The Aesthetic Issues

May 25, 2021
                                                The Aesthetic Issues

Or

50 Ways to Stop Baseball from Being Swallowed up by Home Runs and Strikeouts

 

            (This article was originally published 19 months ago in the Bill James Handbook 2020.  I am now receiving many questions about the issues discussed here in "Hey, Bill".  Almost all of those questions are obviously from people who have not read this article, since the article generally answers the questions I am now being asked.  I would ask you to read this article before submitting any more questions about the issue.  Thank you.)

 

            Baseball absolutely cannot address its pace-of-play issues without doing three things: 

(1)  Stop batters from stepping out of the box between pitches,

(2)  Limit mid-inning pitching changes, and

(3)  Limit throws to first base.

Baseball in recent years has taken numerous actions that are sincerely intended to make the game move along more like a dance than like a funeral dirge.  They’ve put a clock on this, put a clock on that, limited how many times a game you can do a few things.  The games are longer and slower than they have ever been.  It’s like trying to put out a forest fire with cans of soda pop.  "I’ve got 200 trees on fire in Sector 17, Captain.  I need 24 cases of Dr. Pepper, immediately!"   Unless you do the three things listed above, you are not addressing the problem; you are merely pretending that you are addressing the problem.   

It is my experience that whenever you try to talk about whatever problems modern baseball has or might possibly have, people will begin lobbing issues at you from every conceivable direction like a vaudeville audience lobbing spoiled fruit at a tone-deaf comedian.  Ticket prices, the cost of going to games, minor league salaries, games ending near or past midnight, too many commercials, too many strikeouts, empty seats, teams that aren’t really trying to compete, games played in cold weather, shifting, too many pitching changes, kids playing video games rather than sports, too many wild cards, pitchers not being trained to go nine innings, the high cost of concessions and parking, World Series games being played in November, declining attendance, declining TV ratings. . .you name it; somebody sees it as a terrible problem. 

            On a sports talk show, this is great because it creates a long line of callers with an inexhaustible list of grievances.  In a serious discussion, this is destructive.  Understanding requires focus.  

            Baseball has essentially two sets of problems:  there are the economic problems, and there are the aesthetic problems.   The economic problems are far, far more serious than the aesthetic issues.   The economic problems include the high cost of going to games, the salaries of minor league players, the fact that teams in smaller cities simply cannot afford to field competitive teams on a consistent basis, the unsold seats resulting from that. . . .it’s a mess.  Baseball economics are a train wreck, frankly; they’re a train wreck running into a dumpster fire just outside of Chernobyl. 

            This article is not about the economic issues, serious as those are; this article is about the smaller and more solvable issues of the aesthetics of the game, which means putting on a show that people like to watch.   I’m not suggesting that these issues are unconnected; they are quite certainly connected.  It’s like a man goes to the doctor; he’s got bladder cancer, but also he has high blood pressure and emphysema.  These problems are quite certainly connected, because you can’t treat the cancer until you get the other issues under control.  They’re connected, but they are also distinct problems.  Same thing; we have to get the patient healthy enough that we can deal with the really serious economic issues. 

            I am not saying that baseball is currently selling an ugly game or an aesthetically un-pleasing game.  I will leave that up to you.  You can like the modern game; you can hate it.  It’s your call.  The essence of the aesthetic problem is this:  that as baseball players have gotten to be bigger, stronger and better trained, two very narrow athletic skills have threatened to crowd out of the game a wider range of athletic attributes. 

            Perhaps the most amazing athletic feat that I have ever seen in baseball passed by so quickly that, as far as I know, it didn’t even make ESPN’s nightly roundup.  It was Doug Glanville, playing center field for the Philadelphia Phillies about 2001.   A deep drive was hit to the right field wall, Glanville racing toward right as the right fielder raced toward center.  When Glanville and the right fielder were perhaps six feet apart, racing toward one another and avoiding collision, the ball came off of a post between the two of them, a little above their heads, and bounced toward center.  Glanville had what seemed like a billionth of a second to react—and yet he did.  He was racing toward the ball when the ball, probably moving more than 90 MPH, suddenly and unpredictably bounced right above his shoulder from a distance of perhaps three to five feet.  It seemed completely impossible for him to react that quickly to the baseball, but he threw up his left hand, in that tiny fraction of a second, and caught the ball bouncing off the wall.   It made no impact on the public; it attracted no attention—and yet when you watched the play in slow motion, it seemed to be beyond belief that he could do that.  (2021 Note:  I recently asked Doug Glanville whether he remembered this play.  He said that he was trying to remember it, but hasn’t focused on it yet.)

            That is athleticism.   Athleticism is not simply the strength and the skill to hit a baseball a great distance, nor the strength, energy and co-ordination to throw a baseball 100 MPH and on target, not that those are not impressive athletic accomplishments.  Athleticism also involves quickness, speed, grace, agility, reaction time, balance, and things which have no names like the ability to cope quickly with things that could not have been anticipated and the determination, the will, to overcome obstacles and overcome opponents when things seem to be going against you. 

            In baseball, it is most often in fielding that these wider-range athletic qualities come into the game; fielding, and sometimes baserunning.  A ball in play creates a contest between a fielder and a baserunner, and in that contest players dive for baseballs, have to throw off-balance, have to make split-second decisions, have to recover to unexpected bounces and other unexpected events.   They are required to display a wide array of athletic skills. 

            Historically, the essence of baseball has been in this contest between fielder and baserunner.  A strikeout, historically, was the relatively rare event in which a batter failed so completely that he was unable even to create the contest between fielder and baserunner.  The home run was the relatively rare event in which a batter succeeded so completely that he denied the fielder any chance to make the play.  Over time, however, both strikeouts and home runs have been increasing in frequency.  For a hundred years, the marginal events have been becoming more common, and the "central" events have been getting less common and less important. 

            In recent years these hundred-year trends have not only continued, but accelerated sharply.  Home runs are no longer the exceptional offense; they are now the ordinary offense.  Strikeouts are no longer the exceptional defense; they are now the ordinary defense, "defense" in the broader definition of "anything that prevents offense."  Many people perceive this as a problem.   The fact that older people perceive this as a problem is not in itself noteworthy; for more than a hundred years, many older fans have perceived EVERY change in the game as a problem.  They’re not all problems.  But while many people perceive this as a problem, baseball attendance is also dropping at a steady pace.  THAT is a problem.  You can’t get away from that one by saying "Oh, I like it this way." 

            Attendance is dropping because of aesthetic and economic problems, but also, there is a third aesthetic issue that is a part of the equation.  The third issue is the pace of play and/or the length of the games.  Athletic contests normally showcase action.  People running around, jumping, throwing, spinning, falling. . .that kind of thing.  Baseball games increasingly involve waiting around for things to happen.  In my youth games were commonly played in two hours—and the old-timers were complaining about that being too long.  In 2019 the average is 3 hours and 5 minutes, increasing by about one minute per year.  More and more games now last four hours.  It’s an issue—the more so because there is less "action" than ever, action as it is traditionally thought of.  People running around and jumping and diving and racing one another to see whether the ball or the batter gets to the base first.

            Given this set of problems, people suggest crude and radical solutions to the problems.  People suggest cutting games to seven innings.  That’s a nice idea—and, as the players and managers devise even more ways to waste the public’s time, we can cut them to five innings, to three innings.  Eventually we can play one-inning games with ten-minute commercial breaks between every pitch.  Other people have suggested cutting the count to 3 balls for a walk and 2 for a strikeout, which, in fairness, is not AS bad an idea as the seven-inning game. 

Crude and radical solutions to the problem are a very bad idea.  The general purpose of this article is to argue against crude and radical solutions to the problems.  The designated hitter rule was a crude and radical solution to what was then a problem.  To return to the medical analogy, crude solutions are like doing eye surgery with a knife, which was common only a generation ago, or doing surgery with a bone saw, which. . . .let’s move on.  The point is that we do not need raw and heavy-handed solutions to these problems, whether or not you consider them to be problems.  There are things you can do to solve these problems which would be, from the standpoint of the fan in the stands or watching on TV, virtually invisible.  It may be that people adopt horrible, heavy-handed solutions because they fail to see that softer and lighter solutions are available to them.

