BY RUSSELL NEYMAN.
Baseball has been very much a part of my life for a very long time. More than 50 years, in fact. I played for decades and so did my sons. Add that to the fact that my last name practically describes the structure of the game — baseball is, after all, a “nine-man” sport– so you can see why it interests me so much.
I played, coached, and taught at many levels. I was a pretty good pitcher, and won my share of championships as a coach and player. I’d like to think that I’m a pretty smart baseball man and that I understand a great many of the subtle tricks of the trade: how to give and steal signs, winning the battle between the pitcher/catcher and the baserunners, knowing the difference between the hit-and-run and run-and-hit and when each is useful. With all that in mind, I will begin this newest project, a compilation of the little and big essentials of this wonderful, poetic American game. This will be a work in progress, with bits and pieces added as they occur to me. I am hopeful that there will be other contributors, too, putting their two cents in the “comments” section at the bottom of the page.
I am not trying to teach players and coaches to cheat. There is, admittedly, a degree of “packing” in the title here, but it is for dramatic effect. All of this is within the boundaries of gamesmanship and competition, although I think a little horse manure has found it’s way in, as well.
This is a work in progress.
“Dirty Tricks” will be written
and edited over the course of
weeks and months, so check
back for more developments.
As long as you see this note
is has not been completed.
Most of what is included is aimed the middle to higher levels of play, post-Little League youth, Colt, Pony, Babe Ruth and all the way up to club and high school. That is, baseball played on a full-sized diamond with runners leading off base. Real baseball. That doesn’t mean that Little League and youth players can’t implement what we have offered here, but the fundamental rules will make some of this less relevant.
It is, clearly, a collection and a work in progress. At some point it will be edited and put into an actual booklet that will be offered for sale. A little of what is included is original to me, but obviously the bulk of the “baseball know-how” has been gleaned from the hundreds of coaches and players who taught me how to play baseball over the course of three-and-a-half decades. Coaches and players who passed on a specific point are credited whenever possible.
WAR WITH THE BASE RUNNERS.
Most baseball coaches and pitchers believe that the challenge, when faced with a runner with base-stealing skills on first, it to try to pick the runner off the base. It isn’t. The goal is to keep him from advancing without draining the pitcher of his focus or expending too much energy, and if you can get him out in the process, so much the better.
I have compiled a long list of things the pitcher, catcher and defense can do to negate the threat of a base-stealer. I will cover the offensive strategies to counteract what the defense does in a different section. There are situational differences, of course, especially as it relates to righthanded pitchers and lefthanded pitchers, and also as it relates to which base is involved and how many runners are in play, but essentially all of this applies to all pitchers.
Understand that it is not very important to throw out base stealers or pick runners off. If you simply keep the offense from taking liberties and give them doubt you will give your team an edge that might make a difference. Keeping baserunners in check is war! Here are, not particularly in any order, the things a defensive unit can do to win that war:
1. Throw to first. That sounds so elementary, but it’s amazing how many pitchers fear throwing over to let a baserunner know he’s paying attention. They do it once or twice, but forget about it later. This doesn’t have to be a hard or, even, accurate throw; just a lob over develops a comfort level and keeps the runner from taking liberties. And this doesn’t need to be at the “apex” of the play, when the runner reaches his greatest lead. A sudden, random toss, even when the enemy is just a foot or two off the base, can keep the runner thinking defensively.
2. Pitchout with One Runner on Base. This is another highly logical thing to do and a time-tested weapon to give the defense an edge, but it’s amazing how many times coaches and players use it illogically. The idea, of course, is to give the catcher a running start at his throw, clear of any danger of the hitter’s bat. The throw (notice I did not use the word, “pitch”) needs to be shoulder high, on the opposite side of the plate from the batter, and arrive as soon as possible. That means the pitcher cannot offer a high kick, cannot put a running spin on the ball (no rising fastballs), and needs to do all the other things noted here to keep the runner from getting a good jump.
Pay attention to the count, too. Coaches are notorious for stealing bases on a particular ball-strike situation with a certain number of outs, and if a team keeps a chart of those things, it won’t take long to figure out the tendencies.
Later on, we will cover the subject of stealing signs, and that will go a long way to figuring out when is a good time to call for a pitch out.
