New rule shows MLB still needlessly obsessed with giving runners a free trip to second base

Ryan Fagan

Ryan Fagan

www.sportingnews.com

I will never understand why MLB is so insistent on gifting second base to runners.

We’ve played with the runner-starts-on-second-base rule in extra innings for a few years now, and though the powers-that-be keep saying it’s temporary, don’t bet the farm on that. And now, buried in the list of rule changes for the 2023 season — passed by MLB’s competition committee on Friday, though every member of the MLBPA  on the committee voted against the package — is yet another free pass to second base. 

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It’s not at the top of the list, but it’s there. And it’s not baseball. 

I’ve harped on the Magic Runner rule for what feels like a baseball eternity. Here’s what I wrote back in April 2021, and my opinion has not changed one bit. 

The fundamental element of Major League Baseball has always been the batter-pitcher duel, a head-to-head contest that takes place over and over in the same game. The pitcher does everything in his power — hours and hours of practice, with hours of video and scouting work — to keep the batter from reaching base safely. The batter does everything he can — hours and hours of practice, with hours of video and scouting work — to reach base safely. Starting in the 10th inning, though, MLB has suddenly decided none of that matters, that it’s just going to freely give out what had to be earned for more than a century of competition: a spot on second base.

The new rule relevant to second base is about how many times a pitcher can step off — “disengage” — with the pitching rubber per plate appearance. 

Here are the details, from MLB’s press release … 

A pitcher may disengage the rubber (timer resets) twice per plate appearance without penalty.

Subsequent disengagements result in a balk, unless an out is recorded on a runner.
The disengagement count resets if the runner advances; testing in the Minors had no reset until the following plate appearance. 

And with a balk, of course, runners advance. 

For decades and decades, managers and teams were willing to give away precious outs — you only get 27 per nine innings, but teams would often sacrifice two or three per game — just to move a runner from first to second base. It was that important to get the runner to second base and into scoring position. 

And now MLB is going to gift that extra base because of, what, an extra pickoff attempt? Oh, and to be clear, this rule is in effect for the postseason, too.

Sheesh.

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It’s difficult to get to second base. It should be difficult. Please stop making it easy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t hate the motivation behind the rule. “Too many pickoff attempts” isn’t the biggest culprit in baseball’s pace-of-play problem, but it is a factor. Especially when you’ll see a pitcher make multiple casual throws to first when a runner either doesn’t have a big lead or isn’t even remotely a threat to steal second base. This happens too often late in games, when a pitcher uses those tosses to catch his breath or mentally reset before making an important pitch. Getting rid of those will be a good thing.

But when there’s a legitimate stolen-base threat on first in a key situation late in a game, three pickoff attempts isn’t unreasonable throughout a plate appearance: pickoff attempts have different intents on different counts in an attempt to control the running game.

The penalty for the third unsuccessful pickoff attempt — a free pass to second base — is too severe. The punishment does not fit the crime. If there’s a rule, there has to be a punishment for breaking the rule, of course. 

Instead of a free base, add a ball to the count. With the new pitch-clock rule proposals, we’re already to the point where balls and strikes are going to be added for violations. The difference between a 2-1 count and a 3-1 count will be felt by a pitcher. 

But the difference between a runner on first and a runner on second is so much more impactful. It’s messing with the game in an entirely different way.  

And that’s not a good thing. It’s an unnecessary overcorrection that hurts one of the fundamental elements of the game. 

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