Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Radical Baseball

Radical Baseball

Kenneth Matinale

June 9, 2006

  1. Start the closer.
  2. The Real scandal of the last 16 years: propagation of non-uniform playing areas.
  3. Four leagues, no divisions.
  4. Walks: a terrible rule.
  5. Designated Fielders and the Six-Player Batting Order.
  6. Clock, time-outs, … you know, like the other sports.
1. Start the closer.
Last night the Yanks were leading the Red Sox 3-2 in the sixth, bases loaded, no outs. Starter Jaret Wright was done. With the game on the line manager Joe Torre called for not his best relief pitcher, Mariano Rivera, but his third best (at best) Scott Proctor. Proctor did an OK job allowing two of Wright’s runs to score. Unfortunately, in the next inning Proctor allowed three of his own.

Torre should have brought in Mariano Rivera, his best. Since Tony LaRussa created this nonsense called the closer with his use of Dennis Eckersley in the late 1980s, managers have adhered to this formula like their jobs depended on it. Part of the orthodoxy is: who will pitch the ninth inning? The closer is used almost exclusively to pitch one and only one inning, which he starts, and only with a lead. Save the game in the sixth and take your chances in the ninth. Is Scott Proctor more likely to allow runs entering a game with bases loaded and no out or when starting an inning?

This brings up another piece of nonsense. The closer is the only pitcher who probably will not need to pitch with runners on base. Why doesn’t he wind up? The starter is the only pitcher who winds up, yet he is the most likely to pitch with runners on base because he pitches the most innings. About 25 years ago people realized that relief pitchers often pitched with runners on base, so relievers abandoned the wind up. But the closer could and probably should wind up. How come nobody has realized that? It’s pretty simple.

In another recent game Torre announced before the game that he would pitch Rivera no matter what because Rivera needed work. Aside from the silliness that a pitcher needs to play catch in a game rather than just do it on the sideline (hey, it’s nothing like a batter needing to face game pitching), why wait until Rivera’s usual time in the ninth? Start him! Here are three advantages:
  1. Rivera pitches to the top of the order. The batters in the ninth are random. Rivera is as likely to face the bottom of the order as the top. Pitch Scott Proctor against the bottom.
  2. In the first inning the game is almost always close. Always at home. On the road it might not be close if the closer’s team scores a bunch in the top of the first inning.
  3. Rivera can pitch more than one inning. If Rivera retires the side in the first inning on six pitches, he did not get the work that Torre wanted. However, Rivera can pitch at least one more inning. If Torre waits until the ninth inning, Rivera may throw those six pitches, get little work and Torre may have already used Scott Proctor for an inning or two when he may have avoided using Proctor at all. Let pitch count dictate how long Rivera works, not the arbitrary wall of the ninth inning. You know, like they do for starters.
Rivera pitches in about 70 games and throws about 80 innings in a season. Why not start him every other game? He would get regular rest and the three advantages listed above would apply in every appearance. I’ll bet that Rivera’s contribution to the Yanks winning would be at least as great as it is with Torre blindly following the formula. OK, now it’s time for you to run around and scream: he blasphemes!

2. The Real scandal of the last 16 years: propagation of non-uniform playing areas.
It’s not steroids. It’s the fences. Baseball is the only American team sport in which the playing area is not uniform. Imagine a National Basketball Association (NBA) game played at Madison Square Garden. The three-point line is drawn irregularly. A player can get three points by sinking a basket from behind that line but in some places the line is 25 feet from the basket and in some places it is 15 feet away. How about a National Football League (NFL) game played on a field where the sideline is wider in some places than in others? Or the end zone is shaped oddly? Silly, right? So how come baseball gets away with it? Baseball does not merely get away with it. It’s considered cute, charming, traditional, blah, blah, blah. Here’s the real travesty: the non-uniform playing area perverts baseball’s most cherished event: the home run. It undermines the very integrity of the game that is supposedly threatened by steroid use.

Some thinking fans categorize baseball events into random and non-random. To them a home run (one hit over a barrier on a fly, not an inside the park home run) is clearly a non-random event because a fielder has no chance to catch it. A home run is a random event. Here is why. Is a 180 foot fly ball a random event? Clearly, it is random: it may be caught or it may not. But how about a fly ball hit 380 feet? The non-random advocates would be forced to ask in what direction and in what park the fly ball was hit. In other words they can only certify its randomness by waiting until it lands. The same could be done for the 180 foot fly. Like the three point shot in basketball (OK, the line is closer at the sideline to fit in bounds but that’s basketball’s problem) the only thing that should matter is how far did the fly ball go. With uniform playing areas that alone would tell us if the fly ball is a home run or not.

