Maholm picking on opponents
When Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm is on the hill, baserunners ought to think twice before trying to swipe a bag.
No pitcher in the majors has more pickoffs this season than Maholm. The rookie has snagged nine runners — one straight pick and eight pitcher-caught-stealings.
“He makes my job a lot easier,” Pirates catcher Ronny Paulino said.
In addition to the nine picks, Pirates catchers have thrown out four runners with Maholm pitching. Only seven runners have stolen a base against Maholm this year.
“I don’t know the secret,” Maholm said, smiling.
The grin suggested that Maholm darn well knows the secret, but would rather turn in his spikes than give it up to some nosy reporter.
“A lot of times, it’s called from the dugout, and it’s just one of those things where you have to give your best move,” Maholm said. “I guess I’ve been lucky that (runners) have either been going or just taking a step toward second.”
Perhaps Zach Duke can elaborate. After all, Duke ranks third in the National League with six pickoffs.
“It’s just a matter of mixing everything up — varying holds, varying moves to home and mixing in slide steps,” Duke said. “It’s a combination of all that.”
The key is making the baserunner as uncomfortable as possible. To do that, a pitcher must become unpredictable.
When a pitcher gets into a rhythm, it can make it easy for the runner to time his jump. Body language often is a dead giveaway. Many lefties will look at first base at the start of their windup when they’re throwing to the plate, but first look at the plate when they’re going to first base.
To avoid tipping their hand, pitchers step off the rubber, hold the ball longer or throw to first base a few times with a variety of speeds.
“If a guy’s real aggressive, sometimes you want to make your first move the best one so he’s a little more leery of going,” Duke said. “If it’s a guy who’s maybe more crafty about when he steals, then you want to bait him into it.”
“I’ve been giving my ‘A’ move any time I think there’s a good chance the guy will be running,” Maholm said. “It looks pretty much exactly like it does when I’m going home — same rhythm, the same hand movement, same footwork — except at the last second I kind of change direction.”
Being lefties, Maholm and Duke have an edge when trying to control baserunners.
“We can watch them and keep them closer,” Maholm said. “We can use our regular delivery, and more than likely not have to worry about them taking off. If you’re a right-hander, you’ve got to make sure you’re quicker, and you can’t really see the runner that well. So it’s a big advantage.”
Manager Jim Tracy often calls for pickoff throws from the dugout, but left-handers have the freedom to toss over when they want.
“You don’t want to do it too much, though, because it might mess up Tracy with how he goes about trying to control the running game,” Maholm said. “But for the most part, we’re on our own. If we think they’re running, we can pick.”
Among major-league pitchers this year, Maholm is two pickoffs ahead of San Francisco lefty Jamey Wright, an 11-year veteran, and Chicago White Sox ace Mark Buehrle.
Buehrle is considered one of the masters of the move. Others include Andy Pettitte, Kenny Rogers and Terry Mulholland, a Uniontown native who pitched for the Pirates in 2001.
Three former Pirates also rank among the top 20 NL pitchers in picks this season.
Joe Beimel, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is sixth with four pickoffs. Colorado righty Josh Fogg has two picks, which ties him for 14th place with current Pirates pitchers Damaso Marte and Victor Santos and ex-Pirates pitcher Jason Schmidt.
It might not be a coincidence to see so many products of the Pirates organization on the list. Gary Ruby, the club’s minor-league pitching coordinator, always makes the pickoff move a point of emphasis.
“We stressed working on it throughout the minor leagues,” Duke said. “We had to be out there for early work a couple times a week, working on our pickoff moves. It’s something we put a lot of work into and take a lot of pride in.”
Take your pick
Here’s a look at the leaders in pitcher pickoffs, including pitcher-caught-stealings.
1. Paul Maholm, Pirates, 9
2. Jamey Wright, Giants, 7
3. Zach Duke, Pirates, 6
4t. Chris Capuano, Brewers, 5
4t. Jeff Francis, Rockies, 5
1. Mark Buehrle, White Sox, 7
2. Jon Lester, Red Sox, 6
3t. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays, 5
3t. Justin Verlander, Tigers, 5
x-5t. Jamie Moyer, Mariners, 4
5t. James Shields, Devil Rays, 4
x — Traded to the Phillies Aug. 19.
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