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?

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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 Confusing Orioles Off-Season And Its Aftermath

The Baltimore Orioles enter the 2016 season with a lineup that should be very fun to watch and most likely another above average defense, yet the club maybe has put themselves into a “now or never” situation, thanks to a confusing off-season. Baltimore gave a bunch of free agent money to Chris Davis and added a few other bats. Meanwhile, the club has a bad farm system and gave up the #14 pick in this year’s draft to sign Yovani Gallardo in a very weak attempt to improve a very weak starting rotation. When you consider there is no help coming from the farm any time soon and that Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez, and Matt Wieters will be free agents after 2016, the Orioles have gotten themselves into a position where they might have to win now. Unfortunately, while the offense should be setting off fireworks all summer, the starting rotation appears to be one that is incapable of doing their fair share.

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Adam Jones is a leader

Let’s recap how the Orioles got into this position. In December, the O’s traded for Mark Trumbo. At the time, the move made some sense. Trumbo is a power hitter that could do some serious damage in Camden Yards during the summer. The move also gave Baltimore a safety net at 1B if contract talks with Chris Davis did not bear any fruit. However in January, Davis signed a 7 year/$161 million contract with the club (with some of that money deferred over the next 2 decades). It was a big gamble, but not necessarily a bad signing, as Davis is good fit at OPACY and is coming off another great year in terms of power and OBP. Where it gets confusing is in early March when the Orioles signed Pedro Alvarez to a one year, $5.75 million contract. Not exactly an overpay when you consider what Alvarez is capable of providing at the plate (projected to slash around .245/.322./478 with 25+ home runs). However, Alvarez is an extreme liability in the field (1B or 3B), meaning his role will almost entirely be as DH, pushing Trumbo or Davis into the OF (where neither is good) or maybe Davis to 3rd and Manny Machado to SS (not ideal). The Orioles were already going to have a powerful lineup, so there really wasn’t a real need to add Alvarez’ bat at the expense of their defense. 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

The Kris Medlen Interview

We love Kris Medlen at ModernPastime. He’s an easy player to root for. He’s got personality, he’s not a physical freak, and he’s battled adversity with his head held high. He was a favorite in Atlanta and I’m sure that Kansas City fans love him as well. My first piece here at MP was about how getting Medlen back from Tommy John recovery last summer was akin to a blockbuster trade for the Royals (link). So obviously I was very excited when I found out that my first ever interview of a major league baseball player would be Medlen himself. I had tons of stuff that I wanted to ask him, from questions about his relationship with sabermetrics to more personal questions about his time in Atlanta.

I want to thank Kris’ lovely wife Nicki for facilitating this and I want to mention the Medlens’ work with the wonderful Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research. The interview was conducted electronically while Kris and Nicki were traveling to Atlanta for a Rally event. I also of course want to thank Kris for agreeing to do this and for really sharing so much. I was worried that I had too many questions and at the end, I wished that I had asked more.

Just a quick thought before getting into the interview: As a stat nerd I always hope that players are into them as much as I am but through reading other interviews and conducting this one, I have come to learn that players have much more to worry about and focus on than their numbers and what they may mean. I don’t think that discounts sabermetrics but it should be a reminder to those of us in that community that stats are not everything. Players do believe in mental edges, team morale, etc, so maybe we are wrong to discount such things (or maybe not). That was the motivating force for Philip and I for starting this blog, to balance saber (something we both believe in) with the traditional ways of looking at the game.

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Great day for KC, Sad day for ATL

Who was your favorite ex-brave/old guy who hung around during spring training and why?

It’s tough to pick one because the braves did a great job of having not only great baseball players but great people who would come back and stay involved, so it was cool for you as a current player… David justice. He did a great job of mixing it in with pitchers and position players, and told such unbelievable stories and brought a lot of energy. It made you want to show up to the field and go to work. Seeing him as excited to be there as he was was definitely infectious.

What about your favorite Braves beat writer and favorite national guy?

