With baseball’s all-time leader in pickoffs, Andy Pettitte with 99, returning to pitch for the Yankees this season it’s a good time to take a look back at the history and origin of the pickoff move. My source for the history of the pickoff move and from where all quotes were extracted is the excellent book A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball by the award winning Peter Morris.
The pickoff move has been in recorded existence since the 1800s when in 1860 “the Brooklyn Eagle recorded: ‘(Mattie) O’Brien played finely, both pitching and watching the bases; in the latter respect he kept his opponents well on the bases when they reached them. He caught (Frank) Pidgeon napping at first base in capital style.’” Since baseball in the 1860s was still played by pitching the ball underhanded, a pickoff would not resemble anything like baseball today. “Much of the interplay that now exists between pitchers and base runners did not exist. Most base runners began to take modest leads, and pickoff tosses accordingly became scarce in the 1870s” according to Morris. A pickoff became a rare sighting and until the 1880s the move was considered an unused novelty.
By the 1880s, overhand pitching had taken hold of baseball and would help reintroduce the move into the sport. The pickoff began to take shape and look similar to what we now know of today. Windups began to evolve to hold base runners with “the most extreme approach employed by Philadelphia’s Con Murphy. Although Murphy was a right-hander, with a runner on first he stood facing the base runner until he suddenly pivoted and threw to the plate.” Another famous early pickoff artist was Matt Kilroy, a left-hander who employed an illegal move in today’s game. He “made the same step forward as though he was going to pitch, but would shoot the ball underhanded to first base, instead of ‘putting it over the plate.’” In today’s game once a pitcher moves toward the plate he must follow through with the pitch, otherwise it is considered a balk.
Other forms of pickoffs inevitably developed, such as pickoffs to second, ambidextrous pickoffs (which “was surprisingly frequent in the days before it was common for pitchers to wear gloves” via Morris), and the fake to third, throw to first pickoff variant. The first real step taken toward slowing a running game and implementing the modern pickoff was in 1889 when Tim Keefe pitched out of the stretch. This would change baseball completely, and today every single pitcher from Little League to the Big Leagues is taught to pitch out of the stretch. The pickoff would undergo very little change or invention until the 1960s.
By the 1960s base runners were begin to dominate baseball as they never had before. Managers were learning the benefits of stealing a base tended to outweigh the risks. In 1962 Maury Willis stole 104 bases, which hadn’t been done since 1894. Teams were stealing on average ten more bases a year than in the previous decade. Something needed to be done to slow down base stealers.
The slide step, which had been sparingly used in the 1800’s made a comeback. This involves a right-handed pitcher quickly removing his back foot from the rubber and wheeling around and throwing to first. According to Morris, Pud Galvin in 1891 is credited with inventing a crude version of the move. According to most text it is difficult to tell who refined the move, as it seems most of the league started employing the tactic around the same time.
One of the best right-handed pickoff moves in use today belongs to James Shields. He caught 12 base runners last season, a huge total, and only allowed 6 steals on 11 attempts. Nobody ran on him and his move, shown here, involves him sitting in a low stance in order to see the runner as best he can. Shields then removes his back foot from the rubber while wheeling around and firing low and to the outside corner of the base. Its the gold standard for the sidestep.
In the last two decades, as further response to the increase in base running, lefties began refining an old technique as well. Mat Kilroy’s old technique of faking to the plate and throwing to first was brought back to life by guys like Jim Kaat and particularly Andy Pettitte. Mark Buehrle is another modern master of Kilroy’s ploy. The modern version of the pickoff entails that a pitcher bring his leg directly up and then move it toward first base. If the pitcher moves his leg back or forward in any way he must go to the plate or be called for a balk. Pettitte and Buehrle in particular are excellent at the feign because they can keep their eye on the plate while throwing toward first. This pickoff move also controls the opponent’s running game, allowing more time for double plays to be turned and stealers to be caught. Base runners need to keep small leads and stay alert against pitchers like these, unless they want to be cut down in their prime.