It is absolutely important that the fielders, typically the shortstop and second baseman, know what’s going on and who will be taking the throw. More will be coming on that subject later, as well.
3. A-Move and B-Move. The idea behind this is to give the offense a sense of false security, making them think that the pitcher doesn’t have a good move to the base. He goes to the stretch, looks over, then grunts with a throw to the base that doesn’t fool anybody. That’s his “B” move. Then, in theory, the baserunner takes a larger, less safe lead, gets overconfident, and gets picked off with the better, quicker “A” throw.
There are a couple of aspects to this gamemanship that are worth noting. One, the easiest way to make a “bad” move is to throw the ball with a changeup grip. That simply slows the ball down, in the same fashion as it does when thrown to a batter, arriving later. And if he combines this with ineffective footwork, stepping back and off the pitching rubber before turning to throw, he’ll give an early warning of the throw over.
The second thing to keep in mind is when to use this strategy. Most pitchers do it only once, right at the start of the game, and then forget about it. The problem with this is that everyone is paying attention — especially the base coaches — and it’s easy to detect. The best time is later, when there’s a pinch-runner who’s under pressure to do well, or when there are other distractions, like a tight score or a manager worried about substitutions.
I have known really good pitchers who use an “A,” “B” and “C” move system. It’s pretty self-evident what that calls for.
Rule clarification—A righthanded pitcher’s throw to first base can be legally accomplished either by stepping back off the rubber (toward second) with his plant foot, then throwing the ball, or by simply spinning in place. If he steps off, he does not need to step toward the intended base, but if he does not must step generally toward the base. This is generally interpreted as within a 45 degree angle of the target, or essentially more in that direction than another.
4. Long Pause. There is no limit, really, to the amount of time a pitcher is allowed to stay in the stretch position, and a good way to get an edge is to hold the ball for an extended time with the baserunner at his greatest lead. Think about it: the runner is at his highest risk, and he needs to be up on his toes, ready to jump in either direction. If the pitcher holds the ball for an extended amount of time, the runner had a tendency to relax, fall back onto his heels, and lose his advantage.
There will be another discussion on using the Long Pause method to strike a batter out later in this book.
5. Wear the Runner Out. The process of taking a lead, diving back face first, dusting yourself off, and focusing on a pitcher is tiring, especially in the late innings of a game played on a hot summer day. A pitcher can throw over to a base, especially first base, an unlimited number of times effortlessly, and that might make all the difference in the world. Six, seven, or even more throws adds fatigue and frustration. And, if done in a convincing manner, it will get the batter to lose his focus, too.
6. Quick Return Throws. Some baserunners get a bit cocky and, after getting back to the bag safely, are quick to jump off again, as if to mock the threat of being picked off. If you spot a baserunner who does this, the pitcher can quickly re-throw back to the bag in hopes of catching this arrogant fool. It doesn’t have to be a hard throw; just a flick. It’s essential that the first baseman knows what’s up, so this is a play that needs to be signaled. Here’s how it’s done:
The pitcher goes to the stretch, pauses, and throws to first. The first baseman goes through the usual routine of catching the ball and, perhaps, applying a tag, then throws the ball back to the pitcher about the time the runner is in a position to leave again. The pitcher, meanwhile, is walking toward first, thus shortening the distance between himself and the base. The pitcher catches the return throw and quickly snaps it back to the firstbaseman, who applies a tag to a wandering baserunner who got off the base too soon. You’d be amazed how often this works. Even if doesn’t, it sounds a message to the other team that you mean business. That, alone, is intimidating.
7. Hard tags. Like the aforementioned techniques that exploit intimidation and fatigue to wear down the baserunner, a hard tag applied by the first baseman with his glove to the runner’s ribs, arm, or hip will take it’s toll. Now, I’m not advising anyone to do anything dangerous or harmful here; just a firm bump is all it takes.
8. Snap throws by the pitcher. Lefthanded pitchers have a clear advantage when it comes to holding runners on first base because they face the target. They also have a huge advantage in that they are not required to step toward first base as long as they step of the rubber first. What this boils down to is a quick sequence of stepping backward off the rubber with the left (plant) foot, and almost simultaneously snapping a throw to first without a step. It takes practice, but when done correctly the throw is there in the blink of an eye with almost no lower body movement.