Whether I actually have 50 proposed ways to solve these problems or not I am not sure; we’ll find out as the article evolves.   (Spoiler alert:  he doesn’t get there.  Runs out of gas at 30.) There’s a bunch of things I want to talk about, so let’s get to them. 

First of all, let’s deal with the length of game/pace of play issues; the acronym there would be LOGPOPI, which you have to admit is a fun word.   My first point:  you absolutely cannot deal with this general issue unless you deal with (1) the number of pitching changes, and (2) players stepping out of the box between every pitch.  Baseball in recent years has implemented a number of rules/restrictions designed to improve the pace of play, and they haven’t done any good whatsoever; the average length of a game just goes up and up. 

I shouldn’t say it hasn’t done any good at all; the limitation on visits to the mound is a good rule and it has helped to slow down the rate at which the problem has gotten worse.  The problem is still getting worse.  It puzzles me no end that anyone would not understand why this is happening, or why anyone would imagine that things like between-inning pitch clocks and limitations on visits to the mound are actually going to solve the problem (if it is a problem; I guess that is up to you.) 

Look, the problem with pace of play/length of games is (1) batters stepping out of the box to re-focus between every pitch, and (2) constant and frankly unnecessary pitching changes.  Unless you deal with those two issues, you are not, in fact, dealing with the problem.  You are pretending that you are dealing with the problem.  All that baseball has done so far is pretend that it is dealing with the problem.   

It is contrary to the very nature of team sports to allow either the pitcher or the hitter to "get ready" for a pitch.  Does a basketball team give the other team an opportunity to get set for a fast break?  Should they?  Does a soccer team allow the goalie a moment to get his mind and his equipment in just the right place before the other team attempts to score?  Should they do that?   Does a football game allow the defense to break out of a set position an instant before the snap, because they’re not feeling comfortable?   Should they do that?

Somehow we have lost track of the fact that the MOST basic nature of sports is forcing the other team to react when they are NOT prepared to react, when they have NOT cinched up their batting gloves nice and tight and got into just the right position in the batter’s box and cleared their mind and thought through what the pitcher is likely to throw. 

My first suggestions, then, are (1) prohibit players from stepping out of the batter’s box after the at bat has begun, or (2) limit the number of times that a batter can step out of the batter’s box after stepping in to the batter’s box to, let’s say, one per team per inning. 

Actually, no rule change is necessary here; all that is really necessary is an umpiring policy change.  When the batter steps out of the batter’s box, he has to ask for time.  If the umpire doesn’t grant the time out, then the pitch is legal.  You don’t actually have to change the rules; all you actually have to do is stop calling timeout, unless there is an actual reason to call timeout.  If you cut the number of unnecessary timeouts in a game down from 300 or whatever it is now to something less than 20, you’ll have the pace of play problem halfway solved. 

The pitching-change part of this problem is trickier, not because it is hard to solve but because there are so many good options as to how to solve it that it is hard to choose exactly the right one.  Some people have suggested that we require the pitcher to complete his warmup throws in the bullpen, eliminate his eight throws to warm up once he gets to the mound.  That is another of those pathetic suggestions that people make when they don’t really want to solve the problem; they just like to pretend that they’re working on it.  Eliminating the pitcher’s warm-up throws from the mound, frankly, isn’t going to do a damned thing about the pace of the game; it will just squeeze a few seconds out in one space, and they’ll go back on in another space.  What you will ultimately have to do, if you don’t want the average game to stretch out to four hours, is make a rule that limits mid-inning pitching changes.

Actually, there is such a rule coming already for 2020, Rule 5.10 (g); a pitcher has to face three batters or finish the inning.  That’s great, and it will  help; let’s see how much.  There are many other options, but this is the one that I propose, #3 on my list.  A team may make as many pitching changes as they want in a game, between innings.  Also, any pitcher may be taken out of the game at any time after he has been charged with a run allowed in this inning. 

Beyond those two situations, a team may remove a pitcher from the game in mid-inning without penalty once a game—and only once.  You’ve got one free shot a game to remove a pitcher who has not given up a run in this inning from the mound in the middle of the inning—one.

After you have used your free shot, if you take out a pitcher who has not allowed a run to score in the inning, there’s a penalty.  What the penalty would be probably doesn’t matter very much.   The strategic advantage of constantly changing pitchers is so small that any on-field penalty that you impose to offset it would probably be enough to stop it from happening.  If you just made a rule that a "ball" is added to next hitter, that might be enough.  You make a second mid-inning pitching change, the next hitter starts with a 1-0 count.  That might be enough, because many of the pitching changes are made to get a platoon advantage on the hitter, and the disadvantage of having a 1-0 count on the hitter is probably as large as the platoon advantage, I would guess.

Still, I would favor a stronger penalty.  The penalty that I would suggest is, for second delay-of-game pitching change, the next hitter automatically takes first base—and all runners who are on base automatically move up one base, whether they are "forced" or not.  That would clearly put a stop to it.

I think that is the BEST rule for the problem because it is non-invasive.  In practice, nobody would take out a pitcher to invoke the penalty, so the fan would never know it was there.  If you went to games, if you watched every game on TV, and if that rule was adopted but no one told you about it, you would never know that there was a new rule; you would just notice that there were a lot fewer delays for pitching changes this year, but you wouldn’t be able to figure out why.   That’s why I like the rule. 

There have been other ways proposed to limit the number of pitching changes.   We could (#4) limit a team to using three pitchers in the first nine innings of a game, or (#5) limit a team to 11 pitchers on a roster, or (#6) limit the number of pitchers who can be used in a series—a maximum of seven pitchers in a three-game series, or ten pitchers in a four-game series, with an increase of one for each four extra innings if there are extra innings in the game.  Those are OK ideas; I think they’re a little bit crude, a little bit heavy-handed.   We could (#7) make a rule prohibiting any pitcher from pitching in consecutive games.  If that was the only rule on the table, I’d vote for it. 

Another rule that has been proposed to control delay-of-game pitching changes (#8) is that if a pinch hitter is announced and the other team brings in a different pitcher, that the team at bat may withdraw the pinch hitter and may use him later in the game.  In other words, being ANNOUNCED as the pinch hitter does not mean that he is "in the game", does not mean that the other player has been replaced.  It merely signals an intention to put the other player in the game.  He’s not actually in the game until you throw him a pitch. 

That’s not a bad rule, I don’t think, but it’s not adequate to the abuse that it intends to curtail.  It would eliminate 3% of the problem, 5% maybe.  I would be in favor of the rule, but it leaves the problem 95% or 97% unsolved.

One thing that very obviously needs to be done, also doesn’t require a rules change, is to (#9) start enforcing the rule that the pitcher is supposed to have his foot on the rubber when he delivers the pitch.   We used to talk about pitchers throwing a 59-foot fastball, which was considered cheating.  Nobody throws a 59-foot fastball anymore; the norm now is 57.   The escalation in strikeouts has been caused to a significant extent by ignoring the rule (Rule 5.07). 

One can see how this rule came to be ignored.  If a pitcher pulls his foot off the rubber a fraction of a second early, the umpire really can’t see that reliably.   If umpires tried to call that—which they never do—they would get it wrong sometimes, which would be embarrassing, and also it would mess with the normal sequence of play—sort of like the balk rule, only worse.  Because the umpire actually can’t see a 20th of a second early step-off, they never called it, so the time gap between leaving the rubber and the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand has gotten wider and wider, now wide enough that you actually CAN see it, many times. 

