Politics, Parlor Tricks, Paradigms, Practicality, Purists, Philosophy, and Principles

August 28, 2016

Couple months back, Rob Neyer wrote here on the question of sportswriters writing on politics, almost simultaneously with my proposal to change radically the centuries-old paradigm of an at-bat ending with a 4th ball or a 3rd strike. What the two pieces had in common, to my mind, is that there is a place that writing about baseball and writing about politics intersects and overlaps perfectly.

That place is "philosophy."

Neyer called the place where sportswriting intersects with political writing "principles." Sometimes in writing about sports, I find I’m more interested in the principles involved, the philosophy, than I am in the nuts and bolts of my ostensible subject.  In that piece on balls and strikes, several readers’ comments addressed the issue of practicality, which was kind of beside my point. I understand that there is very little chance of actually revisiting the issue of the balance of balls and strikes, so everyone who commented on how impractical my whole idea was (in summary, having the first 9 balls in an inning not count at all, and every subsequent ball in that inning resulting in a walk) was taking the conversation away from philosophy and principles.

My friend steve161 dismissed my What-if? handily by insisting that the 3-2 count is not only time-honored but virtually sacrosanct. In every practical sense, I agree—we ain’t changing this stuff without ripping a gigantic hole in the fabric of the game. But in a theoretical sense, that rip doesn’t bother me at all. A lot of stuff got codified without a lot of planning or thinking, and we live with the consequences. (MLB historian John Thorn just published a fascinating piece tracing the origins of the distance from the mound to the plate as deriving from dueling, of all things.)  My interest here, as elsewhere, is more fundamental: what are balls and strikes for?

Balls are there to force the pitcher to throw the ball where it can be hit, and strikes are there to force batters to swing at hittable pitches. Without them, we’d be there all day long and all night, too. (Which is why cricket matches go on for days.)  That it’s three balls and two strikes, though, is a perfectly arbitrary accident: we kept switching the count around in the early days and at some early point (I’m thinking early 1890s?) 3&2 stuck. But would we have such a different game if another ball-count had stuck?

We’ll never know, of course, because it hadn’t, but I suspect not. I think that count worked out originally not because of any inherent beauty or brilliance or fairness of 3&2, but because a game based on a 3&2 count worked out to an ideal game-length.  A single-pitch at-bat would have resulted in a game that lasted about half an hour, obviously too short for a sporting event. You miss the first few minutes, or repair to the beer-stand or bathroom, and you’ve missed half the game—totally unacceptable. But if you had a 5&3 ball-count, say, that might have resulted in a typical game going three or four hours, which might have been unacceptably long.

Now we DO have three- or four-hour-long games, of course, but maybe our culture has changed so that an unacceptably long game-time has become acceptable. There are numerous proposals to cut down on the length of game-times that don’t change something so basic to the game we know as switching to a 2-1 count, or to my somewhat loopy proposal to change the basic structure of the way balls and strikes are used, and I prefer the fine-tuning of these proposals to ripping the game up and starting over.

But it’s good to think about what would happen if we did start over from scratch. There are plenty of details in the current game that have outlived their usefulness, if ever usefulness they had. Bill has remarked on getting rid of the balk rule, and we’ve discussed in Readers Posts eliminating other aspects of the game, or changing them completely: the infield-fly rule, for example. And we have had tinkerings in the rule book, most recently involving contact between baserunners and fielders, which trouble some purists. I’ve heard Keith Hernandez, pretty much every time the new rule about runners sliding into second base comes up, going on a rant about how much he detests the rule. The position such purists are taking is essentially a philosophical (some would say political) position: "I resist change in the status quo."

Whatever the status quo is. The balk rule, the Second Amendment, whatever, if you propose changing it, some folks are going to range from "skeptical" to flat-out "opposed" without ever considering the merits of the change. They don’t even require an actual argument against the balk rule or the Second Amendment—they’re just opposed to changing it on the principle of "It’s worked for a long time now, so let’s just find a way to live with what’s been working."

