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

The Braves’ Secret Bromance with the Twins

You may have noticed some chemistry between a couple of MLB teams lately. A little somethin’ somethin’. You know. They’re trying to hide it but we ain’t blind; every time you see one of ’em, there’s the other, doin’ the same thing, just across the way in the other league.

Yep. The Braves and the Twins have something going on.

You probably noticed that the Twins and Braves both started 0-9. I’m not going to lie; there being another team matching Atlanta’s comprehensively garbage start to the season helped me cope a little.

But that’s not it. You probably also have noticed that both teams have now gone on a 3-game winning streak.  That’s just uncanny.

Let me accentuate the impression I hope to make here with some historical colorings, courtesy of Baseball Reference’s Play Index (which you should subscribe to), and my weak-ass Excel skills.

Bob-Ross-2

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Since 1871, only 21 teams have started 0-9. That’s over the course of 145 seasons. That’s a lot of opportunities for teams to really go belly up for 9 games. It speaks to the mathematical marvel that is baseball. Even in the early days of the organized game, when there was less parity than we have now, it was very unlikely to lose 9 games in a row. The ball is just about bound to bounce your way more often than that.

I need to choose an average number of teams per season from 1871 to 2016, but it’s not readily available to me. I’m going with 18, which I think is conservative. This gives us an estimate of 2610 chances for teams to start 0-9, and 21 occurrences of it. Using these numbers, we uncover a historical frequency of 0.008 for teams earning this dubious accolade. Of course, not all teams are equally suited to start 0-9 in the first place. The Braves were quite likely to sport a poor record in the first half. But the fact that it’s happened so few times… well, that speaks for itself.

Now, this article is about the weird tear in space time that allowed the Twins to become the AL dimension’s version of the Braves (poor chaps, they never had a chance). So how rare is it for not one but two teams to start 0-9 during the same season?

It’s happened 5 times. Using our arbitrary but probably not-too-far-off estimate of 2610 team seasons above, we end up with a frequency of 0.0019. We’re talking nearly unprecedented stuff. But let’s go further.

Is there precedent for 2 teams starting this epically bad together, and then continuing their synchronicity for 3 or more games? No. No there is not.

Here’s the closest thing, though. I don’t want to hype it up, but this ending up being quite an entertaining little nugget. I hope you’ll agree.

In 1875, the New Haven Elm Citys (yep, that’s right), and, get this, the WASHINGTON NATIONALS, both marched bravely forth to an 0-11 record. Washington finally relented and won game 12. Ahhhhh. That’s pretty satisfying that it was a Washington Nationals team. But that’s really not the good part.

If you peruse the same message boards and Braves-y internet groups as I, then you have probably gotten a depressing chuckle recently out of someone cracking wise that “the Braves and Twins are set to play this summer, so one of them will definitely get a win eventually.” It’s a funny observation.

It must have been an even funnier reality in 1875, when the Nationals finally got their first win by sweeping a two game series against their former bedmates in loss-accumulation, none other than the New Haven Elm Citys. They literally played out our funny  joke; two teams staggered to an 0-11 start, while the rest of the league snickered “can’t wait to see those heavy weights go at it,” and only then could one of them get a W. Too bad it was the Nationals, given New Haven’s clearly superior name.

So, wrapping up here, the Braves and Twins mutually hold a strange record that I have spent my free time uncovering, for the joy of a precious few. In sum: out of the 21 teams in baseball’s 145 year recorded history that have blundered to 0-9, the 2016 Braves and Twins represent one of only 5 pairs of teams to pull this off together in one season. Of those 5 pairs, they are the ONLY duo to then continue to match each others W/L patterns for 3 or more games.

Just in case you’re bad at sharing, Braves fans, I’ll leave you with one more fun fact. There have been only 2 pairs of teams in baseball to start the same season 0-9 together since 1900. The Braves were part of both. They shared an 0-10 start with the Orioles back in 1988.

