Controlling the running game involves a lot more than firing pick-off after pick-off attempt to first base. A lot of times teams can neutralize if not stop completely an opponent’s running game without throwing pick-offs at all by using tempo, rhythm and unpredictability to their advantage. Keeping runners from taking off is extremely important because not only does it prevent runner from moving into scoring position, but it also keeps double plays in order to help shorten innings. In this article we will discuss the different ways to control the running game without pick-off attempts.
Time to the Plate
The first key for any pitcher to successfully control the running game is to have a time to the plate that at minimum give your catcher a chance to throw a runner out should the runner take off. The time to the plate refers to the time from the pitcher’s first movement towards the plate to the time the ball hits the catcher’s mitt. Times themselves vary depending on the age level, but to use an example from the high school and college level, a quality time to the plate is around 1.3 seconds or less. A 1.3 time to plate can be accomplished without using a straight slide-step, it just requires efficiency in the stretch delivery. A left-handed pitcher may be a little slower to the plate using a leg lift as they can use than same motion in a possible pick over scenario.
Having a time to the plate slower than 1.3 seconds allows runners a great advantage over your catcher. Simple math says that the longer the ball is in the hand of the pitcher and in the air, the less opportunity the catcher has for a transfer and throw on the mark to second.
Along with a time to the plate of 1.3 seconds or less, it is important that pitchers use tempo to their advantage to keep runner off balance. A lot of times younger and even older pitchers get into a rhythm while on the mound. Once they get the sign, they come set and they start towards the plate in a consistent pattern. Once a pitcher gets into a rhythm such as this, it is easy for runners to pick a time to run as the pitcher has become very predictable. Instead use different counts while on the mound and sometimes hold the ball altogether with a base stealer on the bags. I usually teach my pitchers to vary between one, two and three counts, mixing in different looks over to first.
It is important that pitchers are comfortable in the stretch position yet remain in a position where they can still get to the plate effectively. During bullpen sessions, I would have them throw around 60% of their pitches from the stretch position while varying counts. I used this method because around 60% of their pitches during games will come from the stretch position. Having them comfortable while still being able to execute pitches is one key to successfully holding runners.
One move that has nearly the same impact as a pick-off attempt is to simply step off the back of the rubber. It gets the runner to move back towards the bag, keeps them off balance and doesn’t give up you move for when you really need to use it. Sometimes, if the runner is going on movement, you can get them to actually take off. The step off move has no downside as there is no chance for error on a throw over.
Another way to control the running game is to throw strikes. It seems simple, but the more pitches you are throwing in an at-bat, the more opportunity the runners have to take off. If a pitcher is constantly pounding the zone, forcing hitters to get the ball in play the lessened chance runners have to run. It is important to remember, however, that the number one focus of a pitcher is to get the hitter out. Worrying too much about runners can often take focus away from that task. Practice from the stretch position during all bullpen sessions and side work will only enhance the pitcher’s ability to be comfortable pitching with runners on base and keeping them close.
Holding runners is a crucial part of the game that often goes overlooked. Not only does it prevent runners from moving into scoring position, but it also keeps runner on first which keeps double plays in order. Holding runners is a skill that must be emphasized as a coach and must be practiced by players in order to control the running game.