Chris Welch, General Manager, RBI Baseball Academy
As a pitcher, I always tried to pride myself on managing a runner once he got on base. I spent a large amount of time working on how to keep runners close on the bases so that the other 8 players on the field with me always had the best chance of getting that runner out. Obviously it’s a pitchers job to keep that runner close so that in the event of a stolen base attempt the catcher has the best chance possible of throwing them out. But don’t underestimate the importance of keeping that runner close so that the base runner can’t take the extra base on a hit, or be called safe at a close play at 2nd or 3rd on a fielder’s choice, etc. It’s truly important to keep the runner close so that you give all 9 positions the edge on a close play.
I break “Managing the Runner” down into 5 areas. Everything you can do to manage that runner can be found in one of these 5. When I teach these I break them all down into their two word titles. Here they are:
1.) Step Off – Stepping off is a very valuable tool for a pitcher to use whenever he isn’t 100% confident in something. Marc DesRoches (RBI Instructor and Director of the Hawks Travel Program) calls it the “ultimate reset button” and that’s a perfect way of looking at it. As a pitcher, if you are unsure of a.) the runner, b.) your fielders positioning, c.) your pitch selection, d.) anything else, hit the RESET button by stepping off. Stepping off is simply taking your throwing side foot from the engaged position on the rubber and stepping behind the rubber towards 2nd base. Once you step off you can disengage the hands if they were engaged and now for the most part you are considered an infielder and can do anything an infielder can do (with a couple of exceptions). For instance, if a runner starts running early, step off. Then you can run right at them or throw to an unoccupied base just as if you were a shortstop. While engaged on the rubber you are considered a pitcher and must throw to an occupied base and all of the “Balk” rules (will discuss in another blog) will apply.
2.) Throw Over – Most commonly referred to as a pick-off move. This is a very effective way of showing the runner that you know he’s there and are keeping an eye on them. Throwing over is something I strongly recommend discussing with a pitching coach. For me to describe how to properly throw over in a blog would overload the wordpress website. After a game I had pitched poorly in one time (but won) I had the opposing coach tell me, “You really pitched like XXXX, but man you had a good pick-off move and kept our runners close and that cost us the game”… they were definitely a running team and after the ultimate backhanded compliment he gave me I said thank you and was proud that I was able to take away that teams strength even though I wasn’t pitching very well. But here are a couple of major points you need to consider when you throw over.
a.) You do NOT have to step off to throw to a base. Most Junior High coaches believe you do, they are wrong. Stepping off not only slows up your pick-off attempt, but as I mentioned earlier, it makes you an infielder. This means that if you step off to throw to 1st base and throw it away (woods, over a fence, or into a dugout) that runner advances 2 bases instead of 1, so now he’s at 3rd base. If you made the same mistake from the engaged position they would only be awarded 1 base.
b.) Mix up your moves, don’t always go to your A move. Have some different moves so that you don’t develop a pattern with them.
c.) Practice them, then practice them, then practice them some more. A good pick-off/throw over can be a HUGE way of getting that big out you need desperately. If the opposing team has a rally going and you can successfully pick a runner off, it will deflate the other team and severely hurt any momentum they have.
d.) Not every throw over has to be a pick-off attempt. Just by throwing over you can successfully accomplish what you are trying to do, which is keeping that runner close and managing them.
3.) Mix Looks – To me this is the single most important aspect of managing a runner. Mixing up your looks means that you need to change the way you look to the runner. This is accomplished by mixing up/changing the timing of your set as well as head movements. Most pitchers (especially when they aren’t pitching well) will develop a pattern in how they deliver from the set. They will get to the stretch, come to the set, wait one second, then pitch. And they will do that every single time they come set. As a base runner that pattern can be vital to getting the all-important first step on the pitcher. To me a pitcher developing that pattern is similar to Tom Brady using the same snap count every time he is under center. It would give the defense a huge advantage in the timing of their first step. By changing snap counts, the defense cannot cheat on their first step. By mixing up the timing of a pitchers set, they will help keep that runner from cheating on their first step. When a pitcher comes set he should mix up the amount of seconds he holds the set for. Sometimes going with a one count, next a three count, next a two count, next a five count, and so on and so forth. Changing the amount of times they actually look over to the base is important too.
4.) Mix Steps – This is somewhat similar to #3 but it has to do with your leg kick/leg step towards the plate. To me, there are 3 types of leg kicks/steps towards the plate:
a.) Full Leg Kick – most commonly used, this is when the pitcher brings their knee up to waist high or above.
b.) Slide Step – this is when a pitcher doesn’t life his lead foot much more than an inch off of the dirt and simply slides it towards the plate. When a pitcher utilized this step it is important for them to make up for the quickness of the step by breaking their hands quicker.
c.) Anything In Between A and B – this simply means that pitchers will utilize half kicks, pseudo-slide steps, knee-to-knee kicks so that they are still quicker to the plate than a full leg kick but aren’t going to the slide step so that they can still maximize their power properly. These should be practiced often so that the pitcher can find what works best for them.
Combining the mixing up of looks with the mixing up of steps will create dozens of different “looks” to the base runner.
5.) Pitch Out – This is almost never utilized but can definitely be a valuable tool for a pitcher/catcher battery. A pitch out is when the pitcher intentionally throws the ball out of the strike zone (high and away from the batter) so that the catcher can get somewhat of a running start towards the throw down to the base. Legally the catcher cannot leave the catchers box until the pitch is released by the pitcher (but catchers always cheat, and so don’t I). A pitch out is most commonly signaled to the pitcher by the catcher making a fist instead of throwing down any fingers for the pitch. When utilizing a pitch out the pitcher should always utilize the slide step.
Next time you throw a bullpen, work on these 5 ways of managing the runner. It will ultimately make you a more confident pitcher and will allow you to deliver the pitch knowing you helped out your team as best you could. As always, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any specific questions and always remember to practice perfectly!