I used to be a purist, believe or no, but as I’ve learned more about baseball history, and history in general, I’ve come to realize that the things I feel this unthinking loyalty towards haven’t actually been around forever, they haven’t necessarily been thought-through very thoroughly, and sometimes they don’t even work.  Most people my age and younger have been following baseball since the first truly radical changes to the game have taken place. When I’m in my "cranky old man" mode, I’ve even trotted out nostalgia for the old structure of the same sixteen teams playing the same game in the same towns for fifty consecutive years, but in fact I was born a few weeks after the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, breaking that fifty-year streak of stability. My whole life, I’ve seen radical changes in the game of baseball.

It has integrated, expanded, divisioned, DHed, monetized, steroided, and more. Most significantly, it has improved in a sense that would be true if none of these other changes had occurred: we now recognize that we really can’t compare the game that Ty Cobb played 100 years ago to the current game, not without acknowledging that we’re comparing pears to tangerines. (One of the many bits that astonished me in my reading of the Historical Abstract was what a gigantic figure, literally, Cobb was in his time: 6’1" and 175 used to be a very big guy. Now he’d be a little skinny marink.) Just the inevitable fact that players are constantly getting bigger, stronger, faster means that we must make comparisons carefully, in context, weighing dozens of relevant factors (and sometimes deciding that not all of them are really relevant, but we must consider them before we can reject them.)  That inevitable fact is only going to continue, if not accelerate.

So it’s an artifice that change destroys the culture—change is the culture, but some people enjoy the illusion that change can be resisted, or even stopped. The first baseball game I ever attended in person took place at a curious juncture: Roger Maris had been stuck on 60 HRs for a game or so, and in a magisterial bit of eloquence (for an 8-year-old) I managed to talk my dad into taking me up to Yankee Stadium to witness the event that, according to sportswriters, would revolutionize the game. Up to that point, every season the purists could remember had gone 154 games, but the AL had switched to a 162-game schedule and we were now beyond the 154-game mark, thus tainting any achievement Roger Maris might achieve that day.  As it turned out, it wasn’t until the next day that Maris whacked his 61st, but you’d better believe everyone in the park that day was watching Maris’s every wiggle as closely as we could. (He went 1-for-3, with a single off Don Schwall.) Years afterwards I read up on the controversy of Maris having the nerve to bat in a game past #154, and the whole asterisk thing, and the whole ripping-of-the-fabric-of-the-universe thing, and it seems so silly to us now, doesn’t it?  We’ve adjusted perfectly to the concept that, in some ways, Maris clearly set a new record for HRs, and in some other ways, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron, and Mark McQwire, and Barry Bonds, and about eight other people still have a legitimate claim to the title of "World’s Greatest HR Hitter." It all depends on context, how you look at it, how you phrase your question, and we’re fine with that.

It’s kind of fun to be without right answers sometimes, isn’t it?  Sometimes, I feel nostalgic about the ways things used to be, in a simpler world without these modern complications. But the complications always existed: we just didn’t like to acknowledge them. Which is why I’ve gotten more comfortable thinking of myself as a non-purist, as an open-minded relativist, without access to final answers.

Baseball allows us to think about these philosophical issues in a context where it doesn’t affect our daily lives very much, and that allows us to decide if we really are traditionalists, purists, sticks-in-the-mud because that pleases us in every regard, where it really does affect our daily lives (and where philosophy affects our politics), or if we’re only purists about baseball, or if we’re ultimately not purists at all, open to the principle of change being a good thing.

I’ll leave you with two final questions: Was this a column about baseball, or a column about philosophy? And is the distinction between the two important?


COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

The most boring play in baseball is a ball. And yet it happens 37% of the time, according to a 2004 article by John Dewan (stats from 2003):
Called Balls: 240,981
Hit Into Play: 138.877
Foul Balls: 116,337
Called Strikes: 110,497
Swinging Strikes: 39,411

So I say make it 3 balls for a walk to discourage (boring) called balls.