When combined with the previously described “A-B Move” concept, you can see that the lefthanded pitcher has an added dimension. He can use the customary lift-and-throw standard B-move, mix that up with the better lift-and-throw A-move, then go even further with the snap move.
Theoretically, the righthanded pitcher has the same option when it comes to throwing to third, but third basemen should neverhold runners on in the same manner that a first baseman does. If you want to try this (not recommended, since a wild throw scores a run) it must be a pre-called play between the pitcher and third baseman, and requires extreme timing. The general rule is to forget about holding the runner on third.
9. Snap throws from the catcher.Some baserunners get lazy after the moment the pitcher delivers the ball to the plate, and they relax. A smart catcher or coach will note these guys, who typically take a couple of quick steps back toward the bag, but then saunter the last few feet, perhaps even looking at the first baseman or base coach. With a lefthanded batter and a righthanded catcher, in particular, it’s possible for the catcher to quickly wrist a throw to first from behindthe batter, catching the runner unaware. The firstbaseman can facilitate this by attempting to engage the baserunner in conversation.
Actually, this can be done at any base, but the combination described, above, is the most effective.
10. Runners at first and third, “wheel play.” I hear announcers and spectators marvel at how seldom this play works, because so many players fail to understand why it can.
Here’s the situation: there are runners at first and third with less than two outs, and obviously the defensive team faces the possibility that the second runner will steal a base, thus putting himself in scoring position and eliminating the chances of an inning-ending double play. A throw to second could go awry, allowing the runner on third to score. Even if the stealer is tagged out, it’s extremely likely the other runner will score. Or, the arm strength of the fielders could not support a throw from home to second and back to home in time to prevent a score. Everyone in the ball park knows that the runner at first will advance, but they’re fairly helpless to stop it. A typical high school team is at risk in this situation.
The wheel play is quite simple. The righthanded pitcher (this doesn’t apply to lefties) goes into the stretch, comes to a set position, and feigns a throw to third, complete with kick and full arm movement. Then, having held the ball, reverses his body and throws back to first, perhaps catching the baserunner leaving the base prematurely or asleep.
What so many baseball people forget is that the runner at first is more likely to run if he thinks the pitcher has throwing to the plate. Remember the earlier note about the lefty being allowed to throw at a 45 degree angle toward first. Well, this applies to third base, too. So if the righthanded pitcher kicks high, keeps his head turned toward home, but simply steps in the general direction of third while he fakes his throw, it will appear that he’s delivering a pitch when he’s not. The key here is the head position, because if it’s facing toward third, nobody within 300 feet will be fooled. The runner at first, convinced that it will be a pitch, takes a secondary lead and could easily be picked off as the pitcher stops, wheels back toward first, and throws.
An important note here is that the pitcher does not need to throw the ball. If the runner doesn’t bite, he simply holds the ball. Nothing ventured, nothing gained — or lost.
This is, truly, an acting job. A little practice with this move will do wonders.
11. Runners at first and third, various infield “cut” plays. The following series of plays is, truly, the can-and-mouse game at it’s best. The defense has several options, but it all boils down to waging an attack on the two baserunners, giving them serious doubt about what was previously an attack against them. The previously described situation is identical, with it very likely that the runner on first will attempt to steal second.
There are as many as four variations of this play, and it involves all of the infielders, the pitcher, and the catcher. In all cases, the movement of the players is virtually identical, and it occurs the moment the pitch is thrown: the shortstop covers second, ostensibly to catch the throw from the catcher and tag out the runner coming over from first; the second baseman runs in to a place between the pitcher’s mound and second, in line with the throw to second; the third baseman moves up and gets in a position to accept a throw where he can tag the runner returning to the base; the center fielder moves in toward second, to do backup duties normally performed by the second baseman.
The key is the second baseman, now in a position to intercept a throw to second and either return it to home to get the runner advancing from third from a shorter distance, or perhaps even snap a throw to third, catching a straying runner who thinkshe might advance. But simply the threat of him being there adds another option. He can pretend he is going to intercept the ball, thus freezing the runner, while actually allowing the throw goes through to second and, hopefully catching the basestealer going from first to second. This takes a little acting, as he holds his glove up, bangs is fist into an empty glove, and feigns a throw to third.
There are two other options. The catcher can fake a throw to second, then snap a throw to third, or even throw the ball back to the pitcher, making it look like he’s trying to throw the runner out at second.
