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Clockwise and Counterclockwise

January 14, 2021

Bill has recently been fielding "Hey Bill"s on a subject that has long fascinated me, that of strategy being determined by the counter-clockwise running of the bases, which is such a tremendous influence on how the game is played. Just in the infield, for example, we take it as a truism that third-basemen and shortstops need much stronger throwing arms than first- and second-basemen because of the commonness of groundballs requiring a long throw to first base. That one aspect of the game determines who can play which position, which naturally determines which batters’ weaknesses are tolerable in the context of their throwing arms. Someone with a 90 OPS+ (in times past, I might have specified "a .240 BA") can’t hold down a 3B job unless he has powerful credentials otherwise, like an extremely strong and accurate arm.

It’s easy (and kinda dumb) to imagine how the game might have evolved if a clockwise path around the bases had been chosen: pretty much like it has, only opposite. The first-basemen (and the leftfielders) would normally have the strongest throwing arms, because the furthest throw in the infield would be getting the runner out at third base on a routine grounder (and in the outfield, the furthest throw would be nabbing the runner trying to advance from second base to first base).

As an aside (I feel the need to stamp this dumb fire here, though it should extinguish itself) we probably wouldn’t be calling the bases by their current names: third base would become first base and vice-versa in a clockwise game.

So reversing the order of the bases wouldn’t change the game of baseball much—it would blow a few of the weaker minds, and take some getting used to, even for the finest minds among us, but it’s not a difficult process to imagine. Clockwise or counter-clockwise doesn’t matter much.

What fascinates me, though, is not clockwise or counterclockwise. It’s clockwise AND counterclockwise.

What if we changed the rules to allow a runner on first base (let’s keep the nomenclature consistent) to score by running clockwise? Further, what if we allowed a batter to decide, after having hit the ball, which way he wanted to run? Imagine the bases are empty, and the batter hits a slow five-hopper directly to first base: he’s dead-out 99 times out of 100, right? (Bill Buckner exception.) But in a game where the batter can choose to run either to first-base or to third-, suddenly the routine grounder gets a little more exciting, if he can hightail it down to thirdbase.

How about if the bases aren’t empty? Wouldn’t this be a royal mess, runners on every base, say, all needing to run in a direction that isn’t determined until after the batter connects?

Yes, it would—and I think that would be great.

Some teams might signal to baserunners a direction determined in advance so they’d all be moving in the same direction, negating the batter’s ability to choose. Or perhaps the batter, rather than the manager, would send the signal. Or one of the runners.

And it could change from pitch to pitch. Or not, depending on the degree of complication (and corresponding intelligence) of the batters and the runners.

The point is that the defensive team would need to think of a much wider variety of possibilities emerging on a developing play than they do now. I think this is a good thing, a very good thing, to have because it would work to the advantage of smarter teams.

Also as stated it would require more well-rounded ballplayers. I think this is virtuous, though there are certainly those (mostly fans of the DH, which I am not) who favor a game with flatter ballplayers, players of one-dimensional rather than four- or five-dimensional skills. In the game as I imagine it, it would be difficult to hide a weak arm on the right side of the infield, or to put a cetacean outfielder in left field. I’d love to see a game where hiding players’ weaknesses is much harder to do.

(Which is why I’m not a fan of the DH—I love the spectacle of good-hitting pitchers being able to play an extra inning or two because of their abilities with the bat, and I love the dilemma a manager faces when his shutout-throwing pitcher must be taken out of the game because of his lack of offensive skills.)

I would enjoy seeing this type of game being combined with another bugbear of mine, speeding up the game considerably by eliminating the batter-engendered timeout between pitches. Many ways to achieve this end, though I favor automatic ejection for the third stepping-out by the batter from the batter’s box without the umpire having granted an official time-out. ("The first time you get a cinder in your eye, Mister Bond, is happenstance; the second time, coincidence; the third time, it’s enemy action.") Playing the game at warp-speed like this would be, I think, very exciting. A pitcher who could pitch rapid-fire would severely interfere with the offense’s ability to change up any directional choices the baserunners might want.

Any detriments? Well, I think this change might cut down on the number of triples, since you’d be just as well-off to stay on first base as try for two more bases with the same end result, a runner 90 feet from home. But batters might still be incentivized to try to stretch singles into doubles to avoid the doubleplay.

So would these changes help the offense more or the defense? Hard to say. I imagine there would be a lot of screwups by the offense, a lot of first-and-thirds where the batter hits a grounder and both baserunners take off for second base—but wouldn’t that be great? The offensive team has a rally going but, because they couldn’t get their act together, hit into a disastrous double- (or triple-) play.

I really think we dropped a card by not making clockwise AND counterclockwise the way to go. I see this change as turning a pleasant, leisurely game of checkers (which some baseball fans prefer) into a complicated game of speed-chess.


COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
I said this before in a Hey, Bill, but it really belongs here. I just got a copy of Preston Orem's book about baseball from 1841 to 1881, mostly by copying newspaper columns of the time. It turns out that the earliest forms of baseball DID run the runners clockwise. The change occurred in the 1860s, before there were any professional teams. Orem's book lists no reasons why this happened; it just documents that it did.
6:07 AM Jan 24th
Steven Goldleaf
If anyone cares, the teaser to this piece has a backstory that I love, as a recovering journalist, which can be found here:

