Pick-Off Plays from the Catcher to the Infielders [ARTICLE]

Pick-Off Plays from the Catcher to the Infielders

excerpt from Baseball Playbook by Ron Polk


The key as to whether or not a pick-off play should be attempted from the catcher to an infielder depends on the type of secondary lead that a runner is taking at a base. The secondary lead is the lead a runner has when the catcher receives the pitch. Each runner will have a different secondary lead, not only in regard to the distance he is away from a base, but in his weight distribution.

The quickness and baserunning skills of a runner will dictate how far he is able to get away from a base in both his primary and secondary lead. What is a good lead for one runner might be a poor lead for another runner. The catcher and the infielders need to determine whether a pick-off play is possible on a runner taking into consideration all the factors involved. If it is determined by both parties involved that a pick-off play should be attempted, the sign is flashed by one of them and then acknowledged by the other.

There are numerous factors involved other than just the distance of the secondary lead. A runner who has his weight leaning toward the forward base when the catcher receives the pitch, will have a very difficult time quickly returning to the base on a pick-off attempt. This especially is so if the runner's left foot lands in front of his right foot when the catcher receives the ball.

When a righthanded batter is at the plate, it makes for a more difficult pick-off throw on a runner leading off third base. With a lefthanded batter, the catcher will have a more difficult throw to first base. This does not mean that a pick-off can not be attempted in these situations but the catcher must be sure that he properly clears the batter when he is throwing to a base. Many times a baserunner is screened by the batter and does not see the catcher rise up to throw until it is too late to get back to the base.

The catchers need to understand that even though a pick-off sign has been flashed, they do not have to throw to the base. If the pitch received is one that makes it difficult to throw quickly and accurately to a base, then no throw should be made. Also, if the runner has made a quick recovery from his secondary lead, the catcher should not throw the ball. There must be a play on the runner before a pick-off throw is made.

It is also important that the catcher place a premium on accuracy on his throw anytime he is throwing to any base with a runner at third base. Too many baseball games are lost by an aggressive catcher attempting a pick-off play on a runner only to find the ball going into the outfield and a runner scoring from third base.

A team should never attempt a pick-off play at a base when there are two outs with a weak hitter at the plate who is behind in the count. Of course, if a runner takes a very large secondary lead and there is a great chance for an out to be made, a pick-off attempt could be made.

The catcher's arm must be taken into consideration in determining whether a pick-off attempt should be made. If a team has a catcher with a strong accurate arm they can attempt pick-off plays whenever a runner is taking advantage of the defense by taking an aggressive secondary lead. If the catcher's arm is weak and inaccurate the pick-off attempts should be kept to a minimum and only attempted whenever a runner can be easily picked off at a base. The defense must keep all runners honest in their secondary leads even if the catcher's arm is suspect.

There are four basic types of pick-off plays from the catcher to an infielder. Three of these plays would require the use of signs.
  1. Pick-off play on the next pitch received by the catcher—Once the sign is flashed by the parties involved, the next pitch received by the catcher will be thrown to the base if there is a chance to retire the runner. This is an excellent pick-off to use on a runner who is observed taking a large secondary lead or one who is a potential steal threat. The infielder will break full speed for the base once the ball passes the batter. The infielder must position himself so that he is at the base ahead of the throw so that he is not fielding the ball on the run. The catcher will throw to the base if a play can be made on the runner.
  2. Pick-off play on the next pitch that the batter either swings and misses or attempts to bunt and misses—Once the sign is flashed by the parties involved, the next pitch that the batter misses on a swing or bunt attempt will be thrown to the base if there is a chance to retire the runner. This is an excellent pick-off play to use on a runner who takes an extra step or leans toward the next base on his secondary lead whenever the batter swings or bunts at a pitch. It is also a good play when the batter is faced with a 3-2 count and there are less than two outs. Baserunners have a tendency to be overly aggressive in this situation hoping that the batter will make contact if he starts his bat forward. In bunt situations this play will be perfect on a bunt and miss attempt by the batter. It takes an excellent baserunner to not take an extra step forward or lean in the direction of the forward base when the bunt sign has been flashed and the bat is positioned for a bunt attempt. Another time this play will work is when there is a runner at third base with the infield playing in on the grass with less than two outs. In this situation the runner at third base will be attempting to get a super jump on the batted ball to prevent being thrown out at the plate on a ground ball.
  3. Pick-off pay on a pitchout—If the infielder flashes a pick-off sign for the ball to be thrown on the next pitch, the catcher will have the right to call for a pitchout if the situation warrants it. This would be practical if the count is in the favor of the pitcher and there is a good hitter at the plate. The catcher does not want the hitter to have a chance of putting the ball in play and advancing the runner he wishes to possibly pick-off base. It also enables the catcher to have a better chance of clearing the batter on his pick-off attempt. The infielder should be able to read the pitchout sign which will allow him to get a better jump for the base, since he does not have to worry about a ball being hit by the batter.
  4. Pick-Off play with no sign flashed—The catcher should have the right to attempt a pick-off even though no sign has been flashed by an infielder. Anytime an infielder breaks for a base full speed after the ball has passed the hitter, the catcher can throw to the base. This is why an infielder can never break full speed for a base after the pitch and then stop short of the base. He must always go all the way to the base allowing the catcher the opportunity to make a throw if he feels as though a play can be made on the runner. Even if the catcher decides not to throw, it will make the runner a little more defensive in his next secondary lead if it looks like the defense is thinking about a pick-off play.