We need some sort of protocol for enforcing the rule in the least intrusive way that we can.   One way to do that would be to have special umpires, retired umpires perhaps, study the video of the games after the fact, and mark those pitches which, in slow motion, can be seen to be illegal, and track the data, and publish the data.  Some pitchers now are pulling the foot off early on 95% of their pitches, at least.   You identify the worst offenders, give them a warning to stop it, and if they continue to do it, then you suspend them from pitching briefly.  If they continue to abuse their leeway after being reinstated, then you suspend them for a little bit longer.   

Another way to enforce it. . .I don’t like this one as much, but it could be done and it would work. . .would be to allow the manager, once a game and only after a strikeout, to protest that the pitch was illegal.   If you review the tape and find that the pitch was in fact illegal, that the pitcher was in fact not in contact with the pitching rubber when he released the pitch, then the strikeout is wiped out, the count reverts to 0-0, and the batter stands in again.  That would work to an extent because, of course, the manager would save his challenge for the biggest moment of the game.  Your cleanup hitter is up with a runner on second; he strikes out on an illegal pitch, you give him a do-over.  It would be a pretty effective deterrent against the 57-foot fastball. 

There has been some talk about moving the mound back by two feet or something, which. . . .whoever suggested that has probably never played baseball.  Pitchers spend 15 years learning to make a slider break at just the right moment so that it breaks across the plate; if you move them back two feet, every breaking pitch is horribly off target, and you can’t just fix that in spring training.  

We DO need to move the pitcher’s mound back (#10), but more like three inches.    It wouldn’t make a LOT of difference, but it would make a difference.  It’s invisible to the fan, basically, but it would give the batter about .002 more seconds to read the pitch.  And if three inches doesn’t do anything, then you can do another three inches in a couple of years.   Moving the pitcher’s mound back even a couple of inches would reduce strikeouts, because it would give the batter a tiny bit more time to react.

The thing is that skill levels evolve over time.  Pitchers throw harder than they used to, and batters react more quickly and swing harder—but the evolution of pitchers toward harder throwing and the evolution of hitters toward quicker reactions are not perfectly aligned.  They’re not happening on precisely the same schedule.  There is no reason in nature that they should be perfectly aligned, but the fact that they are not is driving strikeouts upward.   Moving the pitcher’s mound back a few inches just helps to re-align the reaction time with the evolution of skills.

Another rule that many of us would favor (#11) would be that if a starting pitcher is removed from the game before pitching five innings and before allowing four runs to score, that pitcher is ineligible to pitch again for eight days.   In other words, you can’t use an opener.  The starting pitcher that you announce; he’s your guy for five innings, unless he just doesn’t have it today.

I would favor that rule, and here is why.   First, I am generally against any rule that attempts to change baseball—but I am often in favor of rules that PREVENT changes to the game.   I like baseball. I’m not opposed to changes across the board; some changes are good, and some are not good.

It is my belief that baseball should be played in the way that the fans most like to see it played.    The use of "openers" seems to me to be, from the standpoint of the fan, an undesirable change.  Going to the game to see Gaylord Perry start against Vida Blue, going to see Tom Seaver against Steve Carlton, going to see Dave Stewart beat Roger Clemens again, going to see Greg Maddux against Randy Johnson, going to see Pedro Martinez against Tim Hudson. . .that’s baseball as we learned to love it—but so is seeing Pedro Martinez against some humpty named John Snyder.   Pedro Martinez in 1999 went 23-4, and you know who beat him?  All four losses were to opposing starting pitchers—John Snyder, Mike Thurman, Dave Eiland and Tim Hudson.  Snyder finished the season 9-12 with a 6.68 ERA, but he beat Pedro Martinez when Pedro was having one of the greatest seasons of all time.  Mike Thurman finished the season 7-11 with a 4.05 ERA, but he beat Pedro Martinez.   Dave Eiland finished the season 4-8 with a 5.60 ERA, but he beat Pedro Martinez.  That’s baseball, to me.

Baseball has always followed the rule. . . .well, the lack of a rule.  We have always followed the policy that if managers figure out a more effective way to do something and it changes the game, we allow that change to take place—and changes have in fact happened for 150 years. 

That’s fine, except when it isn’t.   This is a case when it isn’t.   You know why it isn’t?

Because it forces the organization to sell anonymity.  It’s a new $100-million movie starring:  Eight people that you’ve never heard of before, and will never hear from again.  Some 22-year-old who throws 100 MPH goes out and pitches the first two innings; he’s anonymous.  

Identity is crucial to marketing baseball—just as it is to marketing movies, or television shows, or any other form of entertainment.  Baseball cards, you remember?  They create identity for the players.   Fantasy baseball, you remember?  It’s based on having players that you can identify. 

We haven’t lost identity for the players, but we are, in fact, losing it.  We’re trying to sell the public a game of anonymous, limited talents.  We are losing identity primarily in two ways:  one, through running pitchers in and out of the game so that, as a fan, you don’t know who in the hell that guy is on the mound, and second, by shuttling players back and forth between majors and minors. 

That’s another rules change that DEFINITELY needs to be made; #12.  Teams now send players back and forth to the minor leagues quite literally on a daily basis, making the 25-man roster, in effect, a 32-man roster.  You bring a pitcher up, work him for a couple of weeks, then you send him back out and let him rest up, regain maximum arm strength so that his 94-MPH fastball becomes a 97-MPH fastball for a week or so.    One thing that definitely needs to be done:  cut that out.   Baseball does not benefit from anonymous players.  It benefits from identifiable players.   Do you sincerely question that principle?

My suggestion—still on #12—would be to limit each team to one roster move a week, except that perhaps three times during the year a team can use a "free roster move".   If you get two players actually hurt in the same game, you can use your free move to deal with that.   Otherwise, you’ve got one move a week, and let’s say that you can save your move for one week (only), so that if a team does not make any roster move in one week they can make two the next. 

Again, that’s an invisible change, to the fan.  If that rule was adopted and nobody told you it had been adopted, you would never know, because you don’t see anything different.  I should stress that I am not advocating that baseball make ALL of these changes.  Baseball is, in fact, losing popularity; you can put your head in the sand and say it ain’t so if you want to, I guess.  What I am trying to get you to see is that, if baseball actually chooses to address the things that are causing soccer to become popular, there are many, many, many ways to do it.   We don’t have to make crude, heavy-handed changes to the game.  We can make the game move along a lot faster, make it more fun to watch, by doing things that are basically invisible to the fan—and there are many, many different options in how to do that.   That’s what I am trying to say. 

I mentioned at the top of the article that we needed to limit throws to first base by pitchers (#13).  My preference in that area is so far out of the mainstream of ideas that I won’t advocate for it here; I’d like to eliminate the balk rule and replace it with some better-thought-through idea of how the pitcher can defend against a base stealer.  Setting that aside, what one could do (#13) is limit a pitcher to two throws to first base, per batter; if he makes a third unsuccessful throw to first base, the baserunner automatically advances. 

The failure to have such a rule is simply an oversight.  If you think about it, a pitcher has a limited number of ineffective throws that he can make to home plate.  The limit is three.  You make four ineffective throws to home plate, and the batter wins; the batter takes his base. 

What sort of sense does it make to say that the pitcher has a limited number of wasted throws that he can make to try to get the batter out—which is the central focus of the game—but that if he wants to stand on the mound and make 15 ineffective throws to first base, that’s fine.  It isn’t fine.  It’s disrespectful of the fans; it is disrespectful of the game.    

Up until about 1915, baseball regularly adjusted its rules to fix problems like this, but it never addressed the waste-of-time-throws-to-first problem because there was no such problem at the time.   If it had ever occurred to the people who ran baseball before the commissioner system came along that some jackass was going to stand on the mound and throw to first 15 times, it is absolutely clear that they would have prohibited it.  They never prohibited it because it never happened. 

