Verlander’s Odd Pickoff Attempt

One of the more bizarre plays I’ve seen by a pitcher occurred during Saturday’s tilt between the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers. With Daric Barton on first base and David DeJesus batting, Justin Verlander appeared to hit DeJesus with a pitch. However, a look at Verlander’s footwork revealed something very odd, and confusion ensued. Due to MLBAM’s arcane rules regarding video, I cannot embed the video here, but you can see it at this link. (And now in .gif form from Chad Moriyama of Memories of Kevin Malone!)

Although you can’t tell from the end of the video or the befuddled announcing crew, the result of that play was actually a balk, resulting in Barton moving over to second base and the at-bat resuming with a 2-1 count. Let’s dive into the video and examine just why the balk was called here, with the help of some screenshots.

First off, for reference, we need to take a look at Verlander’s initial position on the mound. This still is from the three second mark of the video.

If Verlander’s initial intent was to pickoff to first base, his first mistake was picking up his front foot, which we can see in this still from the five second mark (note the knee bend as well).

Once a right-handed pitcher picks up his front foot with only a runner on first base, he must throw a pitch to home plate. If there is a runner on second or third, the pitcher can use a slow pickoff move, turning around and throwing to second or using a lefty-style move to throw to third base. However, in this case, the only runner is at first base, and so Verlander must throw a pitch or else it will be a balk. Verlander apparently realized he had balked by the time he finished his turn for the pickoff move, and attempted to throw to the plate. You can tell it was meant to be a pickoff to first by the footwork he employed.

Here, he’s in an interrupted form of the quick move that right handed pitchers use to throw over to first base. At this point, he has initiated the pickoff move to first by stepping off the rubber and as a result the move or pitch or whatever happens next is a balk. He attempts to stop and throws home instead of throwing to first, which is why his body is squared to the plate in such an awkward fashion. But why did Verlander even bother to throw home? He may have hoped to fool the umpiring crew into the idea that he had tried to employ the slower move used by right-handed pitchers, in which the pitcher steps off the rubber with his back foot and then throws to first. In this case, as soon as the pitcher steps off the rubber, he becomes a fielder and not a pitcher, so he can throw the ball wherever he wants without a balk being called. The ball would have remained live, and after hitting DeJesus and bouncing to the backstop, Barton could have advanced at his own risk. Instead, the umpires correctly called the balk, and Barton was awarded second base.

The play probably wouldn’t have ended so oddly had Verlander not attempted to save face and then hit DeJesus in the attempt. In most occasions, the play would’ve been recognized as a simple balk. Instead, it turned into a bit of a farce in which the announcers had no clue what was happening and an umpire meeting was required. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised – in a century-and-a-half old sport with a variety of nearly incomprehensible rules and regulations, the balk rule may be the most confusing. This play was merely another example.




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54 Responses to “Verlander’s Odd Pickoff Attempt”

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  1. Nick says:

    If Verlander starts his motion by picking up his front foot, and then finishes by throwing home and hitting the batter; then shouldn’t the correct call be a live ball balk, where the offense takes the result of the play? In this situation, DeJesus would be awarded first base for being HBP, and Barton advancing to second.

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    • Jack Moore says:

      No, because after picking up his front foot he stepped off the rubber, initiating the pickoff move to first base. I’ll clarify that in the post, thanks.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Okay, but then …

        [1] Picking up his front foot would start his motion to home.
        [2] Breaking contact with the rubber would be a balk.

        That’s what a balk is … starting your motion to home and then altering/stopping it.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Does his foot come off the rubber before he lifts his front foot and steps towards first base? Or does it happen at the same time? I surely can’t tell. There is early movement in his front foot, but it appears to be the pitcher coming into the set position. The motion coming into the set position is not “starting your motion to home”.

        It is hard to tell without slow motion, but to me he did the following three things in order.

        1. Lifted front foot to come into the set position
        Note: He did not finish this move before he went to the next item.

        2t. Lifted back foot off of rubber, making him a fielder.
        Note: happened same time as…

        2t.. Stepped towards first base with his front foot.

        4. Threw the ball home with foot still off the rubber.

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  2. Bo says:

    I didn’t know what the correct call was, but I was pretty sure it was the funniest thing I had seen on the mound so far this season.