While this would make a better game, I'm actually against making any changes. It would ruin our ability to compare the stats of 3-balls-is-a-walk players with the traditional 4-balls-is-a-walk players.
5:27 PM Sep 6th
Marc Schneider
Just to clarify a bit on my previous comment, I think there is plenty of room under the Constitution to do most of what I suspect you would like if there was the political will. There's no real need to formally amend the Constitution. As I pointed out, it would be easy to regulate guns without amending the Constitution and, in fact, there has been gun regulation over the years. It's not a matter of thinking the framers were prescient; they themselves knew they weren't, which is why they included a mechanism for amending the Constitution, but also other elements that, although controversial, allow for flexibility. But the fact is, there is not the political will to do these things; people strongly disagree over fundamental issues. Yes, I am pessimistic about how people would behave. I would bet if you had asked people in the fifties about the First Amendment, during the Red Hysteria, plenty would have favored abolishing or limiting it to rid the country of subversives.
4:01 PM Sep 6th
Marc Schneider
Steven, I agree with you that the Constitution should be a living, breathing document. But I think it already is, or can be, without making extensive changes. At least arguably, the Constitution provides for that in, for example, the Necessary and Proper Clause (which has been very controversial, to say the least). That and the Commerce Clause was the basis of the New Deal. And, even with respect to the Second Amendment, it's not clear that you need to change the constitution. It has never been held that the 2nd Amendment prevents regulation of guns, although it prevents outright prohibition. But no one has ever really suggested outlawing guns entirely anyway. The problem is not the Constitution but the political process and the fracturing of the country politically. But, in fact, the Constitution is, in many ways, a check on the power of the people. The Bill of Rights is designed to limit the power of government. I don't think the Constitution should be sacrosanct but the problem is, once you start making the Constitution just another document, you open the door for all kinds of mischief. The fact is, the Constitution provides a baseline for political dialogue; if you make that baseline too malleable to temporary passions, you undermine the basis for responsible government-which is obviously pretty tenuous anyway today.
1:42 PM Sep 6th
Steven Goldleaf
My chief issue with that thinking is that it seems inherently mistrustful of the people's will, and too inclined to do as little as possible on the thesis that the people will screw things up if you allow them to, so don't allow them to do anything, good or bad. I'm a little more optimistic than you are--allow change, I say, and more of it will turn out well than turn out poorly. It also assumes that the framers of the Constitution were not only wise but also prescient. IMO, they were neither--they were wise enough to create a document that has served us fairly well, though less well in the 21st century than in the 18th, but as time goes on, our situation changes and we need to amend it more rather than less as we advance from the 18th century world.
2:06 PM Sep 2nd
Yeah, ten years works for me; that's well beyond the life span of your average passion.

Steven, there is nothing inconsistent between the notion of a Constitution as a living document and of its being a conservative instrument. As you say, that's why it's possible to amend it. As for it being too hard: well, if it were easier, we'd probably have a Women's Rights Amendment*--and we'd probably also have one outlawing flag burning.

Be very careful about handing out power and making it easier to wield: in a republic, it may very well be wielded by your opponents.

*Which we never actually needed, all eventualities being covered by the 14th.
7:49 AM Sep 2nd
Brock Hanke
Hmm. I would say that the distinction between baseball and philosophy is unimportant to baseball, but very important to philosophy. Baseball thinking is a subset of philosophical thinking. Philosophical thinking is not a subset of baseball thinking. One gets expanded; the other, constrained.

Also, just in the spirit of the article: Want to get the games shorter and get rid of many of the obnoxious middle-inning pitcher changes? I've got a simple idea that will accomplish all of that. Just reduce the number of innings in a game to 8.
3:47 AM Sep 2nd
Here's an idea for you: If a batter draws a walk, he stays at the plate with a new 0-0 count, and the team gets to put a bench player into the game to walk to first in his place. Team's option, of course.​
12:52 AM Sep 2nd
Steven Goldleaf
See, I DON’T think of the whole point of the US Constitution as any kind of “brake” on anything. I see it as a living, breathing document that represents the views of living Americans as well as the 18th century Americans who wrote it, fully expecting future generations to amend it (hence, the presence of amendments) and revise it as needed. It’s done, as you say, “a pretty good job” but in lots of ways—slavery most prominently—it badly needed radical change, and I think that this is still the case. WE are living now, not Jefferson and Madison, and the time has long since passed to reconsider arming Americans regardless of mental stability or criminal backgrounds, among other needed amendments. It should be difficult to change, it should take time and effort to change (to prevent what you fear, steve161, “the passions of the moment,”) but it should not be as difficult as it is to change either. You could have Americans overwhelmingly in favor of some kind of change in the absolute interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that has created such trauma in the US (alone among the nations of the world) for a very long time, and still get not an inch closer to amending it. How long would you like 75% of the population to favor some sort of mild amendment to the 2nd Amendment without anything being done? Would another decade do it for you? I'll settle for that.
6:25 PM Sep 1st
The whole point of having a Basic Law--a Constitution--is to act as a brake on passions of the moment. It doesn't always work--see Prohibition--but it's done a pretty good job so far. Yes, it prevents people like Steven and me from instituting what we consider to be a more sensible gun policy--but it also keeps the likes of Donald Trump from redefining citizenship.

