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.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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Aaron (UK)
Guest
Aaron (UK)

The current situation is not brilliant but I think it’s better than James’s proposed alternative.

What is sometimes forgotten is that each pick-off throw does carry cost both in risk (2-base errors aren’t uncommon) and effort (admittedly much less effort than a pitch).

Future Rule Change Friday: no run can score once the catcher has touched home plate while in possession of the baseball, unless the catcher then throws the ball.

AK707
Member
AK707

Can you imagine the headgames once the pitcher has those unsuccessful throws though? The runner would be tempted to take a huge lead, and the pitcher would be tempted to take the easy pick-off in exchange for a ball. Who would blink first? Adding this to the current risk would be very entertaining.

Also, your future rule change friday is brilliant from a Buster Posey perspective. Prevents collisions on occasions that guys are beat to the plate by a mile, but preserves close plays.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Yeah, my problem with the rule is what happens after the unsuccessful pickoffs are used up. A decent baserunner then pretty much has a free steal.

An alternative suggestion: the pitcher can only make 2 unsuccessful pickoff throws in a row; he then needs to throw towards the plate.

Max
Guest
Max

You didn’t solve the problem. Now the runner gets to go no matter what.

This rule is an interesting idea, but it changes the stolen base game too much for me. Zillions of pickoff throws are part of the game. Some people find them annoying, but in my opinion it is not high on the list of problems in baseball.

timmy!
Guest

The runner doesn’t get a free bag. I’m sure many pitchers would gladly trade a ball to pick a runner off base. If a runner get’s too cocky and leads off too far he could end up picked off or in a pickle. Still it certainly would add more steals to the game but that’s no necessarily a bad thing.

I don’t think it’s correct to assume that the runner would have a free base automatically after 2 unsuccessful attempts.

Adam D
Guest
Adam D

you’re additional rule change essentially makes every play at the plate a force play… you’re giving no opportunity for a runner to slide under a tag if all the catcher has to do is step on the plate to prevent the run from scoring… if the runner isn’t out at that point, he certainly will be when the catcher tags him while the runner is somehow obligated to go back to 3rd base.

Aaron (UK)
Guest
Aaron (UK)

Yes, I know. If you can make it to the plate before the ball, you score, if you can’t, you don’t. Seems fairly simple. The ‘throw’ rule keeps things like the double steal of 2nd & home in order.

Adam D
Guest
Adam D

so… you’re trying to make this back into cricket?

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