LAKELAND — Manager Joe Maddon said this year's catchers — veterans Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan — are the top tandem the Rays have ever had.
Because aside from the duo's ability to call a game, frame pitches and handle a staff, Molina and Hanigan are strong in stopping base stealers.
The two rank among the best active catchers in caught-stealing percentage, with Hanigan second at 36.3 and Molina fourth at 34.5.
"When you've got the tools in our grasp like Hanigan and Molina, you're a fool not to use them," starting pitcher Alex Cobb said. "Whether you've got to work on it day and night, you've got to figure out a way to give them a chance."
Problem is, Rays pitchers didn't give their catchers much of a chance last season, when Tampa Bay allowed the fourth-most steals (119) in the majors and had the fourth-worst caught-stealing percentage (21.7), far off the 27.2 MLB average. Maddon laid much of the blame on pitchers, who were either too slow in their delivery or not attentive enough holding runners.
"Bad. Poor. Annoying," Maddon said. "And that's why we made such a big push this camp."
The Rays feel they've improved in that area during spring, but the real test will come during the regular season. Attrition should help, as some of the biggest culprits last season — starter Roberto Hernandez and reliever Jamey Wright — are no longer on the team. Hernandez and Wright combined to allow 34 of the team's steals (28 percent), with Wright giving up 16 in 70 innings.
But Rays starters admitted they each had aspects to work on, from improving their time to the plate (1.3 seconds is considered good) to practicing their slide step. Sometimes, it just takes varying how many seconds they hold the ball before the delivery.
"That's definitely one place that pretty much up and down the rotation, we can take that and say, 'Yes, we do have room for growth,' " left-hander Matt Moore said.
Cobb said it's the one red flag he has heading into this season. Cobb allowed 12 of 18 attempted base stealers to reach safely in 2007, with Moore 7 of 7, right-hander Chris Archer 16 of 18 and ace David Price 11 of 25.
"I definitely feel a little bit of shame," Cobb said. "I'm very disappointed in the fact that people know they can steal off me. For me, especially as a ground ball pitcher, I'm giving up runs when I let a guy steal."
The way Cobb sees it, if a runner swipes second, the next ground ball, instead of being a double play, can move them to third, setting up a potential sacrifice fly. But Cobb said he has come a long way in getting quicker to the plate.
"It's just a trust in your arm and your body that they're going to stay in synch," Cobb said. "Just because you're speeding up doesn't mean you're out of control."
Hanigan and Molina said thwarting base stealers takes a partnership with pitchers and catchers, but it's their forte. While the two have different techniques and throwing mechanics, Maddon said what makes each catcher so good is very quick feet and releases, making up for not having overpowering arms. "They dump the ball quickly and accurately," Maddon said.
Molina, 38, said he and Hanigan, 33, have a good relationship, each learning from each other and giving the other pointers. "He's always an open ear for me," Hanigan said.
Considering Molina has played the mentor role in recent seasons, it's a refreshing change.
"It's a lot easier in my case, I think," Molina said. "Just because a lot of stuff he does like me."
Neither knows how the games will be split up, other than Maddon saying Hanigan is likely to get at least 51 percent of the starts. But it doesn't matter.
"Let's put it this way," Molina said. "I don't think (Maddon) is going to have a problem with who's going to be behind the plate. You're going to have a good one."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]