Sunday, May 27, 2012

Avila Helpless As Opponents Run Wild on Tigers

By Sean Gagnier

Last season the Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila threw out 32 percent of runners attempting to steal on his pitcher and himself, this season it's a different story, Avila's caught stealing percentage is at 27 percent. Over the last several series his caught stealing numbers are below 14 percent, but it's not Avila's fault, and here's why.

When a runner takes off from first base in an attempt to steal second, he is not stealing on the catcher, he is stealing the base off of the pitcher. Runners typically do not take off on the first delivery to the plate by the pitcher, why? They are watching his motion and timing his delivery to the plate, once they have figured out how the pitcher works, they run for it.

Throwing out a runner at second base is a tough task for a catcher. There are many factors that go into catching the would be base-stealer like; pitch selection and location, is the batter swinging or bunting, how fast is the runner, and who is covering the bag.

First things first, it takes the entire team to hold the runner at first base, not just the pitcher and not just the catcher. The pitcher needs to vary his delivery to the plate to throw off the base-runner, he needs to step off the rubber or throw over to first just to keep the runner close to the bag and honest. Catchers and infielders have the job of watching the runner and alerting the pitcher to when he is leaning too far off the base.

If it gets beyond picking the runner off first base it comes down to what and where the pitch lands. A catchers dream pitch to catch a runner is a mid-90's fastball down the middle where they can get it out of their glove, pop up and fire across the diamond. More often than not it's not a fastball, it's a slider on the inside corner with the batter swinging. Not only does the catcher have to follow the ball across the plate, he has to avoid the bat and try to bring the glove up so he can get the ball out and throw it to second.

Over the last several games, especially in the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins series, opponents have been running on Tigers pitching like crazy. It helps that both teams have speedy players on the roster, but there has been no help given to either the pitcher or Avila during those series. Prince Fielder, Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta have not been watching the runner so they could help out their pitcher, which allows the runner to get a huge jump off the bag, making it much easier to steal second.

Manager Jim Leyland has said that he hasn't been calling for pitchers to throw over to first base much lately, saying that when Justin Verlander is on the mound he allows the Tigers ace to do his own thing with the runners. This lack of any kind of threat while taking a lead is allowing opponents to move multiple runners into scoring position a game, something that almost cost Detroit the game with the Twins on Sunday.

Listening to the Tigers radio broadcast one can hear Dan Dickerson and Jim Price lament each time another opponent steals a base and explain how Avila has done everything right but is not getting a chance to throw runners out. He gets the ball late and the runner is allowed to get a massive jump on him making his throw, no matter how on target, too late to catch the runner.

Detroit is slowly starting to score runs and pitch better than they have been, but they will struggle to continue to win games if they don't stop runners from stealing bases on a regular basis. A runner stealing second may not seem like a big play, but it is huge. A steal of second gets the runner into scoring position and with the amount of steals the Tigers are allowing those become runs. When a team can't stop an opponent from stealing, they lose.

Someone in the infield needs to step up and help out the pitching staff and Avila, and fast, before these stolen bags start to become stolen games.

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