Basically, some editor at the Boston Globe used "Mush from the Wimp" as a place-holder headline to an editorial about Jimmy Carter, and it managed to reach 161,000 readers before someone figured out "Hey, maybe we need to put the real headline in there." Just love, love, love that story.
4:51 AM Jan 16th
Steven Goldleaf
Nemesis, again--sure there is. I would say that a pitcher has the LEAST one-dimensional skills on the diamond, the DEFENSIVE side of the diamond. You can put a Boog Powell (the old one) at shortstop and with a little luck, get through a whole game without a major disaster (a few more singles is about the price of a big slow 1bman at ss) but put a position player on the mound for 9 innings, and you're talking about an ERA like the tab of the Appropriations Committee's annual budget. The beauty part (to my mind, obviously) is the manager's need to balance a weak stick against a strong arm--do you minimize that stick by asking the pitcher to lay down a bunt in the late middle innings? If he leads off the seventh inning of a 1-1 game, do you eat the at-bat and hope this is the 20% of the time he actually gets on base? That decision is the hardest one in the game and I think the DH has destroyed it in favor of covering AL managers' asses. The DH rule is the most vulgar one ever made in MLB, pleasing the yahoos who scream "We want to see more hitting at ANY cost to the game itself!! Hitting, hitting! hitting!! And oh yeah, the games are much too long."
3:52 AM Jan 16th
I love it!
8:06 PM Jan 15th
nemesis there anything more one dimensional on a baseball field than a pitcher? sure, once in a blue moon (odom) you'll get a wes ferrell or a walter johnson or an earl wilson with the bat. but nearly all of them are...utterly worthless offensively. they go to bat to make outs. you can't get much flatter than that, i don't

7:12 PM Jan 15th
Why not just take the tab of acid from Dr. Timothy and go all in on Finnish Pesäpallo?äpallo It would return the pitcher to his initial role of facilitating play in the field, take starting a runner on second to the next level (starting him at third) insert half time to keep one sided games exciting and probably tear a hole in the space time continuum like some thought would happen when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 like Kang and Kodos predicted...
1:42 PM Jan 15th
I think it would be fun to combine this with the rules of Cricket, so that a team gets to keep reusing batters who haven't made any outs in an inning, cycling through 4 of them as bases fill up.
11:00 AM Jan 15th
Steven Goldleaf
Sure ya do, nemesis. Take the idea a step or two further, and you'll agree that you do. Every baserunner gets a Herb Washington pinchrunner whenever he gets on base: makes sense, who wants to watch a fat 34-year old running the bases when you could watch a lithe 19 year old track star, who comes out of the game for the fat guy when the inning is over? Much better baseball, amirite? Of course the weak-armed catcher will be replaced every half inning by a dude with a gun for an arm who cant hit the ocean from the beach, but what the hell? All you want from him is his one-dimensional defensive skills. etc. Why ask a pitcher to bat when you've got Orlando Cepeda sitting on your bench? Same exact principle--one-dimension fits all.
7:05 AM Jan 15th
yknow, i like the DH for several reasons....but not a single one of them is because i prefer flatter, less athletic players on a team. what a weird thing to assume...

5:03 AM Jan 15th
Don't know how I got multiple posting, but I just wanted to correct the absurd typo "less slowly" to "less smoothly."
2:57 AM Jan 15th
I'd guess that the reason that all (or most) running tracks and skating rinks specify counter-clockwise motion is so that the majority of right-handed (and hence right-legged) people have their dominant, outside leg controlling the required turns. I do believe that I (right-handed) would be somewhat slower and move less smoothly on a clockwise track.

Ergo (as they say in the snooty papers), a switch to clockwise, track, hockey, baseball, would probably favor the left-handed (left-legged) minority just a bit.

I remember that the famous runner Roger Bannister used to run his track in reverse (when he had it to himself, I would hope) to strengthen his left leg.
2:55 AM Jan 15th
I'd guess that the reason that all (or most) running tracks and skating rinks specify counter-clockwise motion is so that the majority of right-handed (and hence right-legged) people have their dominant, outside leg controlling the required turns. I do believe that I (right-handed) would be somewhat slower and move less slowly on a clockwise track.

Ergo (as they say in the snooty papers), a switch to clockwise, track, hockey, baseball, would probably favor the left-handed (left-legged) minority just a bit.

I remember that the famous runner Roger Bannister used to run his track in reverse (when he had it to himself, I would hope) to strengthen his left leg.
2:54 AM Jan 15th
Steven, you've overlooked the most obvious consequence of baseball becoming clockwise instead of counterclockwise, or (putting it more simply) of exchanging first and third base: those positions now reserved exclusively for right-handers would be more effectively played by southpaws. The exclusivity would have to go--there aren't enough lefties--but the result would likely be a decline in defensive ability across the entire infield.
6:12 PM Jan 14th
This isn't the first time I've read a rules change proposal of yours, but oddly it's the first time I've been moved to reply :)
12:25 PM Jan 14th
Steven Goldleaf
Actually, I thought maybe we could call them Darrell and Harmon. Or do a little research and find out who played the most games at both first and third bases. But I do appreciate your suggestion, bewareofdow.​
10:18 AM Jan 14th
malbuff, I think you’d call them Left Base, Center Base and Right Base.
9:37 AM Jan 14th
This is great out-of-the-box thinking. In 56 years of baseball fandom it had never occurred to me. One thing, though. You'd have to rename the bases, wouldn't you? What would you call them?
8:46 AM Jan 14th
Steven Goldleaf
Is this the first proposal of mine for a rules change that you've read? Most are even more unlikely and impossible to enact than this one is. I don't propose them for the ease of enacting them.

Though I must add: I think my idea about making the batters--forcing the batters--to stand inside the box once they have stepped in it DOES represent an easy rule to enforce that will improve the game immeasurably. And as Bill and others have pointed out, it's already in the rule book.
7:29 AM Jan 14th
Just a suspicion...

Clockwise AND Counterclockwise might very well make for a VERY entertaining game, but I suspect that change would be so marked that most everyone would no longer think of it as "baseball."

You would also have the disadvantage of competing with a game with over 100 years of history behind it---which I suspect would be insurmountable.
6:13 AM Jan 14th
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