Proposing a Rule Change

I don’t know where the saying came from. It’s partly a platitude, partly a statement of the rules. It is used to celebrate a player’s skill, while also unkindly magnifying precisely how that skill cannot be used. It’s a pat on the back, and a kick in the groin. It’s a definition of a back-handed compliment.

“You can’t steal first.”

This phrase, when used by broadcasters, usually accompanies an at-bat by a speedy, light-hitting player. It is meant to point out that while this player’s speed is an asset, it does not help his ability, or inability, to get on base.

“You can’t steal first.”

But what if, like, you could? What if the rules of baseball allowed a player to, at any time during an at-bat, take off for first base? You probably haven’t thought about this, due to the fact that it’s a silly idea. But I have, fair NotGraphs reader, for your benefit.

The pitcher is a fragile creature indeed, and the installation of this rule might be the thing that sends most of them to the asylum. Gone would be the days of walking around the mound. An errant pickoff throw would now put runners at first and second. And the wild pitches, my God, the wild pitches. If a pitcher bounces one with a runner on base, the runner moves up. Not the end of the world. However, if the batter were allowed to take first on a wild pitch or passed ball, regardless of the count? It may be a smart idea to buy stock in Gatorade-cooler repair companies, if this were to happen.

There were 104,403 plate appearances in 2012 where no bases were occupied. That’s 104,403 new opportunities for a pitcher to negatively his team’s win probability on ANY pitch, not just ball four.

How would it be scored? Would an extra category need to be added to signify the difference in traditional steals and steals of first? Would stealing first positively affect one’s on-base-percentage? What’s the WPA of such a feat? How many more steals would Ricky Henderson and Vince Coleman have amassed? Would there finally be a good reason to slide into first? Would speedy hitters and defensively-deft catchers be more valuable?

Mr. Cistulli recently penned a micro essay about the importance of the unknown and the yet-to-happen in baseball – how mere possibilities of fantastical things happening are, perhaps, more important than factual things happening. If this has truth to it, and I believe it does have some, the legalization of stealing first adds a new matrix of possibilities of which to gain pleasure.

So I implore you, Mr. Commissioner. Legalize the theft of first. If you won’t give us instant replay, or better umpire accountability, then at least allow Carlos Gomez to up his OBP when the pitcher spins a curveball 60’ 2’’. Tradition be damned. Long live possibilities.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

12 Responses to “Proposing a Rule Change”

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  1. David says:

    I think one of the obvious points you missed is that after every pitch the catcher would hold the ball for a couple extra seconds. Because if the batter steps out if the box that would have to count as an attempted steal and he could easily be tagged out.

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    • Holy crap, I DID miss that. This would add more to the mind game of the whole thing. Good point.

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    • AJ says:

      If that has the effect of keeping the batter in the box so they’re not stepping out after every pitch, is that really a bad thing? I’d be more than happy not seeing a batter stepping out of the box after every pitch to adjust gloves, helmet, sleeves, chew, cup, etc… It really wouldn’t be hard to institute, because you can specifically define the few scenarios where stepping out of the box would be permitted – avoiding an errant pitch, “walking off the pain” from a ball that hits the batter but is otherwise not a HBP (i.e. foul off the foot), changing broken equipment (broken bat, helmet, belt, shoelace, whatever), or when granted time by the home plate ump.

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    • Nate says:

      What box? By the second inning, there is no marked batter’s box.

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  2. You just blew my mind, Mr. Temple.

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  3. AMAC says:

    Has it ever been legal to steal first? A quick Google revealed that people are discriminated against for their (Cosmetic) make up choices and some truisms rather than anything useful.

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  4. therood says:

    The great Germany Schaefer once stole first while he was on second base to distract the opposition and allow his teammate to steal home from third. I don’t believe it was expressly illegal at the time.

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  5. Jaack says:

    Germany Schaefer stole 1st base! There were runners on 1st and 3rd with less than 2 outs. Schaefer on 1st wanted to bait a throw to allow the runner on 3rd to score so he attempted to steal second. However, he got such a good jump that the catcher made no attempt. Disappointed by his failure to get a run in, on the next pitch he ran back to first, again attempting to bait a throw. This time, everyone was so astonished that they all stood speechless. Since there was nothing banning this in the rulebook at the time, the umpire let it stand. Schaefer made a third attempt, and that time it finally worked.

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    • deadhead says:

      Is it now illegal to steal a base in reverse?

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        rule 7.08i states that a player is out if “After he has acquired legal possession of a base, he runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.”

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  6. Mike G says:

    I like the idea — what if the batter could only steal 1st if the pitcher has received the ball from the catcher and time has not been called. This would still create the situation of a 1st base steal on a errant pick-off throw.

    I would also like to see the fake to 3rd — then look back at 1st… be called a baulk.

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