…. Talk talk, Part II

Reader Steve P thinks some of us have a wrong idea about baseball’s rules and Alou’s commitment to using the entire roster in every game:

…. I guess my problem with these kind of rules changes is that…baseball ain’t broke, why are we in a rush to fix it?

I am so tired of those people in baseball (despite the fact that attendance and viewership is at record levels) insisting that baseball is such a boring game that we have mess with the rules to shave 5 minutes off the lenght of games….so that a 3:02 game is boring but 2:57 is incredibly exciting.

What nonsense.

This stuff first started coming up when Bud the Brilliant was spending all his time trying to explain to people that baseball is boring, the players are thieves and drug addicts and other wonderful PR moves. But the real reason behind the whole time of game question had nothing to do with some kind of fan appeal, it had to do with Baseball trying to fix a messed up broadcast situation and the fact of the matter is that the game would be more attractive as a commodity if it fit more easily into broadcast space. If Bud had come out and said, look we’ve got a great game, but to keep it growing we need to do something to get more games on TV, and shortening the games by five to ten minutes would accomplish that.

Not one fan would object, they’d say…ah! that makes sense. Instead we now have people objecting to one batter pitching substitutions and not speaking about anyone here, but these are often the same people who object to the DH because of the oh-so-exciting double switch.

I happen to like baseball, I also happen to think (as do millions and millions of other people who keep tuning in) it isn’t broken. The only way baseball can screw itself is by changing the game. The reason that the NHL, NFL and NBA have changed their rules is because their games aren’t as well set up…they needed to fix the game, add some kind interest. Baseball did that over it’s first 30-40 years at the end of the 19th century …but they seem to have got it right for the past 100 years or so. Why mess with it?

I think the real frustration for Giants fans is not the number of pitching changes, but the general lack of quality.

Well, the two things aren’t related, Steve. The lack of quality by these stiffs is a completely different issue. Alou will replace the best reliever for the worst if he thinks there is some matchup edge, and the issue is that, for the fan, that edge is so minute it’s not worth the wait, the tedium, over and over, one, two, three pitchers to get one out, let a guy bunt,walk someone….. As James said so eloquently, “these guys are chasing an edge they can never catch.”

It is indefensible to suggest that the fans have no interest in seeing a poorly managed part of the rules of the game be corrected.

And to suggest that baseball is unchanged for 100 years is absurd. The home run, Astroturf, the DH, raising and lowering the pitchers mound, night games, new ballparks, weight training, Black players, Latin players, Asian players….. Come on, baseball has changed. It’s changed enormously. MLB lowered the mounds and added the DH to increase offense, for the fans, baseball fans have always come out for offense. They made the balls harder and the ball parks smaller to increase offense, again, for the fans.

Fans hate watching guys warm up and commercials about car insurance. They hate the way the tension is dissipated, tension that has been building pitch by pitch, as one teams’ hottest hitter makes it to the on-deck circle, and then walks to the plate just in time for a……. new pitcher. Booo. It sucks once. Twice, three times? In one inning? Another? It’s bad for the game.

Limit the number of pitching changes in any one inning, or number of batters, or something. Limit the number of throws to first, in any one inning or one batter, not huge changes, just a bit. The question isn’t whether or not baseball is broke. The question is whether you want to allow something to interfere with the enjoyment of the game, (for the fans and the players) just because you always have.

UPDATE: Reader Kent reminds us why we’re here:

…. For those readers wondering, Bill James is a very smart guy who’s dedicated his genius to looking at baseball from, let’s say, an alternative perspective. If any of you haven’t read anything by Bill James, I would highly recommend his Historical Baseball Abstract.

