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A pickoff attempt occurs when this throw is made in an attempt to make such an out or, more commonly, to "keep the runner close" by making it clear that the pitcher is aware and concerned with the runner's actions. A catcher may also attempt to throw runners out who likewise "stray too far" from their bases after a pitch; this can also be called a pickoff attempt. A runner who is picked off is said to have been caught napping, especially if he made no attempt to return to his base.
A pickoff move is the motion the pitcher goes through in making this attempt; some pitchers have better pickoff moves than others. Pitchers in professional baseball use the pickoff move often, perhaps several times per game or even per inning if speedy baserunners reach base. Pitchers with more confidence in their ability to eliminate batters directly via strikeouts or flyouts use fewer pickoff attempts. In lower-skilled amateur games, the pickoff move is less common due to the potential for an error if the pitcher throws wild or the fielder fails to make the catch. In youth leagues that don't allow leading off, such as Little League and Cal Ripken League, the need for a pickoff move is eliminated.
A pitcher uses many tactics to attempt to disguise whether he is going to begin a pitch or a pickoff attempt. However, some deceptive actions are illegal and may be called balks.
When there is a baserunner on, the pitcher will pitch from the strech, one of the pitching positions. For this example we will say the runner is on first base. From the set position the pitcher can still see the baserunner out of the corner of his eye, if it is a right-handed pitcher. If it is a left-handed pitcher then the pitcher has a clear view of the baserunner because of the way they are standing on the pitcher's mound. If it is a right-handed pitcher there is only one main method of this pickoff move. This involves a quick shuffle of the pitcher's feet to turn towards first base and throw the ball to the first baseman. The first baseman will then attempt to tag out the runner. The left-handed pitcher, due to their natural stance and the way they are facing, has multiple moves. The two main methods are called the "snap throw" and "spin move". The snap throw is when the pitcher quickly lifts his back foot behind the pitching rubber and slings the ball to the first baseman. A snap throw can also refer to the catcher throwing the ball to the base following a pitch. The spin move is when the pitcher lifts his leg like he is going to pitch the ball but then rotates his body toward first and throws the ball. The pitcher will try to vary this move by doing this move while looking at the runner or at the batter, which can be deceiving to the baserunner. The final pickoff move can be done by any pitcher called "third to first" and can only be done if there are baserunners on first and third. This move is very uncommon and not very useful but it's performed by the pitcher attempting to pick off a baserunner at third, stop, spin and throw the ball to first base instead. Former Kansas City Royals right-hander, Steve Busby is credited for popularizing the "third to first" move.
There are a few reasons to resort to this tactic:
- To tag out the base-runner. Sometimes the runner will run on the first move of the pitcher. If the pitcher successfully throws the ball to the base before the base-runner is able to return to it, then the defense will be able to tag out the runner.
- To prevent a stolen base. If a fast base-runner is leading off the base by a large margin, the pitcher will throw over to the base a few times to try to get the base runner to shorten his lead, thus deterring him from stealing. After enough throws the runner will often either shorten his lead or tire from diving back, preventing him from stealing a base.
- To extract information from the offense. For example, if the defense suspects a bunting situation, the pitcher may throw over to first in hopes that the batter will square around to bunt on the pitcher's first move, revealing his intention.