The larger point here is that the base coaches and runners don’t know, for sure, whether stealing second is a given. This is a case where the defense acts offensively.
Obviously, it’s critical that everyone knows what’s going to happen, and that there are pre-arranged signals set up for this circumstance.
12. Inside out pickoff move to second base. This, once again, requires an understanding of the appearanceof a pitch while it is actually a pick-off throw to, in this case, second base. The normal throw to second involves a spin-and-throw technique, a righhander turning counter-clockwise and a lefthander turning clockwise. The runner will obviously watch for this (it’s actually easy to read, and that’s why runners at second are able to take huge leads) and react accordingly. Like the aforementioned “wheel play,” the idea here is to give the impression that the pitcher is kicking and pitching, while in fact he is not.
The technique is to lift his front leg like he’d normally do but, instead of pushing toward home, he rolls backward, toward second. From the runner’s vantage point, the lifted leg, shoulders, and arm motion all look the same. Once again, it’s the head that makes the difference. He must “sell” the move by keeping his head pointed toward home plate, just the way it would be if he were pitching. Most pitchers think that the idea is to make a quick move and throw, when, in fact, he should be merely trying to get the runner to take a large secondary lead.
As with so many other of these tips, even if it doesn’t result in a picked-off runner, it creates doubt.
13. Bait and switch. This is a distraction play at second base that takes precise timing. The shortstop darts behind a runner who is at the limit of his lead, distracts him, and right at the exact moment the second baseman darts to the bag and accepts a pickoff throw from the pitcher. The key is the moment of distraction. The shortstop makes a movement, the runner reacts slightly, sees that the shortstop is not a threat, and at that split second — when the runner lets down his guard — the second baseman springs to life.
This is a very simple play, but like all the others, requires timing that will only come with endless practice.
Rule clarification — while the idea is to distract the runner, it is imperative that he not impede the other player or come in contact with him.
14. Hidden ball trick. Picking the runner off base with a hidden ball will occur only once or twice over a ballplayer’s career, but when it is pulled off, it’s memorable. And, it goes without saying, you won’t get away with it twice.
I was successful twice, and both times it had to do with hiding the ball in the baseman’s armpit. A large player with a baggy uniform helps. The technique: without calling time out, one of the infielders meets with the pitcher, and they quickly assemble a two-man huddle. The pitcher, holding the ball in his throwing hand, puts his arm around his team mate in a casual manner, slipping the ball into the armpit of the far side of his back. The angle of this deception is important, and needs to be rehearsed. The fielder returns to the base that is occupied by a baserunner with the ball lodged there, and he might even make a point to look into his empty glove, giving further assurance that he did not bring the ball back with him.
The pitcher, meanwhile, walks back to the back of the pitchers circle, seemingly getting ready to pitch. He could, perhaps, do a little housekeeping (scooting dirt around, cleaning his cleats with a wooden stick, or even picking up a rosin bag) to give the appearance that he still has the ball.
At the moment the runner prematurely steps off the base, the fielder drops the ball into his glove, and tags the foolish runner.
Rule Clarification — the pitcher cannot assume a position on or, even, near the pitcher’s rubber to give the appearance that he has the ball and is about to pitch. Further, all of this makes no sense if time has been called during this exchange since an out cannot be recorded if play is suspended.
15. Don’t slap your mitt. We see it all the time; an infielder slaps his fist into his glove behind a baserunner, as though it will frighten him into scampering back to the bag. What those defenders are doing, actually, is letting the runner know where they are. A much, much better idea is to be quiet. Fear of having someone sneak in behind someone is far more intimidating.
But, if you insist on this nonsense, don’t slap the leather; make noises with your feet. That runner knows, absolutely, that you haven’t caught the ball, so the sound of something against the glove makes no sense at all. A better sound effect would be scuffing the dirt, imitating the sound of somebody running to the bag.
One of the inherent advantages of practicing all of this is that a team that knows these elements will be alert to when they’re being used by the other team. Good coaches practice all of this, even if they think it’s unlikely they’ll use it often.
BASE COACHING AND STEALING SIGNS.
This subject is certainly related to the baserunning war. Too many coaches make their signs waaaaaay to complex.