After the commissioner system came along there were very few stolen base attempts in baseball for fifty years, basically, so waste-of-time throws to first didn’t become a real problem until the late 1970s.  By the time the problem arose the idiotic, self-destructive idea had taken hold that baseball was a perfect game in which the rules never needed to be adjusted for new realities.  This paralyzed the game for 40 years, which frankly pitched baseball into a death spiral; we’ve just begun to escape that paralysis, and try to fight to save the game.  

Another alternative there is (#14) to prohibit the pitcher from throwing to first base unless the runner off of first actually has at least a six-foot lead.  You see it all the time; the pitcher just isn’t quite ready to pitch, so he throws to first even though the runner has no lead and is no threat to steal.  It’s annoying.  Another thing you could do would be to draw a little line six feet off of first base.  As long as the baserunner keeps one foot on the first base side of that line, he’s absolutely safe, because the pitcher can’t throw to first if he doesn’t cross that line.  Again, it’s an almost invisible rule to the fans, apart from the little hash mark, because the pitcher would almost never throw to first when he was not allowed to, and you never give a thought to what doesn’t happen. 

So far I have suggested 14 possible rules fixes or policy fixes, of which 12 could be considered to be pro-offense, pro-hitter, so let’s balance the scales.   The 15th rule change that seems to me to be worthy of consideration would be to move the batter’s boxes one inch further away from home plate.  There is now a six-inch separation between the plate and the batter’s box; we could make it seven.

Batters now stand much, much closer to the plate than they did 40 years ago.   The change can be traced back to batting helmets.   Batting helmets became theoretically mandatory in the 1950s, but the rule was not strictly enforced until the 1970s; there were still batters hitting without batting helmets occasionally into the mid-1970s. 

Historically, it was widely accepted for pitchers to intimidate hitters by throwing pitches up and in, forcing the hitter to stay away from the plate out of the fear of being hit.   This was still somewhat accepted, still slightly accepted, when I started working for the Red Sox in 2002.   I can remember even then hearing discussions about whether it was "time" to knock so-and-so off the plate; I can remember those discussions in 2003 to 2005.  By 2009—ten years ago—it had become clearly, absolutely, and universally forbidden to talk about using intimidation to keep hitters off the plate.  

If you work back in time, you can see that it was more and more acceptable, in the past, for the pitcher to try to intimidate the batter against standing too close to the plate.  In 2003-2005, it was acceptable to do that if the hitter was "diving in" to the pitch.   At that time you didn’t have general, every-day, every-game intimidation of the hitters like you did in the days of Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale and Early Wynn.  But hitters sometimes would look for an outside pitch and dive toward the outside pitch.  The unwritten rule at that time was that when a hitter started diving into the pitch, you were allowed to remind him not to do that. 

Bret Saberhagen (1984-2001) had quite exceptional control.  Saberhagen would knock down one hitter every game, usually the first time through the order, occasionally in the second.   Although he never talked about it, that I know of, he never forgot to do it; you could take it to the bank.  One hitter in the early innings of every game was going to wind up on his butt.   But that was mild compared to the pitchers of the previous generation, who would throw several deliberate brushback pitches every game. 

The batter is now protected not only by batting helmets—and larger and better batting helmets than players had 20 years ago—but also by a variety of other pieces of protective equipment—shin guards and elbow guards and wraps and sleeves and batting gloves, and also by an ethic of the game which prohibits the use of intimidation by the pitcher.  The batter now is very thoroughly protected, which is why Hit By Pitch totals have gone up; the hitter has less to be afraid of in being hit by a pitch.  

If a hitter can stand right on top of the plate, that provides three advantages for him:  (1) it makes it easier for him to get to an outside pitch, (2) it makes it easier for him to pull a pitch in the middle of the plate, and (3) it prevents the pitcher from working inside, since any inside pitch has a high probability of hitting the batter and putting him on base. 

It’s a critical part of the problem, or the Syndrome, or whatever you want to call it, the syndrome of almost every hitter standing right on top of the plate and trying to crush any pitch on the inside half of the plate.   There are four things that you can do about it; three of these I am actually advocating.  The fourth is just a suggestion.  The three that I advocate (15-16-17 on our list) are:

15)  Move the batter’s box one inch away from the plate,

16)  Actually enforce the rule requiring the batter to stay in the batter’s box.  Batters like to wipe out the lines that form the batter’s box.   Stop them from doing that.  Use technology to enforce the rule if you have to.  With modern sensing equipment, it can’t be that hard to tell if a batter’s feet are where they are supposed to be when the pitch is thrown. 

I believe that the rule says that if a batter is out of the batter’s box when he hits the ball, he’s out.   You couldn’t actually enforce that rule; the league batting average would drop to .150 if you did.  Batters have a foot or both feet out of the box when they hit the ball all the time.   You can’t rigorously enforce that rule because it’s not a well-thought out rule, but you can call out hitters who (a) plant their feet outside the box, or (b) step WAY out of the box to hit the ball.  It would make a huge difference if you just enforced the rule, because you would be allowing the pitchers to work inside. 

17)  Get rid of some of the "protective" gear.  Of course, nobody wants to see batters get hurt, but batters played baseball for 100 years without shin guards and elbow guards and whatever you call those things they wear on their wrists; for that matter, they played for 100 years without batting helmets.  If you cut down on the protective gear, you (a) will NOT increase injuries, and (b) will force the hitters to get off the plate. 

I do favor the rules changes above; I believe that all three of those rules are necessary and appropriate to cut down on the home runs and on the strikeouts.  #18 is just a suggestion, just an idea; let’s see what you think.   #18: Change the rule from "the batter takes first if he is hit with a pitch" to "the batter takes first if the pitcher throws a pitch that breaks the front plane of the batter’s box," meaning of course the box in which the hitter is standing, not the one across the plate.  Make the front line of the batter’s box a little bit wider, a little bit brighter; let’s say you put a yellow stripe next to the white stripe, so that it’s more visible whether the ball has crossed that line, and also let’s say that you bury a sensor in the ground beneath that that turns on a signal light somewhere if the ball is thrown over that line.

Not exactly advocating this rules change, but. . . .doesn’t that rule actually make more sense?   Why is it OK to throw at the hitter, if he is able to get out of the way?  On the other side or the issue, why does the batter get first base if he leans over the plate and the ball hits his shoulder?   Shouldn’t the issue be where the pitcher throws the ball, rather than whether the batter is able to get out of the way? 

I don’t think that this rules change would either increase or decrease significantly the number of batters awarded first base; I think it would be about the same.   It just would work against guys like Brandon Guyer who hang out over the plate in an effort to make the ball hit their shoulder.  I think that’s a positive.

Possible Rules Change #19 is an extension of #17, above:  Whatever equipment the batter wears into the batter’s box, he wears until he gets back to the dugout.  You want to wear a shin guard, OK—but if you wear it into the batter’s box, you wear it running the bases.  If you wear a six-pound elbow guard to hit, OK, but you carry it around the bases. 

I strongly favor this rule, because changing equipment is another of the things which is slowing down the game.   Batters take 30-45 seconds, after they reach base, to unsnap all their gear, hand it to the first base coach, and put on their sliding gloves.   They hit a double, they have to run half-way back to first base to trade equipment with the first base coach.  I don’t see the entertainment value of this.  There is no entertainment value in this; it just slows down the game.  I say:  put the fan’s interest first.   I’d go beyond that:  ultimately, in order to survive, baseball is going to HAVE to put the fan’s interest first.  Ultimately, there will be no choice but to do that. 

Baseball is being pulled in the direction that it is by more and more hitters making more and more efforts to hit home runs.   Anything that you do that causes that not to work will cause that strategy to be gradually abandoned, and will bring back the other concept of offense:  get on base, run the bases, advance the runners.  

That concept underlies my suggested rules changes #20, #21 and #22.  #20:  Deaden the baseball a little bit.  Raise the stitches; reduce the resiliency of the ball, something.   Something that helps the pitchers.  This is going to be done this winter, the winter of 2019-2020, so I don’t know that we need to spend a full paragraph on the issue. 

#21 has a similar purpose:  put in place an agreement among the teams that every fence that creates a home run must be either 340 feet from home plate, or 20 feet high, one or the other.   It’s not really a very radical rule; it merely says that if you have a short home run distance, you have to put up a home run screen until the fence angles away from home plate a little bit. 

#22 is similar but more radical.  In one sense, it’s a tiny, tiny little change; it merely requires that you change one digit in the rule book.  Baseball rule 5.05 (b) (5) says that when "a fair ball passes over a fence or into the stands at a distance from home base of 250 feet or more. Such hit entitles the batter to a home run when he shall have touched all bases legally. A fair fly ball that passes out of the playing field at a point less than 250 feet from home base shall entitle the batter to advance to second base only."

Well, suppose that you changed the "2" there to a "3"; 250 feet becomes 350 feet.  That’s actually a rather profound change in the rule.  The change would not require that teams re-configure their parks.  What it would mean is that the foul pole and the home run pole are not necessarily the same thing.   You have a foul pole, which determines whether the ball is fair or foul, but also, you have a "home run pole" which determines whether the ball is a home run or a double.  A ball hit into the seats, but hit less than 350 feet, is not a home run; it’s a double. 

A lot of fans are going to hate that idea, because we’ve been raised all of our lives to think that a ball hit out of play has to be a home run.   But it doesn’t HAVE to be a home run; it could very well be just a double.   I personally would like the rule, because it would get rid of a lot of cheap home runs, and if you get rid of cheap home runs then it becomes a less profitable gamble to try to hit home runs, which means that the smart play becomes to put the ball in play.   I would like the rule, but I do understand that it is a radical and visible change to the game, and the promise of this article was not to do that, so. . .

Getting back to rules changes that would be essentially invisible to the fan, rule  3.02 (a), "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length."  The rule book states a maximum thickness of the bat, but no minimum thickness.   Suppose that (#23) we changed the rule to read "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part, not less than 1.50 inches in diameter at the thinnest part, and not more than 41 inches in length." 

You couldn’t actually do that right away; you’d have to start at a minimum thickness of 1.00 inches and gradually walk it up to 1.50 inches (1.00 inches the first year, 1.05 inches the second year, 1.10 the third year, etc.)  Bats when I can first remember, 1950s bats, were more than 1.50 inches at the thinnest part, but then they kept making them thinner and thinner.  That’s one reason they break as often as they do—not the only reason, but one of the reasons.  The handles are a lot thinner.

The thin-handled bats are a part of the syndrome of everybody trying to hit home runs, and hitting home runs and striking out.  The reasons that modern hitters like the thin-handled bat are (1) it puts more wood in the sweet spot, and (2) there is something that happens with the momentum of the swing.  If you put more weight out at the end of the bat head and less weight near the hands, then you can generate more bat speed with the same amount of energy.  It’s called centrifugal force.   

But the fact that hitters LIKE those bats doesn’t mean that it is good for the game, from the standpoint of the fans.   A thicker-handled bat is more of a put-the-ball-in-play bat, rather than a hit-the-ball-400-feet bat.  If you gradually change the bats back to the older style of bats, in stages so small that they are invisible from the seats,  then you are legislating against home runs and strikeouts, and in favor of putting the ball in play—but without doing anything that the fan can see.  Again, I think the failure of the rules to address this issue is essentially an oversight.  I think if the people who created the modern rules, 1870 to 1920. . .I believe that if they had ever foreseen that the whip-handled bats were coming, they would have put a minimum thickness of the bat into the rules a hundred years ago. 

My suggested rules change #24 would be to create an economic incentive for teams to play at a better pace.  The way it would work is something like this.  You can create a simple formula that predicts or correlates with the time of a game; maybe you can’t, but I sure as hell could.  The base formula would be something like 2.5 times the number of half-innings in the game, plus 1 minute for each hitter who comes to the plate in the game.   An average game might be 18 half-innings; that’s 45 minutes, plus 80 batters, that’s 125 minutes; the "schedule time" is 125 minutes, or 2:05.

Then you create a rewards system for the team, based on the distribution of TV money, or maybe based on allowable money to be spent in the free agent draft, or based on modifications of the payroll tax levels. . . whatever.   If the game is actually played in 2:05, then that’s ten points into the system for each team.   If the game takes twice that long—4 hours and 10 minutes—then that’s zero points into the system for each team.  Between 2:05 and 4:10, each team gets some number of "pace of play credit points" between zero and ten.  That part of the system would be easy to figure out.

Some of you who are not really paying attention will start to object that this would penalize teams for getting runners on base or for extra inning games, but that’s not true at all.  If you have extra baserunners that means necessarily and inevitably that you have extra hitters, and the base line is extended every time somebody gets on base.  If you play a 12-inning game in which 110 batters go to the plate—such things do happen—then the base line would be not 2:05, but 2:50.   There’s a real problem with the proposal, but that’s not it. 

It creates an economic incentive for the team NOT to waste time.  If, by playing at a crisp pace, the team is allowed to spend more money in the free agent draft, the front office will tell the manager "Hey, we’re in 27th place in the pace of play points.  We’re going to be a big disadvantage after the draft if we don’t move that along.  You’ve got to get these guys to stop wasting time."  A pitcher who works slowly on the mound is trying to sign a free agent contract; somebody tells him "You cost your team $1.6 million last year by pitching so slowly.  We just can’t afford that." 

That’s not actually how salary negotiations go; that’s a naïve person’s idea of how negotiations go.  They way that negotiations REALLY go is, if you want the guy, you pay what the market says he costs.  But anyway, the message WILL get through to the players that you’re reducing your own market value if you waste time, because time is money. 

Here’s the real problem with the idea.  In order to make it have very much impact, the amount of money involved would have to be enormous.  Getting back to the pitcher who cost his team $1.6 million by dilly-dallying around on the mound. . .in order for that to be real, you’d have to have a $10 million delta per team; you’d have to have some teams getting $20 million MORE than other teams either out of the TV money or in allowable bonuses or whatever.  And in order to have a $10 million standard deviation on the team level, you’d have to have a genuinely enormous pool of money—even for baseball, where enormous pools of money are the norm rather than the exception. 

It might work, though; sometimes very small incentive pools can be surprisingly effective at changing behavior, particularly if the rewards for the behavior you are trying to get rid of are themselves not very significant. 

That idea would encourage teams not to waste time, and would rely on the teams to pass the message on to the players.   But one way to directly encourage players not to waste time would be to restore (and strengthen) the start-of-inning curfews.  Many cities used to have curfews saying (by law) that a baseball team could not start an inning at 1:00 in the morning, and the leagues used to have curfews as well. 

Suppose that you had a rule saying that no inning of a nine-inning game may start more than three and a half hours after the start of the game.   In other words, if the game starts at 7:30, you can’t start an inning after eleven o’clock, unless you are in extra innings by then, in which case you can continue to play.

I suggested three and a half hours, because I want the rule to be more-or-less invisible, but I absolutely believe that if you made the same rule but said two and half hours, 90% of games would be completed without any problem.  Why?  Because baseball players do not want to have suspended games hanging over their heads.  Nobody wants to get to the park two hours early so that we can finish last night’s game before we play today’s game.  If it’s the last game of the series, that’s WAY worse; if it is the last game of the series, then having a suspended game may mean the loss of an off day, or it may mean unnecessary travel AND the loss of an off day.   A player who wastes time and causes the game to run past the curfew is going to be really unpopular with his teammates. 

Of course, there are two problems with this proposed rule.  One is that you probably couldn’t put it in place without the acquiescence of the player’s union, and the players wouldn’t like it.  The even worse problem is that it might occasionally cause a situation in which the fans who pay to see a game do not get to see the end of the game because it hits curfew.   Three and a half hours, you’re NEVER going to hit the curfew, so that’s not really an issue; all it would mean is that there are no nine-inning games lasting four hours.   That rule puts the burden of playing at a decent pace directly on the players—and I have no doubt that they would respond to the change, and, after a year or so, would be very glad that they had made the change.   The players would enjoy having the games get over with an hour earlier, once they got used to the idea. 

