- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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As a rookie with the Angels in 1993, Brian Anderson studied up.
"Chuck Hernandez, the pitching coach at the time, took me aside right at the beginning of spring training and told me to really watch Mark Langston's pickoff move," he says. "Langston had a move ... I swear guys never even made a step back to the bag. It was tremendous."
So Anderson took notes, and logged hours, trying to develop his own deceptive move.
"It just seemed obvious to me that it was an important part of the game," he says. "I'd watch a guy like Terry Mulholland come in a game and just immediately put guys on the defensive, and it seemed like that would just give him one more chance for success in every tough situation."
The practice paid off. These days, Anderson is arguably the best pickoff man in the business. A recent Baseball America poll of American League managers ranked him No. 1 in the league (ahead of Kenny Rogers and Mulholland), and it's easy to see what they liked. He's nabbed 18 runners (eight straight-picks and 10 pitcher-caught-stealings) in the last three seasons, including four last year.
In that three-year span, 21 runners have tried to steal a base on him and only seven have succeeded. In 2003, eight out of nine would-be base stealers were denied, five of them thanks to Anderson's pickoff move. In 2004, four out of five went down and two of them were nailed by his move.
How does he do it? As with any good pickoff man, it's hard to say, and even harder to see.
"Davey Lopes will tell you, runners steal maybe half their bases with their eyes," says Padres coach Rob Picciolo. "With Anderson, Mark Buehrle, Kenny Rogers, Andy Pettitte, any of the really good ones, they just look exactly the same. Whether they're coming to the plate or throwing over to first, all the little elements of their deliveries remain the same."
As it is with a good changeup, or with a good bluff at the poker table, the trick is to have no trick, to show no tell, leave no trace of your intentions. You want a quiet body, a still face, and a shrouded heart.
"It sounds simple, but it takes work," Anderson says. "Your leg kick, the way you hold and move your head, you can't rush or jerk any of it."
"The runner is looking for some hitch, some difference," says Angels pitching coach Bud Black. "Anderson and all the great ones have the same thing in common: When they set at the belt and pick their legs up, it takes a long time, it takes too long in some cases, for the runners to decide which way they're going."
It's one of the real under-appreciated dramas in baseball. Each guy is lying about himself and trying to read the other, and the conclusion, whether it's a pickoff or a steal, comes with a sweet, stinging "gotcha" punch right in the gut.
Think about the successful pickoffs you've seen at the ballpark; they're not just outs, they're exercises in shame and humiliation. Guys head back to the dugout with their heads down and taunts from the crowd ringing in their ears. Hits are common, strikeouts are cheap, but a pickoff is something to see.
"It's a great feeling to get a real runner," Anderson says. "And you know, too, some of the best guys to get are your typical middle of the order power guys who don't take a very big lead. They have no intention of running and they think there's no way you're coming over there, and then you nail 'em."
Of course, some part of the pickoff game is to not have to pick off anyone at all.
"Maybe the most important thing is reputation," Picciolo says. "Once you get a reputation, guys are going to be much more cautious coming into a game with you."
"I try to think of it as some part of the game (the running game) I can almost control before it even starts," Anderson says. "When you get to the point where they're maybe talking about you in their pre-game plans, you've got a real advantage, you know guys aren't going anywhere."
From smoothing out even the smallest glitch in his delivery to building a reputation from season to season, Anderson says he takes pride in his move: "It's something that's evolved over the years. I'm always refining it."
There are others who take it just as seriously, but the elite list is fairly short. Ask coaches, players, and writers around the game who the best pickoff artists are and you tend to hear the same handful of names: Anderson, Buehrle, Rogers, Mulholland and Pettitte. Buehrle and Rogers have been every bit as good as Anderson over the last couple of years. Mulholland doesn't pitch the innings he once did, but he's the undisputed master of the last decade. Pettitte has a very strong reputation (Anderson talks about guys coming back into the dugout shaking their heads after misreading him), but his numbers (14 stolen base attempts, only one caught stealing, and no pickoffs in 2003) don't match up with the other guys. After this core, it's slim pickings. Talk right-handers, and the list gets even shorter. Picciolo says Josh Fogg and Antonio Osuna, while Black can only think of Ryan Franklin in Seattle.
Both coaches say teams definitely stress the pickoff move, but Anderson says it's too often neglected. "It's just not worked on much anymore," he says. "Nobody's really working hard, nobody's going full speed. You can't practice it in slow-motion. It's up to individual guys to really push and work at it. It's a lost art."
Yeah, but is it an art or is it just chicanery? Some say every good pickoff move is nothing but an uncalled balk.
"You have to push the boundaries," Anderson says. "If you're going to make a good move, you're going to come close, and there are times you're going to step over the line."
Picciolo says fuggedaboutit.
"It's just a matter of what can you do and get away with it," he says. "If you can do something that helps you and it's not picked up, good for you. And that's not just in pickoff moves. That's baseball. It's full of tricks you try to do."
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.