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Monday, July 15, 2019

Stupid rules, baseball edition

The independent Atlantic League (which used a Doppler radar plate umpire for its All Star game) has, with MLB support, implemented a new rule: Any pitch not "caught in flight" is a live ball, allowing a batter to run to first base or to be put out. People have described it as "stealing first," although that is not quite accurate. It happened in a game on Saturday. Others have described it as an extension of the uncaught third-strike rule, under which a batter becomes a runner if a third strike is not caught. I am not sure what the point is. I guess it adds excitement by offering a new way to reach first base, away from the home runs and walks that are increasing (and, some argue, making the game boring).

This seems stupid for several reasons.

The rule represents a departure from the game's basic structures. There are, famously, 7 (or 8, depending on how you count defensive interference) ways for a batter to reach base (unless you fine-grain it into 23). However you count, all are based on the batter putting the ball in play and the defense having to catch the ball to complete an out, or on the pitcher not being able to throw too many pitches out of the strike zone (there is no magic number, but it is not one). This rule introduces a new idea--reaching base on one pitch, not batted into play, that is not otherwise significant and would not otherwise produce an out.  I agree with the commentators who wonder whether the source of this rule actually likes or understands baseball.

The uncaught third strike analogy does not work. A batter becomes a runner on an uncaught third strike because that third strike is an otherwise significant pitch that would have produced an out had the catcher done his job. Moreover, the batter does not always become a runner on an uncaught third strike--he is out on strikes if first base is occupied with less than two out (for fear of creating Infield Fly-like perverse incentives). So there is a logic to when a batter does or does not become a runner. The new rule does not correspond to that logic and it is facile to label this a simple "extension" of that rule.

The new rule gives batters choices about when to try to reach base, which is otherwise unheard of in the game. A batter who hits the ball in fair play cannot "choose" whether to run--he must run. A batter cannot "decline" a walk to continue batting. The batter's choice begins and ends with whether to swing a bat. A batter cannot even decline to become a runner on an uncaught third strike--he must run. The game does not otherwise recognize the concept of a batter advancing "at his own risk"--at his option rather than forced; the batter is always forced to run when certain things happen. There is no logic to introducing this one optional situation.

The stories I have read do not explain what happens on a ball  that goes to the backstop with force-outs in effect on the bases (e.g., bases loaded or 1st/2d) and less than two out. Under ordinary rules, the runners can advance at their own risk on what would be a wild pitch or passed ball and they would have to be tagged. But if the batter attempts to run to first, that would force the runners to advance. Does this play now become a force on the lead runner at home? And how will anyone--the runners or the umpires--know? What if the runners do not plan to run (thinking the ball did not roll far enough away from the catcher) but the batter does run--now the runners are forced to advance but were not expecting to. There is no other situation in which everyone does not know in advance of the play what is a force-out and what is not, because the batter usually does not have a choice between running or not--this potentially adds some confusion. Or the new rule is limited to non-force-out situations--again, for no good reason.

This rule is part of a package that the Atlantic League and MLB are piloting. Two others are liberalizing what constitutes a check swing and allowing two foul bunts with two strikes before it is a strikeout. Again, all are designed to help batters and create offense, although at the risk of prolonging games that are already (it is said) too long. There is no obvious logic.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 15, 2019 at 09:25 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


You are also forgetting about catcher's interference (also the batter can reach base without the pitcher throwing a pitch with an intentional pass).

Posted by: John Weaver | Jul 17, 2019 2:19:54 PM

Lighten up, Francis. The new rules might be fun. They could add some excitement and interest into a game that many people find boring. If not, I guess they'll be a failed experiment. But the game has changed in many ways, big and small, through the years, not always in ways that fit the preexisting logics.

Posted by: Sam Bagenstos | Jul 15, 2019 8:31:56 PM

I've never understood the need for innovation in a game where one of the central attractions is that it doesn't change, making comparisons between teams and players easier.

Posted by: James | Jul 15, 2019 5:20:46 PM

You know that the "steal of first base" was in the original Knickerbocker ruleset, yes? And as for "what happens if there is a force situation?", since the batter is at liberty to decide to run or not, he will, presumably, not run unless there is zero chance of chaos ensuing. I like it, it makes the pitcher and catcher pay attention when there's noone on base. The nonchalance of "Oh, I missed catching that pitch, hey ump, gimme a new ball" is annoying. Do your job, Mr. Catcher.

Posted by: Alan MacNeill | Jul 15, 2019 5:00:08 PM

Fair enough. I should have said one is not enough, unless something else is present, such as it hitting the batter.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 15, 2019 3:21:19 PM

Howard, I agree this is a dumb new rule but one quibble with your claim that "all [ways to reach first base] are based on the batter putting the ball in play and the defense having to catch the ball to complete an out, or on the pitcher not being able to throw too many pitches out of the strike zone (there is no magic number, but it is not one)." This ignores the HBP.

Posted by: greg651 | Jul 15, 2019 12:30:28 PM

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