On Stealing First Base

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar Marchmaine
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    I’m very curious to see what the 2ft pitching distance does, and can be persuaded that one or two fouls constitutes the final strike.

    I’d want to evaluate the mound distance first as the implications should be determined by physical aspects alone.

    I like the concept of foul ball outs, and I’m glad to see it in action to assess the impact – my suspicion is that it changes pitching and batting pretty dramatically in approach, if not in actual number of pitches faced. On the one hand an absolute maximum of 8-pitches per batter is well above avg PPPA, so that would not on its own introduce much of an impact… but the “put-away foul” might have a larger impact than we think – at worst case driving up TTT by allowing lesser pitchers to exploit the gap. I take your point about hitters possibly changing their approach to put the ball in play; but I still have to wonder whether that would actually happen if the other option is still an HR within an 8-pitch at-bat. Not that I’m against it, just that I’d like to see lots of iterations before we jump on it. So, hooray for the Atlantic League.

    I’m also curious to see what, if anything, requiring two players on one side of 2B does… More than a few shifts are more or less that anyway… with the SS maybe 3 steps closer to 1B than neutral… but the big advantage is shifting the 2B off the infield into short Right… so my more draconian approach would be the new rule PLUS requiring infielders to start on the dirt (with rules defining the specs for dirt).

    Also like the 3-batter rule for Relief pitchers; could iterate on 2-batters, but I like 3 in concept more than 2… but could be persuaded that’s too big a change.

    Not a fan of taking off for first on any pitch; but maybe I’ll change if I see it in action.

    Still, best to see some games with these changes to assess impacts… my trailing concern, though, is that too many changes at once might make it hard to discern which might be the one with the best overall impact.

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  2. Avatar Mike Dwyer
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    As a former catcher, this is a bit scary. It adds a lot more to deal with on their end. When I was playing 16 & 17 year-old leagues we had a lot of pitchers with great arms but not-so-great control. I was always worried about the third strike rule because my job was often similar to an NHL goalie in those days, just trying to keep wild pitches from slipping past me. I was also always worried about hitting a running batter in the back of the head if I was directly behind him. Yikes.

    With all.of that said, this level of consideration for new rules and small ball is why I still say baseball is one of the most beautiful sports.Report

  3. Avatar PD Shaw
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    Good post; I’ve always wondered about the purpose of the dropped third strike. Still not convinced its a rule that should be maintained. One point is that frequently the batter doesn’t know the third strike has been dropped, and you see that WTF look when the catcher comes up behind him and applies the tag. I would rather the game emphasize strategy, than random weird stuff.

    The foul bunt rule would increase bunts, but probably only those that would have been deciding to bunt under the existing rule. One difference might be that some of the extreme infield shifts occur once there are two strikes. I can see more surprise bunts in shifting circumstances.

    I think one of the big issues right now discouraging base stealing is the replay. I watched a perfect steal with a pop-up slide a few days ago from my team’s pitcher. Called safe, and on replay was called out because a camera angle showed a brief moment of space when the first foot slid over the bag and the second foot reached the bag. Not visible from any of the replays the TV crew had, but inferable. You would have to have the camera angle set at a plain close to the ground to catch it. My point is that a club’s willingness to steal is going to be on the perceived success rate, and new technology intended for one thing makes stealing bases a risky proposition. (The announcers opined that you have to slide head first these days, so there’s that)Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to PD Shaw
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      Eliminating the dropped third strike rule: This is an arguable position. I have an aesthetic fondness for weird vestiges from an earlier time. I will die a happy man if I get to see an NFL team win on a free kick after a fair catch. But I recognize that not everybody has my sense of aesthetics. I think the dropped third strike rule has survived mostly because it is rare enough that it has not pissed enough people off to result in a movement against it. That being said, the ‘stealing’ first rule would put new life into the idea, moving it from the realm of a rare weirdness to something that actually matters.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to PD Shaw
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      says:

      One difference might be that some of the extreme infield shifts occur once there are two strikes. I can see more surprise bunts in shifting circumstances.

      That’s an excellent point.Report

  4. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    On first pass, I like the idea of stealing first even tho it seems like a radical change. Think of it this way: when a new batter steps into the box he should be viewed as a *live runner* governed by hitting rules but also the same in-play rules as apply to (other) base runners. He can advance (to first) on a passed ball, but also on any other throwing error or mistake committed by the defense, eg., if the catcher over-throws second on a steal. It would also, I think, change how pitchers approach an at bat, with fewer balls thrown in the dirt… I can see the merits!

    The additional foul while bunting is weird enough that I think you might be right that it’s a skid greaser for limiting fouls while swinging.

    One other change they’re experimenting with is “robotic” strike calling conveyed by wireless to the human home plate umpire who can, at his discretion, call the pitch as he sees fit. Seems like a good compromise between the purists in both camps.Report

  5. Avatar Slade the Leveller
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    Nobody will ever steal first like A.J. Pierzynski stole first.

    I attended 3 ballgames this past weekend (Akron, Lake County, and Fort Wayne). The first 2 were finished in 2.5 hours, and the third was at the 3.5 hour mark after 8, and ultimately finished in just under 4 hours. There were 15 runs scored on 21 hits between the 2 teams in the Fort Wayne game (vs a total of 16 runs total in the first two), but what really distinguished it was how slowly the pitchers worked. In the first 2 the pitchers worked with Buerhle-like efficiency.

