The consistent success of top-notch sports teams has long been credited to the high value these teams place on defense. The ability to consistently stop the other team from scoring, or to limit their scoring opportunities, allows a team’s ever-fluctuating offense to play a lesser role in determining the outcome of a contest. Defense has a reliability factor that offense doesn’t enjoy. An offense might score up to 20 runs, or even more, on a given night, but you’ll rarely see a defense make more than four or five errors in a game, and even that many is quite unusual. Even with wind, wet surfaces, and bad hops on a rough infield, defense is more predictable than offense and can be more easily practiced to something resembling perfection. Offense, meanwhile, with its high degree of variability, is impossible to perfect. Your team is in a groove, on an eight-game winning streak, and then you’re two-hit by a soft-throwing junk ball pitcher, your big hitters start to slump, and your winning streak turns into a five-game skid. That’s offense for you. Fortunately, you can combat the unpredictable nature of your offense with a solid defense known for its grit and reliability.
The more defensive weapons a baseball team has in its arsenal, the greater its chances of success over a long season. Pickoff plays and rundowns are two such weapons. Proper execution of the pickoff move and the ensuing rundown is vital to any defense. Every team should address these two phases of the game in their daily practice plan.
The best move to first base can be achieved by breaking the process down into three zones, each one vital to the development of a good pickoff move. The key is the left-handed pitcher’s ability to blend the movements of all three zones into a smooth and controlled delivery identical to his delivery to the plate. By coordinating all three, a pitcher can consistently make runners believe that he’s delivering the ball to the plate when in fact he’s coming to first base.
Breaking the whole into three parts makes it easier for the coach and pitcher to analyze the pickoff move and make proper adjustments. Once the pitcher understands how to control his body, he’ll have success in developing a good move.
This is the most important zone, in which the pitcher is selling the runner that he’s throwing to the plate. Zone 1 involves the pitcher’s head, glove, and shoulders. All three should remain pointing directly at the catcher even while the ball is being thrown to first base. The head looks to the base once the ball has been released, but not before.
Many coaches teach their pitchers to vary their head looks to a base, but too many times, the pitcher unconsciously develops a pattern that tips off runners when he’s going to throw over. I suggest that a three-look sequence be taught instead:
1. The first look is at the catcher to pick up the pitch signal.
2. The second look is to the base as the pitcher comes to the set position.
3. The third look is back to the catcher as the pitcher reaches the top of his leg lift, but not before.
Effectiveness lies in the consistency of the delivery, eliminating any possible patterns the pitcher might otherwise develop. As the body begins to drive down the 45-degree line, the head, glove, and shoulders should be pointed at the catcher. At this point, 99 percent of runners are already picked off. A common mistake pitchers make is to reach with the glove somewhere between the 45-degree line and the base, which forces the shoulders to turn, thus tipping off the runner.
Zone 2 involves footwork, leg lift, balance position, and body drive down the 45-degree line.
The pitcher’s feet should always be in a staggered position with the heel of the stride foot lined up with the toes of the pivot foot. The pivot heel should be about 2 inches in front of the rubber. This allows the pitcher to turn his body slightly toward the runner, increasing the pitcher’s angle within the imaginary 45-degree line and decreasing the chance of a balk. Still, this isn’t enough of a turn for the runners or coaches to notice or to affect the pitcher’s delivery to the plate.
Staggering his feet helps the pitcher control his leg lift. Maintaining control of the body is crucial during this stage of the delivery. All the pitcher has to do is lift his foot straight up. It’s also important that he keep his stride foot relaxed. Tension in the foot often causes the pitcher to reach out with it rather than allowing it to move naturally with the body. Very often, this little reaching motion is enough to tip off the runner at first. A pitcher who begins with his feet side by side instead of staggered tends to kick his foot out on the leg lift, causing his back to arch. This creates balance problems and makes it easier for the runner to detect when the pitcher is throwing to the base and not the plate.
A controlled leg lift makes it virtually impossible for the runner to steal on the pitcher’s first move. Remaining balanced during this phase allows the pitcher to step down and throw to the base when the runner takes off. The balanced position at the top of the leg lift is the most important position in the delivery. Up to this point, the pitcher has not given any indication that he’s going to throw over to the base. His next move will determine whether the runner will be picked off. At this point, the pitcher is going to look home and begin the move.
As the pitcher’s body begins to drive down the 45-degree line, the pick-off move to first base mirrors the delivery to the plate. Everything must be similar. The pivot leg pushes the body down the line, and the stride foot is closed and relaxed and ready to catch the body as it lands.
Zone 3 involves the throwing arm and the follow-through. The pitcher is responsible for getting the ball to the base accurately without using the glove side of his body to generate power and to follow the throw to the base in the event the runner is picked off. Enough power will be generated from the momentum of his body moving down the 45-degree line.
Because the runner is picked off before the throw is made, the throw must be accurate but not hard. The harder the pitcher tries to throw the ball, the more his body turns to gain velocity. Emphasize to pitchers to get on top of the ball as much as possible without turning the shoulders. The throwing elbow should be slightly lower than the shoulder at the release point. The throw is actually more of a wrist-snap with a good follow-through. It’s common for pitchers first learning the move to throw the ball in the direction their body is moving. This is easily corrected through progressive teaching drills.
The follow-through is important for two reasons. First, the pitcher doesn’t want the umpire to get a good look at where he landed. Second, in the event the runner is picked off, the pitcher must assist in the rundown.
A good habit for a pitcher to establish is to push off the stride foot and move toward the base as the throw is made. In the event the pitcher violates the 45-degree line, this push-off will give the appearance that his body was going to the base in a legal direction.