However, in some cases a fly ball can travel 50% further than a home run and be an out. The distances to the barriers are not just different from park to park but they are different in some parts of the outfield in the same park. A home run should reward the batter for hitting a fly ball over a barrier and for that to be fair and meaningful the barrier should be the same distance and the same height in every direction in every park. That’s pretty basic stuff. How about 375 feet to a ten foot high barrier? If you were starting baseball today and making the rules, that’s clearly how you would do it. But baseball evolved and that’s how it has always been. So? About 13 new parks have been implemented in the last 16 years (with two more coming in New York) and baseball had a rare opportunity to correct this historic inequity. Instead it allowed and even encouraged teams to replace parks that were in many cases at least symmetrical with parks that were irregular in the shape of the playing areas. Irregularities were often unavoidable in old parks because of streets and other things that required some imagination in building a park. In recent years there were no such impositions, just a warped intent to make new parks that looked old fashioned. See the Rangers park in Texas, built in an open space.

Yes, this should also apply to foul territory. Here’s something no one has considered: Fenway Park helps strike outs. Because the area in foul territory is so small it is very difficult to foul out. Also, because the fences are close in the outfield, that also helps. Let’s say Roger Clemens is going for the single game strike out record and he’s pitching in Fenway Park, a hitter’s park. Every out that is not a strike out hurts this effort. Every batted ball that results in an out also hurts. A foul pop up that drifts into the stands helps. A ball hit off the wall in left also helps.

The single season and lifetime home run records are the most important sports records in America. Yet, they are subject to the greatest randomness of any records in team sports. Forget the steroids. Fix the fences.

3. Four leagues, no divisions.
Let’s face it when Major League Baseball (MLB) expanded its playoff system in 1994 by splitting into three divisions in each league it did not put much thought into it. MLB just tried to copy basketball and hockey, which had been doing this stuff forever. Some people felt the divisions were good because they allowed more teams to be competitive. No, what made more teams competitive was that in implementing the three divisions MLB DOUBLED the number of teams that made the playoffs. For some reason baseball people did not notice. They could have doubled the number of playoff teams and eliminated the two divisions they already had in each league but that never occurred to them. What mattered was not the number of divisions but the number of playoff teams.
Maybe part of it was some vague idea that there would now be more first place teams. Did they think no one would notice that there were also more last place teams? Or that teams hovering around .500 are not really very good.

The objective should be fair competition. It should not be a random event in which a .500 team happens to be first in a weak division and a .580 team is out of luck. What to do? Eliminate the divisions and go to four leagues. Keep the same number of playoff teams. I’d like to have only first place teams advance but that’s too much to hope for. Play only within your league and the first two teams qualify for the playoffs. OK, if you insist on inter league games, play one of the other leagues on a three-year rotating basis. How about playing three games against each of those eight teams. That’s 24 games. Plus, each team would play the same opponents, not the nonsense MLB has now. That’s fair.

The first step is to expand. Yes, add two teams. 32 divides by four much better than 30. It’s possible to find MLB caliber cities: Las Vegas, Portland, Charlotte, San Antonio. Whatever.
There are two scenarios: geographic or retro. MLB almost went to geographic a decade ago but mysteriously backed off. It could be cool: Yanks v Mets, White Sox v Cubs, … I do not see MLB doing this. Local TV contracts, fear of real competition, etc. Retro is the solution. Recreate the old American and National Leagues circa 1960, i.e., before modern expansion. Create a new Pacific Coast League; California alone has five teams. Create a new fill in the blank league of leftovers and/or “small market” teams; call it the Texas or Bush or Southern League. Who cares?

Here is how it might look.
American League:
New York Yankees
Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
Baltimore Orioles
Washington Nationals (yes, back to the AL)
Toronto Blue Jays (hey, they have to go somewhere)
The As were in Kansas City in 1960 but nobody cares, plus who wants to hear Kansas City whine about big market teams.

National League:
Philadelphia Philliies
Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs
St. Louis Cardinals
New York Mets (replacing the Giants)
Milwaukee Brewers (replacing the Braves in that city)
Cincinnati Reds
Atlanta Braves

Pacific Coast League:
Seattle Mariners
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Dodgers
California Angels
Oakland As
San Diego Padres
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies

Texas League:
Texas Rangers
Houston Astros
Kansas City Royals
Florida Marlins
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Las Vegas Gamblers
San Antonio Alamos
Minnesota Twins

Here’s how the new system compares to the new in terms of the number of teams in contention.

