Something that doesn't get discussed enough in baseball is the pickoff play. This can be a glorious, zesty enterprise when done right. At other times, some chump is just scared to pitch the dang ball and is stalling while he appeals to a higher power to help him out of this jam he's in.
We all know how this looks. Pitcher soft tosses one to first. Toes the rubber again. Steps off. Calls the catcher out for a conference. The catcher implores his pitcher to throw his fastball, curveball, or what have you. Assures his pitcher that whichever pitch it is, it's literally unhittable, that the catcher himself is almost terrified at the prospect of having to catch such a devastating pitch. They part and head back to their spots. The pitcher stares in...and he steps off again to lob one over to first.
Justin Verlander isn't stalling anyone when he throws to first base. Justin Verlander hates you when you're at the plate. And he really hates you once you've gotten on base against him.
Beyond the velocity, control and durability of one the game's most prolific fireballers ever, the trait that makes Verlander great is the intensity he has on the mound. You just feel the attitude and drive he pitches with. The guy hates to lose. While that's almost mandatory for an athlete, few are as good at channeling that into focus. And if you've already drawn a walk, or a cheap single -- and they're probably all cheap singles in his mind -- off of Verlander, he hasn't forgotten what you did -- oh no. He still wants you out of there.
This is how it should be done. There's no "caught you flinching" nonsense going on here. No quick pivot followed by a gentle lob over to first. Those are quick feet, followed by a bullet over to first that has Dyson eating some of Comerica Park's finest. That's a pickoff throw that makes a runner think. It makes every runner in the league worry just a bit when Verlander is on the mound. Between Verlander, and the right arm of James McCann, runners aren't the ones who'll be applying the pressure this season.
When you have a legit base-stealer on first base, and a fired up pitcher with a sharp move to first on the mound, this is some of baseball at its best. The pitcher and catcher have to be doubly keyed in. The baserunner is drawing throws, learning the timing. Sometimes a hard throw goes astray. There's a drama to it that can be great. Other times, a great base-stealer just gets completely frozen.
Verlander currently has 24 pickoffs in his career. Even more to the point, despite being one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, and a guy teams routinely need to play a little small ball against, only 110 baserunners have managed a steal with Verlander on the mound. 59 of them were gunned down trying. Obviously having Alex Avila behind the plate, and now McCann, helps in that regard.
Not every pitcher should be advised to throw over to first so aggressively, of course. Some guys just can't do it well. Cubs starter Jon Lester is an extreme case of a complete mental block making it strongly inadvisable to throw over. Pitchers like that still have to make some attempt to hold the runner. I respect that. But unless you're in the late innings, or its October, just pitch the dang ball.
Even better? Work on your pickoff move. The Tigers brought Kenny Rogers in this spring training to help the left-handed pitchers especially work on their move to first. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris both spent extensive time working with Rogers, and it will be interesting to see if that work pays any dividend this season. New Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann also has an aggressive move to first and nine pickoffs to his credit.
At its best, the pickoff move is well worth the practice. Once in a while you catch a runner spinning his wheels off of first base. But of even greater importance is shrinking the leads of baserunners. Keeping them out of scoring position. With one of best arms in the game in McCann the Tigers' are in good position to limit the running game this season.
Of course, once in while, things do go awry ...