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May 11, 2012

Overthinking It

A Fond Farewell to the Fake to Third

by Ben Lindbergh

Yesterday, some news came over the wire that attracted slightly less national attention than Stephen Strasburg striking out 13 Pirates but slightly more than Clint Hurdle throwing batting practice to Hines Ward: Major League Baseball is considering a rule change that would prevent pitchers from keeping their feet on the rubber while faking a throw to third with runners on the corners. It's unclear what the impetus is for the proposed change, but the the significance is that the fake-to-third, throw-to-first—which my BBWAA membership stipulates that I refer to as ​the ol' ​fake-to-third, throw-to-first—is now an endangered species of pickoff attempt.

Currently, Official Baseball Rule 8.05 (c) states:

It is possible, with runners on first and third, for the pitcher to step toward third and not throw, merely to bluff the runner back to third; then seeing the runner on first start for second, turn and step toward and throw to first base. This is legal. 

All MLB has to do is add an "il" before the last word of 8.05 (c), and we may never see one of these attempts again. On one hand, I'd be sorry to see them go, since it's rare to see a strategy persist for so long despite working so rarely. The fake to third is a lot like the dodo just before all the dodoes died. On the other hand, I'd be excited about it being a balk, since it would be the first type of balk I could actually identify. 

We don't have to worry about the fake-to-third, throw-to-first (or FTTTTF, for short) going anywhere right away.* The Playing Rules Committee has approved the proposal, but immediate implementation of the rule change was blocked by the Players Association so that the players "could further study the issue," presumably by wearing white lab coats and taking careful measurements while a series of pitchers fake to third and throw to first in wind tunnels. MLB is allowed to institute the change without the players' consent after a one-year wait, so unless the players are willing to strike over it—and somehow this seems unlikely—the countdown has already begun. Even though the play rarely leads to a pickoff, runners have to be prepared for it, especially since it's so embarrassing when it works. In an FTTTTF-free world, runners might be able to take longer leads, and the potential consequences—up to and including complete chaos—could be serious. Normally I'm not one to interfere with further study, but players are busy people, so I decided to save them some time by examining the issue myself.

*We probably wouldn't have to worry about it anyway, but change can be scary.

Here's a demonstration of what the FTTTTF usually looks like, courtesy of Shawn Camp:

Let's break down the steps:

  1. Lift leg up slowly, like a dog about to urinate on a fire hydrant.
  2. Telegraph step toward third base as obviously as possible. Bonus points for slow-motion mouthing "I'mm-goingg-to-throww-to-thirdddd" while you do this.
  3. Remember not to throw to third!
  4. Whip around to see if you fooled the runner on first. Low expectations are the key to avoiding disappointment.
  5. If you fooled the runner on first, try not to look as surprised as he is. Throw to first and accept the out nonchalantly, as if you haven't been imagining this moment since Little League.
  6. If you didn't fool the runner on first, make it clear to everyone that you weren't really trying to, anyway. Stretch, adjust your cup, and hope no one noticed.

In this particular sequence, Camp went back to the FTTTTF well twice on the same count. The runner (Chone Figgins) was equally unfooled by the second attempt.

Despite those failures, Camp was determined to get his pickoff. After lulling Figgins to sleep with two fakes to third, he tried a straight-up pickoff attempt, again before throwing another actual pitch. And whaddya know, it worked:

Note the runner on third, doing the Watching Chone Figgins Play Baseball dance.

Those two FTTTTFs were merely the opening act of Camp's pickoff opus, but sometimes a FTTTTF can be its own finale. Unfortunately, we can't calculate the FTTTTF's true success rate without watching every pickoff attempt (though Yankees reliever Boone Logan, who's probably just bitter because he's a lefty and can't do it, estimated that it works approximately "once in never.") And even if we did that, we wouldn't know how often aborted attempts like Camp's occur. (Add this to the long list of mysteries FIELDf/x could solve, if it fell into the hands of someone frivolous.)  Occasionally, though, the answer to the age-old question—Does that ever actually ​work?​—is yes. I went back and watched every event from 2011 and 2012 marked as a pickoff with runners on first and third and a right-handed pitcher on the mound. Most of the attempts were garden-variety pickoffs without a fake to third. The following were the ones that weren't.

Date: 4/1/11
Pitcher: Brad Ziegler

Batter: Ryan Langerhans
Runner: Miguel Olivo 
Believability: 7

​Sometimes a good FTTTP goes bad. Ziegler goes into a fairly convincing hunch here (though Olivo wasn't fooled), but he doesn't devote as much care to the throw as he does to the deception. In fairness to Ziegler, he doesn't have to throw overhand often. Pitchers: much better at throwing to home than to other bases.

