Rox working on holding runners at bay

Rox working on holding runners at bay

PHOENIX -- The Rockies lost to the eventual National League champion Phillies in four games in the NL Division Series last year, and the final two games came down to the last inning. In other words, a few little things here and there could have pushed Colorado a step closer to a pennant.

But one of those little things is looming quite large for manager Jim Tracy and his staff this spring.

The Rockies are spending their time in Tucson with a renewed emphasis on holding opposing runners and limiting stolen bases, and it's a philosophy being passed along with increased urgency to pitchers, catchers and infielders.

"Last year, the bases stolen percentage by guys with average or below-average speed was way too high," Tracy said. "They took advantage of situations that presented themselves."

The numbers back him up. In 2009, opposing basestealers succeeded 85.2 percent of the time against Colorado, which ranked 29th of the 30 teams in the Major Leagues.

Their 115 stolen bases allowed was the seventh-most in that category in all of baseball.

And while catcher Chris Iannetta threw out a respectable 23.1 percent of potential basestealers, departed backstop Yorvit Torrealba, who never recovered arm strength after shoulder problems in 2006, allowed a 92.5 percent success rate.

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The Rockies signed free-agent catcher Miguel Olivo not only to take advantage of his power at the plate but because Olivo has thrown out an excellent 30.2 percent of basestealers throughout his career. Last year with Kansas City, Olivo gunned down 24.3 percent of runners, which ranked third in the AL.

"I see two catchers who possess way above-average throwing arms," Tracy said of Iannetta and Olivo. "I don't think you'll be seeing so much of that risky business this year."

But it isn't all on the catcher.

It starts with the pitchers, and Tracy, pitching coach Bob Apodaca, bench coach Tom Runnells and bullpen catcher/catching instructor Mark Strittmatter are all involved in walking the fine line of having pitchers work quickly yet still command the strike zone.

Starter Jason Hammel, who had his longest stint of the spring on Saturday with four innings of two-run ball against the Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park, saw up front how important holding runners can be when he was a member of the 2008 Rays team that went to the World Series.

That team ranked seventh in the Majors, allowing only 73.1 percent success at stealing bases.

"That team put a huge emphasis on controlling the running game," Hammel said.

"And even though it's tough to divide your attention between what's going on at first base and your main job, which is pitching to the hitter, you have to be able to multi-task."

This spring, Rockies pitchers are being given specific game scenarios to react to, with different types of runners and different types of leads.

"The really fast guys like Hanley Ramirez, the real basestealers, they're going to get their bags," Hammel said.

"It's the other guys who aren't necessarily burners but know how to take advantage of situations -- those are the guys that you just can't allow to get bags, and that's what we're working on, too."

According to Tracy, the Rockies seem to be in much better shape from the mound. Aaron Cook has always been good, Hammel is getting better, and ace Ubaldo Jimenez is "by far" the most improved on the staff.

But as Apodaca pointed out, there are other basic ways to avoid the problem.

"No. 1 is eliminating needless baserunners by eliminating needless walks," Apodaca said. "That's why we talk about attacking the strike zone, not fearing contact. We respect what hitters can do, but we don't fear it. It's an important distinction."

But the second most important thing Apodaca's preaching this spring is coming up with ways to intimidate the runners into staying on first base.

To that end, the pitchers are working on changing up looks to the plate, working on slide-steps and pick-off moves and varying the amount of time it takes for the pitcher to deliver the ball to the plate.

As Iannetta pointed out, throwing a lot of strikes doesn't hurt, either.

"It all starts with being ahead in counts," Iannetta said. "If you can throw strike one, there's less incentive to run than on ball one."

Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.