Let’s touch on the basics. The system of coaches signaling baserunners and batters serves as communication about what is being planned. Typical strategies that involve these participants include
>> Stealing Bases — This is a simple matter of a runner getting a good jump and beating the catcher’s throw to the next base. In a straight steal situation, the batter does not swing the bat, thus avoiding the potential to hit a pop-up that might be caught and cause the runner to be doubled-up.
>> Delayed Steal — It’s quite possible to take advantage of lazy or inattentive catchers by stealing a base on the return throw to the pitcher. The key is to take off the very second the catcher’s arm starts forward. At the Little League level, it’s quite possible to “steal” home this way.
>> Bunts — The art of bunting seems to have waned during my lifetime, but it’s a good tool to advance a runner who otherwise does not have the speed to steal a base. Yes, there are certain batters who attempt to bunt to get on base, but those are rare. Having the runner know that the bunt is coming is a tremendous advantage and, in fact, a necessity.
>> Fake Bunt — With a runner on second, sometimes it works to draw the third baseman in to field, thus affording a steal of third base. A well-coached baserunner knows what the idea is and has the option of stealing third is the opportunity presents itself.. It also can tip off the offensive coach what the defensive plan is, because at that moment various infielders will move to cover various responsibilities.
>> Slash Bunt — An early display of a potential bunt should send infielders scurrying in different directions (third base typically charges the plate, the shortstop might run to third, the first baseman might come in, too) and that presents an opportunity for an easy hit. The idea is to draw them out of position, draw the bat back, and take a full swing anyway.
>> Hit-and-Run — This is a gamble play but one of the most effective offensive weapons in baseball. No, it is not a steal with the batter swinging. The runner takes off at the earliest possible instant (exactly the same as a steal) but anticipates that the ball will be put into play. It’s important that he look to see where the ball is going, either by glancing at the batter or by looking to the third base coach. The batter must swing on this play and make contact at all costs, even if the ball is not a good one to hit. Hopefully, a runner going on a Hit-and-Run play will advance one or two extra bases because of the early start. Often, this play will foil double plays, too.
>> Run-and-Hit — This is very similar to the Hit-and-Run, but the batter’s obligation to swing at the pitch is optional. Typically, this takes place with a 3-0 or 3-1 count and a runner on first base only, so that if the batter chooses not to swing at a pitch which is obviously a ball (thus earning him a walk) the runner advances anyway.
>> Suicide Squeeze — This is one of my favorite plays. Essentially it is a hit-and-run play with a runner on third. The runner charges home (staying well into foul territory) and the batter simply make contact with the ball, being sure to drop it onto the ground.
OK, we’ve covered the fundamental plays; now how do we tell everyone what the plan is?
Historically, the third base coach gives a predetermined signal that tells everyone what to do. A tug of an ear or a wipe across the chest — mixed between a bunch of other gestures that have no meaning — could be the steal sign, but it wouldn’t be too long before the opposing players catch on. Ah, but if you also have an indicator sign (a secondary verification that confirms that the steal is planned) then it’s harder to decode the signals.
Let’s say the tug at the ear is the steal sign, but a touch of the cap is the indicator. The coach might tug his ear nearly every single pitch sequence, but if he doesn’t also touch the brim of his cap, too, it’s all meaningless.
There are some downsides to giving signals. First of all, for most situations it’s pretty clear what the probable play will be, so if the opposition can figure out what the indicator is, you can usually figure out what the play is. Knowing that there’s a steal or hit-and-run in the works will allow the catcher to call a pitchout and nab a runner.
Another downside is confusing your players with a complex system. This is especially problematic in an era where some players play for more than one team at a time and get confused between one coach’s system and his other team’s system.
I’ll spill the beans on my own system, which was incredibly simple: I’d go through all the motions of signaling during the three-second span when batter and runner would normally get messages, clap my hands, then settle in to the batter’s box to watch what developed. But my signal was actually my stance. Hands on both knees meant one thing, hands on one or the other or both hips meant other things, and crossed arms signaled something else. And the indicator was the number of times I clapped my hands. If the current indicator was four, any other number of claps meant there was no play planned. The beauty of this is that I could change the indicator at any time by simply yelling a number to the dugout. It was extremely hard to steal these signs.
Of course, it isn’t always the base coach who gives the signals. Sometimes all of those shenanigans are a bluff, and it’s actually the dugout coach who is calling the shots.
