PORT CHARLOTTE, FLA.—Baserunners, don't get cocky if Justin O'Conner is behind the plate. The Rays catcher is watching you, and if you don't watch him, he's going to try to pick you off.
Hitting a home run is great. So is calling the right pitch to help a pitcher get a key strikeout. But to O'Conner, picking off a runner carries a special thrill.
"For me, picking guys off and throwing them out is one of the funnest things about being a catcher. It's exciting," O'Conner said.
O'Conner's pitchers share his enthusiasm. A pickoff by its very nature is a potentially inning-changing play. On 10 of O'Conner's pickoffs last year, he erased a runner in scoring position.
O'Conner picked off 13 baserunners last year, tying Athletics catcher Nick Rickles for the minor league lead. Picking off a runner is a point of emphasis in the Rays system, which becomes apparent when you consider that fellow Ray Oscar Hernandez tied for the third most pickoffs in the minors. Hernandez's 10 pickoffs is even more impressive when you consider that he did it in only 40 games. The Reds were the only other team with more than one player in the top 10.
To successfully pick off baserunners, a catcher needs a strong arm. O'Conner has one of the strongest arms among catchers in the minors. It helped him throw out 55.6 percent of attempted basestealers last year, good enough to have led the Midwest League if not for the fact that he finished 10 games short of qualifying.
But aggressiveness and a connection with the pitcher and infielders are other keys, which often develops over the course of baseball's long season. At the start of the year, pulling off pickoffs involves a whole lot of communication and signs. By the end of the year, pitcher and catcher had developed a sixth sense of what was coming next.
"We have signs we give each other so we know for certain. But a lot of times, pitchers now know if I call a certain pitch, they know I don't want them to throw a strike so I have a better chance of getting the guy," O'Conner said.
Even with everyone on the same page, a successful pickoff still relies on having everything go properly. The pitch has to be one that the catcher can handle—a slider in the dirt and it's just not happening. The fielder has to sneakily get into position (especially important on pickoffs at second base) and ideally, the baserunner needs to stop paying attention as he heads back to the base.
"If you see a guy get a big lead and put his head down as he heads back, if that's his routine, maybe we can get him," O'Conner said.
Complicating matters further for catchers, slightly different mechanics are needed for pickoffs than when trying to throw out a base-stealer. With a runner stealing, a catcher is doing everything to be as quick as possible from receiving the ball, setting to throw, making the exchange and then firing off the throw.
With a pickoff, it's different. Catchers can't cock their feet to throw as quickly, as it will give away the pickoff to the baserunner. It's about waiting long enough to lull the runner to sleep, then being quick and accurate with the throw.
"You can't be real quick with it. You have to look like you're not trying to pick him off," O'Conner said.
Put it all together and a pickoff becomes a pitcher's best friend. Eight times last year, O'Conner and Bowling Green's third baseman (usually Tyler Goeddel) teamed up to erase a runner at third base.
O'Conner, who was a third baseman and pitcher in high school until his senior season, still has some work to do on his catching. His 22 passed balls last year was the most allowed by any Midwest League catcher. But with an arm like his—which earns some 80 grades from scouts—and his aggressiveness, he'll have plenty of chances to refine his receiving.
And when it comes to picking off runners, O'Conner is already ahead of most of his peers. He's confident enough in his ability to throw behind runners that sometimes he'll leave the pickoff in his back pocket until a more important situation in the game.
"If you do it in he first game of the series, they pay attention more (the rest of the series),” he said. “I try to wait until a time where I think we can really get a guy. And we want to make sure we do it as a good time in the game."