How Cards reclaimed control of running game

Pitchers have been focused on moves to hold the opposition

How Cards reclaimed control of running game

St. Louis has ranked within the top five in limiting stolen bases each year since Yadier Molina's rookie season in 2004, a period of extended distinction that points to both the catcher's on-field influence and the organization's philosophy of building, and teaching, around it. So to see the Cardinals plummet all the way to 16th in that department last season sent red flags throughout the organization.

Why, in the age of base-to-base baseball (just 3,538 stolen-base attempts were made across the league in 2016, the fewest in a full season since 1973), was this happening to this team?

The Cards came a conclusion: it's the pitchers. A lot of factors go into preventing a stolen base -- the pitcher's time to the plate, the catcher's throw, the pitcher's ability to hinder a good jump. And too often, the organization determined, St. Louis' pitchers just weren't giving Molina enough of a chance.

All of which sent the Cardinals to Jupiter, Fla., this spring focused on an unflashy priority: to improve in the subtle art of holding runners. The work has continued into the season. It's not uncommon to see Cards pitchers miming moves on the Busch Stadium mound hours before games, working on tiny gestures that can make big differences.

"Whether it's just head movements or holds, we're doing something every day," manager Mike Matheny said. "I think guys are tired of giving away free bases, and they're doing much better of being more conscious of it."

On the surface, it's worked. The Cardinals are back among baseball's top third in preventing steals. Molina's caught-stealing percentage has returned to an above-average 32 percent after falling to a career-worst 21 percent last season. But those metrics only tell part of the story.

Now with Statcast™, we can dig deeper into why it's worked, and quantify the progress they've made.

The data shows the organization was right about Molina. He wasn't the issue. The 34-year-old's "pop" times to second base -- the time from when a catcher receives the ball to the time his throw reaches second -- are nearly identical to a year ago, when they were above average.

Statcast: Hamilton beats Molina

But the data also shows one of the Cardinals' main worries -- that their pitchers were too "long" to the plate -- may have been a bit unfounded. Despite a few exceptions in the bullpen, the Cards' staff was collectively better than league average last season in terms of delivery time to the plate, and it is again this season.

So what's different?

To answer that, let's look at three of St. Louis' four innings-pitched leaders: Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake. None have been particularly quicker to the plate than they were last season. But when dealing with only a runner on first base, all are limiting those runners to significantly shorter leads this year.

Runners hopping off first enjoyed an average secondary lead of 13.2 feet off Wainwright last season. That number is just 12.7 feet now. Martinez is limiting secondary leads off first by more than half a foot -- from 13.8 feet last season to 13.2 this year.

And the numbers are startling for Leake, who is limiting runners on first to secondaries nearly a foot shorter than he did last season -- from a 13.5 foot average down to 12.6. It's a major improvement in an area where just a few inches often occupy the space between out and safe.

"I think [the reason is] improved moves," Matheny said. "Guys are going to go as far as they feel comfortable. Then you have a couple quick throwovers. … We're making everybody throw. We're making everybody show that we will make a move over there."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.