Pitching is the single most important element of the game and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books written specifically to address the subject. I will not attempt to try to cover all that the art of pitching entails, but there are a few subtleties worth discussion, and perhaps I can clarify some of the basics.
I am absolutely, completely opposed to the concept of a cookie-cutter mentality when it comes to pitching (or, for that matter, hitting). The arm angle, stride, grip, and even follow-through need to match the individual body type. Ballplayers with smaller hands or bigger stomachs need to do things differently, and only a stupid coach will expect a tall stringbean to throw in the same manner as a short bowling ball. It’s nuts to expect every player to throw directly overhand or, even, have the same leg kick or grip. So the first thing to do is to take inventory of your assets: length strength, arm strength, flexibility, and, yes, ability to concentrate. After you’ve figured out what can be done, then begin to approach what you will do.
For the sake of this discussion, we should agree on a few terms. Offering the following also allows me to make a few points about each subject:
The Delivery. This is a phrase used to describe the overall process of throwing the ball by a pitcher. A pitcher might have “a quick delivery” or “a simple delivery.”
Mound. Pardon the sarcasm, but that’s the little hill in the center of the infield. It needs to be attended to, and too many coaches ask their young players to go out and stand in dusty or muddy holes and land on uneven ground. Having a higher mound is generally regarded as giving the pitcher an edge. The additional gravity helps the power pitcher launch himself toward home with a bit more force, and it also affords the breaking balls (curveballs, in particular) to start at a steeper angle.
Plant Foot. This is the back foot that should come in contact with the pitching rubber and the one that is used to propel the pitcher toward home. For righthanders, it is the right foot, and for lefthanders, the left.
Pitching Rubber, or Pitcher’s Plate. Interestingly, this began as a square painted box in which the pitcher was required to stand when he began his delivery. Eventually, of course, the guys who originally “offered” the ball to hitters in what was then “a gentleman’s sport” abandoned the idea that they were the batter’s friend. At that point they began to throw it as hard as they could from as close as possible. The front edge of the “pitcher’s box” (leading to the phrase, “he hit it back to the box”) eventually became the only part of the box that was used and, obviously, quickly was worn away. At some point it became a wooden line, then moved on the the present day “rubber.” I guess because it’s made from the same material as the home plate, it’s called the “pitcher’s plate” sometimes, as well.
Pitchers need to understand some of rules and principles of the pitching rubber. You are not required to stand on top of the rubber and, in fact, that is both ineffective and somewhat dangerous. That’s pretty elementary, but for beginning players, it’s worth a note. By rule, the back, or “plant” foot, should be in contact with the rubber as the pitcher begins his movement toward home. A pitcher is not required to maintain this contact all the way to the point of releasing the ball, but his plant foot should be in close proximity to the rubber.
I am amazed how many young ballplayers insist on digging a deep hole in front of the rubber. Why would you ever want to stand in a hole, making yourself shorter?! What is useful, though, is digging a slight, angled indentation in the dirt, so that the pitcher has a place to launch his body toward home without any possibility of slipping. Don’t dig holes, though.
The Wind-up. This is the optimum method of pitching with both power and efficiency, and essentially gives the pitcher a “running start” toward home. It is used by most pitchers when the bases are empty, or when there is a remote possibility of having a baserunner steal, such as when the bases are loaded, a runner on third, or runners on second and third.
It involves a rock, kick, and launch, and in the middle of all that there’s a moment of hesitation where his tendons and muscles are “loaded” away from the target, and then allowed to spring back in direction of the intended throw. It’s important that this critical piece of physics is understood; the body’s system of muscles, tendons, and mass are wound up (counter-clockwise for the righthanded pitcher) like a spring, then allowed to uncoil, releasing the stored up energy.
A wind up is obviously more explosive than a standing throw or, even, throwing from the stretch position. (That subject comes next.) There is a price to pay for this added power, though. One thing is that it takes much more time to do all this rocking and twisting and unwinding and throwing, so you can’t afford to do it without allowing base runners to run wild and take advantage. It’s why fielders don’t wind up, too; they’d never throw out anyone if they took that much time. The other thing is that it’s extremely complex and takes a great deal of balance, so just an inch or two of inconsistency here or there can result in lack of control. That’s why some coaches will suggest that pitchers prone to wildness should use a modified windup or, simply, pitch from the stretch position. Clearly, fewer movements makes it easier to keep balance.