It's a delicate balance sometimes, because it relies on a Supreme Court that has occasionally demonstrated its fallibility in catastrophic fashion: e.g. the Dred Scott case or Plessy v Ferguson, but on the whole the framers calculated well. Lifetime Court membership acts as a brake on radicalism (for which reason we are well advised to be careful about messing with it--unintended consequences, again). Even so, we were on the brink before Scalia's death and may go over it, depending on who makes the next appointments. I am unenthusiastic about Ms Clinton, but the alternative might produce a court that deprives women of the right to control their bodies, admits religion into the public space and drives gays back into the closet.
8:34 AM Sep 1st
Steven Goldleaf
Would it be so bad to change the rules (about anything some folks decide would be an improvement, Marc—the balk rule, the maximum number of pitchers in an inning, the pickoff rules, etc.) in a minor league and see what the result is? We’re certainly not pro-actively following that policy. As to the Constitution, it seems to me that you’re making my case: if you change something and the change sucks, like Prohibition, you can change it back. There are several clauses to the Constitution that to me are outdated, and in need of clarification at the least. We could change the Second Amendment, with a sunset clause (“for the next 5 years, all privately owned firearms will be illegal—the government will buy them up and hold them, and then they will be sold back to their owners who will have all been vetted for mental illness, criminal records, etc.” I think eventually the public will favor such a change). Not gonna happen of course, not at this point in history, but I think that would be a good thing. Get the guns out of criminals' hands, lunatics' hands, etc. There’s nothing in the Constitution that I would declare to be hands-off from reconsidering, but mine is a minority opinion. Too much reverence altogether for a document, not enough for the views of those now alive.
5:38 PM Aug 31st
Marc Schneider
Good article, but the problem, imo, is that it conflates things like baseball and politics. You can certainly do thought experiments with baseball and try new things; if it doesn't work out, so be it. You can change back. I believe in trying new things in politics too, but there is a much greater danger than radical change can make things worse rather than better. And, ideas have much greater impact in politics than in baseball. Hitler's ideas had consequences (and I know this is Godwin's Law.) So, my belief is, in general, by all means try new things, but be careful about throwing out the baby with the bath. Someone mentioned the Constitution as not being sacrosanct and I certainly agree. On the other hand, there is a danger that, once you start making changes, you can go too far and really screw things up. I don't think it's an illegitimate argument to say that you should be careful about changing something that has been working at least tolerably well. That's why it is very difficult to amend the Constitution and, in fact, one change to the Constitution (Prohibition) was such a disaster that it required changing it back and some would argue that prohibition has had a lasting and detrimental effect on society. I would say the same about baseball; consider changes but be careful about going too far. The fact is, the history of the game is one of its attractions. If you make it a different game (which your nine balls idea would do), you lose that. I don't think that makes me a "purist" or "traditionalist." I agree with many of the changes we have seen, but some (such as interleague play) I don't like. Generally, I would say, in most things, that in trying to fix something, use the least radical approach at the start. That, to me, is a philosophy.
3:28 PM Aug 31st
Steven Goldleaf
Also the dull parts--the endless ineffective throwovers--would now be REALLY exciting plays: the runners would be taking daring leads, and some of the 2nd throwovers would nab would-be basestealers. How often do you see someone picked off these days? Once a week? Less? That's an exciting play.
1:46 PM Aug 30th
Steven Goldleaf
Ah, NOW we’re having a discussion. I wish my 9-free-balls idea would be tested out in the minors, but I’m afraid it’s too radical a change even for that. But your throw-over concept would be a good one. You got one thing wrong, I think, from Bill’s proposal (or maybe from mine, I forget): after one unsuccessful throw-over (this is what I proposed anyway) the runner gets awarded second base on any subsequent unsuccessful throwovers. All this means, as you point out, is that the runner can then take a slightly longer lead off first. If he takes TOO far a lead, the pitcher is going to be willing to risk the free base because it’s much more likely that the pickoff will be successful. That extra step will result in more SBs, sure, but not that many more—but the SB is an exciting play, and the elimination of third and fourth and fifth pickoff attempts will be reduced, a more than equal tradeoff in my view. Shoulda been done years ago.

