The goal of every pitcher is to get outs and keep the opposing team off the base paths. But this is stating the obvious, and to expect a pitcher to never pitch with runners on base would be naive. Therefore, every pitcher should have the ability to control the running game to prevent opposing runners from being too aggressive on the base paths.
If your first thought is that the running game is the catcher’s responsibility, you would be wrong. While it’s always a bonus to have a battery-mate with a strong arm and a pop time under 2.0 seconds, there are certain aspects of the running game that the catcher has no control over:
- Keeping the runner to an honest lead.
- Not letting the runner get a good jump on the pitch.
- Delivery time of the ball to the plate.
While the catcher has no control over these variables, the pitcher does! In order to give his catcher a fighting chance at throwing out a would-be base stealer, the pitcher has to control these aspects of the running game.
The Pitcher Sets the Tempo
Listen. Nothing happens in the game until the pitcher decides to step on the mound to pitch. He controls the tempo and tone of the game. If he wants to quick pitch, he can. If he wants to walk around the mound and slow the game down, he can. He is in control.
It’s important to understand this concept, because it has a lot to do with controlling the running game. You have the ability to disrupt the base runner, the hitter, the opposing dugout, and even the opponent’s fans. (Trust me, the crowd will be all over you as you keep their players uncomfortable on the base paths and in the batter’s box.) So, let’s look at how the pitcher can control the running game by mastering the three variables mentioned above.
Keeping the Runner to an Honest Lead
When holding runners on base, the most basic form of keeping the opposing runner to a normal to short lead is to utilize the pick off move. Whether he is at first base or second base, the pick off move will do a lot to keep the runner where he is. The aggressive base runner who enjoys getting a gigantic lead will tend to shorten his lead by a step or two, because he does not want to be picked off. By shortening his lead, the runner is already out of his comfort zone and realizes he has to “make-up” an extra step if he decides to steal.
The pitcher can utilize a variety of pick off moves to both 1st and 2nd, including:
To 1st base:
- Normal pick off
- Slow pick off
- Quick move
- Balk move (more on this in another post).
- Step off
To 2nd base:
- Spin move
- Inside move
- Step off
Preventing a Good Jump on the Pitch
Now that we have the runner’s lead in check, let’s make sure he doesn’t get a head start when we deliver the pitch. Most pitchers, whether they realize it or not, get into a rhythm where they get the sign, come set, check the runner, and pitch. Get the sign, come set, check the runner, pitch. Get the sign, come set, check the runner, pitch. See a pattern? So does the runner, especially if he is aggressive and likes to steal bases. The pitcher’s pattern might vary from pitcher to pitcher, but the good base runner will learn each pitcher’s tendencies and use that information to get a better jump on the pitch.
The pitcher needs to recognize his own patterns and vary his sequence to keep the runner guessing and uncomfortable:
- Vary your hold time in the set position – After coming set, the pitcher can stay in the set position for different lengths of time so the runner cannot detect a recurring pattern. Most pitcher’s tend to come set and wait for 2-3 seconds before delivering the pitch. Be sure to use 1, 2, 4, and 6 second holds before delivering the pitch. You can also combine this with your pick off move to give the runner different looks on that front as well.
- Come set and just hold until the hitter or runner calls timeout – It’s amazing how uncomfortable the runner becomes when you just stay in your set position. A good base runner will be on the balls of his feet and gradually gain ground toward the next base. As he is inching toward the next base, he is reading your every move and waiting for you to step toward home so he can take off. Holding the set position can cause the runner to stop his movement and begin to sit back on his heels, giving him less ability to get a quick first step. And let’s be honest, nobody likes to hold a squat position for a long time. Chances are the hitter will call timeout after about 5-7 seconds cause he’ll be uncomfortable too.
Delivery Time to the Plate
The final piece to controlling the running game is having a good delivery time to the plate. Obviously, the pitcher should be in the stretch position with runners on base. However, the pitcher needs to keep in mind how long it takes to deliver the pitch to the catcher. Using a delivery with his normal leg kick (knee comes to waist height or higher) can greatly increase the amount of time it takes to deliver the pitch. Remember, milliseconds matter. So in order to speed up his delivery, the pitcher should utilize a slide step.
The slide step is typically used by right-handed pitchers, but some lefties can use it with success as well. Most pitchers will use the slide step only when a runner is on first, but it can also be useful when holding runners on at second base. In addition, don’t feel that you need to use the slide step all the time when in the stretch position. Varying your delivery with your normal leg kick and the slide step can help with disrupting the runner’s timing, not to mention the hitter’s too. Just be sure to work on your slide step in your bullpen sessions in order to keep your pitching mechanics as consistent as possible.
Focus on the Task at Hand
While controlling the running game can help the ball club, the pitcher should do his best to focus on the task at hand – throwing a strike to the next hitter. Yes, keeping the runner from advancing is important, but we want to get the next hitter out and keep him from reaching base as well. So, give the runner the amount of attention he deserves based on what type of base runner he is (aggressive, fast, slow). However, do not let him distract you from making your next pitch a quality strike.