It sounds easy. You know what a stolen base is. But the truth is that most fans, coaches, and scorekeepers don’t know how to score stolen bases when other factors are added to the mix.
Some of those factors:
- Wild pitches
- Passed balls
- Defensive indifference
The result is that scorekeepers will often over or underreport stolen bases.
I’m trying to do a public service here. Most scorekeepers do this incorrectly. I also realize that there is an awful lot of gray area in some of the scoring (particularly defensive indifference).
But, I firmly believe that there is a simple way to score these things. We’re overcomplicating it.
Let’s take a closer look, starting first with wild pitches and passed balls…
Definition: Wild Pitch
Following is a very basic summary of a wild pitch per MLB:
A pitcher is charged with a wild pitch when his pitch is so errant that the catcher is unable to control it and, as a result, baserunner(s) advance.
There are two keys here:
- The catcher is unable to control the pitch AND
- At least one baserunner advances as a result
Note that the pitch may be so wild that the catcher can’t control it, but a wild pitch won’t be scored if a runner fails to advance. Additionally, a “runner” could be either a player who moves from first, second, or third base OR a batter who advances to first on a strikeout (via wild pitch or passed ball).
Definition: Passed Ball
So, what is a passed ball? Once again, from MLB:
A catcher is given a passed ball if he cannot hold onto a pitch that — in the official scorer’s judgment — he should have, and as a result at least one runner moves up on the bases.
The keys to a passed ball:
- The catcher is unable to control the pitch AND
- The catcher SHOULD have controlled the pitch AND
- At least one baserunner advances as a result
The difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball is small. In both cases, the catcher is unable to control it and at least one runner advances. In the opinion of the scorekeeper, a passed ball is scored if the catcher SHOULD have controlled the ball.
But how do we know whether a ball should have been controlled by the catcher?
It’s subjective, but one general rule of thumb is that anything that hits the dirt before reaching a catcher (resulting in a runner advancing) is a wild pitch. Anything that the catcher misses entirely, too, would typically be a wild pitch. A called strike that gets by the catcher would be a passed ball. In between is open to interpretation.
In the end, keep it simple. Yes, catchers should typically block pitches in the dirt. But these are above average plays. The best way to remain consistent is to score all pitches in the dirt that advance a runner as a wild pitch.
The truth is that the best catchers will not only have very few passed balls, but they’ll prevent wild pitches. This is no different than the best first basemen who not only have few errors but save other infielders from throwing errors.
Stolen Base Defined
We think we know what a stolen base is, but the truth is that there are cases that aren’t as obvious as the straight steal of second or third.
A stolen base, as defined by MLB:
A stolen base occurs when a baserunner advances by taking a base to which he isn’t entitled. This generally occurs when a pitcher is throwing a pitch, but it can also occur while the pitcher still has the ball or is attempting a pickoff, or as the catcher is throwing the ball back to the pitcher.
So, a stolen base can occur when a runner advances safely in the following scenarios:
- During a pitch
- While the pitcher holds the ball
- During an attempted pickoff (without error)
- While the catcher throws to the pitcher
Stolen Base or Wild Pitch/Passed Ball?
You’ll often see scorekeepers give a baserunner credit for a stolen base on a passed ball or wild pitch, even though that runner wasn’t originally stealing a base. Additionally, you’ll often see a base stealer robbed of a stolen base simply because the ball gets by the catcher.
Both, of course, are being scored incorrectly.
If a baserunner is not attempting to steal a base as the ball reaches the plate and only advances after the catcher is unable to control the pitch, he should not be credited with a stolen base. It is a wild pitch or a passed ball.
Similarly, a baserunner who runs with the pitch (or prior to reaching the plate) in an attempt to advance to the next base and does so successfully will be credited with a stolen base. It does not matter if the catcher is then unable to control the pitch.
Technically, a stolen base and wild pitch or passed ball can occur on the same pitch. If a runner takes off for second or third, the catcher is unable to control the ball, and the runner then advances to yet another base, he will get one stolen base while a wild pitch or passed ball is also scored.
