Monthly Archive for July, 2011

Foamer Night: Ted’s Space City Venture

There’s been one ringing voice keeping Pitchers & Poets moving forward in the last few weeks: Patrick Dubuque. He’s killing it, and we couldn’t be happier.

Eric is, of course, on sabbatical across the pond, and I figured I’d take a moment to explain where I have been for the last little while. The short answer is: in Houston. I moved here from the rainy city of Seattle. An outsider in the Pacific Northwest, I coped on some level by delving into all things Ichiro and Mariners. I started a blog called Everyday Ichiro, I watched the team on TV, I interviewed Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims about scorekeeping, and I shot the bull about the Ms with my landlord at every opportunity. This was the Jacques Cousteau approach to baseball, meaning you dive right in and start to look around. By writing and watching, watching and writing, I learned the language of the team, and the state of the fan. That’s just what I plan to do in Houston, too.

So I started Foamer Night.

Foamer Night is an Astros blog, through and through, with game reports, style inquiries, essays, images, and any other media that I can relate to the Astros, the Astrodome, Houston, driving, and space. The title refers to a promotion that the Astros brass launched in the 1970s at the Astrodome, utilizing a light on the monstrous Dome scoreboard. I’ll let David Munger explain the rest in words he posted on a comment on Bill McCurdy’s Astros history blog, The Pecan Park Eagle:

I was at a game in the early ’70s and was unaware of Foamer Night. Briefly, if an Astro hit a a Homerun while the Green Light over the Foul Poles was on, it was Free Beer for the remainder of the game [sic, it was the remainder of the inning according to one source]. I was in the Restroom and all of a sudden it felt like an earthquake. I asked my neighbor at the next urinal what the HELL was going on . He said it’s a foamer and he ran towards the exit as he zipped up. The commotion was the WHOLE DOME running to get the FREE BEER. FYI-It was the BOTTOM OF THE FIRST. What a NIGHT.

Houston is my old hometown,1 and the Houston Astros are my hometown team, and as such, some aspects of my experience are familiar, while others have that uncanny familiar yet oddly foreign vibration that can only come from returning to those spots where you cut your teeth and longed to leave.

The Astros themselves are a team of near strangers to me right now. I could count on one hand the number of games of theirs I’ve watched all the way through in the last four years, and for all the attention I’ve paid them they’ve felt as distant as the American Leaguers and their strange and exotic Designated Hitters did when I hitched up in Seattle.

But Foamer Night is my old pickup truck to the Astros’ long and winding road back to prominence and prosperity. The work I’ll put in will be my way of reacquainting with an old flame, and learning the current players the way I knew Biggio, Bagwell, and Berkman back in the old days. Much of my work will deal with the specifics of the team and the games they play, while much will also, hopefully, discuss the history of the team and the city with the Pitchers & Poets-esque baseball navel-gazing style that we so enjoy in this particular space. I don’t expect everybody to come along for the ride. It’s a niche market, and the Astros are a sorry sight to behold right now. But I appreciate the opportunity to show off my new venture here, and hopefully I’ll catch a few Astro-sympathetic eyeballs for those open to a new voice.

As a note, Foamer Night is hosted here at Pitchers & Poets, though you can get straight to it by typing in foamernight.com.

  1. For more on returning to one’s hometown, I’ll refer you to Hometown Blues by Steve Earle on YouTube

Good News for Eric Wedge

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Mariners’ recent fall from grace is the lack of acrimony inspired by it.  There are plenty of stories in the national media breaking down the quantitative futility; everyone, after all, loves an outlier.  The local fan base is mourning the loss of Eric Wedge’s mustache almost as much as the team’s season.  Wedge, although capable of throwing out his share of baffling lineups, is generally respected as a manager.  Jack Zduriencik, unlike his predecessor, has made the kind of mistakes that at least follow some line of logic.  Expectations were reasonably tempered.  Even on the fifth of July, when the team was .500 and two and a half games out of first, everyone secretly knew that this was a roster capable of dropping a dozen games in a row.