Same with the organization is the same with the media. Braves had a lot of good people which creates an environment for players if they wanted to come out of their shell and say what they were thinking. The clubhouse was always covered by some pretty trustworthy people. Combination of covering the sport and being a cool person away from the sport- David O’Brien. Nationally- Ken Rosenthal, any report that comes out nowadays always comes through Ken which shows his work ethic and I can appreciate that. Not to mention any face to face run-ins I’ve had have been with him, he’s always been a great conversation and very genuine.

In your opinion, how important is clubhouse chemistry?

It’s something that is the glue for your entire team. With mediocre teams it makes the team better and with good teams it makes them great as I’ve seen firsthand.

What is the most player-friendly stadium on the road? Like cushy clubhouse or best food or whatever. 

The Yankees. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the organization. First class, over the top everything. Amenities, food, clubhouse attendants.

Do you like playing Sunday night games on ESPN?

Sunday night games on ESPN are the absolute worst. They make the games so late and a lot of Sunday games are getaway days and makes the travel a little more difficult.

How important is the All-Star game to you?

I think the All-Star game is something every player should strive for, but with the way the voting is set up, some guys get left out and it’s almost out of your control. So I think not worrying about it and letting the process take care of itself is the best approach. I love the game and festivities and the attention it brings this awesome game.

Do you feel like the playoffs are a crapshoot after such a long season or does the cream really rise to the top? (I don’t mean anything negative by this. Obviously the royals were great last year but sometimes it feels like it’s just the hot team that wins it all).

I don’t think you can accidentally win a World Series so I feel the best team does win despite what people say on how they got there. People use the word lucky, I try to take that out of my vocab. Making that run through the playoffs shows that yes the hottest team can win but it’s a testament to an entire season of work and chemistry clicking at the right moment and it’s something spectacular to see and be part of.

How long does the feeling last after winning the World Series? Like is it something that you’re still high on or have you already moved on and feel like you do every winter/spring?

It’s one of the best experiences of my baseball career, something you’ve always dreamed of and once it happens you don’t know what you are going to feel because you’ve never experienced it before so you just go with it. I went from an extreme high to extreme low with the death of my best friend* soon after the World Series. Spring training feels like business as usual, getting the kids ready to travel and do it all again.

*Kris and former Brave Tommy Hanson came up together through the minors and were best friends. Hanson passed away suddenly November 9, 2015.
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Filthy

You walked hitters at a higher rate last year (2.78/9 innings compared to 2.2 for your career). Was that something that you were aware of or were struggling with when you first returned, or is it just a case of small sample size and your command and control were as they always have been?

I really try not to pay attention to numbers because they end up working out. I don’t know if the first half of my outings had more walks or the second half. But after having my second long break from injury you lose a little bit of feel and it’s something you work to get back. Also, having to navigate myself through American League lineups which everyone knows is a big difference probably had something to do with that.

Your velocity was up in 2015 on all your pitches compared to 2013. Do you feel stronger now then before your last injury?

I took my 2nd Tommy John by the balls. I knew what to expect and worked even harder. I didn’t make excuses or take short cuts. Anytime you do that you are going to see results. So yes this is the strongest I think I’ve felt. Signing with the Royals was the best thing for me, the knowledge and effort that’s put into everything. That organization has helped me out a lot, although a lot of work was put into before that.

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According to fangraphs data, you are throwing less two-seam fastballs and more four-seam fastballs compared to earlier in your career. Is this true? If so why?

Everything revolves around a four-seam fastball. It’s the simplest pitch if you think about it, but you have to be mechanically sound staying behind the ball, on top of the ball, and through the ball which then translates into your other pitches and makes them more effective. When throwing a two-seamer the more you try to make it move the less it will. So keeping that four-seam mentality with a two-seam grip makes it that much better

In 2012, post all star break, you had a run that most players only dream of having. At one point you had a 4 start stretch where you pitched 33 innings, gave up 0 earned runs, and struck out 34. Did you feel different during that run? Was there a heightened level of confidence or something that took you to that next level that only few ever get to? Or did you feel the same as other times you’ve been healthy and pitched well but just didn’t get the results?

