On Stealing First Base
The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has been in the news of late. This is a minor league, but an independent league. It is not part of Minor League Baseball, nor are its teams affiliated with major league clubs. This is not to say that it isn’t chummy with Major League Baseball. It has partnered with MLB, volunteering to be a testing ground for various ideas for rules revisions. This managed to get it in the news.
The most flashy experimental rule is to allow the batter to “steal” first base on any ball not caught by the catcher. This is to say, on a wild pitch or passed ball. The scare quotes are because the play does not seem to be scored as a stolen base, but as a fielder’s choice. It is being called a “steal” to convey that running is optional, but it isn’t really a steal. Rather, it is a creative reinterpretation of the dropped third strike rule.
The dropped third strike is a vestige of very early baseball. Originally, the dropped third strike rule and the regular third strike rule were one and the same. The pitcher stood next to the batter and tossed the ball upwards. The batter hit it on the way down. If he managed to swing and miss three times, the ball was in play anyway. This was a pace of play issue, keeping the game moving even when the batter was truly hopeless. While ball was in play, the pitcher was right there to pick it up, so this wasn’t a strategy any batter would adopt on purpose. Over the years the pitcher moved into the middle of the infield and a catcher was positioned behind the batter. The rule remained the same: If the batter swung and missed three times, the ball was in play. The difference was that the catcher was in position to catch the pitch. This put the batter out, just like any fielder catching a batted ball.
The rule was given its modern form in 1887, with an exception added that the rule did not apply if first base was occupied with fewer than two outs. This was because a clever catcher could intentionally drop the ball, creating a force play. Imagine the bases loaded with one out and with two strikes on the batter. He swings and misses for the third strike. The catcher lets the ball bounce off his hands into the dirt. He then picks it up at leisure, steps on home plate to force out the runner from third, and throws the ball to first for a double play. If there are no outs, the catcher can hurry things up a bit, possibly turning a triple play. Trawl through the SABR Triple Play database and you can find some of these, like Brooklyn at Pittsburgh on May 13, 1885. With the bases loaded the catcher dropped the third strike, stepped on home, threw to the third baseman, who threw to first to put out the batter, who had strolled to the bench after striking out.
There was no philosophical objection to this play, but there was a practical difficulty. There is a fine line between the catcher muffing the ball, and his catching the ball and then dropping it. This was the same problem that led to the infield fly rule, but if anything it was even worse here. The sole umpire was positioned behind the catcher, and had no way of knowing if, or how long, the catcher had control of the ball. The modern rule bypassed this problem by simply deactivating the rule when a force play was a consideration, removing the incentive for the catcher to intentionally drop the ball.
The purists complained. It didn’t seem right. This wasn’t baseball! Why not? Because they understood that the out in a strike out was actually a put out by the catcher. He was the one who caught the ball. This was no different from an outfielder catching a fly. The purists were right. The dropped third strike was no longer, under the revised rule, the logical result of a coherent understanding of what constituted a strike out. It became this weird rule where the batter occasionally, seemingly randomly, got a Get Out of Jail Free card.
I wrote about the dropped third strike rule in 2015, asking “What purpose does it serve? If it is a penalty for wild pitching or poor catching, why only on the third strike?” It was a rhetorical question, prefacing the history of the rule. Now, The Powers That Be have asked the same question, but for a different purpose. Here it leads to a response of “You know, you’re right! That doesn’t make a lick of sense!” This in turn leads to the Atlantic League experiment. This is the creative reinterpretation. Under this new interpretation it now is a broad penalty for poor pitching and catching.
Is it a good idea? That is a tough question. Of course part of it is that we haven’t seen how it plays out. That is the whole point of trying it in the Atlantic League rather than rolling it out in the bigs. But also, we haven’t been told what is the hoped for goal. How do we know if it is a success if we don’t know what it was trying to achieve? I’m not sure why this is, but “lousy communications” is probably sufficient explanation. Fortunately, we can infer a bit more.
This is actually only one of a whole package of experimental rules, some inaugurated at the beginning of the season, and some for the second half of the season. Two others jump out at me: one foul bunt is allowed with two strike without resulting in a strikeout; and the balk rule is tightened up a bit, mandating that the pitcher step off the rubber before throwing to a base.
These three changes serve a common end: small ball. “Stealing” first adds a way to get a runner on base. The foul bunt rule makes it (marginally) easier to sacrifice him to second. If that doesn’t work, the tightened balk rule makes it easier for him to steal a base. Let’s look at these three rules in this light.
The foul bunt rule is trivial. The prospect of striking out on a foul isn’t why teams aren’t bunting. This is so trivial that I wonder if the real point is to introduce the idea of adapting the foul strike rule. More on this below.
Tightening the balk rule is a much bigger deal. The whole point of the balk rule is, and always has been, to make base stealing possible. The issue is that in order to make it to the next base, the runner has to commit to the steal while the pitcher is still physically capable of halting (“balking”) his delivery to the plate, and can instead turn and throw to a base. This wasn’t true in very early baseball, where the bases were usually closer together than in the modern game. The balk rule was a response to the diamond expanding. It declares the pitcher to have committed to pitching to the plate before this is true simply as a matter of biomechanics, giving the runner a shot at stealing the base. The point where the pitcher is deemed committed is inherently arbitrary, and therefore inherently subject to putzing around with. Even better, this putzing is not noticeable to the casual observer, who has only the vaguest notion of what is and is not a balk. This is why the Atlantic League change has gone unnoticed. It also, I am guessing, is the most important change of the three.
