Tigers dust off old-fashioned pitchout play against Royals

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. — What was that?

It happened in the sixth inning Tuesday night. Catcher James McCann stood up quickly, before Buck Farmer’s intentionally high and way wide pitch even reached the batter — thus putting himself in perfect position to fire down to second to nab the Royals' Brian Goodwin trying to steal second base.

The Royals' Brian Goodwin (25) is tagged out by Tigers second baseman Niko Goodrum as the tried to steal second during the the sixth inning Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo.

Was that a — couldn’t be — a pitchout? A real, old-fashioned pitchout?

Believed on the verge of extinction in the major leagues since around 2016, the Tigers executed the play — once a staple in the game — to near perfection.

“Steve Liddle called it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said, referencing his bench coach. “We kind of smelled it out.”

McCann estimated that a true pitchout was called maybe five or 10 times the past four seasons under former manager Brad Ausmus. Ausmus, like most modern managers, preferred other methods to control the running game — having pitcher varying times to the plate, holding the ball and, when you think a runner might be going, just throw a regular fastball up and away.

"I like it in the instance of when you think the team might have a hit-and-run play on," McCann said. "I don't know if you could tell, but (Royals hitter Alcides) Escobar was reaching for the ball, but it was too far out.

"If you think it's a good time to hit-and-run, even if they don't and you end up with ball one, now it's in their minds. 'Hey, they aren't afraid to pitch out, we've got to pick and choose our spot.'"

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But without a doubt, the pitchout is a dying play in baseball. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, pitchout numbers have decreased every year since 2014.

YEAR     NO.        PCT per game

2014       319         0.131

2015       238         0.098

2016       180         0.074

2017       116         0.048

2018       50           0.033

When Chris Bosio was the Tigers pitching coach, they did not have a pitchout in the playbook.

“Baseball has turned to modified pitchouts,” Gardenhire said. “Rather than a catcher jumping out to a real pitchout, baseball has turned to a modified pitchout, and that’s just a hard fastball just off the plate. So you don’t see the catcher jumping up as much.”

Gardenhire said he tried the modified approach earlier this year, as Bosio wanted. It didn’t go so well.

“We had that earlier, we did it about three times, modified, and the hitters whacked it,” he said. “They still hit the ball. So we decided the modified pitchout can go modify somewhere else. We’ve got to pitch out.”

Farmer could not remember the last time he was asked to throw a pitchout.

“It’s been a while,” he said. “We work on it some in spring training. But the odds of a pitchout actually working are so small. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a pitchout actually work.”

That said, the Tigers do have a series of signs to call for a pitchout. And, in the pitchers meeting before the game, Liddle and pitching coach Rick Anderson put the pitchers on alert for the pitchout.

“It was different,” Farmer said. “But it helped me get out of the inning.”