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Pick-off At Third!

by Dave
Friday, May 11, 2007

A visitor writes in with the following question:

"My daughter plays 3rd base for her HS team.   When a runner is at 3rd, she has been told by the coach to straddle the bag to receive a pickoff throw from the catcher.   I would say this was/is the classical view of positioning.   I'm sure 95% of all coaches and instructional books state this is the position for the 3rd baseman to be in when receiving a throw from the catcher after a pitch.   However, I want a real life practical view.   I suggest she stand to the inside of the bag because she then gives the catcher a target and she then can see a throw unobstructed by the baserunner.

If straddling, I realize a catcher could/should throw over the head of the standing runner, but the line of sight is still mosty obscured and bringing the glove down for a tag is now from way up high -- if the runner slides.   Assuming the catcher aims a throw for the runner's back and the runner does slide, then such a throw would theoretically be perfect height for a tagout if she were straddling.   But before the runner slides, the line of sight is obscured and the 3rd baseman only has a millisecond to pick up the ball and catch it after the runner slides.   It ain't gonna happen -- instead, my daughter will get hit in the face or will miss the catch.   The textbook is to straddle -- real life says stay to the inside.   Her coaches could not come up with anything definitive when she told them the runner was blocking her view.   What do you say?

Concerned Dad"

Concerned, your analysis is perfect.   The textbook says exactly that and the problem with the textbook is exactly as you state it.   Let's start at the start and see if we can break this down.

First off, any well-schooled runner at third base knows to come off the base in foul ground so that if the batter hits a shot, she does not get hit by the ball in fair territory, in which case she would be out.   Likewise, she knows to return to base in fair territory to block defenders' views should anyone try to pick her off.   I teach my kids to look into the eyes of the covering player and run right at her unless she is way off to the side.   In this scenario, the covering player will have her view obscurred and will always have a tough time making the catch.

Let's go back a bit and look at your question.   You say your daughter is the third baseman and she is covering on a pick-off attempt.   If I saw that, my first thought would be to squeeze a run home by bunting at the third baseman who most likely is breaking back to the bag to cover the throw.   She may not leave before a bunt is made but she will be leaning.   That's human nature.

From a defensive point of view, my preference is to have the third baseman more concerned about the bunt and to have the shortstop cover on a pick-off attempt.   Keep in mind that I want any pick-off attempt at third to be a called play not an ad hoc attempt to get the runner on a play by play basis.   We notice she is traying off to far so we call a play to try to nail her.

From a base coaching point of view, my runners watch the third baseman while the base coach watches the shortstop.   My runner is told to only stray off base as far as the third baseman and to come back to the bag with her unless they hear "BACK" from the third base coach in which case the shortstop has snuck in behind the runner.   If the third baseman is overly concerned with the runner, we bunt.   If she isn't, we get a good lead until the SS sneaks in behind.

Defending against or picking-off a runner at third can be done in a couple of ways.   As I said, my preference is to have third in closer, perhaps 20 feet in front of the bag or more to defend against a squeeze play.   After every pitch, my SS comes in behind third and covers the bag.   She doesn't always get all the way to the bag.   She just heads in that direction.   If the runner is truly straying off, what we're looking for is the element of surprise.   So the SS creates the illusion that she isn't all that gung ho about covering the bag.   She lures the runner into a false sense of security that nobody is going to cover so there isn't going to be a pick-off attempt.

Now, where we go from here is one of three ways.   The first is not really meant to get the runner out but rather to get in her head or to defend against delayed stealing.   The throw from catcher goes right to the third baseman standing 40 feet or thereabouts from home.   She catches the ball and swipes backwards at where she thinks the runner might be.   If the runner breaks for home, it is a quick throw back to the catcher to get her out.

The second way is meant to get the runner.   The shortstop comes all the way to the bag because a pick-off play has been called.  -; She takes the throw and tags to try to get the runner out.   This would be the scenario in which what you describe would be the consideration.   Should the shortstop straddle the bag and catch the ball as the runner slides?   I do not believe she should.   I'd prefer my SS stand in foul ground and take the throw there.   My catcher is going to do a drop step and throw from foul territory most of the time if there is a right handed batter.   Even if there is a lefty at the plate, the throw is probably going to be in foul ground.   And I expect the runner to come back in fair territory.   If she doesn't we need to adapt and perhaps throw in fair ground in which case the SS should be in fair territory.

The third way in which we attempt a pickoff is intended to catch the runner from third napping.   What we do is the SS repeatedly comes all the way to the bag but the catcher shows little or no interest.   If you've got a budding actress at short, I suggest you make use of her skills.   If I'm at short, I want to sigh really loud on each of these plays and then mutter something about the runner being lucky because the catcher is just chicken to throw down to third.   Then what I want to happen is also a set play.   I want the catcher to throw back to the pitcher hard and then I want the pitcher to make the throw to the shortstop just as quickly.   If you get the runner out, tell the actress SS that she should let the runner know that while the catcher is chicken, the pitcher is not!

So that's my advice regarding a pick-off at third.   I disagree with the question about how the third baseman should position herself to take the throw from the catcher.   That's because I do not believe she should be taking the throw at all unless it is from a position well in front of the bag to keep the runner honest and defend against a delayed steal.   Her primary responsibility has to be the bunt.   You can go at this pick-off in a couple different ways but I believe it must be a called play.   I don't want my catcher at any age or play level deciding for herself when she should try a pick-off.   I'd much rather set a trap for the runner at third and then spring it.   And I'd prefer that the SS take the throw at the bag.

Response from another reader

"I read your stuff on a regular basis.   As you know sometimes I disagree but I like your style or I wouldn't send my thoughts.   Regarding this pick off play, my kid caught and she had a quick release with 65 mph speed.   If the girl at third got a big jump, the third baseman who had great speed would signal or we in the dugout would say lets get this out or some such signal and they exchanged a glance and the play was on.   After their first success they pretty much got it or saw when it would work on their own.   My girl would signal to the pitcher she wanted an outside and up pitch with a right hand batter.   The third baseman would break towards the bag just after the pitch was released.   My kid caught the ball and released it without hesitation as the third base man got towards the bag.   Since the runner was breaking when the pitcher's arm was on the down stroke, it was difficult to stop the momentum of her forward progress.   The third baseman would catch and apply the tag.   It was as simple as that.   An accurate throw to a player like a football receiver running a diagonal route.   It worked on many occasions and it broke the backs of the opposong team and lifted our team to get the offense going at our next turn at bat.   Your comments about this are appreciated."

Here is my reply:

I understand where you're coming from and while I don't outright disagree, I have some problems with your approach.   My problems have to do with the ability level of the players.   That makes or breaks the play as you describe it.   And there are some other considerations beyond the abilities of the players involved.

This site is "girls-softball" for a reason, the target is age group level play up to about 16.   We talk about college, ASA Gold, and high school usually in the context of learning from watching.   I think college and ASA Gold take a different approach to this situation because the players' arms are much better and more reliable than they are in high school.   Also, usually the games are a bit tighter and runners at third come with a higher premium.

In high school ball, there is a broad spectrum of ability level.   It is hard to suggest anything at all for any situation because so much depends on the ability level of the players.   A very good high school team is more similar to an average Div II or III college team than it is to a very bad or even mediocre high school team.   I think a very good high school team can pull off the play you suggest more than half the time but that's poor odds, even for a potential crushing blow to the opposition.   A mediocre high school team is going to allow the runner to score more than 50% of the time.

It isn't so much the arm of the catcher or the speed of the third baseman that makes or breaks this.   It is the speed, strength and accuracy of the return throw from the third baseman, if the runner from third breaks for home.   I like that you call this play from the bench because you don't just want the players to decide on their own in this situation.   There are so many factors that play into this defensive play and they really fall into the managerial decision making realm.   But let me break it down a bit further.

If you go back through the original post, I have my runner at third keying off the third baseman.   The third base coach is watching the SS.   The runner watches the third baseman closely and keeps her in front.   If she breaks back for the bag to cover, my runner, if I have coached her correctly, should immediately break back with her.   Your point is the runner's forward momentum will prevent her from getting back because she will notice the third baseman's break too late and that may be true.   But the crucial element is where your third baseman is positioned to begin with.   She's got to be even with the bag or somewhere in front of it.   (I hope for your sake she's not in back of it - I've seen teams do that but not many.)   If she's just ten feet in front, she should be able to make this play but I'm going to squeeze on the first pitched strike and she's not going to be able to make the play to home in time because she's too deep.     My runner is not going to come that far off the bag unless we have the queeze on.   If she's twenty feet in front of the bag and charging, that is about the only time I'm going to have my runner at third far enough off the bag to nail her.   In that case, our biggest concern is the SS coming in for a pick off attempt.

As a second point, my runner is going to come off the bag in foul ground and back in fair.   If your third baseman is in back of the runner somehow, my runner is going to be in position to block the throw.   If the ball hits her and bounces away, we're going to get a run.   If I have scouted you and seen this play, it is entirely possible that we're going to try a straight steal of home when we judge you're going to try this.   This is actually why I like the play the way I described it better.   My biggest concern with calling a pick-off at third is the team that is heads up enough to try a steal when we throw down.

You don't get my scouting in age group tournament ball.   There just isn't enough time.   Sometimes age group teams face the same opposition over and over again and get to know each other's plays.   In that case, your play might work today but the following 3 times, the opposition is going to try to steal home.   If this is high school ball, then your team is going to get scouted and if you try this play enough times, the other teams are going to know when it is on.

In my play, the runner at third sees the third baseman is in about 20 and charging for the bunt if the batter's hands seperate.   The runner gets used to charging off the bag almost but not quite as far as the third baseman.   If the catcher throws to the third baseman, one of two things happens.   She might break towards home in which case my third baseman has a 40 foot throw and is already in position to make it with her left shoulder towards the plate.   If the runner returns to third, my third baseman is going to have made the catch and be charging the runner who may now have her back turned and not be aware that a pick-off play is on.

If I call the throw to the SS, the catcher does a drop step behind the batter and the SS is hopefully ready to receive it in foul ground to her glove side which is also the side of the bag and returning runner.   The throwing lane is clear because the runner should be returning in fair ground and the SS has a relatively easy tag to make.   If the runner breaks for home, we're in the same situation as you are but I think it is likely we can get a call of batter's interference on the return throw unless she has moved way out of the picture already, in which case we have a clear throwing lane, on the foul ground side of the line.

Really, there are a whole bunch of other considerations in this play.   What's the score; what inning is it; how many outs are there; how many runners have already reached third today; how fast and smart is my runner at third; and several other things have to factor into this.   If I have a slow runner at third, she's not going to come far enough off the bag to make this a consideration.   If she's as fast as lightning but the game is low scoring and tied in the sixth or seventh, she's also not going to be that far off the bag.   If we're down by two, I want her to score, so I'm having her run conservatively.   If we're up by two in the second inning with nobody out, we're playing aggressively and even if you manage to pick her off, you're not going to break our backs or turn it around.   We're going to shake off the loss of our runner at third and chalk it up to aggressive play.   Defensively, I'm not actually out to pick-off the runner.   I'm more interested in shaking her up and taking the running game away just a bit.

We can go around and around on this and I can keep writing different scenarios and the reasons why I do not or do not like your approach or mine but that's why we love this game.   There is always room for disagreement.   One way will work once while the other fails.   The next time the reverse is true.   As a coach, you've got to consider all alternatives and pick the ones that are right for your team.

If we go back to the original question, the issue involved how a third baseman positions herself to take the pick-off throw from the catcher.   The HS coach suggested the "book" says to straddle the bag.   While it is true that any fielder taking a throw on a tag play whould straddle the bag, I don't particularly care for the notion that the third baseman takes the pick-off throw from the catcher at the bag.   The third basemna's father doesn't like it either.   It is too difficult to see the throw, let alone catch it.   Your play involves the third baseman catching the ball like a wide receiver taking a pass in football which also alleviates the problems of seeing and catching the ball.   But I think both approaches are wrong because the third baseman is too concerned about a pick-off and not concerned enough about a squeeze play.


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