Every baseball fan has seen the move . . . and heard the groans when it doesn’t work.
With runners on first and third, a right-handed pitcher fakes a pickoff to third base, spins and throws to first. The move itself almost never results in an out. And the person next to you probably screams, “THAT NEVER WORKS!”
If you find the move infuriating, here’s the good news: Major League Baseball has outlawed the play this year. It’s now considered a balk.
Nuisance eliminated. End of story. Right?
Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter said over the weekend that eliminating that move from a pitcher’s repertoire could change the way baseball is played.
“Watch the stolen bases jump this year,” Showalter predicted.
He has a point.
“Relief pitchers are really squawking about it,” Showalter said. “I chuckle when these announcers always say, ‘Oh, that never catches anybody. Why do they ever do it?’ The things that keeps from happening were huge. These guys sit up there and say, ‘Why are they doing that?’ It shuts down the first and third. A right-handed pitcher had to have that move. Otherwise, you’re giving up 90 feet all the time.”
Here’s why: With runners at first and third, a pitcher is in the stretch. For a right-hander, that means his right foot is on the rubber. Before the rule change, when he picked up his left foot, he had three options — a pickoff to third base, a fake pickoff to third base, or a pitch to home plate.
For the runner at first base, the possibility of a fake pickoff to third would keep him at an honest lead. He couldn’t take off at the pitcher’s first movement, because the pitcher could pivot and pick him off a split-second later.
Now, the right-handed pitcher has only two options after he picks up his left leg — a pickoff to third base or a pitch to home plate. Either involves the pitcher actually throwing the ball. So, if the runner at first base has decent speed, he should be able to make it from first to second in the time it would take the defensive team to throw the ball from the mound, to third, to second.
The situation would most often come into play when there are fewer than two outs. That’s because the offensive team, in many instances, would be happy to trade an out for a run; the runner on third can steal home if the catcher throws to the shortstop or second baseman in order to nab the runner attempting to steal from first base.
The upshot: Runners at first base will enjoy a strategic advantage they didn’t have in years past, turning average runners into legitimate threats to cause mayhem — if not stealing second, then acting as a decoy to score the runner from third. MLB games could see some of the first-and-third hijinks normally associated with the teenage PONY or Senior leagues.
“You’d better be able to defend the first-and-third offense this year,” Showalter said. “That’s one of our points of emphasis. You’d better be able to offense it, too. It’s going to be a big play.
“There are ways to find out if they’re covering (second base on a steal) by some things you can do. It’s a gimmie bag in some cases.”
So, what might Showalter’s Orioles do in an attempt to take advantage?
“It’s limitless,” Showalter said.
Curiosity piqued. We need to pay attention at Camden Yards this year.