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Pitchers steel themselves to new approach

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 18, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Red Sox have allowed 476 stolen bases in the last three seasons, the most in the American League. Opponents have succeeded on 81 percent of their attempts.

The Yankees gave up 91 fewer steals in that same period and the Rays 193 fewer.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine has made controlling the running game one of his priorities this spring. But that will involve changing a lot of ingrained habits.

Under the previous coaching regime, and with the approval of former general manager Theo Epstein, the Red Sox believed focusing too much on a runner at first base would lead to poor pitches to the plate.

“I hear - and this might be real wrong - I hear there were a couple of pitching coaches here who said it didn’t matter,’’ Valentine said Saturday, referring to John Farrell and Curt Young.

Valentine understands that thinking, saying that in his days with Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden, they didn’t care if a runner got to second.

But Ryan and Gooden had the fastball to back that up. Red Sox pitchers could stand to be a little less cavalier.

“If you can keep them on first and get a double play, a lot of times that means a whole other inning,’’ said Valentine. “It means an entire other inning that starter could pitch.

“If he goes to second and you get the next three guys out and you use your arsenal, a lot of times that’s your last inning. That’s a big difference in today’s game.’’

In 2011, Josh Beckett was on the mound for 64 of those steals - a whopping 31 in 35 attempts - and he agrees that the Sox have to do a better job of paying attention to men on base.

The righthander is working on it, adhering to a program to foil base-stealers. The Sox want their pitchers to vary the timing of their delivery, try different moves to first base, and run plays with the infielders to try for pickoffs.

Beckett didn’t allow any steals during the five innings he pitched against the Orioles in a 7-4 split-squad victory at JetBlue Park Saturday. Only two runners had chances to steal and Beckett paid attention to them.

“Today I thought it was amazing,’’ Valentine said. “When he had a base-stealer out there, he used his entire package. He threw over three times with three different moves and quick-pitched the hitter.

“That’s having a plan and working your plan.’’

Beckett, who at his most charming is still obstinate, seems to be buying in.

“We have a lot of plays going on in every game,’’ said Beckett, who had a pick play working against the Orioles before time was called. “The most important thing is to execute the pitch. You can’t take away from what we’re trying to do.’’

In Beckett’s estimation, the coaching staff is trying to get a feel for which pitchers can control the running game on their own and which ones need signs from the catchers or the bench.

“It’s something I’ve always tried to take pride in,’’ said Beckett, who allowed one run on two hits and one walk in five innings, throwing 59 pitches. “The priority is going to be to get the guy at the plate out. That’s never going to change.

“If I feel like something else is going to take away from that, whether it’s controlling the base runners on an individual day, then I’ll still worry about the hitter more than anything.

“But you have to change it up. You can’t get in the rhythm of going at the same time.’’

Valentine has taken notice.

“He has worked on it,’’ the manager said. “Josh is as professional a player as I’ve been around when he’s going about his business. He has a lot of time in between when he’s going about his business, too, where he gets a little away from baseball with some of his thoughts. But when he’s dealing with baseball, he’s a pro’s pro. Very competitive.’’

Some teams have their pitchers use an abbreviated slide-step to improve their speed to the plate. The Sox tried that at times last season, but won’t this year.

“I’ll never say, ‘Don’t throw your best pitch,’ ’’ said Valentine. “I don’t believe in the slide-step. Controlling the runner is just a program that you have built in to vary your cadence and not say, ‘I don’t give a [expletive] if you steal the base.’ That’s all it is.

“It doesn’t mean you have to be 1.1 [seconds] to the plate. It doesn’t mean you have to have a great pickoff move. It just means that you have a program.’’

Beckett pointed out that the catcher and middle infielders have a say in controlling steals.

“With the really fast guys, the guys who actually steal bases on just about everybody - the Carl Crawfords of the world, the Jacoby Ellsburys - everything has to work good,’’ he said.

Valentine recognizes that.

“It’s not the end of the world and it’s going to happen,’’ he said. “Is it going to happen 31 out of [35] times that they try? I hope not.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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