Nothing happens in baseball without the pitcher releasing the ball, so I found myself in a groove in terms of not thinking too much and executing pitches. And for a pitcher executing pitches is all you should really think about. But baseball is a team game and I wasn’t striking everyone out. I found myself in a situation where everything clicked in terms of getting breaks and my team scoring runs but after the season I realized what I had done and wanted to build of it for the following season.

 

What do you think about the Win stat for pitchers? Some think that a pitcher’s win-loss record is meaningless because it’s kind of out of their control. Some think that winning games is something you can control by going deep into games or that there is such thing as a “gamer”. Where do you stand?

I think at times it can be a little misleading but in terms of earning a win there’s not a better feeling however it is you get the win. Sure, every pitcher will have days where he puts up zeroes, but baseball is a test for a players will to win and compete. I think it becomes more of a pride thing and it may not mean much to media types, but it’s all that matters to a guy on the mound. I don’t pitch for quality starts, I pitch for wins.

What do you think about advanced metrics/sabermetrics? Like are you super into them or are you aware of them but don’t care for them or somewhere in between? Do you have a favorite statistic or metric?

I believe when used properly they can be beneficial, but from a player standpoint the term paralysis by analysis can takeover when you are in the middle of the game and you are thinking about multiple things. It’s doesn’t matter what statistics say, you are going to hang a pitch or you are going to miss a pitch because you are sitting there overthinking. In terms of preparation it can be useful but it varies player to player. I don’t have a favorite stat or metric.

Are you into the “moneyball” movement or do you prefer a more old school approach? Not just the nerdy stats but specialization, shifts, preaching walks for hitters, etc.

I believe in well-rounded players that can do everything well. I think that is the most effective way to win games. It also creates an environment with less weakness with depth of lineup/roster.

Who is a hitter that always makes you sweat? Like maybe you have good numbers against them but they always work your at bats or maybe they just own you. How do you approach or prepare for a known player that hits you well? Stay with your plan and hope results even out or adjust?

It’s a funny game. Sometimes you do well against the best hitters and the guys towards the bottom of the lineup beat you. I don’t sweat about anyone because I feel prepared and can execute a pitch that can get someone out. Half of the battle is confidence.

If someone hits me well, I’ll study the players weakness and try to execute. As good as these hitters are, players get paid to hit those really good pitches. Focus on what you can control and just execute really good pitches. Also just because a guy has a hit off you, go back and look at the film and it’s a dribbler down the line. Technically you beat the guy but he gets credit for a hit. It varies.*

*Just a quick note here: I think its interesting that Kris is clearly not a saber guy, but probably doesn’t realize how saber/moneyball this comment is.

Do you or other pitchers in the league think the over protection of pitchers has led to more injuries around the league? I’m talking pitch counts or the tight management of workouts. What about the tightening of the strike zone making it harder for pitchers to get outs and putting more stress on each pitch?

it’s really hard to answer because everyone tries to generalize injuries and causes of injuries when every persons anatomy is different. Guys throw the ball different ways and different pitches. I don’t think it can be generalized and made that simple.

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Medlen’s changeup is filthy

What percentage of pitchers use an illegal substance on the baseball?

I know guys do, but I don’t think it’s a cheating issue as much as an aid in not killing hitters. You see guys swing and lose their bats and then put pine tar on. Is that not an aid for them to feel confident in their grip?

Do you enjoy hitting in the majors? Do most pitchers?

Yes I really enjoyed it because it was a win-win. You are expected to get out, so any positive thing you do is magnified.

Who is your favorite player in the majors who has never been your teammate?

David Wright

Last question. Do you feel like umpires behind the plate are good enough or would your prefer laser strike zone?

I think umpires behind the zone are very good at their job, although sometimes flawed of course. I think having a laser strike zone would end up affecting the hitters. Some bigger breaking balls that are caught low from a catcher but the strike zone says caught in the zone. Either way hitters will cry about something.