Leading off the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday, Harrison Bader worked a full count against Eric Lauer and hit a single up the middle. In a matchup between two promising National League rookies, Bader appeared to have the upper hand. Tommy Pham stepped in and saw a first-pitch strike, and then the Cardinals TV broadcast said the following:
One thing to keep in mind — Lauer has a tremendous pickoff move. He has picked off four in four consecutive games.
That quickly, Bader was erased. Eric Lauer has picked off a runner five games in a row. This is just the fifth time that’s known to have happened in major-league history, and this active streak is a Padres franchise record. The major-league leader in pickoffs in 2016 had six. The major-league leader in pickoffs in 2017 had seven. Lauer already has seven in 2018. He’s two ahead of anyone else, even though he’s thrown just 45 innings. Sure, if you wanted to be critical, you could say that Lauer has given himself plenty of pickoff opportunities. But he’s been a baserunner-erasing machine. When Lauer is on the mound, every runner has to be careful.
Being a lefty, Lauer has an obvious advantage. Whenever there’s a runner on first, Lauer can choose to look right at him. Yet every runner also knows that. Every runner takes that into consideration. Runners know they have to be more cautious when a lefty is pitching, but that caution hasn’t come to their collective aid. And I should say there’s some precedent for this — last year, over a dozen starts in High-A, Lauer had four pickoffs. And then, over ten starts in Double-A, Lauer had six pickoffs. His pickoff move is so quick that it was responsible for sending teammate Josh Naylor to the disabled list after the first baseman was hit in the face by a throw. Even Naylor was caught by surprise.
And while there’s always some risk for the pitcher, Lauer hasn’t been called for a single balk since he was pitching for Kent State in 2015. Mark Buehrle finished his career with an even 100 pickoffs, but he was charged with 16 balks. Andy Pettitte finished his career with 98 pickoffs, but he was charged with 11 balks. At least to this point, Lauer has managed to stay on the permissible side of the line. His motion is clean, and his motion is effective.
There’s no avoiding it: The rest of this post is going to be riddled with videos. It’s one thing to talk about pickoffs, but it’s quite another to see them in action. What makes Lauer’s move so good? We can go in order, beginning with the pitch immediately prior to his first big-league pickoff.
That’s just Eric Lauer throwing a regular ol’ pitch. Nothing to talk about. And then that’s when Lauer threw over:
It’s not the move itself that’s particularly deceptive. Everything looks the same up through the leg lift, but that’s normal. You can spot the difference in those clips pretty quickly. What’s important is the speed. In the pickoff, you see how quickly Lauer gets his foot down. You see how he flips the ball over from the side, instead of throwing overhand. It’s a much shorter throwing motion, and the throw, of course, is also accurate. Andrew McCutchen wasn’t fooled. Andrew McCutchen was beat. There’s a difference. Lauer can just be quicker to the bag than many runners.
Before moving on, a screenshot:
You’ve heard that a pitcher is supposed to step directly to the base he’s throwing to. The way that’s interpreted, umpires imagine a 45-degree line from the rubber, pointing between home and first. From this angle, I can’t tell you exactly where that 45-degree line would point. I think it’s pretty apparent that Lauer is at close to 45 degrees. In his motion, he also comes close to swinging his right foot behind the back plane of the rubber. That would be a no-no, as well. Lauer comes close to committing a balk. But he hasn’t been called for a balk in years. The umpires haven’t seen anything wrong, even if Lauer is coming right up to the edge. If he can do that consistently, it’s only going to keep working in his favor.
More videos. More pickoffs! Here’s number two:
Pham picked off, Bader batting. In the most recent one, yesterday, it was Bader picked off, and Pham batting. Nice little symmetry. Here’s number three:
There was kind of a setup with this one. It’s a rare clip of Juan Soto actually doing something wrong, but in his partial defense, this was Lauer’s move just before:
Lauer showed Soto a mediocre pickoff move. Then he got him with a great one. Lauer isn’t the first pitcher to set up a quick move with a slow one, but it’s still impressive to see from a rookie who has so many other things to worry about. Lauer hasn’t allowed his control of the running game to slip. Here’s number four:
You might notice it’s the same move over and over and over again. Lauer hasn’t gotten anyone with an instant snap throw. He’s not channeling Julio Urias. Always the leg lift, always sidearm. Here’s number five:
This one comes with a bonus shot of Joey Votto looking like a silly person:
Votto was maybe trying to give himself an extra step or two, to improve his chances of scoring from first. Instead, he reduced his chances of scoring, to zero percent. Don’t try to cheat against Eric Lauer. Here’s number six:
It was reviewed. Lauer won. And what gets me is that Brian Anderson wasn’t even fooled. He had a small lead! Anderson was barely off first, and he wasn’t looking to run, and Lauer nabbed him anyway. I should make sure to give some credit in here to Eric Hosmer, who’s been doing a great job of catching these throws and applying quick tags. It’s like we’ve always said, Hosmer is a premium defender at first base.
I don’t even know why Lauer threw over there in the first place. But, I mean, he did get the out. He just makes the impossible possible. At last, here’s number seven, featuring Pham and Bader again:
“I don’t think he’s fooling as many guys as it looks like,” said Padres manager Andy Green […] “They think they’ve got more time, and then he gets that foot down, and that snap throw comes over a lot quicker than anybody expects. They’re almost shocked by it.”
That’s exactly right. For the most part, this isn’t a matter of deception. Lauer has simply perfected his snap throw, which is what’s allowed him to rack up those five pickoffs where the runner wasn’t running on first move. This year, in the majors, 42% of pickoffs have been pickoffs and caught steals. Lauer has five regular pickoffs, and the next-highest total is three. Lauer is just quicker to first base than the runners leading off of it. That’s a lesson for the runners to learn.
On the one hand, you could say, welp, runners will adjust, and the pickoffs will disappear. They’ll just take slightly smaller leads. On the other hand, Buehrle and Pettitte never stopped picking guys off, long after their reputations were established. And if runners did just shrink their leads, and take fewer chances, that would still be a benefit, because it would limit their ability to move more quickly around the bases. What the National League should be aware of, now, is that Eric Lauer has a killer pickoff move. We’ll see if he can extend a pickoff run that’s already historic.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.