GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It would have required a keen eye to notice, but the Indians unveiled a subtle strategy earlier this week during Josh Tomlin's start against the Dodgers.In the second inning of Thursday's 4-1 win over Los Angeles, while Matt Kemp was on first and Chase Utley was batting,
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It would have required a keen eye to notice, but the Indians unveiled a subtle strategy earlier this week during Josh Tomlin's start against the Dodgers.
In the second inning of Thursday's 4-1 win over Los Angeles, while Matt Kemp was on first and Chase Utley was batting, Indians first baseman Edwin Encarnacion played behind the runner rather than holding him close. Tribe manager Terry Francona believes that alignment could create some incremental advantages for his team during Tomlin's starts this season.
"It's not so much an experiment," Francona explained. "To me, it's more common sense."
The strategy is based on the fact that Tomlin, who is extremely quick to the plate when pitching out of the stretch, is one of the Majors' best at controlling the running game. Over the course of Tomlin's eight seasons in the Major Leagues, there have only been 10 successful steals in 20 chances against the right-hander. Last year, Tomlin allowed just one stolen base in two attempts.
:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::
Tomlin is only half of the equation, though.
The Indians also boast two of the better throwing catchers in the game in Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez. Last season, Cleveland allowed the fewest steals (50) in the Majors and boasted the highest caught-stealing rate (42.5 percent). According to Statcast™, Gomes and Perez each averaged a 1.95 pop time on throws to second on steal attempts in 2017, putting them into a tie for fifth fastest among MLB catchers.
"It's not just about me," Tomlin said. "It's about 'Berto and Yan being as good as they are back there at throwing guys out."
This approach would not be used against the better basestealing threats -- Billy Hamilton of the Reds, for example -- but rather runners who fall into the second-tier of basethiefs, along with runners who are not stolen base threats. With the first baseman playing back, some runners might be tempted to steal, and that could play into the Tribe's hand.
"If they go, it's kind of like a free out," Perez said. "And we'd love to take it."
The other aspect is putting the defense in a position to potentially take a hit away from the hole between the first and second baseman. That could help for generating double plays or cut down on the opportunities that opposing teams have for the runner on first to hustle to third base on a single to right field.
"I think it's great," Indians first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "You take away the hole and, on the defensive side, you have a chance to cover more ground as a first baseman. We get to steal more hits -- absolutely. And, if they want to go to second base, then have a try. Tomlin's really, realy fast and we have really good catchers. We're not really worried about it. It's a strategy that I think is good."
When the Indians implemented the approach against the Dodgers, Francona noted that Kemp appeared to be considering stealing second on three consecutive pitches, but the runner stayed put.
"He wanted to go, but he couldn't," Francona said. "J.T.'s so quick that -- there will be an occasional stolen base -- but over the long haul, I bet it will save some outs and runs and hits."
Tomlin said he is completely on board with the approach.
"If it helps change even two or three games a year," Tomlin said, "that could be big over the course of a long season."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.