Defensive Indifference Defined
Instead of a stolen base, wild pitch, or passed ball, you’ll often see a scoring where a runner advances via defensive indifference.
Here’s the definition from Baseball-Reference.com:
Defensive Indifference is a play in the later stages of a game in which the defensive team, either ahead or behind by a large amount allows a player to advance a base without any attempt to put the runner out.
There is a ton of room for interpretation here and far too much subjectivity, in my opinion. But the keys to defensive indifference are as follows:
- A runner advances to another base
- The defense makes no attempt to get him out
I hate this definition. I also think that it’s easier to apply this definition to Major League Baseball than to youth baseball.
The definition also alludes to time and score of the game, but those shouldn’t matter at all. And what exactly are the “latter stages” of a game? And what is a “large amount”?
When defensive indifference is scored in youth baseball, I can tell you that it’s almost never due to it being late in the game of a blowout. It’s only interpreted that way because the catcher didn’t make a throw.
That is wrong.
Stolen Base or Defensive Indifference?
In my opinion, defensive indifference is scored FAR more often than it should be in youth baseball. Let’s think of a common scenario…
- First baseman holding on the runner
- Pitcher throwing from the stretch
- Runner gets a HUGE jump
- Middle infielders may or may not cover
- Catcher doesn’t bother to throw to second
The example above is often scored as defensive indifference. But was the defense indifferent? The first baseman was holding the runner on. The pitcher was throwing from the stretch, indicating he wanted to hold the runner on. A throw wasn’t made, but that’s only because the runner got a huge jump.
Why would you rob a runner of a stolen base simply because he got a huge jump — doing exactly what he should do?
In this case, I need to inject my own opinion into how I believe defensive indifference should be scored.
Feel free to score defensive indifference if the runner advances and either of the following things happen:
- The pitcher throws from the windup and no throw is made to get the runner OR
- The first baseman does not hold the runner and no throw is made to get the runner
So, you could have a situation where a first baseman plays behind a runner even though a pitcher is throwing from the stretch. I’d be fine ruling any advancement as defensive indifference in that case.
Defensive indifference on an advance to third is more difficult to spot. A middle infielder isn’t necessarily holding a runner on at second on every pitch. The pitcher may ignore him. The key, in my opinion, is whether the pitcher was throwing from the stretch or the windup.
First and Third Situations
Something you’ll see more at the youth level than at higher levels is a first and third situation where the runner at first runs to second, hoping to draw a throw. If a throw is made, the runner at third attempts to score.
There are numerous ways to defend this, but many of these methods include not throwing to second — or at least having the pitcher or middle infielder cut off the throw. If a throw isn’t made to second and the runner is safe, is it still a stolen base?
Many scorekeepers score this as defensive indifference. However, I’d go back to my original test…
1. Did the first baseman hold the runner on?
2. Did the pitcher throw from the stretch?
If the answers to both of these questions is “yes,” I’d give the runner a stolen base. If either is “no,” I’d consider the defense to be “indifferent” to his stealing.
You can certainly make the argument that there was never any intent to throw out the runner at second. And truthfully, there’s rarely a reason to throw it when the bases are 60 or 70 feet apart. But whenever you have to guage intent, I’d rather not be a mind reader. I’d instead focus on #1 and #2 above as a guide.
Keep it Simple
Especially when it comes to youth baseball — and especially for younger ages — keep it simple. If a runner attempts to advance with a pitch and does so successfully, that runner should almost always be credited with a stolen base. There may be a rare situation when it’s defensive indifference, but that should be just that — extremely rare.
Don’t get cute. Don’t try to amaze us with your knowledge of this thing called “defensive indifference” when the reality is that it rarely actually happens at the youth level.
Just give that kid a stolen base. He deserves it.
How do you score stolen bases, wild pitches, passed balls, and defensive indifference?
Let me know in the comments below!