Pickoffs Are Still Very Much On

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

No one can deny that baseball’s new rules are having the intended effects. BAPIP is up, game times are down, and stolen bases are back. Attendance is growing too, and while we can’t give the rule changes all the credit for that one, they’ve certainly done their part. Even better, the new rules aren’t leading to the adverse side effects some of us feared. The pitch clock isn’t causing widespread injury, pitch timer violations have been steadily decreasing as players adapt, and bigger bases haven’t led to any reports of Ty Cobb rolling over in his grave.

As efficacious as all the new rules have been, one stands above the rest. In my humble opinion, the disengagement limit has proven to be the gold standard of rule changes. Let me explain.

I like the pitch clock. Imaginary audience applauds. I like the shift restrictions. Imaginary audience begins to turn on me. I even like the automatic runner on second in extra innings. Imaginary audience starts throwing rotten fruit. But as much as I appreciate those new rules, I understand they all came at the expense of something else, something fans once cherished. The pitch timer offends purists who believe baseball shouldn’t have a clock. The shift restrictions limit smart defensive positioning in service of hitters who can’t adjust. The automatic runner warps each team’s priorities in the 10th inning onward. But the disengagement limit? It’s been a roaring success, and it hasn’t cost us anything at all.

When the new rules were first announced, Patrick Dubuque and Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus wrote that “Limiting the number of pickoff throws is, practically speaking, the most revolutionary of all the rule changes going into effect next season.” Their logic was sound, and at the time, I wholeheartedly agreed. Yet as it turns out, the only thing this rule has truly limited is downtime. The disengagement restrictions have increased the pace of pace play without sacrificing anything I hold dear. Pickoff attempts are in shorter supply, but pickoffs themselves are on the rise.

In May, Mike Axisa of CBS Sports wrote about some “under-the-radar” effects of the rule changes, and the first thing he touched upon was successful pickoffs. He noticed that while pitchers were attempting “way fewer pickoffs per game,” their success rate was “up considerably.” It’s not surprising that pickoff success rate has increased, and Axisa acknowledged as much; under the new rules, “Every pickoff throw has to count.”

However, it’s more than just the success rate that’s increasing. Pickoffs are more prevalent this year, point-blank. Moreover, while the rising success rate makes perfect sense, the surge in raw numbers seems counterintuitive. If pitchers have fewer disengagements to work with, you might expect to see fewer overall pickoffs. But that hasn’t been the case.

As the All-Star break approaches, 185 runners have been picked off so far this season, putting the league on pace for 346 pickoffs by the end of the year. In each of the last two seasons, only 275 runners were picked off. That means pickoffs are up by more than 25%; they’ve risen about as much as the Diamondbacks’ winning percentage. The last time the majors topped 346 pickoffs in a season was in 2018:

When dealing with raw figures instead of rate stats, it’s always critical to find and consider the denominator. For instance, a fan who didn’t pay attention to the number of teams in the league or games in the season might be utterly perplexed as to why home run numbers skyrocketed in 1993 before plummeting again in 1994. In the case of pickoffs, it’s possible they aren’t really happening any more often, but instead, the number of opportunities has increased. It’s not a bad theory; after all, league-wide on-base percentage is up eight ticks over last season.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a perfect way to measure pickoff opportunities. Technically, every pitch with a runner on base is a pickoff opportunity, but not all base states are equally likely to lead to a pickoff. In addition, the possibility of a pickoff depends heavily on the skill set of the runner in question. Nevertheless, a few different figures can stand in for pickoff opportunities in a pinch, and I’ve identified three: plate appearances with runners on base, plate appearances with a runner on first but not second, and stolen base opportunities (per Baseball Reference). With any of those numbers as the denominator, the pickoff rate is still way up in 2023:

So pickoffs are up this year, no two ways about it. (As for why the pickoff rate dropped so suddenly in the few years before this season? That’s an excellent question, but one for another day.) Be that as it may, not all pickoffs are created equal, so perhaps not all types are increasing at the same rate. A pickoff is a play where the pitcher or catcher throws to another fielder, and that fielder tags out a runner as he tries to return to his original base. If the runner makes any effort to advance to the next base, however, the play would also be classified as a caught stealing. It’s the double whammy of lousy baserunning; the runner has been picked off and caught stealing at the same time.

