Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen concerned about base-blocking on steals, demands MLB rule change

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PITTSBURGH — Every time he takes off running trying to steal a base, the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen worries he might not be able to get back to his feet when the play is over.

With stolen-base attempts up across the majors this season under new rules that encourage base running, McCutchen believes infielders are more often blocking the bag with their bodies. That maneuver is not against the rules, but it’s risky enough that McCutchen wants Major League Baseball to take action to stop it.

“It’s inevitable that someone is going to get hurt,” McCutchen told The Athletic. “The only thing we can do is slide cleats-first and possibly injure (the fielder) or injure both of us. If MLB is all about preventing injuries, like they do at the plate with the catcher, why isn’t there a rule that says, ‘If you’re receiving the ball on a steal attempt, you can’t block the base?’”

In 2014, three years after Giants catcher Buster Posey’s left leg was shattered in a collision, MLB implemented new rules for runners and catchers on plays at the plate. McCutchen wonders if another significant injury will happen before MLB makes changes on stolen-base attempts.

“It seems like something really bad has to happen before a rule change that makes perfect sense can take place,” McCutchen said. “Why not do something now to protect the players and also maintain the integrity of the game? To me, it makes perfect sense to say, ‘You can’t block the base.’ That’s it. If the throw takes you there, OK, I get it. But you can’t intentionally camp out in the lane.”

MLB declined to comment on McCutchen’s remarks.

Through Saturday, there were 0.89 steal attempts per game this season and a 78.8 percent success rate. That’s the highest rate of attempts since 2012 and the highest success rate in decades.

It’s natural for defenses to adapt, and perhaps we’re already seeing a slight impact. Overall attempts per game went down from 0.89 in April to 0.88 this month. The success rate dropped from 79 percent to 77.8 percent.

Pirates rookie Ji Hwan Bae is third in the majors with 14 stolen bases. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

Swiping bags is an important weapon for the small-ball Pirates. They lead the majors in stolen bases (50), caught-stealings (18) and attempts (68), but rank 26th in success rate (73.53 percent).

“It’s who we are and we’re not going to change,” first base coach Tarrik Brock said. “MLB moved in the right direction by creating more opportunities for us to run. Now, what’s the next step? It goes back to safety and creating lanes.”

Brock figures there’s been at least a half-dozen instances in which an infielder lowered his body and blocked a Pirates base stealer from reaching the base.

“Fielders are doing their homework,” Brock said. “I’m watching film all the time and I see that guys are getting comfortable receiving the ball with the knee down or putting the foot in front (of the bag). The way we combat that is by going hard in, feet first, and try to buy back that portion of the bag.”

The Pirates know which infielders like to block the bag, and it’s a frequent topic in pregame strategy meetings. Some defenders kneel and use their lower leg, others plant a foot in the runner’s face.

“Sometimes, (fielders) get in front of the bag and then sort of fall into it,” Brock said. “You’re taking 200 pounds and going straight down as a guy is coming in at full speed. The league needs to do something about that.”

Blocking the bag is not a new technique; infielders have been doing it for decades. It hasn’t been commonplace, though, because of the injury risks.

Last August, Luis Robert Jr. of the White Sox injured his wrist in a collision with Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who blocked the bag with his leg. Going into that game, Robert was batting .301. Over the final six weeks of the season, he appeared in only 16 games and batted .156.

McCutchen, 36, is 4-for-5 in stolen-base attempts this year. He averaged 18.5 steals over his first 10 seasons in the majors but hasn’t reached double digits since 2018. He had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee in 2019.

Two weeks ago, McCutchen turned his ankle during a pregame warm-up in the outfield. He has remained active on the bases but worries about what might happen if he collides with a base-blocking infielder.

“I think about it all the time, especially now with my knees and my ankle,” McCutchen said. “Other teams know that too, right? You might have somebody who says, ‘I know his ankle is bothering him, so I’m going to drop my leg in front of the base. If he slides, maybe I can get him out of the game.’ That could happen. Someone could be thinking that. Someone could have a vendetta or something, who knows?”

Months before McCutchen’s complaint, MLB contemplated a rule change. According to a major-league source, the Joint Competition Committee discussed a proposal on the issue during the offseason. The committee decided to monitor the impact of the extra room for runners provided by the larger bases and revisit whether to act after the 2023 season.

The way McCutchen sees it, there already is ample reason for change.

“If I beat the throw and the fielder is already there and I’m sliding, there is nothing I can do except be out,” McCutchen said. “My only option is to take the other guy out. That’s all I have. I just don’t understand how there isn’t a rule there.”

— The Athletic’s Jayson Stark and James Fegan contributed to this report. 


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(Photo of Andrew McCutchen and Tim Anderson: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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