It was a disaster of an inning for Nationals catcher Jesus Flores against Philadelphia on Tuesday and yet it was not completely his fault.
Phillies speedster Juan Pierre can still wreak havoc against even the strongest-armed catchers in the major leagues and that tag hasn’t applied to Flores for a while. A catastrophic right shoulder injury early in the 2009 season cost Flores all of that season and 2010, too. A player who threw out a respectable 30.9 percent of opposing base stealers in his first 161 games is struggling now. Flores has caught just nine of the last 63 runners who have tested his arm.
Pierre did it in the third inning on the first pitch seen by teammate Chase Utley. After a ball from pitcher Stephen Strasburg, Pierre ran on pitch No. 3 and easily took third before scampering home when Flores’ throw went off the glove of third baseman Mark DeRosa and into left field. Think that was bad? How about Cliff Lee – a pitcher- running on a 2-0 count to Jimmy Rollins with two out in the fourth inning. He actually stole second base. It was just the second time in a career the ace lefty has swiped a bag. Flores took the play in stride.
“Well, it’s part of the game. [Lee] was very smart on that play,” Flores said. “He kind of impress everybody and surprise everybody on that one.”
And there’s the rub. For while Flores is an abysmal 5-for-43 (11.6 percent) throwing out runners, his pitching staff isn’t helping his cause at all. Strasburg has long had a problem holding runners close early in his career and it’s something he works on constantly with the coaching staff. In his career Strasburg has been on the mound for 18 stolen bases against and just three runners caught stealing. This year he and his catchers are a miserable 2-for-14 (14.3 percent).
“I’m pretty upset with myself for letting guys steal on me like that,” Strasburg said. “It’s something where when things aren’t going right you still have to remember that when there’s guys on base you’ve got to keep them close.”
His fellow starters aren’t much better. Gio Gonzalez and his catchers are 12-for-55 (21.8 percent) in his career. He has had one runner out of nine caught stealing in 2012 – and he’s a lefty. Edwin Jackson, a righty, is only slightly better than Gonzalez at 30-for-135 (22.2 percent) and 2-for-6 in 2012. Several relievers struggle holding runners, too.
“We’ve got some guys that are slow to the plate,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said. “Henry Rodriguez is really slow. [Craig] Stammen. I can go down the line. So I don’t want to be too critical of the catchers when I know what their times are and I know how come they’re stealing.”
On the positive side: Left-hander Ross Detwiler is 9-for-24 (37.5 percent) for the best career mark of Washington’s seven starters used this season. He is 2-for-4 this year. Jordan Zimmermann has been solid (12-for-33, 36.4 percent), but not this time around (0-for-7). Believe it or not, Chien-Ming Wang is 33-for-90 in his long career (36.7 percent) and 2-for-5 in a handful of starts this season. Lefty John Lannan wasn’t run on in his only 2012 start thus far, but sits at 29.1 percent for his career (23-for-79).
And there is a trade off here, according to Johnson. The Nats actually have pitchers now who can get guys out at the plate. Their veterans in years past may have held runners better. But there were also more runners to hold.
“Dwight Gooden was 1.6 [second to home plate],” Johnson said of his former prodigy with the New York Mets who was always slow with runners on base. “They stole second and stole third, but they’d never score. When we played [Greg] Maddux, Maddux was 1.5 and if we got on we could steal second and steal third, but nobody could get them in.”
Reserve catchers Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano have appeared in 19 games this season combined and are a decent 4-for-14 (28.6 percent). But even starter Wilson Ramos, who ranked third among all qualifying catchers last year (32.3 percent), struggled during the first five weeks of this season before tearing his ACL. Ramos was just 4-for-23 (17.4 percent).
Strasburg is a special case. He can be as quick as 1.1 seconds to home plate, Johnson said, and that should be enough to keep most running games in check. But he just doesn’t vary his pickoff move enough and when he comes set opposing runners know the ball is coming to the plate. Johnson is confident the light will go on for his ace. But until it does Flores and his fellow catchers have their work cut out for them – and will likely keep taking more of the blame than necessary.
“And I think that’s one of the things that we haven’t do well the whole season,” Flores said. “We have to keep working on that with the pitchers – like trying to hold better the runners. And then I can have probably better time to throw those guys out.”
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