Of course, as of July 26, 2011, the Mariners have outdone themselves, accomplishing a feat only twenty teams have done since the American and National Leagues merged in 1903.  And with a truly historical run of failure, Wedge and Zduriencik have been put on the hot seat almost by default.  But as it turns out, losing fifteen or twenty games in a row isn’t the death knell for a career one might think.  The list:


Eric Wedge, as it turns out, has joined some pretty respectable company in the past two and a half weeks.  This isn’t as surprising as it seems; if you stick around the game for thirty or forty years, you’re bound to see some streaks, good and bad.  Still, several of these managers (Herzog, Kuhel, and Mauch) were first-year managers, and were given at least another year to prove themselves.

Many of the teams who fired coaches after losing streaks did so under extenuating circumstances.  Tenney and Collins plied their trade during the player-manager era of baseball; Tenney was traded after his 1907 season, and released at the age of forty after 1911.  Collins, the Hall of Fame third baseman, was stripped of his managerial duties mid-season, a full eighty games after the end of the twenty-game losing streak.

Ted Turner gave Dave Bristol a ten-day leave of absence in 1977 so that he could manage the team himself, until N.L. President Chub Feeney stepped in and slapped the rulebook in his face.  Turner somehow persuaded Bristol to come back as a lame duck.  The world remembers the 1988 Baltimore Orioles for its staggering 0-21 start to the season, but Ripken, Sr. was actually fired after only six games.  Replacement-level manager Frank Robinson lost the other fifteen.

Of the nineteen managers, three of them were fired after and because of their losing streak (Collins, Fohl and Bristol).  Four were enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Where does this leave Eric Wedge?  Probably in neither category.  Miller Huggins once said that “a manager has his cards dealt to him, and he must play them.”  Nobody envies Wedge’s hand.  He can’t be accused of losing the players, and he’s shown a willingness to be flexible with his roster without making constant, desperate changes.  But for lack of a better alternative, we continue to measure managers by wins and championships.  Gene Mauch might prove a solid comparison: a pretty good manager who led some pretty awful teams.

The Seattle Mariners are a fascinating ballclub right now; rarely has a team lost so much and had so little meaning attached to it.  Usually, this kind of unabated failure beats down even the sensible fan, wears them raw until they need something, anything to be done.  They attach responsibility to whatever they can reach, and usually the field leader is the first in line.

In the case of the Mariners, however, there are no mutterings about intangibles, no hidden knowledge of winning.   They’ve lost sixteen times to teams that are better than they are.  Ordinarily, inferior baseball teams win their share of games against superior opponents; right now it isn’t happening.  It feels like an inevitability, but one of probability rather than fate.  Sooner or later a team is going to lose fifteen or twenty games; why not now?

 

Defiling Baseball’s Stonehenge

We tend to think of the baseball field as something static, a quiet temple or a sanctuary for youth.  This is especially true at the stadium: the field takes on a beauty that borders on lifelessness.  The grass is shorn into perfect diamonds, lacking the blemish of a single weed.  The source of the conflict is at the plate, but the field radiates out from the pitcher’s mound, a Pythagorean web of arcs, right angles, and perfect circles.  Even the chalk, pure white against the brown earth, gives the impression of definition and permanence.  The result of this meticulous grounds keeping, twenty minutes before a game, recalls the replication of divine order.  It was this spirituality that led Roger Kahn to write that “the ball field itself is a mystic creation, the Stonehenge of America.”

In light of this, it’s strange that baseball involves more (intentional) desecration of its places of worship than any other sport.  The field of play, once as pristine as a Grecian idyll, is tampered with by human hands.  Most noticeable to the fan among these alterations are the numbers painted on the outfield walls, but rustic tales abound even from the game’s infancy.  Teams with skilled bunters banked their third base line, helping the ball roll fair.  Opposing teams preferred to soak the ground around the plate to kill the ball within reach of the catcher.  Even the pitcher’s mound, the most conspicuous feature on the field, wasn’t immune to a few inches of alteration in one direction or another.