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  3. evil30 says:

    Technically, I think the umpires got this play wrong. According to Rule 8.01(e), once Verlander stepped backwards from the rubber with his pivot foot, he becomes an infielder and the ball remains live. It is not a pitch and not a balk….. You can see he stepped huis right foot(pivot) foot backwards and thus once he did that, he becomes an infoelder.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      My first inclination is to agree with you, but I must admit that I have never thoroughly read through the MLB official rule book. It would be nice to see which rule the umpires quoted for this to become a balk.
      vr, Xei

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    • Telo says:

      This was my first reaction as I saw the play. I thought it was: no pitch, no balk, live ball. Still not sure they got it right, but let’s be honest… if it wasn’t technically a balk, it may as well have been. Hilarious.

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      • Steven says:

        I’m leaning back towards agreeing with you because the fact that he moves his front leg does not imply he has to pitch. This is because he is getting in the set position. The front leg always moves when the pitcher sets. However, I wonder if in “setting” the pitcher cannot step back. But I would think you can because often a pitcher will try a pick-off to first move as he is setting to catch the runner off-guard. This is usually of the ‘step directly towards first’ variety, but you would assume the step back move is legal as well. Thus, the other movement would be negated by him stepping back and he would become a fielder.

        Now I want to check what to do about hitting the batter. He is not technically in the field of play (inside the baselines). Thus I would guess it would be treated as if an on-deck hitter accidentally was hit by an over-throw by the fielder. Accidental and no interference, a live ball.

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    • Greg H says:

      But before Verlander stepped off the rubber he made a motion toward home plate. As soon as he stepped off the rubber with his back foot, he committed a balk. The play is dead at that point, and the penality is that all baserunners advance one base without liability (see Rule 8.05). However, in this situation, because Verlander decided to throw the ball home and the pitch hit the batter, the batter should have been awarded first base. This exact scenario is discussed in Rule 8.05. So the umpires got it wrong even though the rule book gives an example of the exact scenario that occurred. This is not unlike the botching of the “two visits” rule that gave a windfall to Bruce Boche and the Giants over the Dodgers last year down the stretch. On that play and in this one, everyone got it wrong.

      Rule 8.01(e) isn’t triggered because the balk rule trumps Rule 8.01(e). Rule 8.01(e) only applies in situations where the pitcher has lawfully stepped off the rubber.

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      • David says:

        I disagree that he made a motion toward home before he was off the rubber. To me it looked like he was coming to the set (i.e. in the stretch), then stepped off.

        What happened next is hard to describe, but I think the most sensical thing is to call it a balk based on 8.05(g) (or 8.05(e)). This would be justified by saying that he attempted to deliver to the batter while not on the rubber.

        I think that the author is assuming Verlander had some sort of deceptive motive. But from his sheepish expression immediately afterward, my impression was he probably just couldn’t decide what to do before it was too late.

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  4. Chris says:

    I have a question that is probably just theoretical, but I’m still curious:

    Say a man on third gets a little anxious and attempts to steal home before a pitcher has begun his windup. If the pitcher steps off the rubber and throws home to in effect pick off the runner, is it a balk? And can the batter still swing at it?

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    • Steven says:

      The batter cannot swing because stepping back off the rubber makes him a fielder, no longer a pitcher. If the batter did swing it would be interference, but I am going to have to look up who is out, the batter or runner. I am pretty sure the batter is out and the runner goes back to 3rd but I will check.

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      • Steven says:

        I was wrong, the runner is out:
        Rule 7.08 (g)
        (The runner is out if) He attempts to score on a play in which the batter interferes with the play at home base before two are out. With two out, the interference puts the batter out and no score counts

        And here is the rule on the pitcher stepping back rule (Rule 8.01(e)):
        If the pitcher removes his pivot foot from contact with the pitcher’s plate by stepping backward with that foot, he thereby becomes an infielder and if he makes a wild throw from that position, it shall be considered the same as a wild throw by any other infielder.

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      • TheGrandslamwich says:

        But if the batter is in the box, how can the runner be called out? That just makes this situation that much more hilarious.

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      • dan says:

        Because if the batter were called out and the run counted then you could steal runs by telling the batter to intentionally interfere with the play.

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  5. Steven says:

    What I think is interesting is that if he would have moved his back foot first then he becomes a fielder and can throw anywhere he wants. Thus, by throwing behind the batter it should be treated like an overthrow, be a live ball and the base-runner should run all day!

    At first, to me at least, it looked like he moved his back foot first and was yelling that the runner should go and the umps should let the play play out. But clearly his front foot moved first and they made the right call.

