Baseball Is Already Exciting, and Tweaking it Won’t Fool Anyone, Anyway.

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Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. As it turns out though, there is a lot more to wring our hands over than the puny 162 game schedule would suggest. Just ask the internet.

Exhibit A

For several years now, establishment experts, lauded saber-types, tastemakers, and top brass alike have been lamenting what they see as a dangerous metamorphosis in baseball. In their eyes, the game is losing its jazziness, becoming more boring. The purported risk of this is appealing to fewer young fans and risking the health of the enterprise.

It’s true that age demographics are shifting in baseball, and it’s not something that should be under-appreciated. It’s also true that baseball, as a business, is doing better than ever and is trending upward. So, baseball is healthy, but young people are opting out as a trend. What is the appropriate response to this?

ugly jersey

I used to be more of a fixed-gear bike polo guy, but have you seen that drop in MLB strike out rates lately??? photo via Obsev.com

Generally speaking, writers and representatives of the game have coalesced around the idea that baseball needs more scoring. Increase scoring by a run or two per game, the thinking goes, and the kids will be jitter-bugging their way back to the Polo Grounds in droves. Increase balls in play by, say 10%, and all those extra ground outs, pop ups, and occasional hits will spur adolescents into the streets, fist-bumping in alternate camo jerseys and god knows what other young-person-stuff.

It should be noted here, before I dive on in, that I generally enjoy a game with fewer strike outs, though the occasional display of rabid pitching dominance is certainly not outside of my realm of appreciation. Likewise, I want to go on record as being fully in favor of the current efforts, successful so far, to speed up the game. I harbor this view despite being personally grateful for every second of escapism that baseball affords me. It’s just that I’ve noticed that some other folks actually have other responsibilities and pastimes that they engage in. Go figure.

But dissent is at the heart of these words, because this scoring and strike out rate stuff is of a different ilk than pace of play effots. My position is probably clear by now, but here it is stated plainly: no modest increase in the runs scored in baseball, even those that come via the home run, nor modest increase in balls put in play due to reduced strike outs, nor any other minor tweak, will change how young people or any people perceive the game. Not one iota. 

Here, many writers who are reading this piece (if I’m fortunate) are probably quibbling with my characterization of their proposals, some of which I’ll outline below, as minor tweaks. In a way, I fully agree. A 10% reduction in strike outs and a one to two run increase in scoring per 9 is certainly significant… statistically and historically. Heck, you can even make well reasoned inferences that such changes would alter roster construction and offensive approach in the near term. It’s not that anyone is wrong in venturing that the game can be tweaked to increase offense. It almost certainly can. The problem here amounts to missing the forest for the trees. 

A thought experiment, if you will

Let’s place a hypothetical baseball neophyte in front of a television. Not forcibly or anything! We’ll show the newb 2 different games and observe the responses.

Game 1: The game ends in a 5-3 win for… Average Like-ability Team 1 over Average Like-ability Team 2. There was a home run in the game that scored the go ahead run in the 8th inning. There were 16 combined strike outs in the game. The game lasted 3 hours.

Result: the viewer expressed a preference to watch basketball instead.

Game 2: the game ends 7-5. Two home runs were hit, both in the first 4 innings by the winning team. There were 10 total strike outs in the game. One more difficult defensive play was converted, and two more hits were recorded in Game 2 than in Game 1. One of those extra hits were a double. The game lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Result: [insert your inference here]

David Ortiz angry

David Ortiz represents the type of player whose value has taken the deepest dive due to defensive shifts. He also represents the type of hitter most responsible for the rising strike out numbers in MLB. Must we save his brethren? Photo credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

What do you think, dear reader? Has game 2 made a dent in the viewer’s resistance to obsessing over our wonderful game? Let me attempt to predict and paraphrase what will be the most common response here: “it depends; there is much more to a baseball game than those numbers. Game 1 actually sounded more exciting because of the late lead change, but I need more information.”

I don’t believe that readers would feel comfortable making the claim that the watchability advantages of Game 2 would convert many non-fans into baseball disciples. Both games look essentially the same. They both look like baseball games.

The quantitative improvements that are being sought via proposed tweaks to the game don’t get at what makes Baseball lovable and exciting. 

Even if you push back on my bolded claim, despite it having been bolded, making it very unlikely to be false, let me add one last wrinkle to my argument. The increases in watchability from Game 1 to Game 2 intentionally represent a shift from the current style and state of the game, to what could be called a full, optimal realization of a battery of fun-ifying proposals for which you can find ready support in the blogosphere and beyond. I’ll list a few:

  1. Move the mound back 6 inches.
  2. Drop the height of the mound.
  3. Juice the ball.
  4. Outlaw ‘violent’ defensive shifts (not my words, even!).
  5. Shorten the game in general.