The destruction hardly ends when the game begins.  Even as the shortstop casts away the tiniest pebble from the dirt before him, other fielders etch their cleats in the dirt as if it were wet cement.  Lenny Dykstra spat so much tobacco into center field that Andy Van Slyke described it as a toxic waste dump.  The same players who hop, gazelle-like, over the foul line on the way to the dugout then proceed to strap on a batting helmet and kick up a sandstorm at the plate.

No locale in the baseball field is more war-torn than the batter’s box.  The hitter (unless he is managed by Maury Wills) is bound to a six-by-four foot chalk-lined prison, and he fights back by scuffing and erasing the lines.  He does this in front of his captor, in full view of the umpire and every fan at the stadium, and yet the crime rarely earns punishment.  The famous example of this is, of course, Carl Everett.  Everett was famous for erasing the back of the box to give himself a few extra milliseconds to react to the pitch.  Five years into his career, umpire Ron Kulpa finally drew a line in the sand, or in this case the clay, driving Everett to apoplexy and physical, forehead-based violence.

However, Carl Everett is the exception to this phenomenon, not the rule.  For every time a batter is called out for stepping out of the box, or warned for covering the chalk, countless others are unchecked.  In his biography, Planet of the Umps, Ken Kaiser had his own solution: “Just before the game began, after the groundskeepers had laid down all the chalk lines, I’d run out the back line of both batter’s boxes.  I couldn’t call a player out for being out of the batter’s box when there was no batter’s box.  I rubbed out that line every time I had the plate for my entire career.”  The umpire has his own priorities in a baseball game, and they veer away from divine right toward the safety of his own cranium.

There’s a baffling, fifty year-old story of psychological warfare conducted over field conditions between then-third base coach Leo Durocher and his own team’s owner, Walter O’Malley. Durocher had been driven to distraction by O’Malley’s on-field gimmick: replacing the field’s coach’s boxes with rubber mats.  Durocher was notorious for his compulsive eradication of all chalk in his vicinity.  Perhaps it was to sidle a few feet closer to his charges on third, but it’s also possible that Durocher was acting out against the rigidity of baseball, with its hard lines and its countless rules.  The mats proved indestructible, but this didn’t stop Durocher from continuing to hack at them with his cleats.  It’s possible that nothing could.  “I wonder,” he mused, “whether I’ll have to buy a new pair of shoes before O’Malley has to buy a new mat?”

“Mats,” chuckled O’Malley, “are cheaper than the kind of shoes Leo wears.”

What drives a man to this kind of obsessive behavior?  The naturalist might look at this metaphor as an indictment on humanity’s effect on the environment, his capacity for razing the most calculated natural beauty.  The genealogist might consider these activities as a need to leave one’s mark on the world.  The cynical businessman, meanwhile, could envision this frenetic activity, most of it being of little utility, as the human imperative to look busy, to evoke some change as evidence for one’s effort, win or lose, on the field.  Or perhaps baseball is just full of little boys tearing the leaves off of trees.

Yet there’s something fitting in all the defilement that goes on amidst a baseball game, a sort of reverse chaos theory.  After every game, the grounds crew will emerge to reset the entire scene to its factory specifications.  The scoreboard will be reset, the infield raked, and everything will begin the way it did the day before.  And though everything begins anew, the game is meticulous in its history, so much that a minor anecdote about a team’s third-base coach survives a half-century.  In a world that is full of deterioration, and constant reminders of the fragility of the earth and of youth, it’s comforting to find in baseball and its scenery an eternally renewable resource, no matter how hard they try to erode it.  Baseball may or may not share the mysticism of Stonehenge, but it seems to bear comparable endurance.

