By Steven Ellis former Chicago Cubs pitching pro
Holding runners and making strong pick-offs are a necessary component of successful pitching. The average pitcher naturally holds the baseball for three seconds. Good base runers know this, so they'll time you and go. That's why as a pitcher, you've got to vary your holds and looks. Hold the ball for 1 second, 3 seconds, and 5 seconds. Mix it up. Don't be predictable.
The art of holding runners on base
Holding the ball is simply the very best move to first! Utilize one-, three-, and five-second holds. A pitcher naturally holds the ball for three sec’s. By varying looks, the base runner will not be able to get good jumps b/c he will be flat on his feet, over anxious, or too tight to steal effectively—which means you have accomplished your goal.
With runners on second, holding the ball means varying your looks. One look, two looks, three looks, and simply hold for five seconds and step off with the right foot hard (RHP’s).
Sometimes the violent step-back will give the infield an indication if the runner is going even with you not throwing! This works well with runners on first too! Come set, hold the ball for five seconds, and step back aggressively. It’s the aggressive (violent) step back that “sells” the move!
The art of stopping the running game: pick offs
Throw to the first baseman between his knee and chest to eliminate an over throw and to give the first baseman the very best opportunity to handle the ball. Do not be too concerned about making that perfect throw a few inches in front of the bag and four- to six inches above the dirt. The reality is that there is a greater chance for a mistake when the target window is this small, and a ball to the first baseman’s “core section” is much easier for him to handle.
Make short arm throws to the bases. Bring the throwing hand out of the glove turning the hand away from the body and facing it towards home if throwing to first. Towards first if throwing to second… etc. By turning the hand away from the body, you are able to get into the high-cock position by eliminating the long “down, back, and up arch” most pitchers have when throwing from their motion. Plus, it gives the pitcher something to throw off of when his hand can face his imaginary short-stop regardless of the base he is throwing to. Think “turn ball away from the ear.”
Know the counts that base runners may run like 3-2 or 3-1 with runner’s on because an opposing teams like to get runners in motion in hitter’s counts. These are great situations to use the “inside pick” to second base if a runner is on second. This move is designed to pick the runner that has already committed to third as opposed to trying to pick a runner who is just taking a lead. Trickery is not necessary. Instead, try to pivot on the ball of your right foot (RHP’s) towards second in a motion similar to your normal stretch delivery, jab step to collect yourself, look to see where the runner is in the base path, and throw chest high to the base either in front or behind depending on which is closer.
Pick-offs to first base are not meant to actually pick the runner off. Instead, it is meant to throw the timing off of the hitter, while keeping the runner close to the bag so your catcher has a chance to throw him out, or so your infield has a chance to turn the double play.
Holding runners on base and letting them advance only by a hit or sacrifice can be a great advantage to the pitcher and his team. Many times by holding a runner on first base and keeping a double play in order a pitcher can get himself out of a tight jam and save runs.
The art of holding runners on is one that any pitcher can accomplish if he takes the time to study runners and to practice. Although I will mostly discuss holding runners on first base the principles can be applied also to 2nd and 3rd.
There are three basic steps to be applied when holding runners on.
1. Make the runner stop.
2. Vary the delivery to the plate.
3. Go quick to the plate.
However, before discussing these three steps there is an overriding principle to remember. Holding runners on should not take away from the pitcher’s effectiveness or his throwing delivery. This can be done by compartmentalizing, in the pitcher’s mind, the pitch and holding runners on. Within the pitcher’s set up and delivery he should devote full attention to one or the other. A pitcher can follow this easy sequence.
A. Know the situation; how many outs, where he wants the ball hit, what he will do with a ball hit back to him, etc. then file it in his mind and get on the pitching rubber to select the pitch.
B. Give total concentration to the selection of the pitch and its location. He should know exactly how he wants to throw it and where he wants to throw it. Then he should file it in his mind.
C. With the previous information filed he can now come set and devote his full attention to the baserunner. This sets up Step One.
1. Make make the runner stop
Note: If the runner on first is not a threat to steal or it is not a running situation and the hit and run is not going to be on then give quick attention to see that the runner is not doing anything out of the ordinary and then devote full attention back to the pitch.
If it is a running situation, after the pitcher comes to a set position he should hold the ball and look at the runner. This may sound simple but many right handed pitchers can not or do not see the runner to tell if he is moving toward second base. He must hold the ball until the runner stops. Even after the runner stops, if the pitcher continues to hold the ball and the runner is going to steal, he will begin leaning toward second base. If this happens the pitcher either steps off the rubber or moves to first. Under no circumstances should the pitcher throw the ball home with a runner moving or leaning toward the next base.
When a pitcher is on the bench he should study the opposing team to see when they have a tendency to steal or hit and run. He should study the counts and the situations in which they like to run. This will tell him when he is on the mound when to pay closer attention to the runner.
Once the pitcher has made the runner stop he is ready to implement Step Two.
2. Vary your delivery to the plate
Base runners are always looking for patterns in a pitcher that will allow them to get a good jump. Against a right handed pitcher they look to see how many times he looks over to first and what he does with his head. By varying the looks and making sure his head does the same thing when he moves to first as when he goes to the plate he will make it harder for the runner to get a good jump.
Against left handed pitchers the first thing that runners look for as the lefty is picking up his leg, is where he is looking, either toward homeplate or toward first base. The most common mistake a lefty makes is that when he looks home as he picks his leg up, he is coming to first and when he looks at first as he raises his leg, he is going home.
Runners also look to see if the pitcher’s timing, from when he comes set to when he starts his delivery to the plate, is always the same. He must vary that time interval to keep the runner, and incidentally the hitter, uncomfortable.
It is effective sometime to hit and go (i.e. come set and then move immediately to the plate or to first). This should be predetermined before he gets on the rubber because he really isn’t going to take the time to study the runner in this case. This is used to surprise the runner before he can get his full lead or to catch him mid stride as he takes his lead.
The varying of the pitcher’s delivery should be practiced on the side during bullpen throwing sessions. This is where good and bad habits are learned and solidified.
This brings him to the Third Step.
3. Be quick to the plate
Once a pitcher has determined that he is not stepping off the rubber or moving to first he should go right to his memory bank, rehearse the pitch and its location, picture the pitch in his mind, then start his delivery to the plate. He should not start his delivery to the plate while still thinking about the runner. When he starts his delivery he should get the ball to the catcher in 1.4 seconds or less, preferably in 1.3 or less.
I am not a big advocate of the glide step to speed up the delivery to the plate. I believe the glide step can change a pitcher’s mechanics. However if a pitcher normally has a high leg kick or exaggerated trunk twist that slows his delivery he made need to use a modified glide step out of the stretch. I prefer that a pitcher just speed up his normal delivery, keeping the same basic delivery as he has from the windup.
After working with pitchers over the years I believe the key to a quick delivery is the first movement. It must be quick and without previous movement. A pitcher whose first move is slow tends to start leaning toward the plate when going home which gives the runner the advantage. It is almost impossible to start slow and still get the ball to the catcher in 1.4 seconds or less.
In summary, keeping the pitcher’s attention undivided and applying these three basic steps (make the runner stop, vary your delivery, and go quick to the plate ), will assure that the pitcher holds runners on and does not allow them to advance bases by stealing and getting good jumps. It just might win a few games for him or at least keep him in the game.
Related Pitching Materials
Want to learn more about pickoff moves, fielding drills and defensive plays for pitchers? Arm yourself with the most innovative and up-to-date baseball pitching training available. These related pitching materials from former Chicago Cubs pitching pro Steven Ellis are guaranteed to help you or the players you coach pitch better and reach the next level faster!