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Rules are Rules

March 14, 2021

Hugh Atkins

I saw an article in USA Today this week outlining a plan by Major League Baseball to experiment with some new rules in the minor leagues this season. At first glance, the most significant changes involve eliminating the shift that has become so ubiquitous in today’s game. However, there are a couple of bizarre changes on tap that are geared toward increasing stolen bases.

The new rules being tested at the High-A and Low-A levels are so radical that every player not carrying an anvil while on the basepaths should be able to steal a base. One rule requires the pitcher to completely disengage the pitcher’s rubber (step off) before attempting a pick off. As under the current rules, if the pitcher moves his back foot, then the runner should go back to the base. But under the new rules, once the pitcher moves his front foot at all, the runner can take off for the next base without fear of a pickoff attempt.

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Rickey Henderson, who was caught stealing a record 335 times, must be somewhere licking his chops with visions of a comeback dancing in his head. And with this new rule he wouldn’t have to waste any time studying pick off moves.

Besides, if baseball wants to see more steals, they could start by enforcing the rules already on the books. 

Most umpires give an unfair advantage to left-handed pitchers when it comes to the pickoff move. A lefty can float their foot toward the plate and change direction and throw over to first base. The umps allow this as long as the pitcher’s foot doesn’t go more than 45 degrees toward the plate from an imaginary line between the pitcher’s rubber and first base. This allowance is not mentioned in Section 8.01(c), which states:

At any time during the pitcher’s preliminary movements and until his natural pitching motion commits him to the pitch, he may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw.

I don’t see anything about a 45-degree angle or an imaginary line between the pitcher’s rubber and first base, so I don’t know how this allowance crept into the interpretation of the balk. Obviously, if the pitcher’s foot moves toward the plate first, then he is not stepping directly toward another base. So, if a left-hander’s foot moves toward plate and he then throws to first base it is a balk. A mythical 45-degree angle should have no bearing on the call.

If a right-handed pitcher were to lift his front foot, move that foot toward the plate, and then pivot and throw to first base, all four umpires would start waving their arms as if they were landing a plane on an aircraft carrier, while screaming “Balk!” like Uecker from the cheap seats. It should be obvious that no rule was set up to give an unfair advantage to one pitcher over another, yet MLB and its umpires have allowed this to continue for years.

Some legislative body must have consulted with MLB to come up with these proposed rules, because they are a solution in search of a problem. Stolen bases are down because after 100 years of the live-ball era, some guy with a rudimentary understanding of data concluded that the stolen base attempt is not worth the risk. MLB’s solution is to make the stolen base so easy that it could fundamentally change the way the game is played–and not necessarily in a good way.

Here’s a novel idea. Leave the game alone, and let the players and managers figure it out.

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