We Get It, You Like Pickoff Throws

As the Twins closed in on a division title and their second playoff berth in three years, each of their games took on greater importance. On September 17, that intensity created a truly ridiculous 10 minutes of baseball. Sergio Romo came into a tie game in the eighth inning, and after a one-out bunt single by Yolmer Sánchez… Well, I’ll let this tweet do the talking:

Yikes. To make matters worse, there was that mound visit, and Romo also stepped off to regroup after one particularly strenuous pickoff throw. Overall, it took exactly 10 minutes to throw the final 11 pitches of the inning. Somewhere, Rob Manfred woke up from a nightmare about pace of play.

No one remembered this half-inning at the end of the day. It was a wild game, capped with a 12th-inning walk-off hit by pitch that was so close it had to be reviewed. Romo had an excuse — he landed awkwardly on his knee on his first pitch to Zack Collins and some of the pickoff throws were clearly half-hearted. He wanted to stay in a tight game with playoff implications, and the Twins let him.

But it was still absurd. Eleven pickoff attempts, 11 actual pitches. To make matters worse, it wasn’t Billy Hamilton over on first base or anything; Sánchez has five stolen bases and has been caught four times this year, and he’s not even particularly fast. One or two of the attempts were at least theoretically close, but most of them looked like this:

Surely this is the most egregious use of pickoffs imaginable. You can barely call what’s going on baseball; it’s just Romo and Marwin Gonzalez having a catch while tens of thousands of fans watch. No one would be even close to this level of pickoff inanity, right? Right?

My friend, if you think that, you clearly haven’t watched enough baseball. Eleven pickoff attempts isn’t even the most in an inning this year. Kyle Hendricks put up an 11 spot of his own on July 2, and human rain delay Willson Contreras threw in a catcher pickoff attempt for good measure.

When Adam Frazier singled to lead off the first inning, Hendricks gave him a cursory check:

That’s just business as usual; leadoff man reaches, pitcher gives him a half-hearted pickoff throw to plant the idea of a pickoff in his mind. Frazier probably wasn’t thinking about running at that point; he’s only 4-for-8 in steals on the year as a whole (and was only 1-for-4 in 2018), and Contreras has a cannon arm. Still, Hendricks wasn’t trying to throw him out with that move; he was just saying hello.

On 0-1, though, Hendricks gave an even-more-cursory move:

Anthony Rizzo doesn’t even bother going through the motions here, and why would he? Frazier barely has a lead at all — he beat that throw back by a comical amount.

If it stopped there, with two just-checking-in throws, that would hardly be news. Hendricks was only beginning, though. After retiring Bryan Reynolds, he went back to the well, and his fourth pickoff throw of the inning finally enticed Rizzo to attempt a tag:

That was a better move, and he nearly caught Frazier leaning. He wasn’t going, though, and he didn’t even have a particularly big secondary lead, a fact that Willson Contreras decided to double check with a back pick:

After another lackadaisical attempt, Frazier ran! Hendricks had been nice enough to show him every single move and tendency, and he got a tremendous jump:

Starling Marte fouled the pitch off, spoiling Frazier’s good work, but now Hendricks had something to think about. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you, and here was Frazier, trying to get Hendricks. It’s enough to make you want to sigh:

That sigh, incidentally, was after the seventh pickoff attempt of the inning. There was an eighth, as well, before Marte finally singled past Javier Báez, who was busy covering second base, to make it first and third with only one out.

With Marte now on first, it was time to actually worry about the running game. Marte has swiped at least 20 bags in every full season he’s played, and he’s reasonably efficient, with a 75.6% success rate. He wasn’t stealing with Josh Bell at the plate, though, and after scampering back standing up on two straight mediocre throws, he let Hendricks know what he thought of the whole situation:

After another two pickoff throws bookending a Bell sacrifice fly, Hendricks escaped the inning. Mercifully, those were his only pickoff throws of the day — he went only three innings and gave up two runs in his first start back from an injury.

What that means, of course, is that Hendricks doesn’t have the most single-game pickoff attempts by any pitcher this year. Aníbal Sánchez holds that honor, managing a whopping 18 in a mid-July tilt against the Braves. Some of those were against Ronald Acuña Jr., who’s a real base stealing threat and who stole second base off of Sanchez despite the pickoff throws. Some of them, though, were silly:

That’s one of five attempts to pick off Freddie Freeman, who has fewer stolen bases in the last two seasons (16) than Sánchez had pickoff throws in this game. I’ll spare you another batch of not-close-to-good pickoff attempts and simply note that Sánchez also threw over to first twice with Josh Donaldson aboard. Donaldson, of course, is a slow-footed third baseman, and he’s stolen 15 bases in his last 4 seasons. No matter — sometimes you just have a feeling.

