When Orioles catcher Matt Wieters threw out Tampa Bay's speedy center fielder Desmond Jennings trying to steal second base in the ninth inning Thursday night, it wasn't just an important play in a game the Orioles eventually won in 10 innings.
It served as further example that Wieters — and, really, the entire defense — has shut down the opposition's running game so far in 2013.
How good has Wieters and company been?
They have thrown out eight of 10 would-be base stealers this year — an 80 percent mark that is by far the best in the majors.
Wieters is 7-for-9 and reserve Taylor Teagarden has thrown out the only attempt against him. The Orioles' duo has caught more runners trying to steal than the next two American League teams combined (Cleveland with four and Houston with three heading into Friday night).
"It's kind of ridiculous how many guys have been thrown out for that small of sample size," Teagarden said. "But it is a credit to the pitchers giving us a chance to throw guys out. And when Matt gets a chance to throw a ball, he is executing it. Everyone is doing their part. And the run game has become a problem for other teams against us."
The dominance starts with Wieters, the two-time Gold Glover whose caught-stealing percentage has risen from .312 in 2010 to .370 in 2011 to .386 in 2012. Anything over 30 percent is considered excellent for a catcher.
This year, he is at a virtually unsustainable .778 through 15 games.
Has Wieters improved that much or have the club's pitchers gotten that much better in controlling the running game?
"It's both," said manager Buck Showalter. "Matt will be the first to give them some credit, and pitchers would be the first [to credit Wieters]."
When Showalter arrived with the club in 2010 he noticed how slow most of the Orioles' hurlers were in throwing pitches to the play from the start of their delivery. Showalter believes that if a pitcher can deliver the ball in 1.2 to 1.3 seconds, it gives the catcher a good chance to make a play.
When he arrived, Showalter said the majority of the Orioles pitchers in the majors and minors were in the 1.6 second range.
"We start as soon as we get the guys. If you are not X time or below, our guys know from Aberdeen on up, you are not going to pitch here," Showalter said. "But my point to the pitchers is why would you not take advantage of the commodity that we have in Matt — and Tea also — by being 1.6, 1.5 to the plate?"
Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta said a pitcher's time to the plate was never stressed in the minors, and so when he and other members of the so-called "cavalry" made it to the majors they were ill-prepared to quell a running game.
"When a lot of the younger guys got to the big leagues, guys like myself, Zach Britton, [Brian] Matusz, [Chris Tillman], I don't think it was emphasized enough the way it is now in our farm system," Arrieta said. "We weren't really ready for the kind of stolen base threats that we would come into contact with. It was shocking at first and it was also an awareness that we need to get better at this."
Arrieta said he believes he was in the 1.6-second range on his way to the plate as a rookie. He said he tries to be consistently under 1.3 now — and he's also worked on giving runners different looks before he throws out of the stretch so they can't detect a pattern. In addition, he said Wieters has worked on his anticipation of when a player may run, and that's helped, too.
"He's developed a very good awareness. I can tell when a guy's going to go by the way he receives the ball," Arrieta said. "He's right almost all the time."
Teagarden says Wieters has been "exceptional" this year, but he also noted that the team's middle infielders show no fear with a runner sliding toward them. And that has been a key. In fact, shortstop J.J. Hardy is considered one of the best catch-and-tag guys in the league.
"A lot of credit goes to the middle infielders, too," Teagarden said. "Most catchers in the big leagues can throw well, but if you don't have middle infielders that will stick their noses in there when a guy is sliding or with tough hops, it can really make or break whether the throw gets the runner."
The bottom line is the Orioles, led by Wieters, have allowed just two steals this year. Although that number will rise and the caught-stealing percentage will drop, there's no reason the Orioles can't lead the league in those categories all season.
"Being really aware of our times to the plate is allowing for more opportunities for Wieters to throw guys out, along with his ability," Arrieta said. "It's really impressive, his percentage right now. And I think if we continue to give him a good shot, he can keep throwing guys out at the rate he is."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun