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Rule Change Friday: Pickoff Throws

People have been complaining about the length of ballgames for years. While batters stepping out of the box presents its own irritations, one thing that can really get a crowd angry is excessive throwing to first base to hold the runner or pick him off. Years ago, Bill James (and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one) proposed a solution to this “problem,” and I am curious to see what people think today.

The New Bill James Historical Abstract is a classic, not simply of applied sabermetrics, but of baseball writing in general. There is plenty of number crunching beneath the surface, but that is really a minor part of the book’s appeal. While the Win Shares methodology now seems baroque and archaic, the historical information, and, even beyond that, the anecdotes and stories are what really make the book for me. James does not just opt for the illusion of mere description, either. His opinions are openly and frankly stated. One aspect of the game that James did not like in the 1990s (and I doubt things have changed much since then in this regard) is the length of games, and he offers several suggestions for speeding things up. One of them is limiting pickoff throws from the pitcher.

James’ suggestion is part of a number of changes he suggests, but I want to focus on this particular one. The suggestion is that a pitcher gets two unsuccessful (meaning not catching the runner) throws to the bases each inning. The third unsuccessful throw (and each throw after that) results in a ball for the hitter at the plate. (One could alter the number of throws necessary to trigger the ball, it’s the idea of setting a limit that interests me here.) This would change a few things. It would definitely decrease the numbers of throws to the bases, of course. James estimated that it would shorten each game by an average of four minutes. It would also increase the number of steals.

Assuming those things are roughly true (and it makes sense to me), this is a matter of aesthetic preference (or judgment, or “judgement” if you want to get all British). One position that I definitely do not hold is that “this is the game, never shall it change.” It is untrue to history, for one thing. Moreover, if something can make the game better, why not do it.

But would the change actually make the game better, from an aesthetic perspective? I do not have a position at the moment. Making each game a bit shorter is assumed to be a good thing in itself by many (by itself, four minutes is not that much, but every little bit would help), but that is not completely obvious, either. I do not mean just from an advertiser’s standpoint, either. Perhaps some people enjoy the sheer duration of games.

The steals issue gets more to the point of actual gameplay. Personally, I enjoy the game the way it is now. A “balanced” sort of game between offense and defense, power hitting and a speed game… well, such notions of balance strike me as being relative. There is no obvious, ideal ratio between the aspects, at least not from a merely quantitative point of view. That is not to say such a ratio does not exist from an aesthetic standpoint. I enjoy watching baseball the way is currently is. But that does not mean it might not be better to have more base stealing. James puts it this way: “baseball is supposed to be played by young guys who can run, rather than old fat guys who can hit home runs.” (321) I am not sure I agree with everything behind the sentiment and James’ idealization of 1970s baseball, but I understand the perspective.

Baseball, like all games, is a human construction. The rules we have today for it were not brought down from the moutntain by Abner Doubleday. If we want to change the rules about intentional walks or pickoff throws or whatever in a way that will change the game so that it is better, we can do it. As I said before, I currently do not have an opinion on this particular issue, so I want to hear from you. Vote in the poll below, and let your voice be heard in the comments.

NB: If people enjoy this, perhaps “Rule Change Friday” will become a semi-regular post.