 

Presidents and Unicorns: A Scout’s Take on the President’s Cup in Korea by Aaron Shinsano

Aaron Shinsano is a baseball scout based out of Korea, as well as the co-founder of the influential Asian baseball blog East Windup Chronicle.

When I think of scouting the President’s Cup in Korea, as I have each of the last four years, I think of one image: me, sitting with a frozen bottle of water between my legs and holding another one on the back of my neck as I watch games and try to take notes.

Last year, I got what I thought was a heat rash around my groin. It turned into something more like athlete’s foot, and was itchy and at times very painful. Made it hard to sleep. It lasted well into October.

The hotel I stayed at last year was of the Japanese business hotel variety. Kind of like a dormitory with thin walls and floors. Chinese exchange students ran up and down the hallways well into the night. On the second night I poked my head out the door and yelled at them. One boy stopped cold and did an about face. He looked terrified. He saluted me, turned back the other way and went in his room, quietly closing the door behind him. About a minute later my phone rang. Just once. Then giggling down the hall.

The President’s Cup includes every one of the 50-plus high school baseball teams in Korea and usually lasts two weeks. There are four first round games every day for the first six days, at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and and 6 p.m. The second round follows in the same fashion, so that’s 10 days, four games a day. The “sweet sixteen” round (my term, not theirs), happens over the next two days, again, four games a day. The final eight and final four are two games a day for three days, then the final on the 17th day of the tournament. That is, if there are no rainouts. There usually are.

The tournament takes place in Suwon, a non-descript satellite city about an hour south of Seoul. Landmarks include a protective wall in the style of The Great Wall, built in the 18th century, and one of the few remaining full-on red light districts in Korea.

But for eight years there was glory in Suwon.

But for eight years there was glory in Suwon, as it played host to the KBO’s Hyundai Unicorns, who won the championship no less than three times in that span. Hyundai didn’t renew its 10-year sponsorship deal after the 2007 season, so after changing sponsors the team moved to Seoul proper and became bar-none the worst franchise in the league. Today there is no team in Suwon, and the stadium is falling into disrepair.

Due to the positioning of the structure, the seats get an inordinate amount of sun during the day after 10:30 a.m. The paint on the roof and dugouts that matched the Unicorns green and gold has faded. Year by year I noticed bigger patches of brown in the outfield grass, until last year, when it was finally replaced by a cheaper, yellow crab grass. Pigeons have made nests where PA speakers once were.

Sometimes, as I sit in a humid daze watching the third game of four, I try to imagine a scene of the Unicorns winning a championship on that field — the stadium full of screaming fans, players on the field in tears, and a guy dressed in a unicorn costume falling to his knees, cheerleaders ecstatic behind him, his brown human arms stretched skyward in exaltation, perfectly in line with his bright stuffed gold horn.

The high school games usually proceed in an orderly manner, appropriately sped up or slowed down by the size of the umpire’s strike zone and nagging of the hitters to hurry up between innings. If in a real rush, he’ll push the catcher down into his crouch following the warm up throw to second.

The tables behind home plate where the scouts sit are made of metal. I always mean to bring an egg with me, because I’m sure I could fry one there. Once 10:30 a.m. hits, the tables start to heat up, and by 1 p.m. they’re too hot to touch. I even call them “skillet seats,” to myself. I think I mentioned that concept to another scout, but it hasn’t caught on.

Another structural problem I’ve noticed is that there are rarely air currents inside the stadium. When it’s hot, the heat just kind of hangs in the air, as does the cigarette smoke from a number of the fathers. I’ll see a man light up, and by the time he’s half done the first whiff of smoke will hit me. Then it sticks around for a good 10 minutes after he’s done.

During games the mothers serve drinks to all the men, including the scouts. It’s typically iced instant coffee, which is deceptive in its momentary coolness and Snickers bar taste, but is sure to induce at least minor stomach pains shortly thereafter. To say nothing of the jittery sleepless nights if I drink one in the late afternoon.

