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Major League Baseball is balking at some pitchers' pickoffs

| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates reliever Jared Hughes pitches during a game against the Minnesota Twins on March 9, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

PHOENIX — It's not easy for a 6-foot-7, 245-pound pitcher to be sneaky, but Jared Hughes tried.

During every season in the minors, in every spring training, Hughes practiced one of the oldest trick plays in baseball. With runners on the corners, he'd fake a throw to third base, then whirl and throw to first.

Hughes got pretty good at it, not that it matters anymore. Starting this season, that play will be called a balk. No warnings will be issued.

“It's a little frustrating because I put so much time into trying to perfect it,” Hughes said. “I've got a certain strategy with it, and I use it to control the running game. It definitely changes my approach because it's not allowed anymore.”

Technically, the play always has been a balk because the pitcher is intentionally trying to deceive. However, it rarely was enforced by umpires and eventually was accepted as part of the game.

“There were some gray areas,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It is a complicated read for the umpires, where they are positioned, (to see) whether the (pitcher's) step is proper, and there is an arm fake involved.”

The players' union used its veto to prevent the rule change from being implemented last season after it was approved by MLB officials and the umpires. However, the collective bargaining agreement gave MLB the power to enforce the new rule in 2013 after a one-year wait.

Joe Torre, MLB's vice president of baseball operations, said a vast majority of managers and umps support the fake-to-third, throw-to-first ban. Still, the rule change is unpopular among pitchers and catchers.

“I'm not going to say (second) now is a gimmie base, but it definitely has to make the runner more comfortable at first base,” catcher Michael McKenry said. “He can lean a little bit more, try to get a better jump. I don't necessarily like it, but it's part of the game now.”

Steve Blass, who pitched for the Pirates from 1964-74, doesn't mind the new rule. He said the fake-throw play didn't have much impact.

“I saw it work once,” Blass said. “Mike Fetters got somebody at third base, and it was like a headline. It should've been a headline because it was so rare.”

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon likes the new rule because it could create more offense. But he differs with those who say the fake throw was a waste of time.

“People thought it was a worthless move that had no significant meaning, and that's the furthest thing from the truth,” Maddon said, noting it kept runners honest at first base.

The fake-throw ban will force teams to tweak their defensive strategy.

“You might see some actual pickoffs to third base now,” Hurdle said. “And you can still disengage and do it — you can step back (off the rubber), become a fielder and look to third and throw to first. Some teams might consider that.”

If nothing else, it will force guys like Hughes to concentrate a bit more when there are runners on the corners.

“I think I'm going to have to remind myself the first time,” Hughes said. “I'll need a quick, ‘Hey, don't do that. Don't go to third and then go to first because it's going to be a run scored.' Maybe I'll mix something else in. Maybe I'll step off, fake a full throw to third, then go to first.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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