As mentioned previously, a team should not have too many pick-off plays in their playbook for it could lead to much confusion and poor timing. The team that perfects a couple of excellent pick-off plays at each base will keep the baserunners on the other club under control.

About the Author...

Legendary Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk, the winningest coach in any sport in the history of the Southeastern Conference, enters his third season as UAB's volunteer assistant coach in 2010. Polk came to UAB in the summer of 2008 after announcing his retirement from the Mississippi State program.

Polk has helped UAB to back-to-back winning seasons in his two years with the Blazers, including a 30-win campaign in 2009. He has helped the Blazers to victories in eight of 16 Conference USA series since his arrival, including 2009 series wins over both fourth-ranked Rice and eventual College World Series participant Southern Miss.

"It has been a personal highlight in life for me to be able to learn under Coach Polk in the 80's at Mississippi State and now work with him again at UAB," head coach Brian Shoop said. "I have more respect for Coach Polk than any coach in college baseball. No one has had more of an influence on our game and on countless young coaches, including myself. Our players love him and appreciate the sacrifices he makes to be involved with the UAB baseball program. We are better in so many ways because of Coach's decision to donate his time to Blazer baseball."

In July 2009, Polk was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1995. In 1988, he was presented with the Lefty Gomez Award, the highest award given by the ABCA.

Polk retired from Mississippi State in 2008, following his 29th season at the school. He ranks seventh all-time in NCAA career head coaching victories.

Polk concluded his 35-year career as a head coach with a career record of 1,373-700-2 (.662). In his career, which also included stints at Georgia Southern (1972-75) and Georgia (2000-01), Polk led his teams to a total of eight College World Series appearances, five SEC championships and 23 Regional appearances. He is one of only three coaches in college baseball history to take three different programs to the College World Series.

Polk mentored current UAB head coach Brian Shoop when the Blazer skipper was on his staff at Mississippi State from 1983-89. The Bulldogs won three SEC championships and made one trip to the College World Series during that time.

At Mississippi State, Polk recruited and coached some of the game's all-time greats, including Major League standouts Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen and Jonathan Papelbon. Those are just a few of the 185 of his former players that have signed professional contracts and a few of the 23 that have played in the Major Leagues.

A three-time National Coach of the Year, Polk held the position of Assistant Athletics Director for Special Projects at Mississippi State following his team's College World Series run in 1997. While in that position, Polk spearheaded a successful campaign to expand Polk-DeMent Stadium in Starkville. He returned to coaching at Georgia in 2000, where he spent two years before making the move back to Mississippi State for his final seven seasons.

Perhaps Polk's most talented Mississippi State squad ever was the 1985 version. That club finished the year 50-15 and was SEC champion before going on to appear in the College World Series. The 1985 Bulldog club featured future major league stars Brantley, Clark, Palmeiro and Thigpen.

In his 35 years as a college baseball coach, Polk produced 35 All-Americans and more than 75 All-SEC performers.

In addition to Polk's work in the collegiate ranks, the Boston, Mass., native has completed seven tours as a member of the coaching staff for the USA National Baseball Team, twice serving as head coach. Two of the teams he coached represented the United States in the Olympics.

Polk has also impacted the college baseball world through his literary work. He has authored "The Baseball Playbook," the nation's leading college textbook for baseball, and is featured in the book, "6 Psychological Factors for Success: America's Most Successful Coaches Reveal the Path to Competitive Excellence."


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23 Aug 2016

By Ron Polk - Baseball Playbook
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