Earlier in the spring, we told you about a suite of experimental rule changes that Major League Baseball had implemented at the minor league level. One of the motivations for doing so is to address the declining level of action on the field.
To that end, MLB is trying out some tweaks designed to increase the frequency of stolen base attempts. In Triple-A, they're using larger bases, which serves to slightly decrease the distance between bases. In High-A, pitchers must step off the rubber before throwing to any base or be charged with a balk. This makes it easier for baserunners to read pickoff moves and get a better jump. Finally, in Low-A pitchers are limited to two step-offs or pick-off attempts per plate appearance while a runner or runners are on base.
So are those changes having the desired effects? Sam Dykstra of MLB.com and MiLB.com recently broke down the early season returns at those levels and found that, yes, it's working to a significant extent. To wit:
- At the Low-A level, where step-offs and pick-off throws are limited, stolen bases per game are up from 0.83 in 2019 (recall that the minor leagues did not play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic) all the way to 1.42 so far in 2021.
- In High-A, where pitchers must step off the rubber before throwing to a base, stolen bases per game are up from 0.80 in 2019 to 1.41 in the early going this season.
- In Triple-A , where the bases are slightly larger -- 18 square inches, up from 15 square inches -- steals have seen a slight bump from 0.63 in 2019 to 0.83 this season.
- In Double-A, where defensive shifts were limited but nothing that would affect stolen base rates was implemented, basically nothing has changed. In 2019, baserunners stole 0.76 bags per game, and in 2021 that figure is 0.79.
All of this -- including the relative stasis at the Double-A level -- suggests that the rules changes are making a difference. Obviously, the expanded balk rule and the limits on pick-off throws and step-offs are the biggest drivers, but the larger bases also appear to be moving the needle just a bit. If all three changes were implemented at the highest level, then you'd probably see something close to a base-stealing renaissance.
Speaking of which, steals at the MLB level this season are down to 0.46 per game, which is the lowest figure since 1967. It's also in keeping with the general pattern of decline that's been in place since the late 1990s -- or "late 20th century" if you wish to feel the sudden crush of mortality.
To be sure, the game has other, arguably more pressing issues, such as the dearth of balls play. The loss of the steal is relevant to that, though, as all the strikeouts and home runs necessarily limit stolen base attempts. The early returns at the minor league level, however, are quite encouraging, at least to those of who want to see more activity and risk-taking on the bases. If these trends hold across a larger sample, then don't be surprised if serious discussions ensue about making these changes at the MLB level.