Don’t take my word for it…

The distance between the mound and the plate has been tinkered with twice since the late 1800’s. When it was moved back 5 feet in 1881, scoring stayed essentially unchanged. When it was moved back an additional 5 feet to it’s modern position, scoring initially rose, but after a few years then fell back to well below previous levels as pitchers adjusted to the distance.

In 1969, MLB lowered the mound 10 inches after “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. When you compare the 10 seasons before the height reduction to the ensuing 10 seasons, run scoring did rise… by a mere 0.025 runs per game after the adjustment towards seas level.

In 1911, the livelier baseball was introduced to the game (despite the end of the Dead Ball Era being generally agreed upon as 1919). If you take the 10 seasons before the ‘juiced ball’ was introduced and compare them to the 20 following, you see a rise of 0.5165 runs per game. Just in case you think I’m cherry picking here, I chose those time increments so that I could find any effect at all that could be reasonably attributed to the ball change.

(For the above three paragraphs, I used data from this Baseball Reference page and some insight from this excellent piece by Steve Treder for The Hardball Times on historical strike out rates.)

Defensive shifts are shiny and new, so we can only look at the tentative effects that they have on the offensive environment of the game. Employing the shift is definitely on the rise. The main effects of defensive shifts should be found in how many batted balls are converted into hits. Luckily, BABIP gives us a quick way to probe for this effect. In 2010, there were 2,464 defensive shifts. In 2014, there were 13,296 (source: Bill James Online). During that span, BABIP remained at it’s typical levels (source: Fangraphs). Still, according to the Baseball Info Solutions metric Shift Runs Saved (SRS), 2014 saw an estimated 195 runs saved due to modern shifts on the infield. Put that feather in your cap, but do so knowing this: 19,761 runs were scored in 2014, which is about 0.98% lower than the 19956 total that SRS estimates would have been scored sans shifts. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game in 2014. Without shifts, then, SRS estimates that they would have made it home 4.11 times per contest, instead. That’s a difference of 0.04 runs per game.

Lastly, the 2015 time-shaving policies instituted last season led to games that were 6 minutes shorter on average over the course of the year relative to recent seasons. New measures added this season should modestly increase that trend. Other proposals, such as a strictly enforced 20 second limit between pitches, have been floated. You could expect such policies to trim a few minutes more off of the average game if enacted.

Now that I’ve treated these tweaks commonly proposed to the game, let’s return to the differences between Game 1 and Game 2 from above.

4 more total runs scored per game: If we lower the mound and move the rubber farther from the batter, and we increase the liveliness of the ball, an estimated increase of 2 runs scored per game, per team, is still quite liberal.

6 fewer total strike outs / 6 more balls in play and 2 more total hits: After lowering the mound in 1969 and instituting the American League designated hitter in 1973, strike out rates were modestly reduced. From the highest rate of the era in 1967, then 5.99 per team, K’s dropped on average by 0.81 per team during the period between 1968 and 1982. Then they began to rise again. Let’s allow that changes to the mound (and a slimming of the strike zone if you wish, which isn’t discussed at length in this article, but has had similarly modest effects in the past) reduce the current K/9inn rate by 3 full strike outs, or 6 total per game. If we then apply the typical .300 BABIP, which as discussed above has ‘survived’ defensive shifts so far, then we could expect about 2 extra hits per game from those balls in play. You could argue that 3 hits may be a fairer number, but if you do, remember that the K/9inn reduction that I’m using is statistically huge.

One double, one home run, one stand-out play: These are all just arbitrary additions to make Game 2 look better. I won’t belabor the numbers behind this hypothetical, but presenting all three of these outcomes as being a result of the added balls in play and hits that I’ve discussed seems a fully generous assumption.

20 minutes of game time: This is perhaps the most moderate, and most realistic assumption that I’ve built in. Given what has transpired so far with pace of play rules, molding the game into an affair that is 20 minutes shorter than it’s pre-2015 self is reachable. It would still be quite a feat, but it’s the most plausible of the effects that I’ve laid out in this section.

The Upshot

Even if ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED AT ONCE, the contrast of the viewing experience before and after the changes would amount to very little to the uninitiated. Game 2 isn’t going to make more life-long fans out of young people than Game 1. Current societal views towards the game aren’t going to evolve because of the unveiling of a style of play more resembling Game 2, either.

So why all the hubbub?

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

photo credit: Keith Allison on Flickr

I think we’ve let ourselves become slightly misguided by our penchant for analytics, our desire to think progressively about the game, and by the media echo chamber that we as writers reside in, so to speak.

Seems to me that we’d be better served by forward thinking research and proposals concerning the impacts of potentially exclusionary costs of youth baseball in the U.S., and concerning the causes of the dwindling participation of young, black Americans in the game.

Baseball is baseball, and I humbly submit that it is exciting enough already. Those that disagree won’t be persuaded otherwise by tweaks such as those discussed here. If encouraging changes to the demographics of the fan base are to be realized, MLB will have to dig deeper.

What can we do to help?

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Featured Image credit: PATRICK SEMANSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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