    There are 3 measures that could be taken to shorten the game to a reasonable length. Putting pitchers on a clock (or really just enforcing the existing rule), keeping the batter in the box, and keeping the manager in the dugout (for pitching changes). The first 2 are easy to implement, while the 3rd, lamentably, has no chance. Gone are the days where Fergie Jenkins could start 39 games and finish 30 of them, and win the Cy Young. All while grabbing the occasional smoke in the dugout.

    I’m all for adopting the 3rd strike on a 2nd foul ball rule. I have no love for long, unproductive at bats.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Did you see that they’re also going to continue experimenting with the robo-ump? I guess they used it in their All-Star game without the world ending. A real ump stood back there with an ear piece and had the calls radioed in to him. I like it… especially because there are no actual robots involved.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      No jobs in jeopardy so far.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      I didn’t write about that because it really is a different topic, and interesting in its own right. Conceptually, it is not a substantive change at all: it merely better enforces the existing rule. In practice it will change things, both because The Powers That Be will have to choose between enforcing the rulebook strike zone, changing the rulebook to better reflect the strike zone as it is enforced by human umpires, or enforce the human umpire strike zone while discreetly ignoring the rulebook. I am fascinated to see how they go. Then once the system settles in, how will this affect pitching and batting? I suspect that it will give a batter with a good eye an advantage. He will only have to see where the ball is going, rather than also having to factor in the vagaries of the particular umpire behind the plate that day.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        says:

        Good points… I’d style myself cautiously optimistic about laser assisted strike zones. My caution, however, is based on childhood wiffle ball experience… so heed well what I’ve learned. The anecdote is this:

        As kids we invented an automated Ump; it was a mesh gate with a metal rim. Perfectly placed for a wiffle ball field, the width was exactly right even if the high/low strikes were a tad high and a tad low. The key was the Metal Pipe rim… any ball that landed in the meshy middle was obviously a strike… but the marginal calls – the ones where everyone would call the other a lying liar and quit – those were backed by the stern robotics of a distinct “Ping!” If you heard the Ping it was a strike. No ifs ands or buts… them’s the rules. It was awesome.

        But, here’s what I learned… the advantage went to the pitcher pretty quickly. If all I had to do was get “the ping” then the objective was to throw a mostly unhittable ball that nicked the outer most edge of the Ping. Once you found that, then muscle memory (we were kids, we still had muscles and they still learned fast) would have you repeat unhittable pitch after unhittable pitch. Until someone told you to stop being an asshole and play the game right or everyone would quit.

        Obviously kid’s wiffle balls do odd things in flight… but then we weren’t professionals who can hit our spots nor will professionals be moved by calls not to be assholes and to play the game right. So, impass there.

        Moral of my story? Really just echoing your comment about the Laser Zone likely being totally different from the Rule Book zone… if anything, I’d suggest that the zone will be even smaller and more different than what we would expect. Once the Robot no longer cares about “hittable” pitches and only the “Ping” matters, I anticipate tight zones indeed.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Marchmaine
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          says:

          The thing is, a good pitcher is already throwing unhittable pitches at the edge of the zone. That is pretty much the definition of good pitching, unless you can throw so hard that the batter simply can’t get the bat around fast enough.

          As for the size of the zone, the upper edge of the de facto and de jure zones are very different. Pull up the rules on the MLB site. They include a pretty drawing of a batter showing the zone. Hold that up next to your TV during a game where they project a box on the screen. Compare and contrast.

          Also worth noting, reports of the Atlantic League All-Star game talk about one pitch that every, including the umpire, seems to agree would have been called a ball but which the system said nicked the bottom edge of the strike zone. This is talked about as a failure of the robo-ump. Are they saying its calibration was off? Because if that’s not what they are saying, they are saying that umpires have been calling that pitch wrong all along.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Richard Hershberger
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            says:

            Right… I’m also referencing that thing you called “having to factor in the vagaries of the particular umpire behind the plate that day” which is sort of the subjective aspect of “hittable”

            I’m not really disagreeing… I think – from my vast experience in wiffle ball – that it will indeed be all about calibration becuase the rule book strike zone with laser enforcement will show 100% that different umps have been calling different balls/strikes completely wrong. Not all wrong in the same way, but wrong in all their own idiosyncratic ways.

            (it also goes both ways in the famous Atlanta outside strike… which allegedly crept ever wider as the game progressed – not sure if that is something we could verify as I don’t think we have the data from the 90s like we do from the 00s esp post 2008).Report

          • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Richard Hershberger
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            says:

            I thought the upper and lower bounds of the official strike zone were too inexact to be easily scanned: “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap”

            The reference points are gauged to midpoints on clothing or body parts beneath clothing, which are by nature vague. What Statcast does to determine the top and the bottom of the strike zone is to utilize a database of what umpires called balls and strikes in the past:

            “Isn’t that ironic? Until MLB comes up with a machine-comprehensible definition of the top and bottom of the strike zone, machines will need the assistance of humans to define the strike zone for the machines.”

            https://tht.fangraphs.com/the-physics-of-roboump/Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Marchmaine
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          says:

          Obviously kid’s wiffle balls do odd things in flight…

          It’s been a lot of years, but as I recall if you knew what you were doing you could get about three feet of sideways break with a wiffle ball.Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            Yep… as a lefty throwing to a righty that was my unhittable pitch. Could also get the ball to rise if you threw it hard enough and side-arm… that was the other exploit – hit the *bottom* bar with rising fastball – looked like a worm burner all the way to the ping.

            Of course we adapted… jumping across the plate to hit the curve and all the other things kids do to keep games fair. 🙂Report

  7. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Some time ago, I took a group of British co-workers to their first baseball game. They mostly saw it as a variant of cricket, and on that basis wondered why the batter can’t advance on a ball that gets past the catcher.Report

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