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  6. TheGrandslamwich says:

    Looks to me like a step-off move, making that a live ball. But once the ball hits the batter I have no idea what the ruling would be.

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  7. Xeifrank says:

    Can anybody quote what rule was used for calling this a balk?

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    • Greg H says:

      Rule 8.05(a) and 8.05(g), although the scenario in subsection a happened first. By stepping off the rubber after he had made a motion naturally associated with his pitch (lifting his front leg), Verlander committed a balk. You can’t step off the rubber in midpitch with a runner on base.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Thanks.
        Below: Not arguing just trying to hash this out and make sense of the logic calling this a balk.

        1. Lifting his front leg is a motion naturally associated with his pitch?
        >> When I watch this animated gif, it looks to me that his front foot steps towards first base as his back foot comes off the rubber. He never does come to the set position. There doesn’t appear to be any motion with his front leg (to me) that seems associated with his natural pitching motion. The only thing that resembles pitching to me is the fact that he threw the ball towards home plate. Eveything else looked like a pickoff move to first base. And once you step off the rubber you are in a sense a fielder and no longer a pitcher and the runner(s) can advance at their own risk.

        I guess two different sets of eyes can interpret it differently. There would have to be more to the rule than what you stated above for me to rule this a balk.

        Interesting play, but I won’t lose any sleep over it either way! :)

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      • Wickeder says:

        I disagree. He did not deliberately step off the rubber first, and he was not mid-pitch becuase he had not come set yet. He committed a balk because he made a pick-off move without throwing to first, which is the only thing that would be allowed once he abandoned his “coming set” motion.

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  8. Anon21 says:

    I don’t think DeJesus actually got hit by the ball. The slow mo replay makes it look like he just managed to dance out of the way.

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  9. RobL says:

    IMO, Verlander is coming to the set position, thus moving his front leg back. In a still frame you can not tell which way the leg is going. He then attempts to make a pick off move by taking his back foot off the rubber, but by trying to do two things at once (get set and pick off) he has a special moment. So, by the rules quoted here, I think it is a live ball because you can attempt a pick off before coming set.

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    • Mike says:

      I think the issue with his move is the speed of it, as Jack discusses in the article. If you step off first, you become a fielder, and may make a throw (or not make a throw, which is key) to any base. But, Verlander, like many pitchers, tried the quick, jump move pick-off to first…in essence, the move itself is a balk (but it is never called), because the back foot that is supposed to step off of the rubber never actually steps off the rubber. Instead, his foot pivots to the right side of the mound typically. Anyway, when you make that quick move, I believe that you must throw to first base, which is the problem. Verlander tripped himself up, and tried to get away with saying he stepped off first and was therefore a fielder.

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  10. Black Market says:

    Gotta love the arcane rules of baseball, both on the field and on the internet.

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  11. Bob says:

    Best part of that .gif: catcher looking at Verlander in disbelief after the ball gets by him.

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  12. Bryz says:

    If you watch Verlander’s front foot, it lifts up before his back foot comes off the rubber. The balk should be called simply because of that movement.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      You are allowed to lift your front foot up when come into the stretch position. You can lift it or slide it, whatever you want. As long as you are coming into the stretch position, which he hadn’t yet in the video.

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  13. Jimmajamma says:

    The impressive thing is Verlander’s reaction time here. If as we suspect he recognized that he had accidentally lifted his front leg while attempting a pickoff, his movement to correct it was completely fluid. No hitch in the delivery no “oh shit” pause, it was all one big motion. That is part of the reason that the play looks odd because there is nothing in Verlander’s actions that indicate that he made a mistake and was trying to cover it. He looked like a pitcher trying a new shortstop delivery “Jump, pivot, throw”

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  14. ToeKneeArmAss says:

    Or … Verlander just invented a way to drill a guy without giving him first base.

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    • baycommuter says:

      That occurred to me too. What if Verlander had hit a totally surprised De Jesus and broken his elbow or something? In that case, it’s not even a HBP. I guess if it was ruled he hit him intentionally outside the rules of baseball, it could be considered assault and battery like that minor league pitcher in Ohio who beaned the fan.

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  15. Deacon Drake says:

    I don’t know how many right-handed pitchers can verify, but strange things have happened on pick-off plays… lot’s of base runners hit.

    Never that, though.