In 2023, pickoff/caught stealing plays have made up nearly half the pickoffs we’ve seen, which is the highest rate in 11 years. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since caught stealing numbers are up across the board. More movement on the basepaths means more runners getting caught. Yet while pickoff/caught stealing numbers can partially explain why the pickoff rate is so high right now, there’s more to the story. As the blue line on the following graph shows, pure and straightforward pickoffs are also on the up and up:

Another way to categorize pickoffs is to separate pitcher-generated pickoffs and catcher-generated pickoffs, also known as back-picks. That difference is more meaningful this year than ever before; while pitchers are limited in the number of pickoffs they can attempt, catchers are free to throw as they please. It would make sense if catchers accounted for a higher percentage of pickoffs… but that doesn’t seem to be the case. By and large, the rates of pitcher and catcher pickoffs have remained steady over the last 10 years, and indeed, the percentage of pickoffs started by pitchers is actually slightly higher this season than in either of the previous two years:

One more variable to consider: Is there an outlier skewing the numbers? If a single team has been good enough at picking runners off (or so terrible at avoiding pickoffs themselves), it might create the false illusion of a league-wide trend. Indeed, the A’s are on pace to be picked off 24 times, which would be the most for any team since the 2013 Astros. However, they don’t account for an abnormally high percentage of the league’s total pickoffs; the worst team typically accounts for about 6-7% of the total, and Oakland falls within that range. Meanwhile, the Yankees have been pickoff merchants this year; they’re on pace to pick off 32 runners. That’s impressive, but New York’s pickoff prowess (and Jose Trevino’s back-pick mastery) still isn’t nearly extreme enough to explain the league-wide uptick this year, especially since the utter ineptitude of the St. Louis Cardinals (zero pickoffs) balances out what the Yankees have accomplished.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat myself one more time: Pickoffs are up this year. They’re up in raw number, up as a percentage, and up in all their forms. So why is this happening in the first season under the disengagements limit? The simplest explanation is that pitchers are making better throws. It’s a difficult theory to prove without stuff and location data for pickoff attempts, but it passes the logic test. The principle of least effort is the simple psychological hypothesis that human beings will choose the course of action most likely to preserve our mental and physical energy. It’s a basic survival strategy: Only put in maximum effort when you need to. Prior to this season, the stakes of any individual pickoff attempt were low; therefore, maximum effort was largely unnecessary. Now that the stakes are higher, pitchers are likely to exert more mental and physical energy with each throw.

In addition, the disengagement limit might be incentivizing runners to take bigger leads. These leads, in turn, have resulted in more pickoffs, but that’s a tradeoff the runners are willing to make in exchange for more stolen bases and extra-base opportunities. Either that, or runners are simply overestimating the advantage provided by the new rules, and they’d be wise to shorten their leads. From a fan’s perspective, that would be the worst possible outcome: fewer pickoffs and fewer steals. Until that happens, however, if indeed it ever does, the disengagement rule is working as well as it possibly could. The game is faster and more exciting, and nothing had to be sacrificed to make that happen. Sounds like an excellent addition to the major league rulebook, if you ask me.

All stats through July 6.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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9 months ago

If I was a manager, my players would receive a 5k fine every time they got picked off. If the runner is actually paying attention, it should really never happen.
Clearly a lot of players aren’t the base thieves they think they are, maybe take one step back towards the bag, despite the new rules.

9 months ago

Payoff point depends on a number of variables, some of which have surely changed this year, but it’s usually somewhere between 75-80% IIRC

9 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

That’s only true if you’re not stealing and it’s especially not true if you’re stealing second against a lefty.

Last edited 9 months ago by matt