One way to develop a reputation of being “on-the-ball” is to always be prepared for pickoff plays on the bases. Here are three important standards that can guide your thinking in those situations.
Anticipate the play, not the call
That is great advice for umpires to keep in mind for any play in baseball. However, pickoff plays manifest the importance of the principle better than most situations. Pitchers with good pickoff moves can really catch a baserunner off guard. Our job is to make sure that it doesn’t do the same thing to us. When the runner gets fooled, he will often look like a “dead duck” leaning the wrong way when the pickoff attempt begins. However, the throw still must be made and the tag applied for an out to occur. Don’t decide until the entire play has been completed. Great timing is necessary to get the call right.
The fielder may drop the ball after attempting to apply the tag. No umpire wants to make the infamous double call of “Out! No, safe!” Good baserunners can avoid what might look like an obvious out with a great dive or slide back into the bag. Additionally, the quality of the throw from the pitcher will have a lot to do with how close the play is; even if it appears initially that the runner will be easily out. Another important reason for slowing down to see the entire play is the possibility that the fielder may obstruct the runner attempting to return to the bag. That is a more common occurrence at first base, but it can occur at any base. A bad throw from the pitcher may require a read-step to get you the proper angle to see the end of the play.
In anticipating the play, never turn your back on the ball. A quick pickoff move from a pitcher may not always be followed by a throw to the base you are expecting. With multiple runners on, the quick inside-spin move toward second base may not be designed to get the runner at second. If you turn your head to see the play you are expecting at second, you may be too late to see the pitcher’s throw to a different base trying to catch another runner off guard. The “31” move (legal in NCAA and NFHS), involving a fake to third followed by a quick spin and pickoff throw to first, will also require your eyes to stay with the ball.
Proper positioning is crucial
That is another guideline that proves true for any call. However, base umpires can really avoid being caught off guard by pickoff plays if they start out in the right position. In three- and four-umpire systems, with a runner at first base an umpire will always be in position A. That umpire needs to be in foul territory straight up the first-base line 6 to 10 feet from the first-base bag.
A better guide for positioning than estimating your distance from the bag is to find the place on the line where you can see the pitcher through the space between the runner and the first baseman. I like to place the toe of my inside foot tangent to the foul line with my body slightly angled toward the pitcher’s mound.
In the two-umpire system, you will be making pickoff calls from position B or C, depending on the location of runners. It is critical to make sure that you are not too deep in those two positions, especially for pickoff plays at first. It is very difficult to see a tag placed on a runner diving back into first base when you are looking straight up his backside. Base umpires in the two-umpire system need to be good at quick pivots and read steps when pickoff plays occur. However, positioning your body at a slight angle toward the possible pickoff play at first will help in this regard. Those situations call for acceptance of the philosophy that good angles are more important than proximity in making the right call.
When a pickoff attempt occurs, it is always a good idea for partners to look at the play through its completion. In recent years, “getting the call right” has required umpires to provide missing information to their partners when it is necessary. A pickoff attempt is a very viable situation for application of that rule. If the ball comes out of the glove of the fielder or a hand slips off the bag unbeknownst to the calling official, partners need to be able to provide that information. That could be picked up as easily by the plate umpire as by other base umpires, especially at first base. If you are fortunate enough to have a three- or four-umpire crew, your partners on the bases should always keep their eyes on your play when they can.
Don’t miss the balk
One of the tough situations to deal with as a base umpire is catching a balk that is followed immediately by a tight pickoff attempt. Base umpires need to be able to focus their attention on the pitcher’s actions just prior to his attempted pickoff throw. If no balk occurs, the attention now must shift immediately to the play at the base. High school umpires have a little easier time of it as NFHS rules dictate that a balk causes the ball to become immediately dead. That allows high school umpires to focus intently on the potential balk situation and kill the ball immediately when it happens.
However, at the NCAA level, a balk that is followed by a pickoff play is a delayed-dead ball. The balk will only be enforced if all runners fail to advance one base, or if all runners advance on a wild pickoff throw; and only after all playing action has ceased. That allows the runners to attempt to advance more than one base on the wild throw, if possible. Remember that the runner(s) will be attempting that additional base at risk of being thrown out regardless of the balk call.
In three- and four-umpire systems, the left-handed pitcher’s move to first base and the ruling of the 45-degree angle used to be shared responsibility of the plate umpire and U1. With a highly skilled pitcher on the mound, that could be really tough on U1 to focus on both the step and the pickoff play. In recent years, the CCA manual was changed so that U1 no longer has responsibility for that call. In three- and four-umpire systems with an umpire in position A and a runner at first, that task now belongs solely to HP. That gives U1 the ability to focus on the possible close pickoff play at first that may come from a great move from the lefthanded pitcher.
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