TEMPE, Ariz. – Born in the imagination of a minor-league pitching coach, carried from Class A to the brink of the big leagues by an over-achieving, side-arming right-hander, "The 3-2" is a pick-off move that is challenging umpires at least as much as it is eliminating baserunners.
Footage of the move, captured accidentally Friday night by a Venezuelan film crew stationed behind home plate at Surprise Stadium, has been carried on compact disc from Arizona to the Major League Baseball offices in New York City. Duplicates will go out to umpiring supervisors and trickle into the minor leagues.
The pickoff play begins with the bases loaded or runners at second and third. The pitcher fakes the throw to third, then allows that momentum to carry him – 270 degrees counter-clockwise – into a throw to second base. It works best with the bases loaded, when it comes disguised as the more familiar third-to-first pickoff.
Matt Wilhite, a 25-year-old reliever who has spent the past three full seasons in the Los Angeles Angels' farm system and now has a chance to win a big-league job, in that time has picked off roughly 35 runners from second base with "The 3-2."
Friday night in Surprise, pitching against the Kansas City Royals, Wilhite had it work again. And then he was called for a balk by a minor-league umpire. And then Angels manager Mike Scioscia was ejected for arguing the call. And then umpiring supervisor Steve Palermo, who was in a suite at the ballpark, went sleuthing. And now everybody will know "The 3-2" is coming.
"The umpires, they get confused," said Keith Comstock, who, if not the inventor of "The 3-2," certainly has stuck with it the longest.
"It's a legal move," said Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher.
"Obviously, he's got to clean up this move," said Palermo.
"Man, this is getting out of hand," said Wilhite.
Matt Wilhite, from Franklin, Ky., was a middle infielder who went to nearby Western Kentucky University with intentions of hitting and fielding his way to the major leagues. He'd just arrived when he was asked to learn to pitch, and pitch side-armed, and by his junior season he was closing games for the Hilltoppers. He was Sun Belt Conference pitcher of the year as a senior, when he was 8-2 with a 1.78 ERA in 37 games.
Still, he was not selected in the 2003 free-agent draft.
"Yeah," he said, smiling slightly, "no money or nothin'."
Through a friend's contact, he signed with Kenosha of the Independent Frontier League, and three weeks later – after getting a tape into the hands of Angels scout Tom Kotchman (Casey's father) – had his contract purchased by the Angels.
It was there he first met Comstock, who'd introduced other pitchers – most of them right-handers, preferably side-armers – to "The 3-2."
Comstock, himself a left-handed pitcher, appeared in 144 big-league games with four major-league organizations from 1984-91. He retired, went into coaching, and while coaching third base one season began to consider the charmed existence of the baserunner in the middle.
"The guy at second just had a ridiculous lead, he was uncoached, and a lot of times he got into a funk where he's thinking there's no chance of getting picked off," Comstock said.
The third-to-first move – or the threat of it – kept the runners at first and third close. The man at second was free from those worries, and therefore his lead often was large enough to score easily on even the hardest-hit singles. Comstock endeavored to change that.
"I've had four or five guys make a living on it," Comstock said. "Matty, to his credit, has really polished it to perfection."
Estimating, Wilhite said that by employing "The 3-2" he had 15 pickoffs in 2004 at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, 10 in 2005 at Double-A Arkansas, and eight in 2006 in Triple-A Salt Lake, including, most amusingly, Alberto Callaspo once. Callaspo had been the second baseman taking the pickoff throws from Wilhite for two seasons in the minor leagues, was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, then was himself picked off by Wilhite.
"I'm thinking, 'We're going to try this, but, surely …' Wilhite said. "But, sure enough, it worked. I think the coach ended up taking him out of the game after he got picked off because he wasn't thinking about what was going on. We'd run it just the year before so many times."
So, Scioscia handed the ball to Wilhite on Friday night with the bases loaded and one out. He encouraged him to bust out "The 3-2."
Wilhite nodded and informed his catcher, "Second pitch."
On his way from the mound, Scioscia told the plate umpire to expect the move.
"You've got to let the umpires know what's coming," Comstock said, "so they're not fooled. Sometimes, they just panic."
So, Wilhite, from the stretch, picked off Ross Gload from second base. He believed he'd stepped toward third, faked his throw there, whirled and threw to second baseman Erick Aybar. Third base umpire Ramon Armendariz, judging Wilhite had not strode directly toward third – as required – called the balk.
From his suite, and later on the tape discovered with the Venezuelan TV crew, Palermo determined that not only had Wilhite stepped more toward home than third, he'd also faked his throw closer to home than third.
"It's not just the step," Palermo said. "He tried to create everything to make it look like he's pitching toward home. And that is absolute, total deception. By the rules, that's a balk."
That, Wilhite said, is the beauty of the move, because it so mirrors his regular mechanics. The fact that he throws side-arm, he said, helps to sell the pickoff, but, in his view, does not make it illegal.
"When I throw to home, I still step across my body a little bit," he said. "So, that's what helps it out a little bit. When I step toward third, when I fake, I still always keep my head toward home like I'm throwing a pitch and give the full arm fake. When I fake toward third, from a runner's point of view [at second], when they're jumping off, when I step across my body it looks like I'm throwing toward home. It blocks their view off a little bit and they can't see. They think the pitch is going home. Next thing they know I'm turning around and firing to second.
"I think what they see, I go toward third, but I keep my face and shoulders in line with home and pull the fake so it kind of looks like I'm throwing a pitch to home, but I'm really not. I'm going off the mound that way and got direction that way. I would like to hear the explanation, to see what they're saying. I guess it's going to be one of those things that's hit or miss, I don't know."
Wilhite said he'd been called for one other balk on that play, when the minor-league umpires were on strike.
"This is going to sound bad," he said, "the other one was once last year by the high-school replacement umpires we had. That's it."
Supervisors Palermo and Richie Garcia went through the tape with Scioscia. The Angels have not given up, however, on "The 3-2."
"I'm not concerned," Butcher said. "It's a unique move. Nobody uses it. And he can step right toward third and still make it exactly the same way."
None could recall seeing the pickoff move at the major-league level. Wilhite, with a bit more polish, could introduce it. And no one would be prouder than Comstock, both for Wilhite, a good kid who's gotten outs at every level, and "The 3-2."
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I'd get a kick out of that."