CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cole Hamels has been in Clearwater for a few weeks, but he has yet to throw off the mound after experiencing some arm soreness early this offseason.
Hamels is healthy; he's just behind the majority of the pitchers in camp. But that's not to say he hasn't been working at perfecting his craft at the Carpenter Complex during the first 2 weeks of workouts.
Hamels walked through a pickoff drill with a conga line-like group of fellow Phillies pitchers this week. He stepped on the mound with his teammates and ran through three exercises: first the normal pickoff throw, then stepping off the mound, then looking over but delivering to the plate.
"It's a huge difference-maker," Hamels said of the importance of stymieing the opponents' running game.
In the first few days of full-squad workouts, first-year manager Ryne Sandberg has put a strong emphasis on such fundamental drills. Before hitters pick up a bat and before most pitchers deliver to the plate, they have been running through an assortment of drills including pickoff moves for pitchers, baserunning for position players, and rundown plays for everyone.
Sandberg began to implement more on-the-field work when he took over the managerial reins from Charlie Manuel last August. It has continued into spring, and the biggest names in the clubhouse are on board.
"I think any time you can fine-tune fundamentals, it's going to benefit you, it's going to benefit your team and give you a better chance to win," second baseman Chase Utley said. "Ryno has stressed that early on. And guys seem to be buying into it, excited to do it and continue to try to learn and improve on it."
In addition to the never-ending string of injuries to key players, a lack of fundamentals might have played a factor in the Phillies' first losing season in 11 years in 2013.
"It's the preparation, the focus, that sometimes we let stray when we get very comfortable with where we're at or what we're doing," Hamels said. "I don't think consciously [we let it happen]. I think we're very confident in how good we are, and ultimately sometimes even that can stray when you forget about the little things that got you to where you are."
Utley is one of the best baserunners in baseball, yet he said he is enjoying the drills because "you're always trying to get better at something." Ditto Hamels, who finished in the top eight in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2 of the last 3 years but views himself as a perfectionist, unhappy until he has mastered every facet of his game.
Which brings him back to those pickoff practices.
In 2013, Hamels allowed 25 stolen bases; only two major league pitchers allowed more. Opponents were 25-for-35 in steal attempts off Hamels, a 71.4 percent success rate.
Among starting pitchers with at least 200 innings of work and 20 steal attempts from their opponents, that percentage ranked Hamels as the fifth worst in baseball.
"If you add it up, most guys that steal end up scoring," Hamels said. "It's probably an extra 10 to 15 runs a year, which I'd take off my ERA any day of the week. I'm sure it would get me a couple more wins and keep my team in ballgames more . . . I was a lot more aware of it last year because guys were doing it repetitively, and it was the same guys."
Take the three starts Hamels made against the Mets after the All-Star break last year, for example.
Eric Young and Daniel Murphy stolen a combined seven bases against Hamels in three games. Young and Murphy eventually scored on six of those seven instances.
Hamels lost one of those games by one run, another by two.
"[Before] my first and foremost focus was getting outs at home - which it should be - but I can get guys out at home now," Hamels said of retiring the batter he's facing. "I should be able to do everything. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to have a complete package in order to execute the game the right way."
If Hamels was able to erase those seven stolen bases in those three games against the Mets, his ERA last year would shrink from 3.60 to 3.35. Extrapolate that through the course of a whole season, and not just three games, and Hamels would cut down that ERA even lower which, of course, should result in helping his team win more, too.
A pitcher perfecting a pickoff - or just paying attention to the runners more - is no different than a baserunner getting a better lead off a base or a better read off the ball when he puts it into play. All are examples of fundamental baseball plays that can be improved upon through regular practice and awareness.
"I always thought we could run the bases better," Utley said after finishing his workout yesterday.
His manager agrees. Sandberg actually believes the advanced age of many of the regulars in his lineup means they should be smarter runners, not slower runners.
"A big part of baserunning is knowing the situation and being smart baserunners," Sandberg said. "You don't have to be the fastest guy to be a good baserunner, but you have to know the game of baseball and know the situation. Experienced and veteran players, I would think they would be good baserunners just because of their experience."
Sandberg said he'll continue to hammer home the importance of fundamentals this spring and when the season begins, too. The end game, of course, is to have his players more prepared physically and mentally, with wins piling up as a result.
"It's little, smaller things: getting a good secondary [lead], whether you're at first or second, so you're able to go first to third, second to home," Utley said of baserunning. "Paying attention to the outfielders, knowing who throws well and who doesn't throw well and take advantage of guys that don't throw well. Those are things you can get better at, the more you put time into it."
When Sandberg came up through the Phillies system in the late 1970s and early '80s, aggressive baserunning and the importance of having sound baseball smarts was known as "The Phillies Way."
It was that way for Utley, too, who had the chance to enter the organization when John Vukovich and Larry Bowa were molding young baseball minds. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Sandberg wanted Bowa on his coaching staff.
"They were sticklers at it," Utley said of Bowa and Vukovich. "But I think it was beneficial."