Sometimes parts of the tournament are broadcast on TV, and if they are, as the sole white person in the entire stadium, and as an MLB scout, I’m sure to be shown.

The games and performances all blend together. I mean, I watch the games intensely, don’t get me wrong. If there’s a player I like, or one I’m following, I’m taking notes, and I’ll remember what he does in detail. But there are only so many of those. The rest of the data, which is a lot of baseball in hot humid weather, fills the gaps in my short term memory along with the other occurrences of my day — the water bottles between my legs, the semi-edible hotel buffet room that doubles as a goofy cocktail bar at night, the manager that called a suicide squeeze with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, the leftfielder that misplayed a ball into a triple and was taken out of the game, the chain smoker 10 rows down, the first baseman with the good body and ok swing that can’t hit a breaking ball, the attractive mom that brought me a plate of rice cake. Sometimes parts of the tournament are broadcast on TV, and if they are, as the sole white person in the entire stadium, and as an MLB scout, I’m sure to be shown. I guess I’ll admit I get a kick out of that.

At the end of the final game I’ll extract myself from the hazy wall-to-wall baseball world and head to the high-speed rail station that will take me home to Ulsan, located in the south east corner of the country. I will have gathered the handfuls of memories, along with the proper scouting data I set out to acquire, and reflect on all of it while the Korean countryside goes by at 300kph. Part of what I’ll feel is relief — relieved to get out of the heat, away from the smoke and the noisy hotels, relieved to get back home to my wife and our bed.

But most of what I’ll feel is sadness — sad to realize I won’t get to enter the blur again until the next tournament.

Asceticism and the Baseball Fan

I began the evening writing about Derek Jeter: it’s the sort of thing one does out of obligation, a futile action that marks one as a Baseball Writer.  It’s seven o’clock and a faceless tweet reminds me that the Mariners have begun the second half of their season, so I throw the game on in the background and continue perusing Henry David Thoreau, collecting my thoughts on America’s Captain.

The game proceeds as one would expect.  Josh Hamilton sends one over the wall in the first, Nelson Cruz does the same in the third.  Jason Vargas appears confused, suddenly unsure of what it means to be Jason Vargas.  The voice of Mariners’ broadcaster Dave Sims rises and falls like a metronome in the background as the Rangers tack one run after another, until in the middle of the sixth the score is 5-0 and Thoreau is irritating me even more than usual.  “If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself,” he smirks.  The banality of the broadcast booth might be even worse, but I’ve learned to tune it out.  Still, these are no conditions for art.  A headache burrows behind the edge of my temples, as if I’d gulped down a half-bottle of Boone’s.

The Mariners, over the course of six games, have dropped from a playoff probability (according to coolstandings) of seventeen percent to two.  The baseball season grinds on in its plodding, determined fashion, but the average fan isn’t expected to accompany every step of the voyage.  There are days like these, when the weather is nice and the lawn needs watering and the inevitable result of a terrible baseball team hardly requires us to devote three hours in observation.  This is why writing is hard, and why there is such appeal in being a dilettante.  Days like this make me want to write about politics, or food, or insects.

Is this a personal voyage, or a universal one?  Is it a test of strength?  Like anything else I can only know baseball through my own perspective, and there’s little use in hiding the fact that, for all my years of casual fandom, as a writer I’m a neophyte.  I can’t help but wonder if I’m experiencing, for the first time, the truly unrequited love of the baseball fan, subjected to countless weak ground balls to second, home runs by opponents that barely clear the walls.  Baseball’s routine is more punishing, more rhythmic and unerring and indomitable than any other sport.  Losing is lonely, and it takes forever.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, acclaimed British travel author, wrote a book about his experience living in a French monastery entitled “A Time To Keep Silence.”  Short on money, and in need of a secluded place to work on a manuscript, Fermor found what he felt to be a perfect fit in the Abbey of St. Wandrille.  His initial reaction:

Back in my cell, I sat down before the new blotter and pens and sheets of new foolscap.  I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write.  But an hour passed, and nothing happened.  It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke.

