The Problem of the Pick-off Throw

The first time I really thought about the pickoff move was in 1995.  My beloved and beleaguered Seattle Mariners had finally reached the postseason, and in the second game they faced a young, unspellable left-hander by the name of Andy Pettitte.  I was used to seeing lefties lob the ball to first, almost as a warning shot; Pettitte snapped the ball to first like a rubber band in a motion that looked like a cross between a balk and a dance move.  It struck me, an unbiased observer, as unfair and possibly inhuman.  Pettitte picked off two runners that game, and I found myself in unconscious awe.  What was he doing that made him so incredible?  Why wasn’t anyone else doing it?

The next day’s newspaper article made no mention of the two pickoff throws.  It’s hardly surprising, because there was plenty to talk about, especially Jim Leyritz’s game-winning, fifteenth-inning home run.  But it’s also not surprising because the pickoff only sort of exists.

Nobody likes the pickoff throw.  The fans detest it; I don’t know what the level of tolerance used to be, but at the game I attended last weekend, the crowd booed with every single toss to first.  The statisticians hardly bother to track it.  The analysts don’t care for it either, because of the way it hampers the rhythm of the ballgame and inserts dead air into the proceedings.  Opposing coaches gnash their teeth as weary hurlers cast the ball back and forth to the first baseman, buying time for a reliever to limber up.  The runners themselves can’t be too thrilled about having to dive back all the time, either.

From an aesthetic standpoint, however, I enjoy the pickoff.  I find the deception in the windup and the suddenness of the motion thrilling.  Added to this is the appeal of a battle of wills between baserunner and pitcher, who is already locked in combat with the batter at the plate.  It’s a combination of threats, the physical appearance of a pitcher slowly surrounded like a go piece thrust in atari, flailing back at his tormentors.

But beneath these surface considerations, something bothered me.  There is something fundamentally wrong with the pickoff throw, beyond its effect on the pace of the game.

One of the most beautiful aspects of baseball is its reliance on mixed strategy.  Mariano Rivera throws a decent cut fastball, but if he throws it for every single pitch, the batter will expect it and hit it more often.  If he throws too few, he’ll be sacrificing some opportunities to use his best pitch to get the batter out.  What results is a careful equilibrium that seeks to optimize the output of a player’s performance by adding enough variety to prevent the hitter from getting comfortable.  When the pitcher can’t do this, because his breaking ball isn’t working or he falls behind in the count, the hitter gains the advantage and his chance of success increases proportionately.

Not only must the pitcher (and the batter, guessing which pitches he is likely to see) optimize his arsenal, but he must randomize it.  Mariners fans of 2011 are well aware of Felix Hernandez’s past penchant for relying too heavily on the fastball early, leading to many first-inning struggles.  Randomization is not an easy thing; the human brain tends to work in patterns.  Unpredictability is necessary for gaining the upper hand.

The running game itself provides excitement in execution and its own mixed strategies, not just in the evaluation of a single game element, but in the overall strategy by which a general manager builds his team and searches for skills in his players.  For teams that lack firepower, the stolen base becomes a viable alternative for scoring runs.  Based on run-scoring environment of each era, the running game waxes and wanes in popularity.   Players with certain skill sets become under or overvalued, creating market inefficiencies and fostering creative ways to develop championship teams.  As a self-regulating system, it’s pretty amazing.

And that’s where the tragedy of the pickoff lies: it’s a dominant strategy.  From the perspective of winning ballgames, there is simply no reason why the pitcher shouldn’t continue to throw to first base ad infinitum whenever a runner steps off the bag.

Dan Malkiel at Baseball Reference undertook some painstaking and invaluable research regarding pickoffs, and the evidence is somewhat surprising.  To summarize his findings: The pickoff throw does not distract the pitcher and make it harder to throw strikes.  In fact, there is slightly more evidence that it is the hitter, not the pitcher, who loses concentration during multiple pickoff throws.  Nor does the pickoff actually deter the runner from running: because of the heavy correlation between multiple pickoff attempts and faster baserunners, we see higher steal rates after a runner is sent back to the bag a couple of times.

What we’re left with, then, are the two outcomes that change the state of the game: a successful pickoff, and an error.  Because an out is almost always worth more than a single base, it would take several times as many errors to create a risk worthy of deterring hopes of a pickoff, but the numbers lean the opposite way: a pickoff throw is three times as likely to result in an out as an error.  The pickoff is simply too dangerous a weapon.  You rarely see it succeed, but you see it succeed too often.

There is nothing in the rulebook that constrains a hypothetical continuous pickoff strategy, save for 9.01(d), which allows umpires to eject players for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Instead, the play is handled by baseball’s unwritten rules, which serve repercussions for such behavior in the secret underground bunker each Sunday evening.  Different proposals have been made: Bill James recommended reducing the number of “free” pickoff throws to two an inning, and charging a ball to the pitcher for each unsuccessful attempt thereafter.  The trouble with this lies in three-ball counts, where the mixed strategy will crumple to pieces.

There are two primary ways to alter the pickoff situation: to restrict them, or to make them less appealing as a strategy.  Most of the discussion centers on the first, but I find myself drawn to the latter: by balancing the strategy into a mixed one, with potential benefits and costs, the game not only speeds up, it becomes more interesting at the same time.  The way to do this is to alter the ratio of successful pickoffs to errors, either by lowering the first statistic or raising the latter.  On top of this, it would be helpful to do it in such a way that the runner’s leadoff isn’t allowed to expand, which might play with stolen base numbers.

