We have done short articles on various ways to keep runners close to bases but we have never put them all in one article or discussed this topic in depth.
OK, first we need a philosophy. A base runner gets on. Are we going to worry and fret and lose concentration? Are we going to throw over every other pitch? Are we going to concentrate on picking him off or are we going to concentrate on getting the next hitter out?
I think we need to understand that runners on base are part of the game. There just are not that many perfect games. So in a way, runners on base are not a disaster, they come under the heading of things the pitcher cannot control. They will always be there at many points in the game. So if they come under the heading of things a pitcher cannot control, then he should take the attitude that he will not worry about the situation. He will not lose sight of the fact the runner is there but he will not torment himself with it.
Will a stolen base beat you? Not very often. But bases on balls will beat you. Concentration must be on the hitter. What do we do to slow base runners down?
Runner on First
This discussion will be for the benefit of right-handed pitchers. Left-handed pitchers don’t have the same dilemma. A pitcher should not throw over to a base too many times. It gives the offense too many chances to get a good ‘read’ on his move. And then after you have thrown over 3 times in a row what do you think is going to happen next? Yep, he’s going. So it is important to keep the runner off balance. To not let them know what you are going to do. Don’t be predictable.
Of course a team needs a catcher who can make all the throws, but the pitcher has to help the catcher out and keep the runner close. So our focus is not on picking off the runner but on keeping him close to the base so the catcher has a chance to make a play. Our pitcher cannot control the fact the runner is on base but he can control the fact that he can keep him relatively close and off-balance.
- The first line of defense is to focus on the next hitter. You are really courting disaster when you start walking other hitters. The pitcher’s first thought should be “Get strike One.”
- The next option is to be aware of the game situation. That is where the coach comes in. He should know the opposing team’s tendencies and the speed of the runner and when it is likely for him to steal. In my opinion the coach should call the pick-off move, especially at the high school level and below.
- Vary his times to the plate. This is extremely important. Simply by not going to the plate with a predictable rhythm he can keep the runner off balance. He can do this with just a silent count. And he can work on it during his in-between starts bullpen.
- Hold the ball. That’s it, just hold the ball and don’t deliver it. Sometimes a runner will get so anxious that he will take off any way.
- Step back off the rubber. A pitcher can do this after he has held the ball for a time. Step off with the throwing side foot and look over at the runner. (When a pitcher steps back off the rubber he becomes just another infielder and he can do anything he wants with the ball. But you have to step off with the throwing side foot.) A coach can help his pitcher several times in a game by simply telling him to “step off” in stealing situations. That gives the opposing coach something to think about and it helps the pitcher be aware of a possible steal.
- Pick-off moves. This should be at the discretion of the coach.
So there you go. Focus on the hitter, be aware of the game situation, vary your times to the plate, hold the ball, step off and throw over. Not too bad for a pitcher who doesn’t have control of the situation.
Runner on Second
Most of the same techniques still apply with a runner on second base with a few exceptions. We want to focus on the hitter, be aware of game situations, vary our times to the plate, hold the ball and step off.
- Look back. A pitcher should vary the number of times he looks back at the runner before he delivers to the plate. He can look once and deliver, he can look pause and look back again, he can look twice quickly, pause and look back, etc. A pitcher of course, cannot do this at first base because if he turns without throwing over he is balking.
- Lift, pivot and turn toward the runner. A pitcher can legally do this without throwing to second base but I do not teach this move. I don’t believe it does anything. As a pick-off move it is too slow. For anything else, a simple step off the rubber will suffice.
- This one Coach Bill Thurston told me about and I really like it. The pitcher comes set, and looks back once. Then he looks back at the catcher. He looks for any movement out of the corner of his eye. If there is movement by the runner he simply holds the ball or steps off. If there is no movement he delivers to the plate. The fact he can see no movement tells him that the runner has not advanced far enough to be a significant threat to steal.
- Pick-off. This should be very rare and should be ordered at the discretion of the coach. The defense should wait for the most important time in the game and use it only once.
Runner on Third
Rule number 1-focus on the hitter. Rule number 2- see rule number 1.
Where can the runner go? He is not going to steal. Jackie Robinson is dead. A right hand pitcher is looking directly at him when he comes set. Holding a runner close is bad. (It creates too big a hole in the defense.) And yet I see this at the Junior and Senior level all the time. Throwing over to third is bad. Never, ever throw over to third. Do not even have this play in your play book.
I don’t like having the catcher try to pick off the runner at third either. Just look him back, don’t throw. Want a good way to lose a game? That’s one. The main thing is for the pitcher not to be distracted. The runner can be dancing up and down the line. But the pitcher should block it out of his mind and focus on hitting the catcher’s glove.
The pitcher should pitch from the stretch with a runner on third and less than two outs. I know some pitch from the windup but I like our pitchers to pitch from the stretch. With good mechanics there should be no velocity loss from the stretch Vs the windup. You’ll not see anything about teaching the slide step in our publications. We don’t use it and we don’t teach it. Most young pitchers are not strong enough to keep their weight back when they use the slide step and they end up rushing their delivery. The upper body gets ahead of the arm and pitches are often up in the strike zone or high, out of the strike zone. Besides it is hard enough to teach one set of good mechanics to a young pitcher without introducing another. Remember, our focus is on the hitter. We teach our pitchers to use their same leg lift but to do it a little quicker. Get to the balance point faster. They can still maintain their balance and keep their weight back this way.
These are common mistakes we see defenses make with runners on base. We see them mostly at the youth level but they have been known to occur at higher levels of baseball.
Improper set up by the first baseman with a runner there. You see all kinds of bizarre ways the first baseman holds a runner on; outfield side of the bag, on the base, on the clay, Etc. You also see them actually stretch out toward the pitcher with the glove. He can’t make too many athletic movements that way. Another common mistake is for the first baseman to stay stationary while the pitch is being delivered. He should be quickly gliding into the hole so he can adequately defend his position.
The pitcher throws from the windup. As a base runner if you see a pitcher take a step back, sprint to the next base. There is no defense for pitching from the windup. You will get there standing up without a throw.
Pitcher throws over entirely too many times and to too many runners. Eventually the ball will be thrown away or the defense will develop a tendency to let down or the offense will have the move down pat.
The second baseman actually holding a runner on second. Where that came from I haven’t a clue. Get back to your position where you belong.
The third baseman holding a runner on third? I have seen this many times yet I still have trouble believing it. Where do coaches get this stuff?
Trying to pick a runner off third. Three things can happen and two are very bad.
Catchers trying to pick off runners at first, second or third. Let’s leave this to the professionals. Let’s stay with the fundamentals and beat the opposing team with good sound baseball. You may not agree with me, but if you think back at the results over the years you know I’m right. The risks outweigh the rewards. Besides how much practice time do you have anyway?
Obvious apprehension and uneasiness by the pitcher players and coaches. Play the game as if you expect to win not as if you are afraid to lose. Get the next hitter, get three outs and get into the dugout so you can swing the bats.
There you have it. Work on a couple of pickoff plays at first and second base, get strike one, keep your poise and concentrate on the hitter.