It’s worth noting that windups were once elaborate and flamboyant. If you look at the films dating back to the 1920’s and 30’s, you have to chuckle at the cartwheeling arms, double-pumps, and extremely high leg kicks that were commonplace. It has occurred to me that some of that might actually prove useful, as a method of throwing off a hitter’s timing and concentration, but I’m not sure I’m ready to actually include it as one of my instructional tips.
The Stretch Delivery. This is, as implied in the description of the wind-up, above, a quick and simple method of delivering a pitch. It amounts to eliminating the rocking portion of the motion, minimizing the kick and twist, and throwing toward home effectively — all while keeping a careful eye on a baserunner. Now, some pitchers throw from the stretch all the time, but the process is intended to counteract the threat of a stolen base, so we’ll proceed with our discussion with that premise in mind.
While it is, in theory, a simpler motion, it is much more complex from a procedural standpoint because of the balk rule. We’ll discuss balks a bit later, but fundamentally they are a series of rules that limit what the pitcher can do the deceive a baserunner, and if a balk is called the runner is given a free base as a penalty to the team on defense.
The stretch motion consists of several parts, including a pre-pitch position, coming to a “set” position, a check of the baserunner, and a kick-delivery toward home. All the while, he is also in a position to legally throw to a base. As noted earlier, the leg kick usually is shorter and less “wound up” than the full wind-up delivery. The safest way to complete this process, in terms of holding the runner and avoiding a balk, is to approach the rubber from the back of the mound, straddle the rubber, step forward into a position where the two feet are perpendicular with home, and coming to a “set” position. After taking a look or two at any runners on base, the pitcher quickly launches himself and throws toward home. Or, if circumstances dictate, he can throw to a base to pick off a runner or, simply keep him close to the bag.
The Set Position Delivery. This deserves mention as a category apart from the stretch delivery. There are a dozen small nuances and small things that can make a difference, and a crafty pitcher who is determined to win the battle with baserunners will take the rules to very edge of legality. A little gamesmanship and espionage helps get an edge, too.
The “set” comes after the pitch has been selected. It is intended to be a quicker-than-a-windup delivery, and it should be thought of that way. The position should be comfortable enough so that the pitcher can throw equally well to the plate or a base. There are some variations.
The “slide step” delivery is the most common tactic. Without a high kick, the transaction of delivering a pitch is shorter, thus giving the catcher a better chance of throwing out the runner. But there’s a price to be paid for this. (Of course there is; otherwise pitchers would use the slide step all the time.) Without the power generated by the legs, there isn’t as much power behind the throw, and often the pitcher’s balance is affected, too, creating a slight loss of fine control.
What you can do is vary your motion, using the slide one time and a full kick another. This also tends to adversely affect the batter’s timing.
Communication with the catcher. The subject of catchers is coming up, so I’ll touch up on signals between pitcher and catcher now.
The basic one-is-for-fastball, two-is-for-curveball, three-is-for changeup system has been around since grass was invented, but there should be more to it than that. A well known high school coach I worked with theorized that there were about six basic pitches he wanted his pitchers to throw:
>> a high, inside four-seam fastball
>> a low, inside two-seam fastball
>> a low and away curveball
>> a low and inside curveball
>> a low changeup
>> a waste pitch, one that is not hittable that the batter might chase
So he’d just have those five signals, plus one for a pitchout.
The physical display of fingers and signals has any number of variations. On my teams a first finger was the four-seam fastball, and the pinky finger was the other “one,” or the two-seam variety. As a pitcher myself, my regular curve was indicated with two fingers, but occasionally I’d drop my arm and throw a sidearm curve, and the catcher would indicate that my holding down the first and pinky fingers, in an unconventional “two.” Pitchouts are generally shown with a fist, and a thumb stuck out sideways is advising the pitcher to throw to the base.
Catchers also signal location, tapping one thigh or the other to indicate inside or outside. When it comes down to it, however, the position of the catcher’s mitt, coupled with the pitch selection, pretty much determines what the plan of attack is.
