This past winter I was talking to a team executive who is strongly identified with the analytics movement about the need for more action in the game. When I brought up banning defensive shifts, he countered with increasing stolen base attempts.
But weren’t stolen bases long ago deemed inefficient by the Moneyball movement? Aren’t they generally a path toward making unnecessary outs and scoring fewer runs?
Yes, the executive said, but you can change that calculation with rules aimed at making it easier to steal bases.
On Thursday, MLB took a significant step toward doing exactly that when it revealed plans for experimentation with several measures in the minor leagues.
The announcement came after years of research and discussion in the league’s Competition Committee, and more recent work by a trio of new MLB hires, Raul Ibanez, Michael Hill and Theo Epstein. Former pitcher Chris Young, who left MLB last winter to become GM of the Texas Rangers, was also essential in spearheading these initiatives.
The limiting of shifts, the automated strike zone and the pitch clock generated the most attention, but the new rules on pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber are also major innovations.
It’s a visceral joy to watch a professional athlete take off running while the pitcher is in his windup. It gets the crowd excited and stirs immediate tension. And it’s an event we see less of than in the past; the 2,218 stolen bases during the 2019 season represented the fewest in MLB in a non-strike season since 1973.
In its news release, MLB announced that in High-A this year, pitchers will be required “to disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base, with the penalty of a balk in the event the pitcher fails to comply.”
The league added that “MLB implemented a similar rule in the second half of the Atlantic League season in 2019, which resulted in a significant increase in stolen base attempts and an improved success rate after adoption of the rule.”
Data obtained by SNY further illustrates this point. The theory behind the rule was that it would allow runners to take larger leads, particularly against left-handed pitchers, increase the success rate of stolen bases and encourage more fastballs and more pitches in the strike zone.
In the Atlantic League, it worked. In the first half of the season, there were 1.02 stolen base attempts per game and 75.5% success rate. Under the new rules in the second half, there were 1.73 stolen base attempts per game and 80.9% success rate.
Against lefties specifically, in the first half of the season there were 0.51 stolen base attempts per game and 71.1% success rate. In the second half, 1.14 stolen base attempts per game and an 81.1% success rate.
Low-A leagues will take it even further this year. Pitchers will be limited to two step offs or pickoff attempts. Per the MLB release, “a pitcher may attempt a third step off or pickoff in the same plate appearance; however, if the runner safely returns to the occupied base, the result is a balk.”
Imagine a pitcher having to calculate his chances of actually picking off the runner versus being charged with a balk. That will lead to excitement -- and as anyone who watches baseball can tell you, the current incarnation of the game needs an infusion of exactly that.