The San Diego Padres didn’t have very many bright spots in 1972. In their fourth season since joining the National League, they lost 95 games that season. But one of their players did something that might never be duplicated.
Starting pitcher Steve Arlin picked off 11 runners at second base in 1972. Yes, 11.
Calling it his “reverse move”, Arlin would start with a normal windup, then swivel 180 degrees and fire towards second. Arlin claimed his move to first was only average, but he never intentionally let a runner on first get to second so he could nail him. Many baserunners say it’s easier to steal third base than second, because you can get a bigger lead and a running jump, and that line of thinking worked to his advantage.
He used his secret weapon only if a runner took a big lead from second. He would make two or three quick pitches to the plate to give the runner a good look at his windup – then he’d swivel and throw. Arlin owned the element of surprise. With pick-off throws to first base much more common, it also was the quickness of the move – and his expert disguise of it – that really made it effective.
In his normal delivery, Arlin would lift up his left leg and push off with his right. Like all pitchers, he also bent his back leg at the knee to get more of a push off the rubber.
On a pick-off attempt, Arlin would lift the left leg and bend the right as usual, but instead of pushing off the rubber to the plate, he would swivel his right foot, wheel around and fire to second.
Arlin said pitchers who try to a move to second tend to give it away by not bending their right leg. The straight leg tips off a runner that a throw is coming, according to him.
“I saw Tom Seaver try it one time on TV, and it wasn’t real successful, I tried it and picked it up real quick, and I had a hard move. Others on my team tried to do it, and I tried to teach it to them, but they kept their (right) legs straight.” He would signal his middle infielders that he was going to try a move by using a sign, “like sticking my hand in my pocket. And they’d scratch their nose or something and let me know they knew”.
Arlin’s quick turnaround made him throw almost sidearm toward second, sometimes causing the ball to sink, and would have had even more pickoffs if some throws hadn’t squeaked past infielders. Arlin had a 10-21 record that ’72 season, but his ERA was 3.60, and he pitched 250 innings for the woeful Padres. His 37 starts were the second most in the league.
According to him, two thirds of the base runners tried to get back to second, while the rest made a mad dash for third.
“I lost a game because of it,” he says, “Rick Monday was on second, and the game was tied. I picked him off cold and he ran toward third, but the second baseman threw the ball into the dugout” – as the Padres were wont to do that back then – “and he scored.”
According to SABR, Arlin was a two-time All American at Ohio State University, and first earned fame in baseball circles for his heroics in two College World Series; he was selected the MVP for the 1965 series. In 2004, his Ohio State number 22 was the first ever retired by the school’s baseball program.
“After what I accomplished in college, I deserved every bit as much as Monday.”
A native of Seattle, WA, Arlin attended Ohio State on a baseball scholarship and became one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball history.
A two-time All-American, Arlin led the Buckeyes to the College World Series as a sophomore in 1965. He emerged as the hurling star of the double-elimination tournament, setting a series record by fanning 20 in a complete-game 15-inning, 1-0 shutout of Washington State. The Buckeyes ultimately lost to the Sal Bando and Rick Monday-led Arizona State Sun Devils in the championship; however, Arlin was named to the all-tournament team. He paced the NCAA with 165 strikeouts (including 31 in the CWS) in 141 IP and victories (13), tied with ASU’s Jim Merrick, and was named the National College Pitcher of the Year.
Arlin led the Buckeyes to their first and only CWS baseball title in 1966. He pitched in five of his team’s six games, twice defeated the number-one-ranked University of Southern California, finished the tournament with 28 strikeouts in 20⅔ innings while yielding just two runs and five hits, and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. In his two-year varsity career, he set Buckeye records for victories (24-3) and strikeouts (294), both since broken. He was subsequently inducted to the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame (1976), the College Baseball Hall of Fame (2008), and the Omaha College World Series Hall of Fame (2014).
When the Phillies made him their first-round pick in the 1966 June draft (13th overall), Arlin insisted on a $105,000 signing bonus, or $1,000 more than his CWS nemesis Rick Monday received as the first player taken in the very first draft in 1965.
“After what I accomplished in college,” Arlin said later, “I deserved every bit as much as Monday.”
He got his bonus. The Phillies also paid his tuition at dental school and agreed he could skip spring training and pitch in the minors after he finished his classes. In 1968, the Padres selected him in the expansion draft. (Arlin did go on to practice dentistry in San Diego before his death in 2016 at the age of 70.)
In 1967 at AA Reading in the Eastern League, Arlin hurled a seven-inning no-hitter. In 1971, he nearly pitched the Padres’ first no-hitter against his former organization, when with two outs in the ninth inning Phillis infielder Denny Doyle singled.
After a few games in 1969 and 1970 with the Padres, Arlin became a staple in their starting rotation the next few seasons. In 1971, his first full season, Arlin went 9-19 (leading the league in losses) but pitched 227.2 innings to a 3.48 ERA. The following year, he again led with league with 21 losses, but that’s of course what happens while pitching for an expansion team. In 1974, Arlin was traded to the Cleveland Indians (also a bad team at the time). He retired after that season and finished 34-67 with a career 4.33 ERA.
Retired from baseball, he returned to Ohio State for advanced studies to be an endodontist. When finished, he returned to San Diego to begin his dental practice and retired in 2004.
Arlin said runners eventually wised up to him during his pitching career, and stopped taking big leads at second. As a result, he never picked off 11 again.
While clubs keep records of pickoffs, the Elias Sports Bureau still doesn’t record them as an official stat, “but I doubt anybody will ever pick off 11 men from second in a season again,” Arlin boasted.