The only ways to reduce pickoff success, without altering the length of a runner’s lead-off, would be to somehow make the pitcher’s throwing action more difficult, potentially by requiring an extra step.  This is troublesome, however.  The other option is to increase error rate.  This can be done by leaving the pitcher alone and instead making the play more difficult for the first baseman, by preventing him from camping at the bag.  Force him to run in from his regular position to perform a pickoff, and not only does the play become more exciting and demanding, but more errors are likely to occur.

Would it be enough?  We couldn’t know until we try.  But as a proposal it has a few virtues, not least of which being its subtlety.  A rule that proposes the first baseman move fifteen feet is more likely to find traction with the conservative baseball folk than one that creates new statistics, or creates a new type of walk.  I’d like to see it in action.  Not only would we get to keep the pickoff, but it might be a little more exciting.

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9 Responses to The Problem of the Pick-off Throw

  1. PATruby says:

    I’ve always liked pickoffs, and I’ve always felt that people who booed pickoffs didn’t get understand them. There’s no reason to believe a pitcher throws to first (or any other base) for no reason, so why don’t fans look for the strategy? Sometimes pitchers do it to see if a hitter is going to show bunt. Other times they might do it just to break the rhythm of a base stealer, even if the pitcher knows he’s going to run anyway. There’s a number of other reasons, obviously.

    Anyhoo, good writing as usual.

  2. atharva says:

    yeah but…

    …throwing to an unoccupied base is a balk

  3. geneg says:

    just like the designated hitter….NONONONONO!

  4. Bruce says:

    But keeping the first baseman near the bag for a pick-off throw opens a hole between 1st and 2nd. You have to balance that against the chance of a stolen base or a hit and run…and the double play. As in everything else in baseball, there is a trade-off.

    To combat the pick-off and make it more difficult, pay closer attention to the pitcher’s move to first. Andy Pettite got away with it because umpires didn’t like calling balks. When interleague play started and NL umpires saw him, he got called for a balk on his pick-off. This reduced his pick-offs considerably. Do you chance a balk? Or an error? Or leave a hole in the defense? As long as you allow runners to lead off you’re going to have a pick off; I’d say keep the rules the same, but look for more opportunities to call the balk.

  5. Wgarrow says:

    Moving the first baseman off the bag is utilized at the lower levels of baseball, especially with runners on 1st and 2nd. Then teams who practice it will execute a backpick by sprinting the 1st baseman to the bag and coordinating a timed pickoff play with the catcher signaling when the pitcher should throw over. This is an extremely exciting play when executed effectively, but often can result in errors that allow the lead runner to advance or sometimes score, so it offers everything you want and more. I personally love pickoff plays, and at the college level they are used far more often and are far more exciting. I just wish big league managers and players would execute more creative pickoff plays especially with runners at 2nd base or both 1st and 2nd.

  6. Patrick says:

    Patrick: What drives me crazy is the hypocrisy of the home crowd. Booing, to me, is something that should be reserved for inappropriate behavior or poor sportsmanship. It shouldn’t be used for using an effective strategy identical to the one your own team engages in.

    Bruce: You’re right about all of these trade-offs. My problem is that currently, every club in the league is always willing to make them. If the game had situations where the first baseman played his normal position and others when he didn’t, as a mixed strategy, that would make things far more interesting. Instead, we have a dominant strategy where the opportunity of a pick-off always is of greater value than these other concerns, which is unfortunate.

    The idea of increasing the cost of the pick-off by increasing the likelihood of a balk is effective, and I probably should have mentioned it. My reason for excluding it: I feel that the balk is a terrible rule. It’s confusing, and arbitrary, and from the perspective of a fan at the park, it’s usually called at random with no replay, just a signal and the runners moving for no reason. So it’s not a bad solution, per se, just not (again, to me) a pleasant one.

    Wgarrow: Thanks for adding that. I wonder why the first baseman is allowed to range at the lower levels: is it because more ground balls are hit, and the coverage of the right side is more important? Or is it because in their younger years, the first basemen themselves are more lithe and better at defense?

  7. Adam says:

    I agree with Bruce. The reason Buehrle and Pettitte get so many pickoffs is because every time they throw to first they balk.

    When an umpire has the cajones to call them on it (I think it was Joe West who called 2 balks on Buehrle in 1 game) they get ripped to pieces because no other umpire does it so the move MUST be legit.

  8. Tony Cunningham says:

    As a former high school and college (right-handed) pitcher who worked for hours to develop a really slick move to first, I’d hate to see any changes to pickoff throws. I consider the pickoff one of the great subtleties of baseball. Not everyone is good at it. Have Jonathan Papelbon throw to first semi-effectively and his head might explode. Lots of major leaguer pitchers are bad at them. Some are very good. Some runners are good at reading pitchers, and some aren’t. One of the nice things about baseball is that there are so many discrete skills and a player who might not be a champ in many ways can shine in one of those areas. Fans might not like pickoff throws because they are “boring,” but anyone who appreciates the little subtleties isn’t bothered unless a pitcher goes nuts and throws over again and again and again.

  9. Jane says:

    It’s almost impossible to watch the 2004 AL Playoffs, game 4, Mariano Rivera vs. Dave Roberts battle without concluding that the baserunner distracted the pitcher. Then again, same duo, in game 5. (Nicely captured by ESPN’s 30 for 30, Four Days in October.) I’m with Tony, above, I wouldn’t change anything.