The running game problems were only one symptom.
Manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates found other issues with their pitching program in addition to the pitchers' inability to prevent runners from stealing bases at will. So as expected in an organization that is always evaluating its performance, they changed the program before this season.
Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage, special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict, pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas tweaked the system. The emphasis on the running game has received attention since spring training, when A.J. Burnett started picking people off. The new system also included directives to pitch inside more effectively and hit spots in order to produce ground balls.
"We followed it every day throughout our minor league system up here," Hurdle said. "So it's not like we have a plan in place for our minor league guys and then there's one here."
Last year, Pirates catchers threw out 11 percent of runners trying to steal. That means 154 succeeded, the most in the major leagues. This year, their 33 percent caught-stealing mark ranks fifth in the majors.
Replacing Rod Barajas with Russell Martin, who had thrown out 44 percent of runners entering the weekend, has made a drastic difference. But the pitchers needed improvement, too, so the staff gave them questionnaires, Hurdle said, to better gauge their comfort level.
"Then we processed that information," Hurdle said. "Now when we got a guy going to the mound we're not going to ask him probably to do a whole bunch of things that we know that it's not in his best interests to do. We're going to stay with his strengths."
Hurdle has talked about pitching to the inner half of the plate since taking over as manager, but that made its way into the new plan as well.
"Having a little bit of an edge to you," Tony Watson said. "Knowing that you're holding the ball on the mound. It's your plate. You got to get in there. They got to be aware that you're able to throw strikes in there and off for effect."
In high school and college, Watson said, an inside pitch, even a good one, to a batter with a metal bat can still result in a hit. In the pros, that same pitch breaks the bat or creates weak contact.
"You just got to make them feel it," Watson said. "If they feel your hard fastball in, they got to be ready for it and protect the outer half, too."
The Pirates rank seventh in the majors in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball-Reference.com, turning 70.4 percent of balls in play into an out. Some of that comes from the Pirates' defensive shifts. But the shifts only work if the pitcher throws the ball in the right spot, specifically, in the right spot to get a ground ball when there are runners on base.
"We know every hitter, we know where we can go, just based on the metrics, where you're going to get your greatest opportunity to get a ground ball when you need a ground ball," Hurdle said.
The improvements in those areas have contributed to an MLB-best 3.18 ERA, but they aren't the sole reasons. Exemplary work from Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke, the best bullpen in baseball and competent spot starters played an important role.
Hot pursuit on a cold wire
With one week remaining before teams must set their playoff rosters, the Pirates are continuing to find waiver claims hard to come by.
"Given where we are, most of the players aren't still on waivers by the time our number comes up," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said.
Teams have a crack at players placed on waivers in reverse order of their winning percentage, and everybody in the American League can claim an AL player before the NL gets a crack at him. The Pirates hold one of the top two or three records in baseball, depending on the day, which has prevented players from reaching them.
Players that clear waivers usually wouldn't offer the Pirates much help with the exception, this season, of Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. That doesn't mean players that can make an impact don't clear waivers: After the San Francisco Giants claimed Cody Ross in 2010, Ross hit .294 with five home runs in the playoffs as the Giants won the World Series.
Undone by a 6-22 record in May, the Milwaukee Brewers have assembled a passable second half as they enter PNC Park for a three-game series beginning Tuesday.
That second half has come without left fielder Ryan Braun, who accepted a 65-game suspension due to his involvement with Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic in Miami that allegedly provided steroids to MLB players. The Brewers are 14-15 since that point.
Kyle Lohse' improvement has lent stability to the rotation. Since the beginning of July, Lohse has a 2.63 ERA in 10 starts, eight of them Brewers wins.
The week ahead
Schedule for the NL Central contenders (Monday-Sunday)
Tue-Thu: vs. Brewers. Remember when they used to dominate Pirates?
Fri-Sun: vs. Cardinals. First in NL Central will again be at stake.
Mon-Wed: vs. Reds. Play only Reds and Pirates (13 times) through Sept. 8.
Fri-Sun: @ Pirates. 2-5 vs. Pirates at PNC Park this season.
Mon-Wed: @ Cardinals. Wainwright, Lynn & Miller a combined 38-22 with a 3.19 ERA.Fri-Sun: @ Rockies. Colorado 14-10 vs. NL Central.
Join PG+ -- the Post-Gazette's premium website -- for access to PBC Blog at www.post-gazette.com. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM