Running-Game Killers: Pitchers

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
7:00
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This late in the year, it’s easy to start getting into who’s doing the best job in the more obscure areas, some of which wind up mattering an awful lot, and some of which are just interesting to know. Today’s quick take on statistical feats is on the pitchers who’ve done the best job to help throttle opponents’ running games. If you’re fond of past greats like Terry Mulholland, Andy Pettitte or Steve Carlton, these should be your heroes today:

Keeping the double play in order is useful enough as is, but additional benefits include keeping runners close to hinder their ability to take extra bases on balls in play. It’s a tactical skill that reflects a distinct difference in approach; some pitchers take this part of their job very seriously, others don’t focus on it as much, and not all of them have the benefit of strong-armed catchers. Seeing Buehrle here when his most regular receiver is the oft-criticized A.J. Pierzysnki should remind you of that, but seeing Weaver make this list serves notice that some guys just don't cut opponents slack in any phase of the game.

Shields’ performance is a breakthrough in the pickoffs department. While he’s always been good at containing the running game, his career total of pickoffs before this year was eight, making him more than worthy of a Dave Schoenfield post a few weeks back. He’s a long ways from Charlie Hough’s right-handed record of 73 (using B-Ref’s 1950 cutoff to make that determination), but the knuckleballer’s single-season mark of 14 is still in reach if runners aren’t careful.

It’s interesting to note that MLB’s leader in times an opponent was caught stealing while he was on the mound is Cleveland’s Justin Masterson with 14 baserunner kills in 25 attempts. Since he’s had to rely on Carlos Santana as his receiver far more often than the stronger-armed Lou Marson, you can give Masterson a big chunk of credit for six of the 15 attempts against Santana as well as a share for eight of 10 caught the third of the time he’s had Marson.

That said, there are pitchers who have been remarkably successful pitching despite their relative indifference of their baserunners. In this as in so many other ways, Nolan Ryan was in a class by himself by seeing a record 757 bases stolen against him in more than a thousand attempts, at a 75 percent success rate. That wasn’t merely a function of longevity, as Phil Niekro pitched just 18 more innings on his career, but allowed more than 300 fewer stolen bases while getting stolen off of at just a 67 percent clip.

More recent examples of pitchers who kept their focus on the men at the plate and less so the runners aboard include Hideo Nomo in 2001 (with 52 steals allowed in 63 attempts) and Chris Young for the Padres in 2007 with 44 steals with no one caught -- fairly unambiguous examples of hurlers with slow deliveries that inspired people to run on them. This year’s most permissive pitchers when it comes to let runners steal comprise a trio tied with minus-4 RsbP: the Braves’ Tommy Hanson (30-for-33 success on steals, no pickoffs), Boston’s John Lackey (27-for-30, no pickoffs) and the Dodgers’ Ted Lilly (29-for-31, a pickoff).

Tomorrow, we’ll get into the other half of batteries, and make our way around to hitting and pitching as well as fielding-related topics.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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