Defensive Indifference… and why defenses should not be indifferent about them
Towards the end of my scoring rule article covering stolen bases, I make a mention of the situation that is scored as defensive indifference. And if you read it, you can tell that I’m not extremely fond of this rule the way that it is written. The rule says not to score a stolen base when “a runner advances solely because of the defensive team’s indifference to the runners advance“. It then adds some helpful comments to determine how to tell whether the team was in fact indifferent such as this nugget of wisdom telling you to consider “the totality of the circumstances, including the inning and score of the game, whether the defensive team had held the runner on base, whether the pitcher had made any pickoff attempts on that runner before the runners advance, whether the fielder ordinarily expected to cover the base to which the runner advanced made a move to cover such base, whether the defensive team had a legitimate strategic motive to not contest the runners advance or whether the defensive team might be trying impermissibly to deny the runner credit for a stolen base”. Ok, got that? Yeah, neither do I.
I can tell what the inning and the score of the game is, but what does that tell me? Are stolen bases later in the game more important than earlier? When trailing by a run more critical than when winning big? You might be surprised by the answer. But more problematic is determining “whether the defensive team had a legitimate strategic motive to not contest the runners advance”. What would be a good strategic reason? Oh, I know. If there’s a runner on 1st and 3rd, you might not want to throw to 2nd base and allow the runner to score. That sounds like a good reason to let the runner steal. Except that the rule covers that exact case in a comment “For example, with runners on first and third bases, the official scorer should ordinarily credit a stolen base when the runner on first advances to second…”
But what really irks me about this rule is that a team should almost never be indifferent about letting a runner steal a base. A team’s win probability and that particular inning’s run expectancy always go up when a runner moves up a base.
I’ve seen countless sandlot games when a coach lets a runner take a base uncontested and what could have been a quick inning turns into a big inning. I vividly recall a particular MLB game where “defensive indifference” not only was the difference in the game, but helped a team clinch a playoff berth, and set up a walkoff that foreshadowed some much bigger heroics in future playoffs.
The game was at Fenway Park in the last week of September 2003. The Orioles were winning 5-2 in the bottom of the 9th, with Jason Varitek on 1st base and 1 out. Now, down by 3 in that situation, your win expectancy is a measly 5% (4.9 actually, as per the table in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball), so you can almost forgive Mike Hargrove for being in cruise control, and allowing the not-so-speedy Varitek to take 2nd base uncontested. Well the next batter hit a routine ground ball to second base. You know, the kind of routine ground ball that would be a double play if there was a runner on 1st. But there wasn’t, so it was only the second out of the inning. The next batter walked, brining up the tying run to the plate, and you guessed it. A ball hit onto Landsdowne sent the game into extra innings. David Ortiz led off the bottom of the 10th and hit a walk off home run to make it a triumphant night for Boston. The win also clinched at least a tie for the wildcard spot, and Ortiz’ blast was the first of many dramatic walkoff hits he would go on to attain.
All made possible, because Baltimore was “indifferent” to a meaningless runner advancing from first to second.
Needless to say, in my mind, defensive indifference should be stricken from the scoring rules. If a runner tries to steal, it should either be scored as a stolen base or a caught stealing. Nice and simple, no need to read a player’s mind to make the correct scoring decision.