Is that cool? I’m not sure. Let’s just hope the Braves and Twins keep this magical wormhole set to the “both of us stay on a winning streak” setting for a while.

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The Braves’ Spring Training W/L Record: Optimism or Despair?

Featured Image of Mike Foleynewicz courtesy of  Associated Press /Times Free Press.

What should we make of the Braves’ Spring Training record?

March Madness Baseball Modern Past

March Ignorance.

I’m going to weigh in on the fact that your Atlanta Braves have the least best record among MLB teams participating in Spring Training.

NOTE: I said least best so that I could associate the word best with the Braves in some capacity.

My mantra in Spring Training is stats don’t matter. Unless they’re good… then we’ll take a look at ‘em. Read More

On Harper/Gossage: Rethinking Baseball’s Cultural Roots

Featured Image: Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson after winning the American League Championship Series on Oct. 7, 1978. | (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Modern Pastime

The scene after Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch from Braves pitcher Julio Teheran, August 6, 2013. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

I know, I know. You’re a little late on the whole Harper-Gossage thing, Tapley. In my defense, I’ve been talking myself out of writing this piece for about a week. But eventually, words write themselves.

Here’s the thing: I can relate to this argument from both sides. You’ll discover I have some clear convictions about this discussion, but I want establish common ground with the Gossage argument and the Harper argument first. Bear with me. I’ll argue at the end that we’re forgetting to consider inclusiveness and elitism in this argument about Baseball’s cultural identity. Read More

Sympathy and Criticism: the Jenrry Mejia Lifetime Ban

Now former Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia will never play Major League Baseball again, at the behest of the league’s PED policy. This lifetime ban due to breaches in the policy is unprecedented, and is likely to send ripples through the league ahead of Spring Training.

You can read more details about the suspension from many other sources. Let’s skim over the story here, and spend about 5 or 6 minutes together discussing a couple of ideas related to the MLB doping policy.

If Jenrry doesn’t sound familiar to you, it’s because injuries and cheating have kept him from really having much of a career, despite a promising trajectory as a very young Major Leaguer.

– Jenrry entered the league in 2010 at age 20, to much excitement in the Mets organization at the time.

– Injuries limited him to 10 games between 2011 and 2013.

– He reemerged as a back-end reliever in 2014 and earned the closer role for the Mets entering 2015.

– After being sidelined by yet another injury shortly after Spring Training, he was slapped with his first PED suspension. Before he outlived that one, he was caught with his hand in the banned substances cookie jar again. Before returning from the 162 game suspension for the second violation, he has now been found yet again to have been using PEDs.

You read that right. Mejia tested positive twice and earned a lifetime ban before returning from his first PED suspension.

Now that I can be sure that you have some background, here’s the reason I set out to write this piece. There is a wrinkle in MLB’s 3-strikes-you’re-out provision in the PED policy. After one year, you can appeal to the commissioner for reinstatement, though you must sit out for at least two seasons before such an allowance could take effect. This might sound to many as mere negotiating clout from the MLB Players Union. Soft on crime sort of stuff. Personally, I’m supportive of the drug policy in baseball being punitive and strict, which I’ll touch on below. But I’m all for this discretionary loophole in the writing of the lifetime ban rule. Here’s why:

As far as I can tell, a player could be motivated to risk testing positive for PEDS three times for 2 broad reasons, which could potentially overlap.

1) Calculated decisions based on there being so much money on the table that it is worth risking the consequences of alienating yourself from your club, losing money, and potentially being booted out of the league.
2) Destructive decisions stemming from a combination of the highly competitive atmosphere of professional sports and personal mental health challenges related to things like addiction, self-doubt, and impulse control, among certainly other factors that I’m extremely unqualified to banter about.

I don’t want to wax too apoligist for Jenrry Mejia. I don’t know a shred of anything about his motivations for taking banned substances so brazenly, even after being given chances to right his ship. I do know that he came into the league with a lot of promise and hope for a bright future though, and then promptly had that pulled out from under him due to injuries. Remember, he broke in at age 20 and then didn’t pitch in more than 10 games over three seasons. That would sting. Players don’t make any real money until they accrue 3 seasons of service, at which time they are eligible for arbitration raises for three consecutive seasons. So you can see where motivation number 2 above could be greatly exasperated by the weight of a persisting injury bug.

