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Why Erratic Play is the Right Call When Holding a Runner

Most successful baseball players strive for consistency. Whether it’s making solid contact or throwing precise strikes, repeating the same motion and mechanics leads to similar results. Execute your craft well enough, and there’s a good chance you’ll experience success.

Not every element of the game calls for repetitiveness, however.

Holding runners on base is one skill that requires constant change, said Bob Romano, a veteran youth coach who currently guides an American Legion 19-and-under team in Arlington, Virginia. “Never be consistent,” Romano said. “If you’re consistent, you’re going to get burned.”

That’s because base coaches, especially at the high school level and beyond, are adept at identifying the tendencies of a pitcher, Romano said. Likewise, young pitchers have a habit of, well, falling into habits.

“You can’t go in your stretch, come to your stop and go the plate three times in a row without changing something,” he said. “If you’re a coach at third base, and you see that the pitcher on the first three pitches, with a man on second base, hasn’t even looked back, then on the fourth pitch, he’s coming to third.”

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The best way to pick a runner off first base, or at least keep him closer to the bag, is to alternate moves, such as stepping off the rubber with no throw, throwing to the bag with different velocities and holding the ball for varying periods, Romano said. “That’s sometimes more important than having a good pickoff play,” he said. 

Pickoff moves to second base require an even bigger element of surprise, and Romano has a play he likes to call if a runner has a generous lead. He’ll signal the play to a middle infielder, depending on whom he wants covering the bag, and the infielder will repeat the signal to the pitcher.

The pitcher will then look in for the sign from the catcher, turn and give the runner a stare, then look back toward home, silently counting, “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two...” At the same time, the middle infielder who gave the pickoff signal is also silently counting, “One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two. …”

When both players reach “One-thousand-three,” the middle infielder bolts to the bag, just as the pitcher spins and throws.

Even if the runner gets back safely, the defense has probably done its job. “I’ve got the runner’s attention now, so I’ve taken a step away,” Romano said. “That could be the difference in him stealing third base.”

One subtlety that’s sometimes overlooked on the play, Romano said, is making sure the center fielder is aware a pickoff play is in the works and can get in position to back up an errant throw. This communication works best with the middle infielder turning his back to home plate and using a facial gesture, such as a wide-open mouth, to signal to the center fielder.

And if the pitcher is uncomfortable with making the move, make sure he steps off the rubber and kills the play, rather than make the pitch with the infielder and center fielder on the move, Romano said.

“The last thing I want is my center fielder coming in and (the pitcher) throwing to the plate,” Romano said. “And then I’ve got a (batted) ball going out to deep center field and no one’s out there.”

From GameChanger and Dan Arritt.

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