Stealing First Base
This article was published in the Summer 2010 Baseball Research Journal.
BASEBALL BATS OUTSIDE THE BOX
There are a number of different ways to reach first base safely, one of which is by hitting a baseball. Applying the expression “thinking outside the box” to the art of hitting, one will eventually conclude that there is a better baseball bat out there just waiting to be discovered. And there is. So, we’re going to “steal first base” by using a new bat that will significantly increase the player’s batting average. Adios to the white ash and maple bats of today.
Surprisingly, there have been no innovations with respect to the bat used in Major League Baseball over the past hundred years. While we admire Heinie Groh’s bottle style bat of the teens and 1920s, we do not consider it to be an innovation because this clever design never really caught on. Major-league ballplayers have gone to thinner, lighter bats over the past thirty years while still clinging to the traditional wood—white ash—to increase their bat speed. Why hasn’t anyone considered another type of wood?
THE ANIGRE BAT
Arvin Moehler of Hogan Hardwoods says that, while white ash and maple are the staple of their sales to bat companies, he thinks there may be better types out there. One he’d like to see tried out is walnut. He adds that, for any type of lumber to be a success in baseball, it must be durable and impact-resistant, rate high on the hardness scale, and, most of all, it must be of light weight. So I suggested anigre (pronounced anna-grey), a hardwood, found in Tanzania, that has all the characteristics of white ash but with a density that is almost half, meaning that a bat made of this material would weigh only 60 percent of a similarly shaped ash bat. This lighter weight should correlate to better bat control and higher bat speed, which should then produce more hits, although arguably this effect might be offset by the lower mass resulting in the batter hitting the ball with less force.
Moehler was familiar with this type of wood, anigre, and thought it might work well. I went on to suggest alder, a wood found in Oregon and Washington, with an even lower density, but Moehler said it would fracture and therefore not hold up when coming into contact with a baseball.
MARUCCI BAT COMPANY
After I wore out Arvin Moehler with questions and ideas, he sent me to one of his favorite customers, Kurt Ainsworth, who helps run the Marucci Bat Company in Baton Rouge. They supply bats to more than 120 major-league players, including Carlos Beltran, Ryan Howard, and Andruw Jones. Kurt was a wealth of information, explaining that hickory, beech wood, and even bamboo had been tested but did not perform as well as white ash. He was very interested in our anigre bat, adding that, before it could be approved, several dozen of them would have to be tested by the people working for Roy Krasik at MLB.
I went on to suggest a different geometry of bat, one I call the Comb bat. Into the barrel of a bat being turned on a lathe, narrow grooves, 1⁄16 -inch wide, are cut close together like a comb, to lighten the barrel but not cut down on the diameter. In essence, it would look like the combination of a comb and a hair brush.
Ainsworth, while warming to the idea, did not want me to get my hopes up. He explained that MLB is extremely concerned with safety, especially when it comes to cracking down on bat pieces cracking off and flying—onto the playing field or the stands. He didn’t think MLB would go for any design that involved grooves or cutting down on the integrity of the bat. I later went down swinging with my attempts to interview Roy Krasik at MLB on this topic.
So the major-league hitter using our anigre bat would in essence be stealing first base by hitting for a much higher average than his competition would. Think of the success his team would enjoy if they kept the type of wood a secret.
With this in mind, I began dreaming of the accolades I would receive from my hometown club when I posed the anigre bat to Houston Astros president Tal Smith. Instead of offering me a permanent seat in his club box, he gently set me back down to earth by explaining that if our bat was approved by MLB every other team would be given this information. In other words, it wouldn’t be a secret any more. Back to the bleacher seats. Tal did like the idea, though, and wanted to be updated on any progress.
I’m not giving up on those choice seats just yet. It could happen that a team got approval to use the bat only late in the season and would be the only franchise capable of taking immediate advantage of it. The other teams would have to find a supplier, and there is only one in the United States (good luck finding him).
STEAL THIS GAME
You don’t have to be a businessman to know that innovation is one of the keys to success. Yet, strangely enough, in baseball innovation seems to be considered taboo. For example, baseball fans are familiar with the terminology “by the book.” If a baseball manager does not manage “by the book,” he can be found beaten over the head with it by his critics. In Murray Polner’s excellent biography of Branch Rickey, Rickey’s grandson repeated what he heard his grandfather say several times: “Baseball people, as a rule, are generally allergic to new ideas.”1 Who is going to be the next Mahatma, willing to take a chance on a few new ideas? Mr. Rickey and I are proposing a few suggestions to help that person steal a game or two.
THE RICKEY SHIFT
The shift is a baseball tactic that involves bringing your center fielder in to play the infield when the likelihood of the batter hitting the ball out of the infield is low. Years ago when coaching my son’s Little League team, I caught a lot of flak for using the shift, because it wasn’t “by the book,” or even “in the book.” So did team president Branch Rickey when he suggested his Brooklyn Dodger managers use the shift when the opposing team was going to bunt.
