FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It is a dubious distinction the Boston Red Sox have owned in each of the last two seasons. They were the only team in the American League each year to allow opponents more than 200 stolen base attempts, better than one a game, and in both 2010 and 2011, they allowed more stolen bases than any other club.
That is one reason the Red Sox finally parted ways with catcher Jason Varitek, signing Kelly Shoppach instead. But Varitek's declining skills in throwing out runners (he caught just 12 of 85 base stealers in 2011) cannot be cited as the only reason teams ran at will on the Sox.
Pitchers play a key role in controlling the running game by throwing over to the bag, stepping off the rubber, being mindful of their time to the plate, varying the time they take between pitches. Judging by the numbers, the Sox pitching staff was guilty of inattention to that aspect of the game.
For example, baserunners were successful stealing 31 of the 35 times they ran on Josh Beckett, according to the Bill James Handbook. Beckett, who was caught almost exclusively by Varitek, was even worse the previous year (stealers were 18-for-19) and has picked off just two baserunners in his career. But as recently as 2008, baserunners tried to steal just a dozen times against Beckett, and five runners were caught.
John Lackey had a miserable season in just about every imaginable way last season, and keeping runners honest was one of them. Base stealers succeeded on 33 of 36 attempts against Lackey, who also made three errors and had a runs-saved measure of minus-5, one of the worst in the game. Just the season before, Lackey had fared significantly better, with 10 of 36 would-be base stealers thrown out, a 28 percent rate compared to the 8 percent of 2011.
Both Beckett and Lackey were significantly worse than Tim Wakefield, even though his knuckleball posed a special challenge. Wakefield actually did a pretty good job of controlling the running game, as 9 of 21 baserunners attempting to steal were thrown out, two others were rung up as a pitcher's caught stealing (meaning he threw to first after the runner had broken to second), and Wakefield picked off another. Seven of the stolen bases Wakefield allowed came in his last four starts.
One Sox pitcher who trended in the opposite direction from Beckett and Lackey last season was Jon Lester, who besides the advantage of being left-handed made significant strides in improving his control of the running game and has spent time doing the same this spring.
Twelve of 26 base stealers were thrown out last season against Lester, a 46 percent success rate. He erased an additional four baserunners on pitcher's caught stealing. In each of the previous two seasons, the success rate with Lester had been 24 percent.
This week, Lester talked about the work he has been doing on his pickoff move, and why it matters.
"The biggest thing, and probably the hardest, is making everything look the same," said Lester, who threw 2 ⅔ scoreless innings in a B game against the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday. "I got away with it for a couple of years by varying everything -- giving a big leg kick, executing a slide step, picking off of those. I didn't have to work off one particular thing.
"Those kind of got away from me. I'm trying to get back to doing one thing. That's the hardest part, just knowing I've got to throw the ball over to first and doing the same stuff to do it. It's something that's important, something you have to do, something you have to feel comfortable doing."
During Terry Francona's latter years as Red Sox manager, the team deemphasized the slide step, believing it was better to risk a stolen base than having the pitcher execute less than his best pitch. But the reason holding runners matters goes beyond the stolen base. Keeping runners close to the bag may make the difference between being able to turn a force play at second or even a double play and the runner beating the throw to second.
"Especially in our division, every run matters," Lester said. "If you can get an out there or keep him close to get that double play, it makes your life a lot easier.
"Keeping them close enough to first base on that ball the shortstop has to dive for, you can still get that out at second and might still have a chance for two."
Lester said he tapped into Carl Crawford, one of the league's premier base stealers when he was with Tampa Bay, for information last season.
"Guys like CC and Jacoby [Ellsbury], they're going to take more chances with lefties by going on their first move," he said. "The biggest thing is your head. They watch your head. A lot of pitchers will look home, pick to first, look to first, pitch home. That's kind of a pattern we fall into. If they can see that one little thing, they're going to be safe every time."
Lester said he asked Crawford about his former team.
"Tampa Bay obviously is a good running team," Lester said. "I asked Carl what they keyed off of me. He didn't have anything.
"You look down their lineup, every guy's a fast guy. That's the hard part, you run into teams that have athletes. The fast guys are going to get their bags. It's guys like Casey Kotchman you don't want stealing second. You want to keep them close, make sure they don't steal or get an extra bag."
Incidentally, Kotchman, who is now with the Cleveland Indians, stole second against the Red Sox in a game last September with Beckett on the hill and Varitek behind the plate.
While with Tampa Bay last season, Shoppach caught 18 of 44 base stealers last season, a 41 percent rate that was the highest percentage in the league, according to Baseball-reference.com. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox's primary catcher, caught 37 of 120 base stealers, a 31 percent success rate. That's more than acceptable; the number of attempts is not.
"Sometimes we can do everything in our power and they can still steal bases," Lester said. "If we're holding them, stepping off, slide-stepping, doing everything we can, maybe they're picking up our signs or we're getting too predictable, but the one time we're making that important pitch they're off and gone and get the bag.
"We're doing everything we can, Salty and the catchers are doing everything they can, but we've got to do more and get better at it."