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.