Controlling The Running Game
Controlling the running game is one of the skills often overlooked by pitchers. The reality is that failing to develop and utilize this skill can be the difference in a ballgame. How many plays over the course of a season are bang-bang plays? There are a lot of them, and every inch counts. The main focus here will be the runner on first base.
Runner on first:
Runner on first. It's inevitable, whether we walked him, he got a hit, or reach on an error...runners get on base. How we approach the situation is extremely important.
There are a couple things to be aware of, first of which is knowing our runner. How fast is he? What are his tendencies? Obviously, we will approach a quicker runner differently than one who isn't quite as fleet of foot. Be careful, however, as smart base runners can make up for what they lack in speed. Have an idea of who's on base and prepare for them accordingly.
Contrary to popular belief, almost all stolen bases are taken off the pitcher. Pitchers must deliver the ball in a timely fashion to home to give their catcher a chance at throwing the runner out. The rule of thumb is that the time a pitcher lifts his leg to deliver the ball to when it hits the catcher's glove should not exceed 1.3 seconds. The total time, to throw out the majority of base runners, from the time the pitcher begins his delivery to when the second baseman or shortstop receives the ball should be about 3.3 seconds. This means the catcher has at least 2 seconds to deliver the ball to second base if we are doing our job.
We're not only trying to prevent the runner from stealing second base, but we are also trying to disrupt his timing so he can't get a good jump on a batted ball. This is the most overlooked part of holding runners. Delaying a runner even a quarter step can be the difference in a play where the runner is attempting to advance. What are some strategies to keep runners close?
There are a bunch of different strategies to hold runners on. Note: as pitchers we are NOT trying to pick the runner off (pickoffs are rare), what we are trying to do is keep the runner close and if a pick-off happens, great. We're going to go over a couple different things you can mix in to immediately be able to see improvement in your handling of the running game (in no particular order).
#1 - U-C-L-A
The "U-C-L-A" method is one of the most basic methods for ensuring that you are varying your holds and not getting into a pattern the runners can pick up on. The trick is to come set and (in your head or very quietly to yourself) say "U-C-L-A", choosing a different letter to begin your delivery on each time. This is a great hold pattern as it's very simple and easy to remember. Practice this even when you're in the bullpen throwing from the stretch. Make varying your holds a habit.
#2 - Hold-pick
An underutilized pick is the "hold-pick", where you hold for a longer period of time, hopefully getting the runner on his heels, then pick over. Most guys tend to use the exact same pick timing every time they throw to first base. It's pretty simple for runners to see this and pretty simple for pitchers to stay in that comfort zone and forget to change. Hold the ball for a longer period of time (maybe say U-C-L-A twice in your head) before picking over.
#3 - Extended hold
This is one of the toughest things for young, excited pitchers. Most pitchers have so much adrenaline going that it is sometimes difficult to hold the ball. Remember that you have the ball, so you're in complete control. Try coming set and just holding the ball for an extended period, to the point where it's uncomfortable for the runner and hitter. Wait until the hitter either calls timeout or you step off. Don't deliver the pitch. By holding for a long period of time the runner gets on his heels and (if he's stealing) might give some signs that he's about to do so. Slow down the game.
#4 - Pick progressions (for RHP)
Like was said earlier, we tend to get in a comfort zone and a rhythm with regard to delivering the ball to the plate. The same can be true on our picks over to first...they sometimes begin to look the same. Again, our goal isn't to necessarily pick runners off but to make them uncomfortable and unsure about what is going to happen next pitch. Given that, does it make sense to make our best move over to first base the first time someone reaches? NO! Stop doing this. You need to have different moves at your disposal. Once you've shown your best, they know your best...keep it in reserve until the situation dictates.
What is a pick progression? It is a series of pick-off moves that leads up to your best move. The series varies the length/speed of your pick-off movements:
1. Slow feet – Slow arm
2. Quick feet – Slow arm
3. Slow feet – Quick arm
4. Quick feet – Quick arm
5. Everything in-between
Try some pick progressions and add them to your arsenal. You will begin to see more uncomfortable runners!
The main take-away from this is that your goal is to keep runners close. Even a split second hesitation can be the difference between a runner being out or safe when he attempts to advance. While it's nice to pick guys off and there are situations that present themselves that make this possible, it becomes more and more difficult the higher up you go. One thing that is an important skill at all levels is the ability to make runners uncomfortable. Mix it up and stay in control of the game!
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