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February 11, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Derrick Loop

by David Laurila

Derrick Loop has the best pickoff move in professional baseball. Not one of the best, the best. A 26-year-old left-hander, who recently signed with the Padres after two seasons in the Red Sox organization-Boston had plucked him out of an independent league-Loop picked off 17 runners last summer. Astoundingly, he did so in just 71 1/3 innings. Working primarily as a closer at High-A Salem, the deceptive southpaw appeared in 55 games and logged 18 saves to go with a 1.89 ERA.

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David Laurila: When did you develop your pickoff move?

Derrick Loop: As a pitcher in high school, I was scared to death to throw the ball to first base. I had no confidence in my ability to make an accurate throw to the first baseman. As a college pitcher, I realized what an asset a pickoff move would be, especially because I was left-handed. What's crazy is that I developed the concept of my pickoff move on my own and practically overnight. My motto was "Pitch home while throwing to first base." As paradoxical as that sounds, it was clear in my mind: give the illusion of throwing the ball home while gaining ground to first base. While my form and accuracy took a lot of practice to get right, I knew the concept was solid. As a junior (at Cal State-Los Angeles), things began to fall in place with my accuracy. Still a young and inexperienced pitcher, I would often lose focus on a hitter, trying too hard to pick the runner off of first base. I got better about it as a senior, where I had pickoff totals in the teens. While my pickoff has been a valuable asset my entire professional career, only in the last season and a half have I come close to perfecting it, including ways to better set up what I call my "A" and ""A+" moves. Ha. Ha.

DL: How many pickoff moves do you have?

Loop: I would say, at minimum, I have four different moves. My "B" moves vary from situation to situation. I did a much better job this year, compared to past seasons, in setting up my better pickoff moves. I use body language, both from the runner and my own, to determine the type of pickoff move and the order of which I use them. For instance, I can sell a runner on my below-average move, making it appear to him that I tried to pick him off with my best move. Getting back easily, the runner thinks he can take that extra step off the bag. I then throw my "A" pick at him, which ideally picks him off easily. However, most of my picks this year were on runners taking their secondary leads off of first base. That's a great feeling.

DL: What are the mechanics behind your "A" move?

Loop: Again, the concept is incredibly simple. My intention is to give the runner the illusion that I am going to pitch home, obviously. All of my deception comes from my upper half. My mechanics from pitching home to throwing to first base are virtually identical, to a point. The one thing that varies is where my lower half strides to. When striding to first base, I stride very close to the so-called "balk line." The key to the deception is keeping my entire upper half parallel to home plate as if I was going to throw a pitch home. When my stride foot makes contact with the ground, I flick-yes, flick-the ball over to first base, where I was successful in catching guys leaning away from the base. I think where other lefties go wrong is that they think they need a hard, fast throw to first, compromising their front-side mechanics.

DL: How do you avoid balk calls?

Loop: The first key to avoiding balk calls is having a good relationship with the umpiring staff! Ha. Ha. I typically have my first baseman talk to the first base umpire before my inning starts, in order not to catch him off guard. I once had an umpire call a balk on me because he claimed to be looking home when I threw the ball to first. "If I was already looking home you were clearly beyond the balk line" was the line that I got. With as much practice as I have had with my pickoff move, I virtually land in the same place every time with all of my picks. Another important key is walking off the mound towards first base when picking over so you don't give that umpire a second thought about calling something.

DL: Have you noticed a difference in the effectiveness of your pickoff from league to league?

Loop: I have noticed that in A ball, runners are much more aggressive, making them more susceptible to my move. Playing in the California League in 2008, teams didn't play too much small ball, it being such a hitter's league. However, playing in the Carolina League last year, it felt like everyone that got to first was looking to steal second. I think we were both licking our lips! I spent a short time in Double-A last season. Runners there appeared to be much smarter and cautious with a lefty on the mound. On the other hand, I walked the first hitter I faced in Double-A and then promptly picked him off before I threw my next pitch! What was different about that league is I wasn't getting runners taking their secondary leads. Both picks-one called safe on a bad throw on my part-were on guys diving back to the base where 95 percent of my picks were guys taking secondary leads.

DL: Are there any pickoffs that stand out in your mind?

Loop: There are many that stand out! From last season, I can't remember what number save it was, but with two outs in the ninth I gave up a single. Before the next pitch, I picked the guy off of first base to end the game. That was the first time in my career that I had ended a game with a pickoff. Another memorable pick was in a game in Myrtle Beach. The manager, Rocket Wheeler, had been the coach of the all-star team, where we got to know each other a little bit. In a game following the all-star break, I picked one of his players off of first base. Immediately, Rocket sprinted across the field to argue the call with the umpire. "I told you before the game exactly what he was going to do. He did exactly what I told you and you didn't call the balk!" I chuckled to myself as I often did when managers came out to argue my pickoffs. But the most memorable pick of the season didn't even result in an out. Playing against the Potomac Nationals, I had two outs with a runner on first base. With a newer player on first, I could hear the first base coach thoroughly warn the runner about my pick. Brushing the coach off, the runner stayed aggressive. After picking over and nearly getting him, he stands up to speak some Spanish into the dugout where his own team began to laugh hysterically. The next pitch was a 3-2 pitch. As I lifted my leg to throw home, I noticed that the runner had not taken his foot off of first! He was lined up toward second like he was a softball player! It didn't sink in until after the game was over that he literally chose not to take a lead. That is something I'll remember forever!

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