On throwing to first, Part I

Who are the most dangerous baserunners in the league?  Why don’t we ask the people who see them up close, Major League pitchers.  I suppose that I could go and ask them myself, but that would take a lot of travel and stalking, neither of which I’m really up for now.  Thankfully, though, we already have a little bit of data on the subject.  It might be the most boring event in baseball, because it usually results in… well… nothing.  At least to the naked eye.  With a runner on first, the pitcher turns and throws a nice soft toss over to the first baseman, who occasionally feigns a tag on the runner, who is almost always safely back to first.  So, if the play is so useless, why does it still happen so often in a game?
In 2006, there were 16,654 throws, 16,349 of them by pitchers, to “check on” a runner at first who had an open second base in front of him.  The conventional wisdom is that pitchers do this in order to “control the running game” and although it rarely happens, to pick the runner off.  Sometimes, a runner draws a few throws before the first pitch is even made.  Sometimes, the first baseman doesn’t even bother to hold the runner.  The reason is fairly obvious: the pitcher wants to keep the runner close to the base so that he can’t get too long a lead and take off to second.
So, which runners drew the most throws last year?  Well, first let’s do some set up work.  I took the 2006 PBP database from Retrosheet and isolated all instances in which a runner was on first base, but second base was un-occupied.  This means that he could, theoretically, steal second base (about 44,000).  I counted how many throws to first were made by the pitcher (or catcher) in that case and whether the runner received any throws at all (coded as zero for no, and one for yes), and how many times he made a break for second (whether he was caught stealing, stole the base, or the batter fouled the ball off).   I eliminated instances where the runner ran on a 3-2 count with 2 outs.  Next, I identified how many events were “duplicates.”  This would be a case where a runner singles to start the inning, but the next three hitters strike out without him leaving first base.  This way, he gets credit for only one time on first, rather than three.
So, who gets the most throws his way to first base per time that he’s on (with a minimum of 20 appearances in this situation)
Top 10:

  1. Ryan Freel – 1.54
  2. Dave Roberts – 1.52
  3. B. J. Upton – 1.41
  4. Nook Logan – 1.30
  5. Juan Pierre  – 1.29
  6. Chris Duffy – 1.29
  7. Curtis Granderson – 1.26
  8. Jose Reyes – 1.20
  9. Chone Figgins -1.17
  10. Willy Tavares – 1.15

Reyes, Pierre, and Roberts were 1, 2, and 4 (respectively) in the NL in steals.  Figgins was 2nd in the AL.  The rest all have reputations as speesters.  For those interested, the bottom 10 includes such fleet-footed folk as Frank Thomas, David Ortiz, Ryan Howard, and Mike Piazza.
Does throwing to first keep these guys, or anyone, from running?  I ran a chi-square testing the association between whether a throw was made and whether the runner ran.  There was a significant association such that a runner was more likely to run if there had been a throw to first.  (More likely: a pitcher threw to first when it was occupied by a runner who was more likely to run.)  Runners only tried in 8.5% of the instances in which a throw had been made to first, but 21.8% of the time when the pitcher had thrown over.  So throwing over certainly isn’t a deterrent from running.  Nor, is making more than one throw.  Using a binary logit regression, I regressed whether or not the runner made an attempt on the number of throws made.  This explained about 1% of the variance.  In other words, throwing over more than once didn’t work to stop the runner from going.
But, does throwing over affect stolen base rates?  Yes.  When a runner makes an attempt for second (and the ball is not fouled off), he is successful 76.8% of the time if there has not been a throw and 65.4% if there has been.  So, throwing to first shaves 11.4% off the stolen base success rate.  Looks like throwing to first is a defensive maneuver that actually works.
Or does it?  What about the throw that gets away?  Does throwing to first affect the pitcher’s ability to pay attention to the batter and thus pitch to him effectively?  But then again, what about the pickoff?  What about the possibility that the runner might not “steal” third on a single or home on a double?  All told, is throwing to first an effective strategy? 
You’ll just have to read Part II.

7 Responses to On throwing to first, Part I

  1. Sean Smith says:

    Good stuff. I didn’t even know retrosheet recorded throws to first, but it seems they have just about everything today.
    Maybe one day we’ll be able to correlate run scoring to hot dog sales.

  2. STATS looked at pick-off throws in … jeez, it musta been the 1990 Scoreboard, if that was the first one they did. They did find that a throw to first cut down on SB Success %, and even found that multiple throws, at least up to … I don’t know, three or four throws, were successively more successful. I’d be interested to know if that latter part still holds. They didn’t look at throws that got away, so that should definitely be fruitful to investigate.

  3. Ryne says:

    The only thing to be concerned with methodologically in looking at multiple throws is that extreme selection effects occur. That is, anybody with decent speed gets one throw, but only the best basestealers get five, as Pizza has shown. LAWOB, did the Scoreboard study show that the runners were more successful with repeated throws, or that each throw was increasingly successful at stoping runners?

  4. Lisa Gray says:

    interesting
    i wonder why pitchers don’t try to pick off guys like, say, humberto quintero/bengie molina who are not exactly base stealers. it’s true they don’t take big leads, but pick off artists like, say, andy pettitte don’t never seem to even try.
    maybe it’s there in the unwritten rule book of bad baseball manners like not bunting for a hit after the 5th inning of a nono

  5. […] In the first part of this series, I presented a list of the runners that drew the most throws per time that they were on first.  I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that the list contained a bunch of known speedsters and stolen-base leaders.  In fact, far from being a deterrent to running, throws to first seem to go to those who actually end up running.  But, throwing to first cut stolen base success rates by about 11%, so the pitcher must be doing something right. […]

  6. […] So far, we’ve taken a look at what the pickoff throw to first says about baserunners and run scoring, but we haven’t yet looked at it from the defense’s point of view.  Does throwing to first mean that the pitcher won’t be as effective at working the batter?  Does holding the runner really open up a hole in the right side of the infield that hitters exploit?  All told, is throwing to first a good strategy?  Let’s jump in and find out. […]

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