Starling Marte is standing firm as the Pirates' leadoff hitter. And that has as much to do with his footwork at the plate as it does his success in that position.
Marte has blossomed at the top of the order, finishing April with a first-inning batting average of .636 and a first-inning on-base percentage of .692.
"You don't expect him to hit .600 in the first inning all the time, but to carry it through a month is pretty interesting," manager Clint Hurdle said.
His strikeout percentage has dropped from last season -- even with a five-strikeout game April 18 vs. Atlanta. And his walk rate is up, though he will never draw the volume of walks most people expect from a traditional leadoff hitter.
"I'm feeling good," Marte said. "Before beginning my career here, I hit leadoff at every level. I feel good hitting one, two or three."
Hurdle credited a lot of Marte's success with his ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone and, literally, stand firm in the box. When hitters chase pitches, they sometimes lose their footing.
"The back foot actually leaves the ground when they swing," Hurdle said. "He's standing tall, holding his backside."
Marte is still developing, Hurdle said, and some of his flaws are apparent. He hesitates and stops on a lot of his swings, a sign that he is still learning how to recognize pitches. That will improve with time.
"I'm working hard on that," Marte said. "Last year, I struggled with that. But this year, I'm more comfortable waiting for good pitches."
At this point, Marte learns most by experience, not from video study, Hurdle said. The method is working.
Better to get than give
The Pirates have been awfully hospitable to opposing baserunners the past few seasons. And use of the word awfully might be an understatement.
They have finished among the bottom 10 teams in the majors in caught stealing percentage in each of the past three seasons. Last year, the Pirates were dead last, throwing out only 11 percent of would-be stealers.
This is not the kind of Pirates charities that makes the organization proud.
At times, the ease at which opponents have stolen bases has seemed laughable. In one game against Milwaukee in September 2012, the Brewers stole seven bases.
But through the first month of the season, the Pirates have been more successful controlling the running game. Entering this weekend, the Pirates were throwing out 29 percent of potential stealers.
The improvement is not by accident.
During the offseason, Clint Hurdle charged bench coach Jeff Banister with helping the pitchers and catchers better control the running game.
During spring training, Banister had pitchers work on holding the ball, improving slide steps, shortening release times and disguising pickoff moves.
"It was a huge focus coming in -- holding the ball, getting the runners to shift their weight from their toes to their heels," reliever Tony Watson said. "And holding the ball also affects the hitter's timing. Anything you can do to keep the runners guessing, keep that manager in the dugout guessing."
New catcher Russell Martin said the Pirates invested more time in controlling the running game than any team he had been around.
"It was something that we needed to work on and something we felt that if we got better at it, it would make us a better team," he said.
Martin threw out seven runners in April. The Pirates didn't record their seventh caught stealing last season until July 6. He also has thrown out two runners in multiple games this year, something the Pirates hadn't done since 2010, which is more a testament to past failures than it is to Martin's arm.
"The truth is, it's a team thing," Martin said. "If a pitcher's really slow to the plate, it doesn't matter who's behind the plate. The teams that are good at controlling the running game is because they have a philosophy within the team. ... If you're quick to the plate, you can have an average catcher and make him look great."
Martin is more active behind the plate than some of the Pirates' past catchers, Watson said. He is quick to back pick runners who take long secondary leads and caught Jonathan Lucroy last week on the first pickoff by a Pirates catcher since Jason Jaramillo on Sept. 27, 2011.
"He's a calming factor back there," Watson said. "He's always in control, it seems like."
The unhappy Wandy-er
Wandy Rodriguez has some interesting home and road splits that he can't seem to explain. Neither can Hurdle.
Rodriguez, who is scheduled to start today against the Washington Nationals, is 50-38 with a 3.40 ERA in 123 home games dating to his days in Houston. On the road, he is 37-51 with a 4.72 ERA in 114 games.
"Houston's not a notoriously good place to pitch as a pitcher, so you can't throw that one in there," Hurdle said. "In the Central, most of the ballparks are hitter friendly."
Seeing as Rodriguez pitches a plurality of his road games against National League Central opponents, it could be a factor.
Minute Maid Park, which Rodriguez called home for most of his career, is a hitter's heaven -- especially with a shallow left field fence.
Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Miller Park in Milwaukee are also hitter-friendly. Wrigley Field in Chicago is typically a good place to hit, though shifting winds can often make it a perfect place for pitching.
"I don't know what's going on," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes I throw good games on the road. I don't know how to explain it. Sometimes I throw bad games at home, too."
This season, Rodriguez is 2-0 at home and has not allowed an earned run in 132/3 innings. On the road, he is 0-1 with an 8.49 ERA, skewed by a seven-run outing Monday in Milwaukee.
The Pirates begin interleague play with a two-game series against the Seattle Mariners at PNC Park. The Pirates have not played the Mariners since 2007 and have played every other team in Major League Baseball since last playing the Mariners. Seattle has made just one trip to PNC Park, and it swept the Pirates in a three-game series in 2004.
First Published May 5, 2013 4:00 AM