As to the cerebral part of the game, I quite agree. But why not have a 5&3 count then? Or a 7&6 count? Wouldn’t they make the game even more cerebral? Every argument you can mount against a 7&6 count can be applied, and should be, to the 3&2 count. You can have a cerebral game, as I suggested, with a one-pitch count—the problem there is that the game would be too short. But there’s no absence of thinking in that game. The batter and the pitcher and the fans would be thinking the same thing: what pitch should the batter be expecting? What pitch does the pitcher throw best? Which one does the batter like to hit? What did the pitcher throw last time? Etc.

10:35 AM Aug 30th
The answer to unintended consequences is experimentation. Since the minors, as Bill never tires of pointing out, are no longer about competition, they are a perfect proving ground, as by all accounts they have been for a pitch clock.

Let's look at a recently proposed change: restricting the number of throw-overs. First: what would be the number? Two? Three? Four? It's not all that common that a pitcher throws to first four times, so that's a pretty safe number, right? Okay, so the pitcher throws over once, then twice. The runner gets back. If the pitcher uses up his four throws, the runner essentially can lead off as far as he feels is safe from a catcher's snap throw, so the fourth throw is not an option. But doesn't the third throw become almost as dangerous?

If the intended consequence is to increase stolen bases, fine. I don't agree, but at least we know what we're getting into. If this is the unintended consequence of a desire to 'keep the game moving', it is simply short-sighted.

I plead guilty to liking baseball as it is. It is a contemplative, cerebral game, punctuated by moments of action. The batter-pitcher confrontation is a perfect combination of physical and mental skills. It rewards the long attention span.

If you want constant action, watch hockey. Or even better, Australian Rules Football.
8:29 AM Aug 30th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, David. I didn't want to relitigate that all over again. It's just the conservativism of steve161's "possibility of unintended consequences" that set me off. That's a squelcher to ever changing anything ever. Of course, we can't foresee the consequences perfectly or even well--we never could and never will. But as with Maris, or anything new, we're warned all the time of horrible results surely coming that never come. Do you remember as steve161 reminds us of the controversy about replay? How it would slow down games? How it would turn the art of umpiring into something mechanical? Very quickly, we see that none of that ever happened--we spend much less time on managerial arguments, which were unproductive and boring to watch, than we do on replays--it's worked out nearly perfectly so far, and will only improve. But if we listened to naysayers who proffered steve161's "unintended consequences" argument, we'd still be stuck with managers kicking bases and bumping umpires twice each game.
1:10 PM Aug 29th
Steven Goldleaf
Well, calling something "folly" is just abuse, albeit of a very minor sort. (I'm called worse than "fool" twice daily before breakfast.) I'm not just proposing this because I hate baseball, or because I'm bored, I'm proposing it because it fixes something fundamentally wrong with the game, to my mind. Apart from length, the number of pitches thrown to each batter is excessive--more counts seem to go full than ever before, and more pitchers are encouraged to nibble. Nullifying the first 9 balls in an inning would tell pitchers that the first few batters are going to see hittable pitches (in the strike zone) so they might as well throw strikes and take their chances., because they really don't want to get in a position where every ball becomes a walk. I don't pay money to see umps exercise their judgment, I pay money to see batters hit, and pitchers throw strikes, and fielders catch batted balls. My proposal would result, I think, in more of what I like to see and less of what I don't, as well as a faster, more exciting game. The upside of rejecting it out of hand is the status quo argument--i.e., "baseball's not so bad, all things considered." You could ameliorate the excessive offense that would result by employing some of Bill's ideas: a deadened baseball, for example. A game with endless 3-2 counts, and foul balls, and seven pitchers in an inning has gotten away from the game I love to watch: action and excitement.
9:36 AM Aug 29th
Change can be a good thing, no doubt, but one must always be aware of the possibility of unintended consequences. Keith Hernandez to the contrary notwithstanding, I think the tighter enforcement of the slide rule, coupled with the elimination of the neighborhood play, has worked out pretty well. Ditto replay, despite the Met crew's occasional carping. On the other hand, I remain skeptical about the automated strike zone.