Sánchez, incidentally, has that feeling a lot. He has two of the 10 highest single-game pickoff counts this year. If we care about games with high pickoff totals, Zac Gallen is an even bigger offender — he has three of the top 10, and another game in 12th, despite not pitching a full season. He doesn’t even have a horrid stolen base problem — he’s allowed six in 80 innings pitched, which isn’t particularly noteworthy.

Unlike Gallen, Noah Syndergaard probably should be making a lot of pickoff throws. Syndergaard, who has games with 17 and 12 pickoff attempts, has allowed a whopping 42 stolen bases this year, 18 more than teammate (and second-place) Jacob deGrom. He’s third in overall pickoff attempts this year, doing his best to keep the running game in check, and it just hasn’t mattered. His catchers have only caught three of the 45 base stealers, and he’s only picked off two would-be base stealers.

In fact, none of the high-volume pickoff artists are actually, well, good at getting results. Of the 10 pitchers with the most attempts this year, none has more than three successful pickoffs:

High Volume Pickoff Artists
Player Attempts Pickoffs Pickoff Rate
Aaron Nola 186 2 1.1%
Aníbal Sánchez 162 2 1.2%
Noah Syndergaard 137 2 1.5%
José Berríos 135 3 2.2%
Jake Odorizzi 112 2 1.8%
Zach Eflin 108 1 0.9%
Jack Flaherty 107 1 0.9%
Zac Gallen 104 1 1.0%
Julio Teheran 104 1 1.0%
Jakob Junis 99 0 0.0%

These pitchers have something in common; they’re all righties. Righties have a naturally tougher time with pickoffs; the leaderboard of best pickoff conversion rates is dominated by lefties:

Best Pickoff Rates (min 30 att.)
Player Attempts Pickoffs Pickoff Rate
Max Fried 36 5 13.9%
Zach Plesac 56 6 10.7%
Brett Anderson 43 4 9.3%
Drew Smyly 59 5 8.5%
Peter Lambert 37 3 8.1%
T.J. McFarland 37 3 8.1%
Dillon Peters 44 3 6.8%
Blake Snell 60 4 6.7%
Josh Taylor 31 2 6.5%
Wander Suero 32 2 6.3%

Or, it’s mostly dominated by lefties. Peter Lambert is okay, and then there’s Zach Plesac, who leads the major leagues in pickoffs. Plesac is somehow a monster, with a deft, lightning-fast move that bamboozles baserunners:

If Hendricks and Romo could learn something from Plesac, it might be the value of moderation and variety. In their respective giant innings, the baserunners worked out their moves more or less immediately and were never bothered by the throws. The closest either of them came to nabbing a baserunner was on a back pick, and even that wasn’t particularly close. Starling Marte was so unbothered he carried on a running conversation during the pickoff throws.

No one’s laughing when they’re on base against Plesac. They’re waiting nervously, wondering if that sharp move is coming next. He mixes it up, keeping his opponents guessing by withholding information. He’s only made as many as five attempts in an inning once this year, when he threw over to first four times in a row to see if he could catch Cameron Maybin napping. After that plate appearance, he didn’t throw over to first again all game.

Sometimes the sequence is more complex; he might throw two bad pickoff moves and then a good one to catch the runner napping in a different way. Sometimes the pickoff sequences come before the first pitch of the plate appearance; sometimes he waits deeper in the count.

I’m not confident that Plesac will keep up his ridiculous numbers — he’s only allowed a single stolen base all year to go with one caught stealing, which means that batters are seven times more likely to head back to the dugout than take a base. I’m certainly not confident that other pitchers can replicate his move; if everyone was that fast, there would be a lot more successful pickoffs.

What I am confident in, though, is that the strategies Romo, Hendricks, and Sanchez are choosing aren’t working. Hendricks, in particular, actually brought stolen base attempts on himself. More importantly than that, however, is that those innings were an absolute drag to observe.

Not all baseball needs to be fun to watch — some of the magic of the game is in the pauses and spaces between plays. That’s not what this is, though. This is weaponized boredom, dead space forced into a game that isn’t short for filler. There’s no suspense in the throws, no chance an exciting play might break out.

There aren’t really any takeaways here, no one simple trick some pitchers could adopt to fix this hole in their games. It’s just an annoyance, seconds and minutes the people watching will never get back, and one I desperately wish would stop. Is it a problem without a solution? Potentially. Still, I’m holding out hope — hope that Anibal Sanchez will stop making six pickoff throws a game, hope that Sergio Romo will just admit he’s hurt instead of taking a 10 minute rest break via pickoff throws, hope that Kyle Hendricks will decide that maybe after six throws over there’s really no need for a seventh. That would make all of our baseball lives just a tiny bit better.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Monsignor Martinez
3 years ago

Having pitched when I was younger, I know that sometimes with runners on base, I struggled with making accurate throws. One of my tactics to re-find my release point was to throw a few pickoff attempts. I wonder if some of these attempts were from pitchers who were struggling with control trying to get a few free practice throws.