4. Walks: a terrible rule.
They should have changed the walk rule no later than 1923 after Babe Ruth walked 170 times. Who goes to the park to root for a walk? OK, my friend Eric but he’s a SABR member. The penalty is not severe enough to deter the defense from simply bypassing the offense’s best batters. The offense must be given a choice. In most cases the manager will be too wimpy to exercise the option, much like football coaches ignore the two-point conversion after a touchdown. However, for a Ruth, Bonds, Pujols, … maybe the manager would be radical.

Here are a couple of options. Decline the walk but continue the at bat. This is cool. Let’s say Barry Bonds is batting and he gets ball four on a 3-1 count. The offense may choose to let Bonds continue batting with the same count. If the count reaches 6 balls, the batter may take two bases. In other words, for each two additional pitches outside the strike zone the batter gets an additional base. There is some risk. The strike count remains the same. So if the count reaches 6-2, Bonds is at risk if he continues. However, the crowd is in a frenzy! Everyone is screaming for Bonds to continue. Ball eight: three bases. All runners move up, as they would with a one base walk. Ball ten: Bonds walks all the way around the bases! That will make the defense think twice about walking the other team’s slugger.

I prefer the option above but here is another. The batter declines. A pinch runner goes to first but is still eligible to play later. The walked batter starts a new at bat. Obviously, if a weak batter walks, he would probably simply take the walk as now happens. But a slugger might bat again.

5. Designated Fielders and the Six-Player Batting Order.
There should be designated fielders, not a designated hitter. Everybody fields but a team has the option to have up to three players only play the field and not bat. Six batters in a lineup. That’s the minimum there could be without a batter coming up with himself on base. They’d get 1,000 plate appearances a season, comparable to the number of batters faced by a starting pitcher. This would improve both offense and defense. It addresses those sappy complaints of National League fans without having to watch the dreaded bottom of the order. Who wants to watch the bottom of the order? No one, except people who are actually interested in sacrifice bunting and all the brain power involved in making that decision. Oh, and the double switch. Take me out to the ball game so I can see a double switch in person. Complaining about batters not knowing how to bunt is like complaining about American soldiers not knowing how to load a musket. Who cares? Bombs away. Batter up, not bunter up.

6. Clock, time-outs
Put in a damn clock! These four hour games are driving me crazy! I wouldn’t mind except there’s nothing happening. 90% of what passes for action is two guys playing catch. In a nine inning game there is at most 30 minutes of action and that includes the batter taking a pitch and the second baseman throwing out a runner. Make what little action there is continuous. Watch a basketball game to get the idea. Baseball is by far the simplest game. 70% of head coaches in the NFL never played in the NFL. 30% of head coaches in the NBA never played in the NBA. 10% of MLB managers never played MLB. That’s a pretty accurate reflection of the relative complexity of the sports. Football cannot leave the running of a team to some dumb former player. Basketball is about in between football and baseball. Only baseball entrusts a $100,000,000 to $200,000,000 payroll to a dumb tobacco dribbling former player. Why? Because baseball is simple. There are at least 10,000 twelve year old kids who know enough baseball to run a MLB team. I could run the Yankees. No way I could run the Knicks and I wouldn’t even think about running the football Giants.

So, why is baseball the only sport with no clock and with unlimited meetings? Give each team three time outs per nine innings, then one more for each additional three innings. No meetings other than the time outs. Do not stop play by calling time. A base runner does not need time out to dust off his uniform. Get in the box and stay there. Get on the rubber and throw. Once, just once, I’d like to see a meeting on the mound followed by the pitcher not looking in for a sign. He just talked to the catcher! Decide on the pitch in the discussion and just throw it!

A team could get a competitive advantage by changing the pace of the game. Only baseball teams do not attempt this. Twenty years ago the San Francisco 49’ers started games with their first 20 plays scripted; no huddle between plays. Baseball cannot do that for even one batter! How difficult can it be? Just start pitching without waiting for a sign!

Baseball has a twenty-second rule, which of course it never enforces, with no runners on base. It needs a twenty second rule with runners on base and a zero second rule with no runners. Just start throwing. If the batter is not in the box, too bad. If the batter wanders, call strikes. If the pitcher wanders, call balls. What passes for coaching is instructing both the batter and pitcher to make the other wait. Hey, you’re both making the fans wait.
___ End ___

No comments: