I’m struggling to find a good answer as to why a player would not be credited with a stolen base under the official MLB rules. It seems to me that most indifference calls are made when the defending team is far ahead and is wanting to avoid errors more than record outs on attempted stolen bases. This seems like a pretty weak argument, so I’m looking to see if there are others.
According to this 2009 NY Times article about defensive indifference:
Defensive indifference is exactly what it connotes: a situation when a
team was unconcerned about preventing the runner from advancing. After
official scorers consider the score and the inning, if the pitcher
made pickoff attempts and if the first baseman was positioned behind
the runner, they determine if the dash was a steal or defensive
“It’s an old rule and a very good rule,” said Bill Shannon, who has
been a scorer for 31 seasons. “I’m loath to give away statistical
But what about the runner who has successfully scooted the 90 feet?
Some players contend they should be credited with a stolen base. If
the team’s defensive strategy was to give away the base, should the
runner be rewarded for taking what was available?
Defensive indifference is a sleepy but established rule that has been
in Major League Baseball for 89 years. Bob Waterman, a senior baseball
staffer at Elias, said the addendum, “No stolen base shall be credited
to a runner who is allowed to advance without an effort being made to
stop him,” was placed in the 1920 rule book. The rule is typically
enforced in the ninth inning of a lopsided game when the defense yawns
as a runner grabs a meaningless base.
The article also notes:
Steve Hirdt, the executive vice president of Elias, noticed references
to defensive indifference while researching play-by-play accounts of
games from the 1920s. In an article about the imminent rule change in
The Chicago Tribune on Jan. 30, 1920, there is a headline that reads,
“Cut Out the Joke Steals.” Hirdt called it a good rule because it
protects “the spirit of what a stolen base is.”
It seems that baseball’s rule makers had a very strict definition of what a stolen base was – they did not want meaningless stat padding. This rule helps to make an “earned” steal more valuable and keeps a lopsided game moving by discouraging teams from tacking on “steals” that won’t impact the outcome of the game.