James Shields was known for a lot of things during his tenure with the Rays: an ability to go deep into games, performing as the staff ace, passionate play, screaming into his glove when he got really excited, antics in the dugout, but a favorite aspect was his ability to limit base runners.
In 2011, James Shields placed third in the Cy Young voting. That same year he picked off an impressive twelve base runners, the league average for most teams. Only eleven players even attempted to steal against Shields that season, and six were caught.
The following year Shields's presence on the mound was still an influence on the game, even if his pick-off numbers came back down to earth. He caught only three players leaning too far from first, but still limited base runners to only sixteen attempts.
As a team, the Rays had 137 stolen base attempts against their pitchers in 2011, and caught 33 for a clip of 24%. The Rays caught 33 again the following season, against 134 attempts for a rate of 25%. Both years proved to be near league average, with an improvement across the board for the pitching staff in 2012.
This year, it's a new ball game.
Tony La Russa, operating as the special assistant to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, was in Port Charlotte last week to speak personally with Rays staff about rule changes for 2013, and his biggest focus was on a new rule for pitchers: faking toward one base then throwing to a different base will now result in a balk.
The result is the death of the ol' fake-to-third move, which could be a decided advantage for base runners. Players can now take a much larger lead than they otherwise might when multiple runners are on base. Orioles manager Buck Showalter recently predicted this will lead to an increase in stolen bases and called the opportunities created by the new rule "limitless."
He has a point.
Imagine having Desmond Jennings on third and, say, Sean Rodriguez on first during a tie game in the ninth. If S-Rod can distract the pitcher on the mound, Jennings could take off toward home the moment Rodriguez is checked on at first. Contrariwise, if DJ can distract the pitcher from the first base side, Rodriguez can use an extraordinary lead to take second on the pitcher's first move toward third, as opposed to waiting for the pitcher to throw, eliminating the threat of a double play.
Base runners are free to take a lead like they are the only player on base, but with the added advantage of strategy. (There's rumblings that the change in the pick-off rules will speed up play, but that has yet to be seen.)
In the end, the product should be more base runners attempting steals, and probably more offensive scoring. Showalter finds the change tantalizing, but our manager is not impressed. Joe Maddon sounded disappointed while speaking with Bill Chastain over the weekend, calling the retired fake-pick-off move, "misunderstood."
"A lot of people thought it was a worthless move that had no significance because nobody was picked off," the Rays manager said. "And that was the furthest thing from the truth."
Maddon pointed out basestealers will love the change. He believes the reason the rule change was made was to try and loosen up the offense.
"That's exactly what's going to happen," Maddon said. "It puts a lot more pressure on the pitcher. A lot more pressure on the defense."
Maddon did not boast in the possibilities of free runners with multiple men on base, but stressed that pitchers will have more difficulty. Whether Rays pitchers will see steal attempts rise above league average, especially without James Shields on the mound, will be an interesting trend to watch in the coming season.