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  16. CircleChange11 says:

    The problem is …

    [1] His left foot started his pitching motion, but (his hands were not together yet)
    [2] He did not step toward any base (not a requirement but adds to the confusion).
    [3] He did not throw to a base where a runner was occupied. (That’s a problem)
    [4] He broke contact with the rubber before completion of the delivery. (That’s a problem)

    The balk rule is not that confusing in this sense. What is confusing is just how many things Verlander did wrong, what specific rules were broken … and in what order, and then what actions take precedent over the others.

    When umpires meet it’s usually not to discuss whether a violation occurred. It’s usually to discuss where the runners should go/stop and things of that nature.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The catcher’s reactions/stare followed by hands on hips is priceless.

      Be certain tofday in practice every pitcher is working on their “Verlander Move”. I’d be prepared to see 360’s, behind the back throws, etc …. things of this nature cannot just be let go.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      From watching the video, I don’t agree with any of the four items you listed.

      (1) Front foot started his motion into the set position (not a balk)
      (2) He stepped towards first base (doesn’t matter because he was off the rubber)
      (3) He was off the rubber. I will agree with you if there is a rule stating you cannot throw to an unoccupied base with your foot off of the rubber.
      (4) He was never in his delivery.

      Different eyes, different interpretation. :)

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      • Dingo says:

        It’s only a balk to throw to an unoccupied base if you are still in contact with the rubber. He had broken contact but balked before that.

        Long story short, the balk rule was created to keep the pitcher from (illegally) deceiving the batter. As soon as he moved his front foot, he had to complete the motion of coming Set before stepping off and throwing.

        The ball should have been live. I didn’t see the plate ump call Time. Barton and the first base coach may have just been waiting for the umps to award the bases in a confusing situation.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        A balk AND a live ball is what you are saying?

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  17. timmy013 says:

    The argument is whether you think it was a step off or a jump turn. I lean toward saying that it was a jump turn and therefore they got the call right. If you say he stepped off the rubber with his right foot, then you could argue that it should have been a live ball.

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  18. CircleChange11 says:

    When you step off the rubber to break contact, so you can “separate your hands”, does the step off have to be behind the rubber?

    Whenever you go to the side it is more of a turn. Even then, a throw does not have to be made does it?

    His feet went one way, the throw went another.

    If it were not a balk, then the “pitch” would be considered an errant throw to 1B and the runner could advance at will. Since it hit another player on the other team (in foul territory), I’m not sure what would happen next.

    The more I watch this the more I wonder WTF Verlander was doing. None of it makes sense. His feet went “to first”, but he didn’t even look that way. I’ve seen pitchers change their mind or try to throw home after no one was covering the bag before … or a pitcher lob one really high to the base as they tried to pick off the trail runner but the fielder was not holding the guy on … but what Verlander did is just nuts.

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  19. Eric says:

    Isn’t this a simple case of a pitcher not coming to a full stop 8.01(b) resulting in an automatic balk?

    Or is this one of those cases where the simplest answer is not correct. So confused!

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    • Dingo says:

      Exactly, Eric. Once he starts coming Set, he needs to complete the action.

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      • xeifrank says:

        I don’t believe that is the case if you step off the rubber. Only if you make a pitch. He was off the rubber when he threw home and some are stating that that makes him a fielder not a pitcher at that point. People are seeing different things on the video.

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    • Baseball Boy says:

      I thought the same thing! He simply didn’t come to the “set” position, so it’s a balk. End of discussion. No??

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    • Wickeder says:

      He needs to come to a full stop ONLY before he delivers a pitch to the plate. BEFORE he comes set he may attempt a pick-off in the manner he did, but once begun, he needs to complete the throw to first. He didn’t, so it’s a balk, and a dead ball. Just because his foot came off the rubber, I don’t believe what he did would ever be considered “stepping off”. “Stepping off” has to be clearly the first move that enables any other move.

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  20. Baseball Boy says:

    I don’t understand this sentence in the article at all:”Once a right-handed pitcher picks up his front foot with only a runner on first base, he must throw a pitch to home plate.” HUH? What if you want to make the pickoff throw to first base; you pick up your front foot off the ground to step toward the base, so this makes no sense to me. So I don’t see how the rest of the analysis can hold water, if that part alone is wrong…

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  21. Wickeder says:

    I agree with Timmy. If Verlander simply completes the throw to first, I believe it’s a perfectly legal pick-off move to first base (pending the umpire’s judgement that Verlander’s step toward first was adequate). Since he didn’t complete the throw to first, it’s a balk, dead ball. Nothing else matters.

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