The fate of my hometown baseball team did not perhaps deal quite so severe a psychological blow as the bare, foreign walls of this elementary prison.   But as the bottom of the sixth arrives, the broadcasters begin to discuss Derek Holland’s prospective perfect game, and watching the spectacle, I begin to wonder how this doesn’t happen against the Mariners every other week, or how anyone ever successfully write an article about Derek Jeter.  I feel like I understand the tiniest fraction of Fermor’s despair.

But Fermor continues:

My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb.  The mood of dereliction persisted some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.  …  One is prone to accept the idea of monastic life as a phenomenon that has always existed, and to dismiss it from the mind without further analysis or comment; only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life we lead.

Fermor went from sleeping eighteen hours a day, living in a haze, to sleeping five, his body sharp and his mind focused on his work.  So perhaps there’s hope after all for the monastic life of baseball.  Every writer stares at the blank page sometimes and wonders if they’ll ever write again, just as every baseball player goes through a slump and wonders if another hit will drop in.  Every fan, at some point, wonders if they’ll ever again have a team worth rooting for.  And yet we all muddle on.

Derek Holland opened the bottom of the sixth with a bases loaded walk to Franklin Gutierrez.  Then, of all people, it was Chone Figgins who fought off an inside fastball, dropping it over Ian Kinsler’s glove for a single.  I smiled, turned off the television, and took my wife to go walk in a nearby park.

The Problem of the Pick-off Throw

The first time I really thought about the pickoff move was in 1995.  My beloved and beleaguered Seattle Mariners had finally reached the postseason, and in the second game they faced a young, unspellable left-hander by the name of Andy Pettitte.  I was used to seeing lefties lob the ball to first, almost as a warning shot; Pettitte snapped the ball to first like a rubber band in a motion that looked like a cross between a balk and a dance move.  It struck me, an unbiased observer, as unfair and possibly inhuman.  Pettitte picked off two runners that game, and I found myself in unconscious awe.  What was he doing that made him so incredible?  Why wasn’t anyone else doing it?

The next day’s newspaper article made no mention of the two pickoff throws.  It’s hardly surprising, because there was plenty to talk about, especially Jim Leyritz’s game-winning, fifteenth-inning home run.  But it’s also not surprising because the pickoff only sort of exists.

Nobody likes the pickoff throw.  The fans detest it; I don’t know what the level of tolerance used to be, but at the game I attended last weekend, the crowd booed with every single toss to first.  The statisticians hardly bother to track it.  The analysts don’t care for it either, because of the way it hampers the rhythm of the ballgame and inserts dead air into the proceedings.  Opposing coaches gnash their teeth as weary hurlers cast the ball back and forth to the first baseman, buying time for a reliever to limber up.  The runners themselves can’t be too thrilled about having to dive back all the time, either.

From an aesthetic standpoint, however, I enjoy the pickoff.  I find the deception in the windup and the suddenness of the motion thrilling.  Added to this is the appeal of a battle of wills between baserunner and pitcher, who is already locked in combat with the batter at the plate.  It’s a combination of threats, the physical appearance of a pitcher slowly surrounded like a go piece thrust in atari, flailing back at his tormentors.

But beneath these surface considerations, something bothered me.  There is something fundamentally wrong with the pickoff throw, beyond its effect on the pace of the game.

One of the most beautiful aspects of baseball is its reliance on mixed strategy.  Mariano Rivera throws a decent cut fastball, but if he throws it for every single pitch, the batter will expect it and hit it more often.  If he throws too few, he’ll be sacrificing some opportunities to use his best pitch to get the batter out.  What results is a careful equilibrium that seeks to optimize the output of a player’s performance by adding enough variety to prevent the hitter from getting comfortable.  When the pitcher can’t do this, because his breaking ball isn’t working or he falls behind in the count, the hitter gains the advantage and his chance of success increases proportionately.