My proposed rules change #26 is almost off the topic, not quite:  an umpire’s decision on a stolen base attempt is not an appealable play.  He’s called safe, he’s safe; he’s called out, he’s out.  

You probably all know why that might be better.  Replays on that particular play tend to expose little tiny things that the naked eye could never see.  The runner’s foot comes off the bag for a twentieth of a second; you can see it on replay, so they call him out.  It seems silly to me; it seems silly to a lot of people.  Changing that rule would save a little time, because (a) you wouldn’t have appeal plays on those, and (b) you wouldn’t have people holding up the game while they decide whether to appeal. 

Now, #27.  I have to say up front that I honestly and sincerely do favor this rules change, although I acknowledge that it violates the premise of this article, which is that we’re talking about rules adjustments which are essentially invisible to the fans.  This one isn’t; it’s a significant rules change.

The rule for the last 120 years or so has been, as all of you know, that a foul ball is a strike, unless it would be the third strike, in which case the foul ball is a non-event, unless it was bunt try, in which case it is a third strike after all.

That rule was fine 50 years ago.  It was OK 20 years ago.  It doesn’t work anymore.  It needs to be fixed. 

The reason that the rule needs to be fixed is that the hitters have gotten too good for that rule to work the way it used to work.  The pitchers today are dramatically better than the pitchers of 50 years ago at hitting the corners with the pitch.   Because they are so much better at hitting the corners of the zone, there are many fewer pitches than there used to be in the heart of the zone.

Pitches in the heart of the zone tend to be put in play.  Pitches on the edges of the zone tend to be fouled off.  At the same time, the hitters have gotten to be dramatically better than they were 50 years ago at spoiling those on-the-black pitches.  Comparing baseball now to baseball even 20 years ago, there are many, many more foul balls on two-strike pitches.  It slows down the game.

This is what the rule needs to be, given the talents of modern players.  When a batter has two strikes and fouls off a pitch, that’s a non-event—once.   But if he gets to two strikes and then fouls off two pitches, that’s a strikeout.

The reason that the rule needs to be changed is that hitters today are simply too damned good at fouling off borderline pitches that they can’t hit hard.  They’re not really trying to put them into play; they’re trying to spoil them, foul them off and wait for the pitcher to make a mistake—or, alternatively, they guess wrong, spoil the pitch, and wait to see if they can guess right on the next pitch. 

The game needs to tell them to cut it out, and put the ball in play.  We need a moment of truth for the hitter, and that moment of truth needs to arrive quicker.  Unfortunately, the short-term consequence of this rule—if it were to be adopted, which obviously it is not going to be anytime soon—but the short-term effect would be that strikeout totals would explode, and batting averages would drop.  That’s not what we want, to drive strikeouts up.  We want to drive strikeouts down, and batting averages up.  (Since publishing this a year and a half ago, I have learned that this rule is usedin slow pitch softball.)

But what I believe would happen is that strikeouts in the short term would go up so much that hitters would realize that they simply HAD to adjust.  Hitters use a "safety swing" to protect themselves once it is too late to take a full cut at the ball—but the one-foul-allowed rule would limit the hitter’s ability to do that, thus force him to rely on his regular swing.  Once hitters realized that they HAD to adjust, they would cut down their swings, and learn to put the ball in play earlier in the sequence, rather than waiting until moment of truth arrives.  The longer-term result would be fewer strikeouts, fewer home runs—and many fewer at bats taking eight or ten or twelve pitches. 

Back to mainstream suggestions, #28:  back off calling strikes on so many checked swings. 

The way that checked swings were called changed very suddenly after video replay became available.  Before 1980 cameras with instant replay were much more expensive relative to the overall production, so games were broadcast with two or three cameras, and there was no technology to quickly and routinely look at replays.  Once video replay became common, umpires could see that batters often went further than they thought they had—further than the umpires thought they had—before their swings were checked.  The percentage of checked swings which were called strikes shot up.

This has contributed a little bit more to the forest fire of strikeouts that we have seen—but why?   What I think should be the rule is that if a batter is attempting to slow his bat down before the ball crosses the plate, it’s a checked swing.  I think too many checked swings are called strikes—and I know that broadcasters almost universally disagree with that, but they disagree with that because they almost universally accept that the line between checked swing and swing has been drawn in the correct place.   What I am saying is that it HASN’T been drawn in the correct place, for the best interests of the game, which has too many strikeouts.   I’d like to see it re-drawn—and anyway, like it or not, that is one thing that could be done to reduce the avalanche of strikeouts.  Or forest fire; whatever. 

Well, I am running out of ideas here, and well short of 50; I have one more which is pretty obvious.  Suggestion #29:  cut the pitcher’s mound down by a couple of inches.  A high mound feeds strikeouts, obviously.  If you have more strikeouts than you want, you have a higher mound than you need.

My 30th and final suggestion is a suggestion not for the teams or for the players, but for the leagues, or for MLB.   Set targets.  Set goals—publicly identified, publicly acknowledged goals.   My suggestion would be that MLB should adopt the following resolution:

It is the goal of Major League baseball (1) that nine-inning baseball games should be played in an average of two hours, thirty minutes or less, (2) that there should be no more than .75 home runs per team per game, and (3) that there should be no more than 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings.  If these goals are not met in any season, aggressive actions will be taken to return the game to its historically normal form.    

 

            You can think what you want to think about it, but this is what I believe.  Everything that we love about baseball is in its history.  It does not actually matter to any of us, in a practical sense, whether our beloved (Red Sox, Royals, Dodgers, Gators, Red-Baiters, Smog-Haters, Third-Raters). . .it does not actually matter to any of us, in a practical sense, whether they win or lose, whether they have a good year or whether they do not.  We care about them because we care about them; that’s all.  There was something that happened in the past that created a thread, and we hang on to that thread until we die.  If you invented a new game tomorrow that was better than baseball or basketball or football by every objective measure, you couldn’t get 100 people  a game to show up and watch, because it would have no history, and because it would have no history it would have no fans. 

            Whenever you separate baseball from its past, you are at risk of cutting that thread.  In my youth, baseball teams hopped from city to city like toads in wet grass, jumping from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland and Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta.   Some of it was necessary and appropriate; the teams had to go where the people had moved to—but it was problematic, at the same time, because it was leaving history behind.   For a period of more than 20 years, baseball attendance per game actually declined.  Teams were leaving behind fans, to try to convince people who were not fans that they should become fans.  It takes a long time.   It takes 40, 50 years to build a fan base. 

            When the strikes happened (1972, 1981, 1994-1995), that cut a lot of people loose from the thread.  When the steroid era happened and players started hitting 65, 70 homers a year, that cut a lot of people loose from the thread. 

            A certain amount of change is necessary; it is fresh water flowing into the lake, and without that change, without that fresh water, the lake would turn stale.  But at the same time, everything we love about the game is in its past.  If it changes too quickly, too fast, it loses its past, and it will lose its fans. 

People adopt radical and harmful "solutions" to problems—stuff like cutting the games to seven innings, or going to three balls for a walk and two for a strikeout, or banning defensive shifts—because they don’t see that there are transparent, non-invasive ways to address the same issues.  Let’s try a scalpel before we bring out the bone saw. 

            When you say "No no no; baseball can never change, everything has to stay the same," what you are really doing is ignoring the changes that ARE happening.  If you can’t tweak the rules, if you don’t tweak the rules, you’re just rolling over and allowing the game to go weird on you.  Baseball has very real problems, but the aesthetic problems can be solved at this point with aspirins and band aids and exercise programs and better nutrition.   Let’s look over the options, try to see the whole field of options, and fix what needs to be fixed. 

 

            (In an article or comment on this article, Tom Tango suggested that I had forgotten to include tinkering with the strike zone as one way to address the problems.  In reality, I didn’t include it because I am strongly opposed to it.  It might accurately be said that I forgot to denounce that option, which I would never advocate. 

