A Softball Catcher’s Guide: How to Do a Pick-off

During a softball game, sometimes runners get a little too bold with their leadoffs. Per the rules, a runner must return to the bag she came from once the pitcher regains possession of the ball in the pitching circle. But until that point, the runner can try her best to test the catcher. If you’re behind the plate and a runner is testing you, don’t be afraid to throw the ball! Otherwise, the runner will think she runs the show. This softball guide offers tips on how to pick off any pesky runner.

Don’t Let Her Run Wild

Most runners will take only about four strides for their leadoff — any more than that and they’re tempting the catcher to throw the ball. If you let a runner take huge leadoffs against you, she’ll think she has your number and she’ll try to inch farther and farther away with each pitch. Only give a runner one or two chances to take a big leadoff before trying to pick her off.

Before you let the ball fly, watch the runner for certain tendencies that will give you the best chance at picking her off:

  • She stands up when leading off: If she doesn’t stay low, plan on throwing low to the base. She’ll have to dive to be safe, and if she’s not low to begin with, she’ll have a hard time transitioning into a smooth dive.
  • She crosses her feet: If she crosses her feet, you have a good shot at getting her tangled up and picking her off on her way back to the bag.
  • She stays light on her feet: If she stays light on her feet, she’s probably ready for the throw, so you’ll have to get the ball there quickly and accurately. If she sees a slow throw, she may very well turn around and take the next base.

Throw from Your Knees

If you can, stay in your squat and throw from your knees. This will be the best tactic to catch the runner by surprise. If you can’t throw from your knees, go ahead and pop up out of your squat, but be quick! You should be able to pop up and throw within one step. Any more steps and she’ll have time to get back to her bag.

Hot Tip: Try a Pump Fake

If a runner is taking a big leadoff, try and pump fake before actually throwing it. Doing so will give you an idea of what her intentions are. If you pump fake and she moves towards the other bag, you might be able to catch her trying to do a delayed steal. If her reaction is slow, try to pick her off after the next pitch and catch her on her way back.

Throwing to First or Second

Unless a left-handed batter is up to bat, you should have no problem throwing to either first or second base to pick off a runner. You should be able to square your body to the base and throw.

Aim Inside the Bag when Throwing to First

When throwing to first base, aim for the inside of the bag. The first baseman should be positioned to catch the ball there:

  • Her back faces foul territory, and her chest the infield.
  • Her feet straddle first base, and her chest, toes, and shoulders should be squared to the base line.
  • Her glove should be low or on the ground in front of first base.

With this position, the first baseman has the best chance at tagging out any runner in one smooth, sweeping motion.

Aim Low when Throwing to Second

It’s a longer throw to second base and you have to be able to clear the pitcher’s head (unless you’ve given her the sign to get out of the way). Throwing a ball that bounces once is okay if it’s a hard bounce that goes directly into the shortstop’s or second baseman’s glove (depending on who is covering the bag). Any additional bounces, and the throw may not make it to the bag on time.

The player covering second should be positioned on the bag just like the first baseman: Facing the runner and straddling the bag with her back to first base. Usually, the second baseman will be the person picking off the runner since the shortstop will likely be preparing for a steal to third. Whatever you do, try not to throw high. An infielder should be able to handle anything on the ground, but a wild throw over her head is an error on you.

Mental Edge

Even though the pick-off starts with the catcher’s throw, it only works if the player catching it is in the best position to make the out. When practicing the pick-off, make sure the player covering the base you are throwing to is in the right position!

Throwing to Third Base

You’ll commonly see right-handed batters in the box when you need to pick off a runner at third base, but she doesn’t have to move out of the way. If she stays perfectly still in the box, it’s legal to do so. However, she can’t run in front of your throw, so you won’t have to worry about dealing with that.

If you need to make a throw to third base, you probably won’t be able to throw from your knees. Instead, take a quick step to your left — farther into foul territory — with your left foot. Then step toward third base with your right foot and throw. Taking that initial step to the left will allow your throw to clear the batter’s head.

Get It Back to the Pitcher

If a runner’s leadoff is not big enough for you to pick her off, get the ball to the pitcher quickly. If the pitcher is quick enough, she can turn and throw the runner out. Not many runners expect a pitcher to throw the ball, so the element of surprise may catch them off guard.

Throw Quickly

You won’t be able to pick off any runner if your throw is slow and off-target! Some catchers get so good at pick-offs that they don’t even need to look at the base they are throwing to! Talk about a surprise! Whatever you do behind the plate, don’t ever be afraid to throw the ball.

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