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 in 80 percent of their attempts.
The Yankees gave up 91 fewer steals in that same period and the Rays 193 fewer.
Bobby Valentine has made controlling the running game — or at least trying to — 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 today, referring to John Farrell and Curt Young.
Valentine understands that thinking, saying that when he played with Nolan Ryan and managed 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 another inning. It means an entire other inning that starter could pitch,” Valentine said. “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.”
Josh Beckett was on the mound for 64 of those steals — a whopping 31 in 35 attempts last season — and agrees that the Red Sox have to do a better job of paying attention to men on base.
The righthander is working on it, adhering to a program of strategies 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. Only two runners had a chance 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.”
See the Globe tomorrow for more on on Beckett and the work he is doing this spring.