There is nothing close to a science in knowing and reading pitchers. The base runner’s ability and instinct improve with lots of concentrated practice, tremendous attention when others are on base, and experience on the basepath. Plus, mistakes by a base runner are an excellent teacher in the learning process. Even a prepared runner who has seen it all and cataloged pitchers’ moves can be surprised. But the base runner who has studied pitchers’ tendencies and movements knows what the pitcher is going to do before the pitcher does it. This is just smart baserunning.
When I teach base runners about pitchers, I first talk about runners knowing the patterns of pitchers, both right- and left-handed, and their basic movements. I encourage runners to know these elements better than the pitchers themselves so they almost always know what the pitcher is going to do before the pitcher does. Overall, pitchers are not very “baseball intelligent.” They practice moves to the bases very little and take runners on base for granted, acting at times as if they don’t exist. Taking all of this into consideration, many more base runners should dominate pitchers and the defense.
Reading Right-Handed Pitchers
Ninety-nine percent of right-handed pitchers do the same thing. They begin by opening their shoulder with their foot on the rubber and, prior to taking the signal, look at the runner’s lead. Why do they do this? Brian Roberts’ research proves correct that after the runner is off the base about 8 feet (2.4 m) the right-handed pitcher can hardly see him. So the pitcher tries to see the runner’s lead before he sets.
At this point, the runner is anticipating the pitcher’s movement, but the runner’s jump is not dependent on when the pitcher moves. The mistake almost all base runners still make is waiting to make their initial movement until after the pitcher moves.
The runner should concentrate only on a right-handed pitcher’s left side. The right side is a nonfactor in reading right-handed pitchers except for the foot stepping off at times. Right-handed pitchers who step off with the right foot usually have no clue how to hold runners on and are just stalling and delaying being run on.
Left-side concentration should be general and not confined to one specific area. The left shoulder, left hip, left knee, and left foot play a part, but none of these areas creates any real concern for a knowledgeable base runner. The runner prepares to make his first movement prior to the pitcher moving any part of the left side. Pitchers usually have a one-count pattern, which is to set themselves, count one second, and then either deliver to the plate or toss to first base. The second most popular count is four seconds. Whatever the count, almost all right-handed pitchers today are robotic, simple to read, and slow in their pickoff delivery. If the runner is leaning or has movement into a controlled jump prior to the pitcher’s movement, the base runner is off to the races from first base as the pitcher’s left leg comes up.
One of the ways a pitcher tries to minimize the effectiveness of the base runner is to use a slide step. This means the pitcher is trying to cut down his time to the plate so the catcher has a better chance of throwing out a runner. However, pitchers who use a slide step usually lose some velocity and control, so less than 25 percent of pitchers in baseball use a slide step.
Reading a slide step is easy. If a runner is leaning or taking a controlled jump at first base, he has started the initial controlled movement toward second when the pitcher’s leg comes up. The runner continues to keep his eyes on the pitcher’s left side for one to three steps. If the runner reads a slide step but has a great jump, he usually will continue the attempted steal. If the runner reads a slide step and did not have an adequate jump, he shuts it down and turns the movement into a secondary lead.
Runners should never worry about a right-handed pitcher’s movements while trying to hold a runner on first base. There are so few right-handed pitchers who do a decent job of holding runners that a base runner absolutely knows he can read a right-handed pitcher easily. He should use his energy to make sure that once he leaves the base, his anticipation button is on, his movement is prior to the right-handed pitcher’s and controlled, and his chest remains parallel to the third-base line for one to three steps. This allows the runner to react well to the pitcher’s throw.
Reading Left-Handed Pitchers
Left-handed pitchers have become even more robotic than right-handed pitchers. Few left-handed pitchers work on the three areas of movement with the lead or right leg that would help them develop a tough-to-read move. These movements are lifting the leg straight up, lifting the leg at a 30-degree angle, and lifting the leg at a 45-degree angle. The head goes through several movements with each leg movement. If a runner ever competes against a left-handed pitcher who has mastered these movements, such as Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees (Pettitte may be the only left-handed pitcher in the major leagues who actually has a nonrobotic move), he most likely will not read or guess but run off the first movement of the pitcher. This means that against leg movements like Pettitte’s most runners are gambling when they run on the pitcher’s first movement that the pitcher will throw home or make a slower move than usual if throwing to first base.The runner may be able to beat a throw from the first baseman into second.
Most left-handed pitchers lift the lead leg and hold it longer in the air to try to read the runner’s movement. Runners want these left-handed pitchers to throw to first base often. The more often they throw, the more reads the runner sees. The runner can turn those reads into steals. These left-handed pitchers do not worry runners, are easy to read, and can be dominated. The runner uses short variable leads with controlled jumps to combat the leg hold in the air by left-handed pitchers.
Left-handed pitchers who use a slide step are easily readable by specifically watching the knee. The knee barely bends and the body leans toward home plate immediately. Usually they use this movement because they do not have a quality full-leg pickoff move.
Runners should pay little attention to the back or left side of a left-handed pitcher on the mound. Some left-handed pitchers step off often with the left foot because they do not have a quality move. As they step off, they use a side-arm flip throw to first base, which often is not very accurate.
The runner’s concentration is on the right side of a left-handed pitcher. The shoulder, hip, knee, and foot all come into play, with the knee and foot most important. If the knee or foot ever crosses the plane of the rubber as the leg goes backward with the only runner on first, the pitcher must throw to the plate. This is the reason left-handed pitchers keep the right foot, when picked up in the stretch, in front of the rubber. It helps them delay their commitment to throw either to first base or home plate a fraction longer.