            As I see it, the strike zone is the heart of baseball.   If you’re going to do crap like that, why not change the distance between the bases?  It doesn’t have anything to do with the problem, but it makes just as much sense as messing with the strike zone.

            Baseball has an obesity problem.  The great wastes of time within the game can be likened to obesity, can’t they?   It has a few broken bones.  The destruction of old norms and old habits that have carried the game through the years can be likened to broken bones, can’t it?   Baseball has, perhaps, a cancer.  The fantastic economic inequalities between teams and between the players versus the other 95% of a team’s employees; this is rather like a cancer, isn’t it, or perhaps like some chemical imbalance in the body?  Baseball has emphysema.  The constant wheezing of strikeouts and rattle of endless foul balls can be likened to emphysema, can’t it? 

            I’m in favor of treating all of the things that are ACTUALLY troubling the game.  But for some reason that I have never understood, people want to do heart surgery instead.)

 

Directly Responding Now to Your Questions

 

Bill, Joel Sherman has a good article in todays New York post about the plague of strikeouts and lack of offense in general in mlb. He offers three possible solutions. 1. Lower the strike zone. 2. Stop pitchers from doctoring the balls. 3. Limit shifts.  

Any thoughts on this growing problem?

--manhattanhi

 

            None of that is going to do ANYTHING to address the problem.   Lower the strike zone?  The problem is that pitchers throw so hard that batters can’t react in time.  How is lowering the strike zone going to change that?  It isn’t; it’s just some guy bitching about high fastballs, thinks we wouldn’t have this problem if they threw low fastballs.  It’s nonsense.  

As to doctoring the balls, first of all you would have to convince me that a significant number of pitchers ARE doctoring baseballs, for which I have not seen any evidence.  Second, you would have to devise some way to prevent this from being done, which I don’t know what that would be.  I mean, I’m always in favor of enforcing the rules, but I don’t see how it’s going to happen.  And third, if you were able to do that, I would bet against it making a difference of a tenth of a strikeout per game. 

            And shifts don’t have anything to do with this.  The league batting average is formed by:

1)    The number of balls in play, and

2)    The batting average on balls in play.

 

 

The shift doesn’t have any impact at all on the first of those, the number of balls in play.  The shift has an effect on the batting average on balls in play—and the batting average on balls in play has not changed significantly.  The major league batting average on balls in play was .283 in 1970, .290 in 1980, and .290 in 1990.  In 2019, the last full major league season, it was .301.  In 2020 it was .295.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the problem.  The problem is, strikeouts are constantly reducing the number of balls in play. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My take on reducing strikeouts is: 

1. the balance between pitchers and hitters has gone just a little out of balance, not a lot. A matter of microseconds is makin a huge difference as a cumulative effect. 

2. the balance point is very sensitive and shouldn't be adjusted with hammers, but rather scalpels, and 

3. the best approach is to make the strike zone smaller, but in small increments-- if you make it easier for the hitter to reach strikes, more of them will be put in play and fewer taken or whiffed. 

 

So make the plate a bit narrower- half an inch or an inch maybe- but be prepared to move it wider the following year if this turns out to be too much. Or two years later, or five, if it takes a while for everybody to adjust to the new zone. Do not be in a hurry to declare either victory or failure. 

 

Is this an adequate approach, and if so is it one which might be politically practical? 

 

--Taosjohn

 

            No, I regret to tell you that it is not.  I should say that I do agree with you about making small, incremental changes, rather than large ones, but I believe that you’re operating under a fundamental misunderstanding.  I believe that what you are saying:

 

            The balance between hitters and pitchers has gone just a little out of balance. . .

            So make the plate a bit narrower

 

           

            Making the plate narrower hurts the pitchers, thus helps the hitters, thus implying that you believe baseball needs more hitting.  But baseball is NOT short of hitting.  Batting averages are low, but the number of RUNS being scored is very close to the historical average.  We are averaging 4.39 runs per game.  The historical average is 4.45 to 4.48.  THIS IS NOT A LOW-SCORING SEASON. 

 

            The notion that this is a simple problem that can be solved by tinkering with the strike zone seems to me to be fantastically naïve.  I don’t think you understand the problem.  The problem is not that there is too little hitting.  The problem is that in-play action is being swallowed up by strikeouts, and varied offense is being limited to just hitting home runs.  It’s been happened for 100 years, 100+ years, and you are NOT going to turn it around by messing around with the strike zone. 

 

 

 

Hi Bill. On the subject of strikeouts, there are many reasons for the upticks over the years. One reason that many do not consider is the approach of the hitters. Do you think this is a contributing factor? I see so many big, wide, hard swings - regardless of the count.

--Tommyr

 

Yes, batters are 50% responsible for the increase in strikeouts, or more than 50%.   Probably more than 50%. 

 

We should not in any way condemn hitters who "take big, wide, hard swings."  The problem is not that it doesn’t work; the problem is that it does.  Hitters who have led the league in strikeouts include Babe Ruth, Tony Lazzeri, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Joe Gordon, Larry Doby, Mickey Mantle, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Sammie Sosa, Jim Thome and Mike Trout. 

 

The point is, bad hitters don’t lead the league in strikeouts; good hitters do.  Great hitters do.  THAT’S the problem. 

 

Good pitchers strike out more batters than other pitchers, and great pitchers strike out more batters than good pitchers.  But the same is not true of hitters.  Because strikeouts by batters are often or usually accompanied by home runs and sometimes walks, batters who strike out are not bad hitters.  They are usually good hitters—or at least historically have been; it is less true now.  But because these things are true, teams are always looking for pitchers who get strikeouts—but are NOT looking to avoid batters who strike out.  This has been true for 100 years.  And because of this imbalance, the number of strikeouts just goes up and up.  If teams tried as hard to find hitters who don’t strike out as they do to find pitchers who do get strikeouts, this would not happen. 

 

Do you think that if MLB moved their power alleys back (say to 390 feet minimum) and CF back (say a 425 foot minimum) that it would reduce strikeouts and increase the type of action fans like (doubles, triples, runners taking extra bases on hits, great defensive plays)?  

 

Maybe my logic is flawed and this is a bad idea, but it seems to me that moving the RCF, CF, and LCF fences back would reduce HR (especially for non-sluggers), but increase the number of other types of hits by increasing the area outfielders have to cover. This should incentivize many hitters to stop swinging for the fences and put a premium on making contact and hitting line drives into the gaps. Of course, guys like Judge and Stanton would still hit plenty of HR, but less players swinging out of their shoes on every pitch should mean less strikeouts. Am I thinking about this wrong?

 

--Joshua

 

 

 

That is one of the things that should be done, yes.

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (36 Comments, most recent shown first)

raincheck
I like the use of the word “aesthetics.” Most people think this is just about games being too long. It is about how much baseball action there is relative to the length a game. There is so much time where no baseball is happening.

Baseball action and strategy are intriguing, fun, exciting. Guys adjusting their batting gloves are not.

Balls in play are exciting. The ratios of balls in play per hour is waaay down over time.

Everyone complains about announcers. They wander off topic because they have no action to call. Give them a tight game with more action and they will instantly get better.
4:18 PM Jun 14th
 
ScottSegrin
I'm late to the game here, but what about gradually increasing the size of the ball? It would create more air resistance so the ball wouldn't fly as far. A larger ball would mean more bat contact. Girls can throw a softball underhanded with stuff on it. Why couldn't a major league caliber pitcher learn to throw a 10 inch diameter ball instead of a 9 inch one? It would check the box of being basically invisible to the fans. Just an idea.
8:00 PM Jun 8th
 
TheRicemanCometh
Great minds think alike then. I didn't read the whole thing as it's a bit long, and I had this bat idea 20 years ago.

