Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Defensive Indifference

Every once in awhile I come across an article which I find interesting (although most people probably would not), which also has a slight Rickey Henderson connection, but they don't always make it onto the blog. Since this article is about base stealing, and mentions Rickey at the end, I figured it was worth posting.

Keeping score is definitely a lost art, and is a skill that I'm glad my dad taught me when I was younger. It's also something that I hope to be able to pass along to my own son, although it will probably be impossible to find a scorebook when that time comes around.

The following article was in yesterday's New York Times, and discusses the interesting nuance that is "defensive indifference." I knew all about the rule, but I did learn something new in the article. If Rickey was stealing a base (in a defensive indifference situation), and falls down and gets tagged out along the way, he is not stuck with a caught stealing. Since it wouldn't have been a steal in the first place, he can't be punished with a caught stealing, which makes perfect sense, but isn't something that I had thought of before.

Safe at Second, but No Stolen Base to Show for It
by Jack Curry

A player takes an unchallenged lead off first base, dashes to second and makes it safely without a throw. The runner has advanced, but because there was no attempt to thwart him, he does not receive a stolen base. Instead, an official scorer bellows “defensive indifference” in the press box.

Defensive indifference is exactly what it connotes: a situation when a team was unconcerned about preventing the runner from advancing. After official scorers consider the score and the inning, if the pitcher made pickoff attempts and if the first baseman was positioned behind the runner, they determine if the dash was a steal or defensive indifference.

“It’s an old rule and a very good rule,” said Bill Shannon, who has been a scorer for 31 seasons. “I’m loath to give away statistical achievements.”

But what about the runner who has successfully scooted the 90 feet? Some players contend they should be credited with a stolen base. If the team’s defensive strategy was to give away the base, should the runner be rewarded for taking what was available?

“I feel like you should get something for doing it,” said Nate McLouth, a center fielder for the Atlanta Braves. “It’s the only way to advance that doesn’t show up in the stat column.”

Actually, there are statistics for defensive indifference, although they are not mainstream numbers. In a season in which Albert Pujols is approaching 50 homers, Ichiro Suzuki has collected more than 200 hits again and Joe Mauer is batting over .370, only a fan club for official scoring would have a clue how many times defensive indifference has been called this season. The Elias Sports Bureau said there had been 274 calls before Tuesday’s games.

Defensive indifference is a sleepy but established rule that has been in Major League Baseball for 89 years. Bob Waterman, a senior baseball staffer at Elias, said the addendum, “No stolen base shall be credited to a runner who is allowed to advance without an effort being made to stop him,” was placed in the 1920 rule book. The rule is typically enforced in the ninth inning of a lopsided game when the defense yawns as a runner grabs a meaningless base.

It is such a sleepy rule that Carlos Beltran of the Mets, the career leader in stolen-base percentage with at least 200 steals (286 for 324, 88.2 percent), said he did not “even know” what defensive indifference was. Once the rule was explained, Beltran showed that he was aware of it.

“If the first baseman plays 50 feet behind me, there’s no way that’s a steal,” Beltran said. “As a base runner, I wouldn’t want that.”

Still, there are examples of players’ accumulating statistics in other sports because opponents do not defend them. Basketball players go unguarded in garbage time. In football, a team that has a 28-point lead with two minutes left will surrender chunks of yardage.

“That’s football, though,” Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said. “That’s different.”

Why is it different?

“You’re trying to eat the clock in football,” Shannon said. “We have a linear game. The clock will never eliminate the other team.”

Steve Hirdt, the executive vice president of Elias, noticed references to defensive indifference while researching play-by-play accounts of games from the 1920s. In an article about the imminent rule change in The Chicago Tribune on Jan. 30, 1920, there is a headline that reads, “Cut Out the Joke Steals.” Hirdt called it a good rule because it protects “the spirit of what a stolen base is.”

But Hirdt also noted another situation where players get statistical credit when the opponent is offering something. If teams lead by several runs and the opponent has a runner on third with less than two outs, they do not play their infield in. So teams are willing to give up a run batted in to a hitter, but in those instances, they get an out in return.

Because the runner who goes to second in a defensive indifference situation does not earn a steal, should he be punished if he tumbles and is tagged out?

“You’re out,” the Yankees’ Derek Jeter said.

Marquis Grissom, who stole 429 bases in his career and is now a coach with the Washington Nationals, agreed.

“If you fall down, too bad,” he said.

Not really. Hirdt noted that Rule 10.07(h) states that a runner cannot be nabbed with a caught stealing if he would not have been credited with a steal if he had been safe.

Shannon estimated that he calls defensive indifference about a dozen times a year. When Shannon called it with Rickey Henderson as the base runner more than 20 years ago, a Yankees public-relations official complained. Shannon told the man he would change his call if Henderson finished with 999 career steals. That was Shannon’s way of saying he was never altering his call.

“Achievement,” Shannon said, “is not a gift.”


dirt the squirt said...

I always thought Mark Bellhorn (whose name should be spelled with a backwards "K")should not be punished with a strikeout for his many 3rd strike looking Ks, but rather just "Offensive Indifference"...

ManOfSteal said...

Ha, awesome observation! When he first came up with the A's, I was never too impressed, and definitely didn't miss him when he was gone.