vary their delivery. Either do a slide step if someone was slow or step off on their own or throw over there on their own. I was trying to get more of that awareness of what’s going on at first. We’ll do more of that.”
Even some of the guys with quick moves to the plate, like Stephen Strasburg, had trouble holding runners at times last season, and Johnson is pressing on his pitchers that they need to vary their moves to the plate this season in order to be tougher to get a read on.
“I don’t pitch out a lot,” Johnson said. “I don’t like to walk guys. And so I told ‘em, I said, ‘If we don’t hold runners on a little better and pay attention to them a little bit better, the only way I can stop the running game is (a) pitchout. And which would you rather have, pay a little attention over there or have me have you pitch out?’ And they all said, ‘Well, I’ll pay more attention.’ “
In addition to holding runners, Johnson is also putting an emphasis on outfielders hitting the cutoff man (especially Bryce Harper) and rundowns.
“We have some things to do this spring to clean up,” Johnson said. “It’s just part of reviewing the year and where there could be some improvement. That’s what my job is - to go over those things, the fundamentals, to become more sound and more proficient.”
Johnson wants both Harper and Jayson Werth to get a good bit of time this spring working alongside Denard Span in the outfield, getting a feel for the new center fielder’s range and defensive tendencies.
“That’s a big learning experience, kind of like a shortstop/second baseman,” Johnson said.
One other note on Span: While he has mentioned that he’d like to be active on the bases this season and plans on looking to swipe more bags than he has in the past, Johnson isn’t a manager who traditionally leans heavily on the running game.
“I don’t mind him being on second as long as he’s 40-for-40,” Johnson joked. “I think Jimmy (Riggleman) was more enamored with the run game than I am, but I’m not as bad as (Earl) Weaver. I do like to run deeper in the counts. I haven’t talked to (Span) about that, but I like the threat of running and causing maybe better pitch selections at home, more fastballs.”