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MLB Should Ban Stolen Bases In 2020

At this moment, MLB and the MLBPA are negotiating on ways baseball can be played safely in 2020. Part of the proposals in the 67 page document were social distancing measures. Those measures included keeping players apart in the dugout and utilizing the empty stands to do that. There was also the suggestion fielders “retreat several steps away from the baserunner.” (ESPN). That suggestion is well founded.

The CDC has strongly recommended social distancing measures which include keeping six feet away from people. That is both indoors (like a clubhouse) and outdoors (like a baseball diamond). The reasoning is “COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period.”

The stolen base and the threat of the stolen base prevents that six foot separation from occurring.

Now, as detailed in a 2015 Grantland article, even the shortest of leads is over nine feet. In and of itself, those leads provide sufficient social distancing measures. However, that’s only part of the problem.

Periodically, a pitcher will throw over to first. The amount of times a pitcher throws over increases when there’s a fast runner, i.e. stolen base threat, like Ronald Acuna Jr. or Billy Hamilton at first.

On those plays, the base runner dives back into first as the first baseman lunges down to apply the tag. The other situation is the base runner gets back without sliding, and he’s now standing almost face-to-face with the first baseman.

Right there, you have a violation of the CDC social distancing guidelines and MLB’s request fielders position themselves several steps away from the base runner.

There’s also the matter of MLB wanting balls touched by multiple players be thrown out. That means on every throw over, a ball needs to be discarded. Basically, a pitcher throws over, a first baseman applies a tag, and then timeout is called so he can discard the ball.

Assuming the base runner isn’t deterred, his taking off for second creates another series of issues.

First and foremost, he’s now well within six feet of the second baseman or shortstop. That means in all likelihood the base runner has been with six feet of the catcher during his AB, the first baseman on the pickoff attempt, and now the middle infielder on the stolen base attempt.

This means the plans to keep players separated go completely kaput once a runner reaches first.

We then get back to the matter of the ball. On a standard stolen base attempt, three people touch the ball – pitcher, catcher, and middle infielder. If there’s a run-down created by a pick-off or stolen base attempt, all hell breaks loose.

Looking at it, MLB wants players to keep distance as much as possible, and they want as few people as possible touching the ball. That’s simply not possible in a game where players reach base and can advance on a stolen base.

The question for MLB is how they choose to address it.

If the goal was safety and social distancing, perhaps, it’s time MLB prevents players from stealing bases in 2020.

Sure, it seems drastic and draconian. It’s also a major rule change, which impacts the way the game is played. The same can be said for the rules MLB already has implemented in 2020. That includes a universal DH and radical realignment. Those changes also take the game and makes it look much different from the way it looked and was played in 2019 and all of baseball history.

While eliminating stolen bases is a radical change, it’s not as impactful as you might imagine. In the 1980s when Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and Vince Coleman were running wild, this would have completely changed the game. Now, not so much.

In 2019, there were 2,280 stolen bases. Over 2,430 games, that’s fewer than a stolen base per game. With attempts, this may push it to one stolen base attempt per game. While we know the impact that one stolen base may have (Dave Roberts Game 4 2004 ALCS), on the whole, the lack of that attempt is not dramatically impacting the game.

Looking at it, this is again about health and finding ways for players to safely play the games. Taking out the constant close contact between a first baseman and base runner does that. In lieu of that, there can be a designated spot where runners may take their lead, and first baseman can be permitted to play back on every play.

Is this ideal? No, not in the least. Really, no one wants to see baseball eliminate the stolen base much in the same way National League fans don’t want to see a DH (which is still absurd for many reasons). However, what people want even less is seeing players get infected with COVID19. As a Mets fan, I don’t want any situation wherein Pete Alonso even has a 1% chance of getting COVID19. As a human being, I don’t want to see that happen to any player.

With that in mind, the safest possible course is to eliminate the stolen base in 2020.

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