The Art of a Successful Pickoff

Picking a runner off base can be demoralizing to the offense.  It can drastically swing the momentum from the offense to the defense.  A well run pickoff attempt comes from synergy between the pitcher, or catcher, and the infielder.  These are one of the best examples of teamwork on the field whether it’s a called play from the dugout or a spur of the moment timing/daylight play that happens between the teammates.  Either type of pickoff truly shows the unity the team has on the defensive side of the ball.

There are obviously different ways to pick a runner off base.  There are the standard pickoff attempts coming from the pitcher to first base and the back pick from the catcher to any base.  The type I’d like to focus on is the pickoff attempts at second base and how, as a middle infielder, we can do our part to add to the deception and surprise to help ensure the attempt is successful.

As mentioned above there are numerous pickoffs that can be attempted at second base.  We can attempt a pickoff from the pitcher using a reverse pivot pick, an inside pivot pick, or we can attempt a pickoff from the catcher post pitch.  Both of these attempts can either be called from the dugout/before the pitch, or can be a synergistic attempt between two teammates reading the situation the same way.  However the play unfolds we, as infielders, must do our part.

From the infielder perspective a good pickoff attempt must be thought out, calculated, and possess a few characteristics.

Starting Position

Baserunners will have their attention on the pitcher and won’t see where you are as the middle infielder. Some coaches will have verbal cues for their runners to shorten or extend their lead depending on the defense. With this in mind, as a middle infielder we need to mix up our starting position relative to the baserunner. As we mix up our starting position and check the runner (give glove taps or a little chatter) it gives the runner and, sometimes more importantly, the 3rd base coach something to think about. This simply lets the runner, and coach, know that you’re there and paying attention. Even if there isn’t a pickoff play on we need to pay attention to what kind of lead the runner gets; does the coach give verbal cues to the runner; does the runner shorten/extend their lead based on the verbals. We need to get a scouting report on the offense and use this to our advantage when we do attempt a pickoff.

One thing we need to make sure is, no matter our starting position or how close we get to the runner, we need too vacate that area and get back to our proper positioning as the pitcher begins their delivery.

Break to the Bag

GIF A: Steph Curry changing speed and direction to create separation

One of the critical aspects of a pickoff play is how we break to the bag. For our pickoff attempt to have a chance at success we need to change our speed and our direction when we break for the bag. We need to channel our inner Steph Curry and his off the ball movement. If you watch him in GIF A, he almost lulls the defender to sleep (moving methodically) by getting them close to himself.  Then he’ll quickly change directions and his speed to create separation between himself and the defender.  Catches, shoots, and does his shimmy going down the floor.  Same can be applied up the middle on a pickoff (maybe minus the shimmy).  Think of the baserunner as your defender and you need to create space between you.  Change speed and direction to create separation as you break to the bag.  This creates as much of an element of surprise as you can and hopefully if perfectly timed up between teammates you can send the runner back to the dugout.  

Timing

Clearly, the most important aspect of a successful pickoff attempt is the timing of the play, both the timing of your movements but also the timing in game. If our movements aren’t in sync with our teammates the play won’t work. When one teammate acts too much before the other it’s a huge red flag to the runner and coach. At that point we might as well tell them it’s coming.

Our in game timing can play just as big of factor as our body action timing. You can tell when a runner gets on base how aggressive they’ll be and if that aggressiveness leads to carelessness. Those type of players, who may try to do too much, are prime candidates for a pickoff attempt. There are also times in the game that may be higher leverage, or stressful, situations when the game may speed up for the offense. It could be when they’re down and are desperate to make a play or when a controversial call happens and those baserunners may be thinking of the last play instead of the upcoming one. These are times when pickoffs have higher success rates.

Pickoffs can be huge plays in a game that lead to momentum swings. By changing your starting position to give the runner/coach something to think about; changing your speed and direction on the break to the bag; and ironing out the timing of your pickoff attempt you’re placing your team in position to keep the momentum, or swing it back, in your favor.


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