Date: 4/10/11
PitcherGavin Floyd
BatterDan Johnson
Runner on 1st: Johnny Damon 
Believability: 8


 

We're going in chronological order here—the first two FTTTTP pickoffs on the list happened to involve ugly-looking throws, but we'll get to a successful attempt soon. Floyd fully commits to the fake leg lift, deking Damon, but then the rest of the play happens. The emphatic glove pound is Floyd's way of saying sorry. 

Date: 4/28/11
PitcherBrad Penny
BatterMilton Bradley
Runner on 1st: Chone Figgins 
Believability: 3

As part of this process, I watched a lot of pickoffs that weren't FTTTTFs, but before I watched this one, I knew​ Brad Penny was going to fake to third. Can you picture Brad Penny spinning quickly from the stretch? When Penny spins, the revolutions come slowly, as evidenced by the movement he makes when he decides to throw to first instead of second (faking out the second-base umpire in the process). Penny doesn't look like he's about to do anything athletic when he fakes toward third, so it's sort of surprising that Figgins falls for it. Then again, Penny almost never looks like he's about to do something athletic.

​Date: 5/12/11
PitcherJoe Smith
BatterElliot Johnson
Runner on 1st: Casey Kotchman 
Believability: 9

Johnson at the plate, Joe Smith on the mound: I almost don’t blame Kotchman for spacing out on first, because that’s about the most boring batter-pitcher matchup imaginable. To his credit, Smith sells the fake move well, if somewhat spastically.

Date: 5/12/11
PitcherClayton Mortensen

BatterWillie Harris
Runner on 1st: Jose Reyes 
Believability: 6.5



Clayton Mortensen is definitely an ambi-turner. The GIF seems to skip a frame there, but he actually did turn almost that quickly. Some marks deducted for a slow leg lift, but otherwise a solid effort.

Just after Mortensen completed the move, an Incredulous Announcer exclaimed, "Third-to-first works!" Whenever an FTTTTP works, the broadcaster is the happiest person in the ballpark.

Date: 5/13/11
PitcherBrandon McCarthy

BatterAlexei Ramirez
Runner on 1st: Juan Pierre 
Believability: 6

​It's not good to make a throw like that in any park. It's especially not good in Oakland. In the Coliseum's foul territory, no one can hear you scream, and no one can stop Juan Pierre from getting to third base on a throwing error, despite Daric Barton's valiant attempt to trample him.

Date: 6/9/11
PitcherSergio Mitre

BatterJason Pridie
Runner on 1st: Angel Pagan 
Believability: 5

Announcer: "Well, the fake-to-third-and-go-to-first works! That doesn't work hardly ever."

Date: 7/24/11
PitcherTim Wakefield

BatterBrendan Ryan
Runner on 1st: Ichiro Suzuki 
Believability: 10

Wakefield gets a perfect believability score because his normal delivery was indistinguishable from a regular step. Not actually having a windup is the best disguise for an FTTTTP. "He's going!" Brendan Ryan helpfully shouts to Wakefield. "Get 'im!" 

Date: 9/10/11
PitcherMax Scherzer

BatterBrian Dinkelman
Runner on 1st: Joe Benson 
Believability: 8

Scherzer's throw could be better, but ​I bumped up his believability score a full point because Benson barely reacts. Even as he starts trotting, he's not sure how the ball ended up so close to him.

Lastly, we have an entry from 2012.

Date: 4/13/12
PitcherErvin Santana
BatterDerek Jeter
Runner on 1st: Brett Gardner 
Believability: 3

Santana doesn't even complete the step toward third before turning to throw to first, but Gardner falls for it anyway. Apparently, the Angels (and some other clubs) call this the "horn play." The name comes from "from managers extending their index and pinky fingers in a 'Hook 'em Horns' gesture, indicating opposing runners at first and third."

Whenever a pitcher attempts an FTTTTP in a game for or against the Yankees, either Michael Kay or one of his broadcasters calls it "the ol' Jeff Nelson." Maybe every team has a player who's known for making this move, but in New York, Nelson did it most notably, and the Yankees' broadcast team has never forgotten it. Here's the commentary that followed the GIF above:

​Michael Kay: That wasn't even a good move and he got him.
Ken Singleton: The abbreviated Jeff Nelson.
Michael Kay: And Jeff is in the ballpark today.

What are the odds!

Jeff Nelson pitched in the major leagues for 15 seasons. He struck out more than a batter per inning, and he retired with a 133 ERA+. He has four World Series rings. He made an All-Star team. Yet there's going to be a generation of Yankees fans who never saw him pitch, don't know anything about his accomplishments, and will remember him forever as someone who sometimes used to fake to third before throwing to first back when the umpires weren't so strict and pitchers were free to make unconvincing attempts to deceive the runner. It's weird what guys get known for.

Yes, the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff play works. Well, it has worked, once a month or so: as far as I can tell, the FTTTTF has been successful seven times in the last seven months of regular-season baseball. Treasure every time. If MLB gets its way, they won't be making any more next season.

​Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Balk,  Pickoff

22 comments have been left for this article.

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