That in mind, the following are what James’ has targeted as ways to every-so-slightly alter the game to maintain its inherent drama/tension without going “Tony LaRussa” on it:

1) Baseball needs to adopt a rule change to limit the # of times that a pitcher can throw to a base. He likens the unlimited number of throws to “letting the air out of a ball in basketball.” Unlimited throws to a base DO decrease the number of stolen bases and the success rate of those attempts. As James says, throwing to a base “may be good strategy, (but) it is lousy entertainment.” He suggests allowing two unsuccessful throws to a base each inning. A third unsuccessful throw would be counted as a ball to the hitter at bat. This final point he advises would rarely happen because pitchers wouldn’t throw to a base three times. Here’s the subtle nature of his suggestions as three “predictable effects” would be seen: 1) less throws to a base; 2) the average game would be about 4 minutes less; and 3) a little more base stealing.

2) Baseball needs to issue a “policy directive” to its umpires to not call time once a batter enters the batters box (“time,” which umpires virtually allow to every hitter who calls for it)…except in circumstances when “a player loses a contact lens, is stung by a bee or chased by a rabid possum, (or) if Morganna runs onto the field,” etc. Let’s remember that hitters can disrupt pitchers with stepping out of the batter’s box for no good reason just as pitchers can disrupt hitters by stepping off the mound. However that former is much more common and is thus something that needs to be addressed (my words). James believes that changing this subtle rule can greatly increase “the energy and excitement natural to baseball (that wouldn’t be) dissipated by constant interruptions.

3) Allow 90 seconds between innings instead of two minutes. We can get into this is one, but James believes that creating a slight scarcity in ad time would increase its overall cost and would make the game more continuous.j

4) Having a minimum and a maximum standard for bats so that the game can decrease its movement toward virtual fungo bats. He explains this further by describing Ernie Banks going to a thin-handled bat and going off in HRs. James is not arguing that baseball goes back to the 1930′s wood blocks. But he thinks that standards should be slowly implemented over a period of time (20 years) to virtually avoid any immediate effects. In the long term, James argues, offenses would move toward more bat control as opposed to more bat speed. An interesting side benefit is that James believes that increasing bat size ever-so-slightly would allow wooden bats to be used at lower levels (cost prohibitive right now) since they wouldn’t break so much.

5) James would like to see the batter’s box gradually (over time) moved to about 4″ off of home plate. This would allow pitchers to have a little more control of the space…and help by avoiding all the hitters these days who sit right over the plate.

6) James would like to see (and he thinks that he will eventually see) a limit to mid-inning pitching changes. “1) once a game and 2) after the pitcher on the mound has given up at least one run in the inning.” “In other words, the manager cannot repeatedly stop the action to shuffle a new pitcher into the game. he’s got one free move a game, and he can remove a pitcher who is getting hit…it’s rude to the fanst to make them sit through this.” Of course, this rule would have exceptions, say, for injury or rain delay, etc.

Bear with me…

“Baseball was NOT designed by the Gods; it was designed by men who wanted to create a marketable sports entertainment. We have paid a high price for forgetting that.

Part of the price is that baseball men have the sense that something is amiss, but propose the crudest and most heavy-handed remedies for what are, in reality, simple problems. The DH rule is a good example. Proposals to put a clock on the pitcher and time him between pitches, ham-fisted efforts to tinker with the balk rules, and incessant arguing about the shape of the strike zone are, to me, symbols of how poorly understood baseball’s maladies really are. The people who make these kind of proposals believe fundamentally that baseball is a boring game which needs to be jazzed up for the next century. We don’t NEED to take dramatic, flashy actions to change baseball into something new and different. We need to take quiet, gauze-thin actions designed to tell the participants to stop messing around and play baseball. This is understood by the men who run the NFL; it is understood by the men who run college basketball. It is not understood by the men who run baseball. If we’ll just do that much, or that little, we can show younger fans how exciting baseball is supposed to be.”

Bill James is the reason OBM exists. I’ve read just about everything he’s written, and when I first did, I was flabbergasted. Listening to the NY Yankees commentators back in the eighties, I always felt that there was so much of the game unexplored and unexplained. James explored it, explained it, and challenged me to rethink everything I had ever learned or heard about the game.

Without my exposure to his work, I would be a less informed fan, and almost certainly a less interesting writer. Reading his thoughtful arguments and conclusions reminds me how much work I have to do to become the writer I hope to be.

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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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