Major League Baseball is going full steam ahead with an idea to allow runners to “steal” first base on a wild pitch or passed ball. The rule will go into effect for the second half of the Atlantic League, a testing ground for all sorts of changes and oddities that might eventually find their way to the majors. There’s no indication that the rule is coming to MLB yet, but the mere fact that it found its way to the Atlantic League is a sign that Rob Manfred is thinking about it.
The rule is pretty straightforward. Similar to the catcher dropping a third strike, a runner may advanced to first base on a wild pitch or passed ball — anything not caught by the catcher — regardless of the count.
As many have pointed out already, this rule is pretty brutal for pitchers. It gives players like Billy Hamilton or Byron Buxton an edge in that they can have a new way to get on base and use their speed, and as a result they’re also likely to see fewer breaking balls as pitchers fear a ball getting by the catcher. You can’t risk a slider or curveball getting away against Billy Hamilton, but those are the easiest ways to get him out. So if you’re not feeling either of those pitches in that particular inning, you might be forced to give him a more hittable fastball instead.
If you’re here for my opinion (you’re not, but it’s too late you’re stuck here now), I kind of like it. Baseball needs more base-runners, and if banning the shift is out of the question, this is one way to go about it that doesn’t explicitly take away another interesting strategy. It’ll also add another layer of drama and tension all on its own.
Some of the most exciting plays in baseball are when a runner is on third and a ball gets away from the catcher. It’s 4-5 seconds of pure adrenaline and anxiety as the batter backs away and waves his guy home while the catcher frantically searches for the ball to flip it back to the pitcher, who is sprinting home to try and save a run. Just imagine that same level of tension, or close to it, being present every pitch with a speedster at the plate. It changes the dynamic of a lead-off batter significantly, as they aren’t stuck either hitting a home run, hitting into the teeth of the shift, or striking out.
This all brings about one very important question — how could the Indians benefit from it?
More often than not, wild pitches come as the result of a breaking ball that got away. Theoretically, to have the biggest advantage in terms of stealing first base, a player should do the following well:
- Be fast
- See a lot of breaking balls
- See a lot of pitches in general
- Resist chasing balls out of the zone that could turn into passed balls
Speed is the most obvious place to start. It doesn’t matter how many balls in the dirt you see: if you can’t recognize a passed ball, drop your bat, and make it down to first before the catcher realizes recovers and throws to first, you’re not getting any free bases. Naturally, this makes the Indians’ rookie phenom, Oscar Mercado, a good place to start.
Mercado is one of the fastest players in baseball in 2019. He’s been clocked at 29.2 feet per second, according to Statcast, which puts him at 29th overall in baseball and the fastest Cleveland Indian on record — yes, faster than Greg Allen. He’s only 0.4 ft/s slower than Billy Hamilton, and 1.3 ft/s slower than the fastest man in 2019 ... *squints* ... Tim Locastro of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
All of that means, when a ball hits the dirt or flies past the catcher, Mercado is the likeliest to make it to first. But there’s more to it.
As discussed above, this new rule would likely to lead to more fastballs for faster players, but maybe not right away. Maybe, in the new rule’s first year of implementation, pitchers are stubborn; they don’t stop throwing breaking balls to Mercado, because he has issues hitting them. To date, only 48.5% of the pitches thrown to Mercado have been fastballs, the third-lowest on the Indians, and he’s seen the most sliders among active Indians at 26.5% (Hanley Ramirez leads alumni with 30.0%). There are a lot of opportunities for balls to get away with so few fastballs on ropes going by.
Mercado’s likelihood to see breaking balls, combined with his impressive sprint speed, makes him an enticing candidate to be baseball’s first-base-stealing king. There’s a catch, though. He’s is too aggressive.
If Mercado had enough at-bats to be considered a qualified batter, he’d have the 21st fewest pitchers per plate appearances in baseball at 3.57, which is also the lowest among non-pitcher Indians batters this season. His aggressiveness at the plate has led to a measly 4.3% walk rate thus far in his young career, but he makes contact enough as to not strike out a ton. It’s not yet an issue for his overall performance, but under the very specific microscope of stealing first base, he’d have to learn to lay off if he wants to take advantage of a wild pitcher.
Greg Allen is another obvious candidate to receive a boost from this new rule, in the same vein as Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton. He hasn’t had a lot of success hitting in the majors, but the kid can fly. He sees the most curveballs of any Indians batter at 12.5%, but chases a lot of pitches with a 37.0% outside swing rate, third highest on the Indians. He also sees just 3.86 pitches per plate appearance. Still, like Mercado, I think he’s fast enough to overcome all of that and he gets a pretty big boost regardless.
There is a much better Statcast measurement for this new rule — how long it takes a player to get from home to first, or “HP to 1B” — but Mercado and Allen don’t have measurements on the leaderboard yet. The highest Indians here are Jake Bauers at 4.25 seconds (75th among measured players), Jordan Luplow at 4.33 seconds (122nd), Jason Kipnis at 4.36 seconds (145th), and José Ramírez at 4.40 seconds (157th).
The super speedy guys are to easy to see taking advantage of being able to steal first. What about a couple surprises? How about the aforementioned Bauers and Luplow, who are among the fastest Indians going from home to first?
Bauers has chased pitches out of the zone just 24.7% of the time, the fifth lowest among 15 Indians batters with at least 50 PA. Luplow, similarly, has chased just 25.1% of the time. Bauers and Luplow both take a lot of pitches, too. They sit at 4.12 and 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, respectively. Bauers sees curveballs 11.8% of the time, second on the Indians to only Greg Allen, and Luplos sees them 10.3% of the time.
Turning it around, what about a catcher like Roberto Pérez, who rarely lets balls get by him? If I’m Roberto’s agent and this new rule comes into effect, I’d be sure to let every potential suitor know how well my client can stop anything in the dirt — just ask Trevor Bauer, he’s really dang good at it. And did I mention he hits dingers? Pay the man.
It’s a fun thought exercise with ultimately no answer until and if the rule ever actually makes it to the majors. In the end, speed is king no matter how many more breaking balls or wild pitches you’re likely to see. Obviously Oscar Mercado and Greg Allen would benefit greatly from such a rule, though Jake Bauers and Jordan Luplow might find themselves getting on base a couple more times a week.