Much of what gets thrown is intuitive. Curveballs are almost never thrown high in the strike zone, nor or changeups. In fact, most changeups aren’t thrown for strikes at all. Four-seam fastballs are typically thrown up in the strike zone, while two-seam fastballs (which tend to sink more) are usually down.
The pattern of up-and-in then down-and-away is also a natural system to pitch.
The pitcher needs to be able to agree, disagree, and change his pitch. Simply shaking off a sign is a messy business, and it also gives the appearance of a disagreement between batterymates.
A simpler system is the rub or wipe counter signal. As the pitcher accepts the catcher’s sign, he has the option of adding or subtracting. If one is the fastball and he’d prefer to throw a curve, he simple “wipes” his glove upward one time, signaling that he wants to add one to the given sign, making it a two, or a curve. He can subtract an number by wiping down, too.
Having catchers give signals during warmups is impractical, so there’s a system of communication for that, too. The pitcher simply wags his glove at the catcher, telling everyone if he’ll be throwing a fastball, curve, or changeup. A fastball is indicated by an upward wave, as though it will rise slightly; the curve is shown by turning the glove over with the thumb on top (similar to the spin of a curve, obviously); the changeup is an open glove pointed at the catcher pulled backward. My pitch was a slider, and I’d show that was coming by flitting my glove sharply to the side.
Why are these warmup signals necessary, you ask? For one thing, that catcher doesn’t want a surprise, expecting a fastball and then getting clobbered by a late-breaking slider. But there’s another benefit: He can see what the pitcher is intending to throw, assess its effectiveness on that particular day, and add that to the pitch selection. If the two-seam fastball isn’t moving as well as the four-seamer, then he’ll have the wisdom to use it sparingly.
By the way, smart hitters will study a pitcher during warmups carefully because this is one time when you actually know what he’s throwing. You’d be surprised how often the curve and slider and changeup look alike, but if you’re watching him warm up you’ll have a clue what he has in his repertoire. If all he throws is fastballs during the warmup, then you can expect mostly hear.
I wish more coaches would allow their young pitchers and catchers to call their own pitches because they learn the art of the game better. I’m tempted to rant about this, but I will hold my tongue.
Baseball catchers have the most physically and mentally demanding job of any player, and I’ve always admired those who could meet the challenge. They get banged by foul balls, are up and down all day, run into by baserunners, and are required to remember all the strengths and weaknesses of the other team’s hitters as well as their own pitchers.
Let me get a pet peeve off my chest right away: Catchers who “frame” pitches to a ridiculous degree are, in fact, hurting their pitcher’s chances of getting a borderline call. Catching a ball that is four inches off of the strike zone and pulling it over into the area where a strike would have been caught is an absurd notion, and it tells the umpire that you didn’t think it was a strike. Don’t do it.
OK, once or twice a game, on a pitch at the very bottom of the strike zone where the umpire has a hard time seeing it, maybe, but it’s generally a bad idea.
That brings up another concept of providing a target. Be specific. Show the pitcher and umpire exactly where you want the pitch to the thrown. You’d be surprised how often your own intensity translates to the pitcher, and umpires will often give you the benefit of a called strike on a borderline pitch of the pitcher actually hits the target perfectly.
I want to interject an anecdote: Way back in my Little League coaching days, I was appointed to be the All-Star Team’s pitching coach. The head coach asked me to take all the candidates down to the bullpen, work them out, and rank the best few for the upcoming games.
My assessment surprised the other coaches. There was one boy, Gabriel, whose team finished dead last that season, losing something like 22 games. Obviously, Gabe didn’t have a winning record, but I noticed immediately that he could hit the catcher’s target perfectly every time. His problem was, I explained, that the regular season catcher always held the mitt dead center in the middle of the strike zone. Batters knew he would always throw it there, and they clobbered him. He was throwing too many strikes. Location is often more important than velocity..
During the All-Star Tournament we simply required the catcher to be specific on his target and, ironically, we required him to throw some pitches out of the strike zone. Gabe pitched us to a 3-1 victory in the second game.
Good catchers survey a batter when he sets up in the box. Is he standing straight-legged? or crouched? Are his hands held high? or down by his waist? Does he choke up on the bat? Does he crowd the plate? All of these are indicators of his strengths, weaknesses, and what he will attempt to do with the bat. Learn to study and understand those things, and you’ll be a better catcher.
[to be continued; check back for additional material)