Mr. Rickey’s variation of the shift involved bringing in the right fielder to cover first base while the corner infielders charged the plate as the batter squared around to bunt. His intention, though, was not just to put out the player bunting. At his direction, in spring training games in the late 1940s, his teams routinely turned double plays when employing “the Rickey shift” in bunt situations, and yet his managers were reluctant to try it during the regular season. Why? My guess is, because it wasn’t in the book.
I suggested the Rickey shift to the sharpest person to manage a Major League Baseball team in the past fifty years, Larry Dierker, and he replied that, while he liked the idea, he was a bit wary of the repercussions if things didn’t work out. Granted, the season was already underway and his team was winning, so he didn’t need this potential advantage, but later on he did incorporate his own Shift, moving his second baseman, Craig Biggio, out to left center field whenever Mark McGwire came to bat.
THE TWO-WAY PLAYER—IN BASEBALL
Typically your top high-school or college pitcher is the best athlete on his team, and when he reaches the minor leagues he has to make a choice—either he’s a pitcher or he’s a hitter. One would think, given that he’s working on the game eight hours a day, he could devote a few hours to hitting, assuming his primary function is as a pitcher. Not only would this improve the pitcher’s performance, because it would give him a daily break from focusing only on his pitching, but it would also provide the manager with one more hitter in the lineup when the pitcher is pitching. And, it might even give him a pinch-hitter without adding a body to the roster.
It would be innovative only in today’s game, not in baseball in the old days. There were many good-hitting pitchers back then. Babe Ruth, of course, was outstanding. Bucky Walters, Red Ruffing, Wes Ferrell, Bob Lemon, Don Newcombe, and Bob Gibson were not bad either. (All but Walters are in the Hall of Fame.) Of those taking the mound today, the top hitters are Mike Hampton, Dontrelle Willis and Carlos Zambrano.
In The Hardball Times a few years ago, David Gassko penned a poignant piece, detailing the decline, over the history of baseball, in pitchers’ batting performance compared to the league average.2 The pitchers’ annual wOBA (weighted on-base average) divided by the hitters’ wOBA went from 0.95 in the 1870s, to 0.70 in 1930, to the present-day 0.50.
What this implies is that pitchers have become more specialized over the years, in pitching, and have become less competent at hitting. With my proposal I would attempt to reverse this trend by allowing pitchers to devote more time to work on their hitting. Would Rick Ankiel have still been pitching so far into his career if this had been applied to him years earlier?
One more tactical innovation, adapted from a skill perfected by Houston Astros’ first baseman Jeff Bagwell, involves the first baseman cutting off the pitcher’s delivery to home plate, with a runner on first and the batter about to attempt a bunt. For this to work, the first baseman must charge toward home plate just before the pitcher delivers—Bagwell was adept at this—but, instead of stopping two-thirds of the way to home, the fielder traverses slightly toward the third base bag and faces the pitcher. He then intercepts the pitched ball and catches the baserunner leaning off first (we assume the second baseman is now covering first) for a quick putout. I call it the “pseudo-pitchout.”
Baseball-rules expert Rich Marazzi studied this proposal, and his interpretation unfortunately was that the first baseman is guilty of interference and that the batter should be awarded first base. On the plus side, he went on to suggest that this be used to intentionally walk a batter with only one pitch.
THE HOUDINI TAG—HE NEVER SAW IT COMING
If you are having trouble accepting my ideas so far, you are really going to struggle with this one. It’s such a reach that not even Larry Dierker may like it. I will say that I’ve had a 100 percent success rate when applying this idea (it worked the only time we tried it) while coaching my son’s Babe Ruth League team of 13-year-olds. With a runner on second base, the pitcher gives the sign for the shortstop and second baseman to move away from second and onto the fringe of the infield grass to lull the baserunner into a false sense of security, while the center fielder begins his dash toward second. Four seconds after giving the sign, the pitcher wheels around and throws right at the second base bag, where the center fielder has just arrived to accept the throw and tag the unsuspecting runner out. I call it the Houdini tag, because the baserunner in this instance was the fastest player in our league and never saw it coming. Don’t feel bad, Justin. Your first- and third-base coaches didn’t see it either.
Hopefully you’re catching on to our model for stealing not only first base but an entire game—propose several new ideas in hopes either that one will catch on or that it will spur other ideas. (Swing the bat enough times and you’ll eventually get a hit.) For this to work, you can’t shoot down another’s brainstorm for fear of halting the flow of innovation. (Don’t criticize the empty swings.) My coworkers have witnessed many of my strikeouts. Now, who wants to be known as Baseball’s Number-One Thief, or the next Branch Rickey?
JIM KREUZ was introduced to SABR by former major-league pitcher Tim McNamara, whose high-school catcher was a kid named Gabby Hartnett, whose shortstop at Fordham was Frankie Frisch, and whose best friend on the Boston Braves was an outfielder named Casey Stengel.
Thanks to Lee Lowenfish, Murray Polner, and Stu Chan for contributions.
- 1. Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, rev. ed. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007), 2.
- 2. David Gassko, “Hitting Pitchers,” Hardball Times, 8 February 2007, http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/hitting-pitchers (accessed 21 May 2010).