Not only must the pitcher (and the batter, guessing which pitches he is likely to see) optimize his arsenal, but he must randomize it.  Mariners fans of 2011 are well aware of Felix Hernandez’s past penchant for relying too heavily on the fastball early, leading to many first-inning struggles.  Randomization is not an easy thing; the human brain tends to work in patterns.  Unpredictability is necessary for gaining the upper hand.

The running game itself provides excitement in execution and its own mixed strategies, not just in the evaluation of a single game element, but in the overall strategy by which a general manager builds his team and searches for skills in his players.  For teams that lack firepower, the stolen base becomes a viable alternative for scoring runs.  Based on run-scoring environment of each era, the running game waxes and wanes in popularity.   Players with certain skill sets become under or overvalued, creating market inefficiencies and fostering creative ways to develop championship teams.  As a self-regulating system, it’s pretty amazing.

And that’s where the tragedy of the pickoff lies: it’s a dominant strategy.  From the perspective of winning ballgames, there is simply no reason why the pitcher shouldn’t continue to throw to first base ad infinitum whenever a runner steps off the bag.

Dan Malkiel at Baseball Reference undertook some painstaking and invaluable research regarding pickoffs, and the evidence is somewhat surprising.  To summarize his findings: The pickoff throw does not distract the pitcher and make it harder to throw strikes.  In fact, there is slightly more evidence that it is the hitter, not the pitcher, who loses concentration during multiple pickoff throws.  Nor does the pickoff actually deter the runner from running: because of the heavy correlation between multiple pickoff attempts and faster baserunners, we see higher steal rates after a runner is sent back to the bag a couple of times.

What we’re left with, then, are the two outcomes that change the state of the game: a successful pickoff, and an error.  Because an out is almost always worth more than a single base, it would take several times as many errors to create a risk worthy of deterring hopes of a pickoff, but the numbers lean the opposite way: a pickoff throw is three times as likely to result in an out as an error.  The pickoff is simply too dangerous a weapon.  You rarely see it succeed, but you see it succeed too often.

There is nothing in the rulebook that constrains a hypothetical continuous pickoff strategy, save for 9.01(d), which allows umpires to eject players for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Instead, the play is handled by baseball’s unwritten rules, which serve repercussions for such behavior in the secret underground bunker each Sunday evening.  Different proposals have been made: Bill James recommended reducing the number of “free” pickoff throws to two an inning, and charging a ball to the pitcher for each unsuccessful attempt thereafter.  The trouble with this lies in three-ball counts, where the mixed strategy will crumple to pieces.

There are two primary ways to alter the pickoff situation: to restrict them, or to make them less appealing as a strategy.  Most of the discussion centers on the first, but I find myself drawn to the latter: by balancing the strategy into a mixed one, with potential benefits and costs, the game not only speeds up, it becomes more interesting at the same time.  The way to do this is to alter the ratio of successful pickoffs to errors, either by lowering the first statistic or raising the latter.  On top of this, it would be helpful to do it in such a way that the runner’s leadoff isn’t allowed to expand, which might play with stolen base numbers.

The only ways to reduce pickoff success, without altering the length of a runner’s lead-off, would be to somehow make the pitcher’s throwing action more difficult, potentially by requiring an extra step.  This is troublesome, however.  The other option is to increase error rate.  This can be done by leaving the pitcher alone and instead making the play more difficult for the first baseman, by preventing him from camping at the bag.  Force him to run in from his regular position to perform a pickoff, and not only does the play become more exciting and demanding, but more errors are likely to occur.

Would it be enough?  We couldn’t know until we try.  But as a proposal it has a few virtues, not least of which being its subtlety.  A rule that proposes the first baseman move fifteen feet is more likely to find traction with the conservative baseball folk than one that creates new statistics, or creates a new type of walk.  I’d like to see it in action.  Not only would we get to keep the pickoff, but it might be a little more exciting.