How MLB coaches, pitchers, and hitters are adapting a new pick-off limit strategy

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After leading the Triple-A Durham Bulls for three years—to a cumulative .589 record and back-to-back Triple-A national championships in 2021 and ’22—Brady Williams gets the call to the bigs this season. He will serve as the third base coach for the famously smart Tampa Bay Rays, with whom his knowledge of the organization’s up-and-coming players will help him decide whether to send a man.

He also brings valuable experience with some of the rule changes coming into effect at the top level this season. Williams has seen the bigger bases, sweated nervously from the pressurized pitch timer, and even reckoned with robo-umps (which are at least a year away from infiltrating the majors). The point of all of this – along with restrictions on defensive positioning that were tested at lower levels – is to create a livelier game that packs more action into less time.

Williams has his own take on how effective the rules will be in realizing that vision – he emailed the league to explain that umpires calling balls or strikes for clock violations were bad for the pace of play and for a propose a different punishment system – but understand that the game now is about adapting to this new reality. And for that, he has some advice as teams prepare for spring training that will be spent getting going.

“Frankly, every coach needs to coach better,” he told Yahoo Sports. “You have to educate your players and hopefully make them more fundamentally sound with some things, because the catcher and the pitcher can’t rely on the coach to call a pickover.”

He was referring to a subsection of the pitch timer that could have even more strategic implications than the clock itself. When the timer was introduced to the minor leagues on an experimental basis, it became clear that if pitchers could restart the clock by stepping off the rubber—to throw to first base, for example—they would jeopardize the entire enterprise by doing that. leave.

And so, in addition to determining the amount of time pitchers are allotted — in the majors this year it will be 15 seconds between pitches with the bases empty and 20 seconds with runner(s) — the rules also limit the number of times a pitcher can get off the rubber. Two disengagements, ie pick-off attempts, are allowed per at bat. If a third pick-off attempt is unsuccessful, the runner is awarded second base.

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MLB pitchers will have to adjust to a new cap on the number of pick-off attempts allowed per at-bat this season. (Steve Russell/Toronto star via Getty Images)

In line with Williams’ advice, several major league executives mused at the December winter meetings that this rule in particular would require their attention as they rethink the running game and prepare pitchers not to take advantage of it.

“It’s up to us as managers,” said Brewers skipper Craig Counsell, “to help them manage it and get better at it. There’s probably a little more strategy involved.”

Counsell said the Brewers have been talking to their pitchers over the past season about how to hold on to runners without unlimited pickoffs in their arsenal. “Because it’s one of those things where it’s not important, it’s not important, and then one day we’ll find out it’s important.”

Pitching coaches talk about time to the plate, from getting a set to delivering a pitch. Anything over 1.4 seconds is a stolen basic liability, but it also gets too predictable in how long you hold the ball.

“You still have to do all those things that we’ve been doing for 100 years,” said Rob Wooten, a pitching coach in the Cincinnati Reds system, with Double-A last year and Single-A next season. “But now there are just some rules that might make that a little bit more interesting.”

Stolen bases rebounded somewhat in the majors last season, yet teams only stole 0.51 bases per game, with a success rate of around 75%. In the minors, pick-off rules, bigger bases, and the pitch timer itself — runners went “off the clock,” as Williams put it, or got a jump just before they ran out — combined to give teams 1.1 bases per steal game, with a success rate of 77%.

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In 2019, after Lucas Giolito transformed himself from one of the worst starters in the game to an ace, he explained what had gone wrong for him in 2018. in second place,” he told NBC Sports Chicago. “I was slow to the plate. I didn’t vary my times. I didn’t vary my looks.”

Those skills – a quick but unpredictable delivery – will be all the more important for pitchers in an environment more conducive to running.

“It’s more about changing your look,” Williams said. “I talk about it daily with the pitcher, about how important it is not to rush, but to make sure you’re in control out there. Know who’s on first base – will he run? Know how many step-offs you have. Know how important the situation is, because it will change over the course of the game.”

With bigger bases, limited pickoffs and a pitch timer, MLB hopes to increase the incentive for runners to try to steal in 2023. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With bigger bases, limited pickoffs and a pitch timer, MLB hopes to increase the incentive for runners to try to steal in 2023. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If this all seems like a lot for pitchers to handle, well, it is.

“Once the pitchers slowed down the game, it got easier for them,” said Williams. “But early? In the beginning it was difficult.”

As a manager, he called only one pickoff attempt per at bat.

“Because I didn’t want to get caught up twice and endanger my pitcher,” said Williams. “This means that if I call two pickovers, the pitcher can’t get off. So if he can’t get the sign or if he’s having trouble breathing or if he’s just anxious, he can’t even do that.

In an effort to use that discomfort to his own teams’ advantage, Williams told his baserunners to steal right after the first pitch, assuming that opposing managers would be equally reluctant to call consecutive pickoff attempts.

That’s exactly when Wooten realized his pitchers had to be aggressive with their third collection attempt.

“My thought process was in the dugout: if he’s a base stealer and we’ve already pitched there twice, he’ll have a good jump. So let’s see if we can’t fool him and throw it again,” he said. “If he goes back to the sack, so what? We give him second base. If we try to get him a little too cute the third time, he’s out.”

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In other words, let the lack of residual pullbacks give runners a false sense of security. If they think the pitcher is unwilling to throw another throw, they may be a bit more reckless and expose themselves to a successful pickoff.

“We haven’t done it enough, I’ll say that,” Wooten said. “Last year we didn’t throw over once on a third try and it was called a balk. Every time we did it, and it wasn’t many, he was out.

Deciding when and how to use pick-off attempts will be a new challenge for coaches and pitchers this season.  (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deciding when and how to use pick-off attempts will be a new challenge for coaches and pitchers this season. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This is the new game in the game. The rule changes all have carefully studied intended effects, but perhaps more importantly, they also force adaptation. The most successful teams will anticipate and take advantage of how their opponents will adapt, using their experiences to impose on opponents the conditions that make their own players most uncomfortable.

For example, Wooten realized that batters also felt the pressure of the ticking clock and could force a reset by calling a timeout just once per at bat.

“Hitters don’t like standing in the box with the pitcher just staring at them holding the ball, especially when he’s coming,” he said. “So if a batter calls time out, that next pitch we cut that bad guy down to one second and leave him there. You just need to take these things and figure out a way to turn them into something positive and use it to your advantage.”

Both minor league coaches said the number of clock violations and the general disruption of the new rules decreased over the course of the season. That’s what MLB counts on; they want a faster game with more action on the base paths, something akin to baseball of yesteryear, not a showcase for increasingly esoteric rules. Guys will adapt because they have to.

“I see it this way: pitching is so good as our game tries to figure out how to create more attacks and more chaos,” said Wooten. “So pitchers just have to say, ‘Okay, that’s how good we are. We will also adjust this plan and we will still be as good.’

“At least that’s the message we tried to give our players.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser on Twitter @HannahRKeyser.

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