It sometimes seems as if certain teams have a “balk coach” — a coach who yells “Balk!” every time the opposing pitcher (probably a lefty) throws to first. There are some tricky movements that accomplished pitchers can make during pickoffs and it’s up to the umpires to figure out those that are legal and those that are not. Except where noted, the material applies equally to pro, NCAA and NFHS rules.
A pickoff move that has probably been around since the game of baseball was first played is known as the 3-1 move. With runners on the corners, the pitcher bluffs a throw to third and then either throws or feints to first. There are no known statistics, but the technique has a low success rate and many believe it just slows the game. With that thought, professional baseball prohibited the move a few years ago. The trickle-down effect has been to promulgate the myth of its illegality in NFHS and NCAA play. Each amateur umpire is apt to hear that at least once a season.
What the 3-1 move allows, which is not ordinarily permissible, is disengaging the rubber by stepping forward before feinting to first. Umpires must pay close attention when this move is initiated. It must begin with a step toward third. If the pitcher then only bluffs to first, his foot must be off the rubber. The codes treat this play slightly differently. NCAA: When the pitcher steps toward third, he need not feint a throw to third, but if he does, the feint must be directed toward third base. If he follows through and throws to first, he must disengage the rubber. NFHS: He may keep his foot on the rubber if he throws to first, provided he steps toward first. Keeping the pivot foot on the rubber while spinning the body from third to first is a very difficult maneuver to perform and is unlikely to occur (NFHS 6-2-4; NCAA 9-3b AR; pro 6.02a2).
Similar to the 3-1 move, the jump turn also involves disengaging the rubber forward. However, the jump turn can be used to throw to any base. Those two pickoff techniques are the only legal ways to step off the rubber forward. To use this technique, the pitcher must alight with both feet simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously) and gain ground toward first with his non-pivot foot. Merely jumping forward would be a balk (NFHS 6-1-3, 6.1.3J; NCAA 9-3c5; pro MiLB 8.5f).
The predominant pickoff move is a direct step toward the base. If the pitcher’s nonpivot foot does not gain ground in the direction of first base, it is a balk. A good rule of thumb for righties is for the plate umpire to watch the free foot as the pitcher throws to first. If he or she can see the sole of the shoe, it is a balk. Why? For the sole to show, the pitcher rocked back as if to pitch and did not step directly to first (NFHS 6-2-4b; NCAA 9-3c; pro 5.07d).
It is also possible for a pitcher to attempt a pickoff as an infielder by first stepping off the rubber backward. To do this legally, he must move his pivot foot first and it must touch the ground before the hands are separated. Many pitchers move their hands and foot simultaneously. If there is doubt, the move should be considered legal. If the pitcher breaks his hands and then moves his foot as an afterthought, he has balked. This technique is much more useful to a left-handed pitcher than it is to a righty. A right-handed pitcher must turn his body in order to throw. That adds to the time before release and may cause the base umpire to lose sight of the pitcher’s hands. If his hands separate before the pivot foot touches the ground, he does not gain a significant advantage. On the other hand (pun intended), the left-hander gains precious milliseconds by starting his throw before the pivot foot touches the ground and he must be watched closely (NFHS 6.2.4E; NCAA 9-1a-1c, 9-1b; pro 5.07a1 Cmt C).
If there is a throw and it goes out of play, umpires may not be certain of the base award. Most pickoff moves are made from the rubber and result in a one-base award. If the throw goes dead after the pitcher has stepped off the rubber, it is treated similar to the first play by an infielder. Unlike other first plays by infielders though, there is no question the two-base award is made from the base occupied at the time of the throw. The time of throw is when the ball is released by the fielder and not the time at which the ball becomes dead (NFHS 8-3-3c, 8-3-3d; NCAA 8-3k, 8-3o3; pro 5.06b4 G & H).
As mentioned, the 3-1 move requires the pitcher to disengage the rubber, thus it is treated the same as a throw by an infielder. However, although the jump turn involves the pivot foot coming off the rubber, it is considered a pickoff from the rubber.
Play: F1 attempts to pick off R1 from a set position by (a) backing off the rubber with his pivot foot, or (b) throwing while in contact with the rubber. The ball gets by F3 and bounces over the fence. Ruling: In (a), since he stepped off the rubber before throwing wildly, F1 became an infielder. R1 goes to third with a two-base award. In (b), because F1’s action from the rubber was as a pitcher, and not an infielder, R1 goes to second with a one-base award.
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