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Scenes like this will be rarer in 2023 — and the game is going to get crazier as a result.
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Picking apart the limited-pickoffs rule

Reporting on the new 2023 restrictions has completely buried the lede; stolen base numbers are going to explode

When we reported the rules changes approved for 2023 yesterday, we got one aspect wrong. But it wasn’t really a mistake, at least not one you could blame us for.

One of the four main rules changes, “rubber disengagement,” contains a restriction on the battery (and a boon to baserunners) that seemed too unbelievable to be true: Pitchers may only make two pickoff attempts per at-bat.

If this is the rule, and as Friday went on it sunk it as truth, it effectively means just one pickoff attempt, because pitchers will have to “save” their second in case the runner just starts walking to second base. And if you DO make two moves, then the runner WILL be able to walk to second base.

Of course, runners can still be caught too far off-base, and pitchers with great moves to first will be their own deterrent against the running game. But runners will find new ways to draw pickoff attempts, and the only goal is to get to two ... because once a pitcher throws over twice, the battle is over and the runner gets second base — he can lead off 40 feet if he wants.

So, draw a throw and get back safely — not automatic, but also pretty scientific — and you’re thisclose to earning a free bag.

The new restrictions on pickoff attempts have far more ramifications for the game than a pitch clock or defensive shifting, the two rules changes that are getting all of the attention. The restrictions basically will allow any base-stealer worth their salt to run freely. It will render stolen base records to date invalid. And it could turn 75% of current catchers into DHs.

Giving a MLB baserunner an extra half-step, which at minimum this does, plus the few inches reduced between bases (the larger base) should make Billy Hamilton $50 million next year.

I know, I know, what’s wrong with me that this is making me nuts? Well, some players in the White Sox system (the pickoff restrictions have been in play for all of 2022 in the minors) have been running wild — or, at least, very successfully — with stolen bases:

DJ Gladney: 10-of-11 (91%)
Duke Ellis: 56-of-65 (86%)
D.J. Burt: 41-of-48 (85%)
Adam Haseley: 16-of-19 (84%)
Wilber Sánchez: 38-of-46 (83%)
José Rodríguez: 40-of-50 (80%)
James Beard: 28-of-37 (76%)
Misael González: 13-of-17 (76%)
J.J. Muno: 23-of-31 (74%)
Yoelqui Céspedes: 30-of-41 (73%)
Tyler Neslony: 19-of-26 (73%)

(Remember, metrics studies from Tom Tango’s The Book on down indicate that as low as a 66-70% success rate on SBs makes the effort worthwhile.)

Charlotte Knights: 103-of-158 (65%)
Birmingham Barons: 182-of-239 (76%)
Winston-Salem Dash: 111-of-141 (79%)
Kannapolis Cannon Ballers: 135-of-168 (80%)
TOTAL: 531-of-706 (75%)

Yeah, yeah, these are probably the numbers every year, right? Wrong. And remember, the White Sox system is very bad, so its positive numbers (like, steals) are going to lag behind all the better teams they compete against.

  • Charlotte’s International League division in Triple-A went from 1,895 steals at a 76% rate in 2021 to 2,456 (and counting) at a 78% rate
  • Birmingham’s Southern League division in Double-A went from 679 steals at a 69% rate in 2021 to 1,227 (and counting) at a 77% rate
  • Winston-Salem’s Sally League division in High-A went from 1,333 steals at a 74% rate in 2021 to 1,782 (and counting) at a 77% rate
  • Kannapolis’ Carolina League division in Low-A went from 1,838 steals at a 78% rate in 2021 to 2,261 (and counting) at a 79% rate

Darren Black, our minors analyst, has pooh-poohed my ranting, surmising that the better baserunners will steal, and steal successfully, more often with these rules — nothing more.

But in the majors, there is no development time, or skill exercises that may be getting played out in real time, to interfere with the sheer mechanics of the game; Project Birmingham is literally being run as a sort of extended instructional league for the Sox in Double-A this month. MLB, on the other hand, will be cutthroat from Opening Day; anyone mastering a read of pitcher moves and developing the ability to draw a throw will be turning walks and singles into doubles and triples.

Isn’t that always the case in baseball? Sure, to a degree. But the finite nature of the limited-pickoffs rule is what kills me. This is a milder form of, but akin to, a three-ball walk, or the batter getting to specify the next pitch thrown on a three-ball count.

This rule is going to create HAVOC. Rickey Henderson should come out of retirement.

Eventually, pitchers may adjust and try to let runners hang themselves with aggressiveness or overconfidence. But best case in the immediate term is that pitchers will have to give the baserunner his biggest ca. 2022 lead and just let it be. Or, throw over once, fail to get him 99% of the time, and then let him duplicate that big lead — the one he probably steals successfully on 90+% of the time — and go.

For certain elite base-stealers, they will be impossible to be stopped unless they get themselves thrown out (wheels spin, stumble). For smart base-runners, it will be nearly impossible. Anyone with speed, even a bad baserunner? Your rate of success just broke 50%, or even 60%.

This pickoff restriction fundamentally changes the game. Will the game adjust? It always does. But restricting pickoff throws plays with the physics of the game in a really big way. There simply aren’t enough big-armed catchers to offset the advantages baserunners now have.

Sure, maybe five years from now the James McCanns will get paid Mike Trout money to stop the running game, every catcher in the majors will have a killer cannon and instantaneous pop times, and we’ll see RFs and 3Bs, or even SSs and CFs, get turned into backstops. But until that time, the base paths are going to be on fire.

Pitch outs? Sure, we’ll see more. And that means more walks. Or, possibly a good consequence: Forcing pitchers to attack the zone more (due to wasted pitches) and more balls in play. We’ll see; I’d gamble we’ll just see more SBs lead to into unplanned IBBs that keep force plays in order. More scoring? Sure. Bastardized SB totals? Probably.

Increased base size alone will make 1-2% more attempts successful — or hell, maybe 5-10%. On top of that, now a pitcher basically can’t throw over, and a runner has to in essence pick himself off?

Under these rules, Henderson would have had 300 steals a year, and 4,000 career SBs. For an elite or even just smart baserunner, now even third base is better than a 50/50 proposition.

He won’t be, but Hamilton should be a very rich man next year. A smart team will snap him up. A Duke Ellis as a pinch-running specialist will turn a walk into a triple, EVERY TIME.

At the MLB level, this rule change is going to be jack up the running game. EVERY TIME Hamilton gets on, he will be on second. Of course, you can’t steal first. But turning EVERY walk into a double is no small ripple in the game.

Very good base-stealers will go from 75%+ to 90% or better, and that includes more attempts at 3B. Maybe even increased thefts of home.

With this change, if the White Sox don’t bring back Grinder Ball or pull out the Let’s Go, Go-Go White Sox speed for 2023, they are blowing a big opportunity. They might want to look into re-acquired McCannon, too.

Poll

OK, your turn. What will the new restrictions on pickoff attempts do to baseball?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Nothing, you idiot. Chicks dig the longball, not the SB.
    (4 votes)
  • 15%
    Increased SBs and SB success, but like the revival of flared pants, nothing we didn’t live through in the 1970s.
    (10 votes)
  • 30%
    I’m a little concerned, this is too much too soon and will result in too little policing on the basepaths.
    (19 votes)
  • 36%
    It will be, as outlined here, some form of baseball hysteria, and we will see multiple 100 SB players, stealing at a 90%+ rate.
    (23 votes)
  • 11%
    I’m only looking at this poll to find an answer that will allow me to come back a year from now and make fun of Brett for being so hysterical about ... stolen bases.
    (7 votes)
63 votes total Vote Now

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