By all accounts, a pitch clock has worked pretty well in the minor leagues, so why not give it a shot in the majors? But to mess around with the freedom to change pitchers or for a pitcher to hold runners, without any prior experimentation, is folly.

On the specific case of The Count: Steven's proposed new game--let's call it Nine Balls Free--might be a fine entertainment, but it wouldn't be baseball. In travel ball, at-bats often start with a 1-1 count (I've seen such games, because a young cousin of mine is a hopeful lefthanded pitcher). The difference is profound, and it's not surprising when you think about it. Often, the batter is in the position of having to protect the plate after one pitch. The impact on the pitcher is not as great, for the obvious reason that the percentage difference from 3 to 2 is greater than from 4 to 3. The consequence seems to be more balls in play--but in general they less well hit. Intended or not, I don't know, but the result was a game deprived in large measure of the pitcher-batter confrontation. No thank you.
8:35 AM Aug 29th
Your comment about the Maris thing seeming odd now was the same feeling I had when watching the '30 for 30' on Steve Bartman. Going after a foul ball, something we'd all have done in the same situation, and the resulting collapse by the Cubs led to de-evolution of the humanity around him.

The mob mentality, death threats, blowing up the ball, and the talk of a curse....this was America (afluent, educated, allegedly) in 2003. A game caused thousands of people to react embarrassingly ugly.

Looking back at it, the reaction was demented. He required a security escort. He had to go into hiding. This rigid mindset and our invented causation reaction to events is absurd and, I guess, common. It's not a far leap to connect it with those types that never want anything to change.

Take the constitution: those who act like it was brought down from Mt. Olympus on golden tablets by the Baby Jesus...even when you point out there are articles that have been added, editing the document, they hold fast. As if it should never have another article added, ever. What sense does that make?

If you have a game you love, like baseball, why not improve it? I'm thankful that I'm of the mindset that variety (of people) is good, the world is fluid (even the man-made entities within it), and that we can improve on the mindless evolution of things. We can plan, improve, and change.
10:02 PM Aug 28th
If you want to explain the universe to someone, start first with something they are already interested in. The world of Bill James is like that. He once wrote that the most interesting things are those that are adjacent to the things we already know. This is where baseball can intersect with philosophy.​
6:39 PM Aug 28th
Interesting piece, Steven. The quoted paragraph that follows really does apply to politics, and the nature of the debate That Clinton and Trump are having: "It’s kind of fun to be without right answers sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes, I feel nostalgic about the ways things used to be, in a simpler world without these modern complications. But the complications always existed: we just didn’t like to acknowledge them. Which is why I’ve gotten more comfortable thinking of myself as a non-purist, as an open-minded relativist, without access to final answers." It's actually not fun for me in politics, but it is fun for me in baseball.

I'll take a crack at your two questions. I think this is a column about baseball. You describe baseball and the changes it has undergone, and then you ask some philosophical and practical questions about the changes. I think the distinction between the two is important. I've had endless and enjoyable arguments about such matters as whether Williams or Ruth was the greater hitter; whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame; whether people should vote for relief pitchers for the Cy Young Award; whether the game is better with the DH, without, or as it is now with one league having the DH and the other league not having it; and so on. I can have these arguments with people whose philosophies I don't know or don't agree with on many points and it's fine. It's baseball, not my life, and I can get heated, or not, without feeling bad afterwards.

But I think being a relativist is an important way to understand and manage the world. For example, I can say that the welfare state helps many people live a basic human life and that the welfare state reduces people's self-reliance, and I can hold both those views at the same time. I think I'm more likely to achieve a good, balanced policy that way than someone would who holds--or admits the validity of--only one of those two views. I think that is much more important to do in life than with baseball. And that difference is important to me.
4:36 PM Aug 28th
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