At this point “stealing” first is simply an extra way to get that guy to first, where he can take advantage of the tightened balk rule to steal second. In this I fully expect it will succeed.
I am a fan of small ball, so from my perspective this is a win. My critique is not that this, and the other two changes, are bad in their own right, but that they don’t address the real issues. These are game length and/or pace of play (not quite the same thing, but related); and three-true-outcomes (home run, base on balls, and strike out) strategies. Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Baseball, has talked a lot about the first and made some unconvincing gestures toward the problem. The three-true-outcomes strategies are the bigger problem.
I wrote last fall about this here, so I won’t rehash it in detail. The idea is that batters have for the past century increasingly adopted hitting home runs as their goal. Over the same period, pitchers have similarly over the past century increasing emphasized strikeouts. These are the three-true-outcomes strategies. (The base on balls is the poor relation of the home run and the strike out. They have been rising, but less dramatically.) Both trends have continued into this season with merry abandon, reaching record-breaking levels. I wrote last fall “The problem is that optimized strategy doesn’t necessarily make for attractive play,” So it is: even with home runs. While the home run is exciting, the emphasis on home runs results in otherwise dull play.
In this light, the three Atlantic League rules are unlikely to solve the problem. The underlying theory is sound, but the application is questionable. Currently the incentives favor three-true-outcome play, so change the incentives. So far, so good. Increase the value of small ball, the idea seems to be, and teams will adopt small ball strategies. I just don’t think this will do it. Get a guy on first? Great! A two run homer is better than a solo shot. This is a far cry from deciding the best way to score is to work that runner around the circuit a base at a time. And you still are facing a guy throwing a hundred miles an hour for his one inning on the mound.
What we need here is to also make the three-true-outcomes strategy harder. This is where the experimental rules get interesting. Another, receiving minimal attention, is that the pitcher has been moved back two feet. This is the first time he has been moved back since 1893 (though he was moved down a few inches in 1969, when the mound was lowered), so this is kind of a big deal. It will, presumably, make strikeouts harder to get.
That is half the equation. What about home runs? My suggestion last fall was to deaden the ball: not so much that a towering home run doesn’t still tower, but so that a home run in the first row becomes a routine fly out on the warning track. I doubt that The Powers That Be are willing to go that route, if only for quasi-mystical reasons. But there is another route: the foul strike rule.
The foul strike rule has an unduly complicated history I won’t get into here. You can read about it in my book. should the spirit move you. This unduly complicated history resulted in an unduly complicated rule. A foul ball is counted as a strike, unless there are already two strikes, in which case it is a null event, unless it is a bunt, in which case it is the third strike after all. This is an obvious kludge.
Now we return to that Atlantic League rule that that bunt foul isn’t the third strike after all, but only once in an at bat. This is even more of a kludge. It also hints at the possible direction of the thinking of The Powers That Be. Consider as a hypothetical future revision, that the number of null-event foul balls is limited to, say, one. In this scenario, if the batter has two strikes on him and he fouls off the next pitch, he still has two strikes. But if he does it again, that is the third strike and he is out.
This would be huge in various ways directly related to the two problems of pace of play and three-true-outcomes strategies. For pace of play, it would abolish the marathon at bat. Yeah, it is impressive when your guy has a ten-pitch at bat, but spectacle it is not. Even less so is the routine fouling off of a couple pitches on a 0-2 count, before finally resolving the issue one way or another.
Limiting null-event fouls would result in many more balls in play. The batter, after all, isn’t fouling those pitches off for his own amusement. He is doing it because they are, or might be, in the strike zone, but they aren’t pitches he can put a power swing on. So foul it off and see what the next pitch brings. Remove that option and you have to try to put the ball in play: the exact opposite of three-true-outcomes.
On the other side, this hypothetical would revolutionize pitching. There are any number of guys who can put the ball over the plate with something the batter doesn’t want to put into play. This is, however, a far cry from striking the guy out. For that, you need a pitch that his bat will miss entirely. The guy with the putaway pitch has a secure job in the bigs, and likely a very lucrative one at that. The guy without the putaway pitch is bouncing between AAA and the big club. In our revised foul strike rule world, that second guy is now an effective big league pitcher. Batters no longer can foul balls off waiting for a mistake.
This would be a massive boost to the pitcher. How to balance this? We have already seen it: move the mound back.
Perhaps this is all my fevered fantasy, but I wonder if something like this isn’t the idea behind the Atlantic League rules: A package of changes to simultaneously discourage three-true-outcomes while encouraging small ball strategies. This is fantasy because the foul strike rule modification is the key element, and as yet exists only in my fevered imagination. But I wonder if this isn’t a gradual roll-out, as a point of marketing strategy.
So again, is this a good idea? Heck if I know. Predicting, as Yogi Berra sadly seems not to have said, is hard: especially the future. I don’t know if this is actually the direction The Powers That Be are going, much less how well it will work. But I will give them this: Wherever they go, and however well or poorly it works out, it at least is interesting. That means a lot to me, in my ever-increasingly advanced youth.