If Mejia’s decision-making was a result of personal psycho-emotional problems that the young man was struggling with, and if that could be demonstrated unambiguously, then I can see a path back into the league for him that involved a responsibly outlined process towards correcting the destructive trend in behavior. I have no idea if the former Met may fall into this discussion, but it’s worth considering when any player tests positive for a third time with a highly lucrative career on the line.

Rather conversely, I just want to argue quickly for a stricter doping policy in MLB. Why wait for a third strike, despite the opportunity for puns that it provides? Players are certainly disappointing their teams after testing positive a first time, and the punishment for the first offense certainly has real effect on young players. But the consequence is clearly not enough for many young players that still turn to PEDs to gain an edge. It is far less often though that we see a player caught a second time. Why is this? There are likely several factors, but it can not be ignored that losing an entire season to suspension carries a much heftier cost to a player than the initial 80 game penalty. Development is stunted in a very significant way in the year-long version, and a team’s plans for the violating player may be greatly curbed as a result.

So why wait for the second offense? If MLB is serious about getting drugs out of the game, why not take a more aggressive approach that reflects the seriousness of the stance?

I’m rarely accused of being draconian in my approach to correcting undesirable behaviors, but here’s the thing: as long as poorly paid minor leaguers see other players using PEDs and making gains faster from them, and as long as they see those players get caught but recover in time to continue their trajectory of development, these fellas are going to be subjected to undue temptation to break the rules and do unhealthy things to their bodies to climb the ladder. This unfortunate temptation is particularly relevant for those coming from poverty in the US and the Latin American and Caribbean spheres.

So, I feel badly for Jenrry Mejia. In a real, empathetic way. I can understand what it feels like to stare down falling short of what you perceive as your former potential in sports. Especially with all of those injuries. Sheesh. Just the same though, Mejia wasn’t just cheating the game. He was tearing down his body at an age when his body wan’t even finished maturing. Who knows how much of this was going on before he was initially caught. MLB seems to take this matter seriously. Stepping up that first penalty is a real option on the table to dissuade all of those young no-name kids out there from doing harm to their bodies to try to set themselves apart. Most of them will never have the bright future that Jenrry squandered in the first place.

So hey MLB, make the initial penalty more severe. And kudos to you for leaving the backdoor open for discretion in the case of lifetime bans.

Freddie Freeman

MLB Arbitration Is behind the Times

Why Are We Determining Player Salaries Based on Statistics That We Know Are Inadequate? 

Thank you in advance, devoted readers, for tuning in as I follow up my recent piece about the MLB Qualifying Offer rule with a companion bore on the inadequacies of the current MLB Arbitration Process. I don’t actually think it’s boring, and you don’t either. But we are nerds as a result of our interest in this thing, so lets call it like it is.

 

MLB Arbitration

Nerding it up in Jodhpur, India. The struggle is real.

 

This topic is continually relevant to the game, but timely at the moment because a popular fella named Jake Arrieta just settled with the Cubs hours before going to an Arbitration hearing. Sounds good. The club and player took care of the business before some legal folks decided it. But wait, what about these legal folks? Who are they? What the hell do they know? Read More

Colby Rasmus qualifying offer

The Qualifying Offer is Getting Screwed

I’m going to argue with former-me in this piece. Or maybe it’s other-me, though a current one. This is a poor start so far.

There he is, that Tapley Jr. fella from MP going on about how MLB’s Qualifying Offer rule (QO from here on out) has proven itself to be garbage. He has a leg to stand on. It’s easy enough to argue that the QO set up has had unintended consequences. Just this moment in fact, several good players are sitting around twiddling their thumbs. They’re still wondering who will pay them loads of money for being incredible at hitting a ball and throwing it and whatnot. Read More