Peace and love bruh
10:28 PM May 28th
 
phorton01
TheRicemanCometh:

Are you trying to be funny, or did you just not read the article? Bill specifically talked about bat design.
11:44 AM May 28th
 
TheRicemanCometh
I have the simplest solution that no one else has mentioned and would be the easiest and cheapest to implement across the board: Bat Design.

Make a rule change that the bat handle must be a minimum circumference, and that the "sweet spot" is limited to a maximum circumference. Basically, double the handle size and decrease the sweet spot. The thicker handle would eliminate foul balls and breaks and increase balls in play, and the lower sweet spot would limit home runs. This would put a premium on contact hitting and speed, which will also increase BIP and SBs. This rule essentially would make bats what they were like from the 19th century to the 60s. Bats originally were designed to last forever, to save money and because players were superstitious and didn't like changing bats. This meant a longer and heavier piece of wood (compared to today) with more evenly distributed weight. That's why guys like Joe Jackson and even Ted Williams could use 1 bat for multiple years. Now guys are lucky to get 2 games out of a bat, because they are solely designed for maximum power (i.e., maximum torque and maximum kinetic energy transfer). I think this is a brilliant idea.
6:12 AM May 28th
 
shthar
All you guys making these suggestions about rewarding teams financially for 'speeding up the game', Ask yourself this:

Do you like it more when teams do stuff to try to win? Or when they do stuff to try to save money?


2:53 PM May 27th
 
kcpossum
I respectfully disagree with steve161... the length of the game is as important or more important than the other two elements listed, when considering long-term impact on the fan base.

I grew up going to several games each month. My dad started work early in the morning, worked long days, and the family regularly attended games even while school was in session. All of us could do that because weekday Royals games started at 7:30, were over by 9:45, and we were back home getting ready for bed at 10:15 (dad made us run to the car after the final out :) ). We would not have attended regularly during this era, when going to a game means 11:30 bedtime.

And I believe that creating that life-long connection rarely happens without in-person attendance.

2:05 PM May 27th
 
DJ_Man
What about a tradeoff wherein they implement a slate of these suggested hurry-up measures with delay-of-game penalties, but also grant each team a fixed number of time-outs to avoid the penalty? That would be consistent with how other sports handle such issues. E.g., batter asks for time, ump denies it, manager can call a timeout if it's that important. Strategy would be added. If you use a timeout to change pitchers in the first, you may not have a chance to do so in the ninth. As new speed-ups are added to the rules, the number of timeouts could be reconsidered in the interest of balance and fairness.
1:14 PM May 27th
 
steve161
Just for my own satisfaction, I'm going to summarize the argument I made yesterday: there are three issues here. They are balls in play, pace of play and time of game--in that order of importance. Balls in play is by a wide margin the most important and, if successfully addressed, might even render the others moot.
7:50 AM May 27th
 
MattD1
There’s a lot to unpack here. Of course it’s an excellent well thought out article. The thing I brought up in HB about the 538 article and limiting teams to 10 (I would be ok with 11)pitchers, it’s just as simple as the longer a pitcher has to pitch, the more he has to pace himself, which should lead to fewer strikeouts. Now that I think about it, it might not work as well unless you adopt Bill’s suggestion about limiting transactions. The secondary reason I would like that is to increase the size of the bench. I like the versatility you get with that.

I like Bill’s suggestion about not being able to change pitchers in mid inning until you let in a run (with the one free pass) even better the the three batter rule, but one thing I want to point out with the three batter rule is it’s a good example of what Bill is saying that by and large people wouldn’t notice these rules changes. When they introduced the rule there was so much moaning about you’re not letting managers manage, isn’t it awful that the careers of LOOGYS are going to be ruined, etc. But after the 60 game season last year, and close to 50 this year, I really haven’t heard much about it. I think with the vast majority of these it’d be the same thing. A lot of people would moan about it when whatever rule was introduced, but once implemented you wouldn’t hear much more of it.


2:49 AM May 27th
 
OBS2.0
I used to go to a lot of concerts, The Allman Brothers, like that. They were long, and I'm sure the venue hated those nights until 1 am. I'm sure the unions wanted to pressure the band to keep to a schedule. I'm sure the cops hated those late nights.

But I can't remember anyone upset if AB started 15 minutes late. I can't remember anyone asking them to cut back on the 19 minute jams on Whipping Post. I can't remember anyone upset when there was a third encore.

I can't remember. That's the whole point....
12:12 AM May 27th
 
willibphx
Tp further emphasize the central issue in the length of the games. The number of plate appearances per game are actually close to all time lows the last few years. An obvious example of how the problem is not how many innings are in a game for double headers or extra inning games. It is all about the length of individual plate appearances and the gap between plate appearances.

6) Pitching change rule needs to play out but so far it has had little or no impact. Average pitchers per game is at 4.32 versus 4.36, 4.41 and 4.43 the last three years.

While I agree that eliminating the mound warmup pitches is not huge I think it should happen. I no other sport I am aware of that a substitution is allowed to come in and warm up while everyone else stands around. The logic used to be that mounds were different but with consistent mound heights, etc. it should no longer be an issue.

7) Bat size has always been a favorite of mine since Bill mentioned it a few years ago.

12) Completely agree on too many roster moves. A simple solution to me, MLBPA would be on board, you come up for a day you get 30 days or larger credit toward arbitration and pension. Bet that would stop it quick.

I am fine with the shift, I am not a fan of limiting players generally from doing what is an obvious better strategy. I feel the same way about the NBA and their zone but not a real zone rule. I hate watching some player have to stay on the other side of the court like a lamp post rather than help guard a 30 point per game player. BTW, the batting average in balls in play is pretty close to historical averages.

Bill, given the great and continuously increasing power of TV in the sports, do you believe that TV wants shorter games with fewer home runs, strikeouts, etc.?
4:40 PM May 26th
 
OBS2.0
HeyBill, I sent a long comment in on HB but I see it should have gone here. The longer points are there.

In summary, why not simply make a throw to first a ball?


12:48 PM May 26th
 
Anyone
Re: Steve's comments, I support strategy that's interesting, and that evolves.

I'm very much against banning shifts. I think batters should learn to adjust to them, learn to hit the ball the other way, for heaven's sake, and take an easy single. A hitter who can learn to do that will stop teams from shifting against him. If he can't or won't, he deserves to lose hits to the shift.

But I think sitting there fouling off pitches on the black is bad for the game as entertainment. If I were a manager I'd order the players who could do it successfully to do it a lot and wear out opposing pitchers. Make pitchers throw 15 pitches to a lot of batters, often ending in a walk as a few are far enough off the plater the batter just lets them go. That's what cries out to be stopped, when good strategy is bad entertainment.

The same with unlimited pickoff moves. I did propose a strategic counter, which is to eliminate, or greatly loosen, the balk rule, so the pitcher can do just about anything to trick the runner. But he can't play catch with the first baseman. It's good strategy to throw to first a lot. It's been shown to work. Good strategy but bad entertainment, so make it against the rules. Watching clever moves to first base with most "balks" legalized but greatly limited throws to first, would be much more entertaining.
10:11 AM May 26th
 
steve161
I'm about 80% in agreement with shthar: I've got time to watch a ballgame, however long it takes to play it.

That said, I distinguish between time of game and pace of play. I'm all for keeping hitters in the box, eliminating dawdling by pitchers, and reducing timeouts at the plate. The possibility that any or all of these might lead to unintended consequences should not be ignored, however.

I'm against anything that changes or eliminates the strategy of the game. Limiting two-strike fouls or throws to first seems un-baseball-like to me. Banning the shift will have little effect, and I can't help but wonder just how well its advocates understand the game.

But all this talk about time of game distracts from the real issue, which is the decline of balls in play. I've thought that reducing the liveliness of the ball would help, but on the evidence of this season, it hasn't. I'm for adjusting the strike zone slightly downwards. For years I've advocated a redefinition of the checked swing. Addressing the methods pitchers use to increase spin rate is surely necessary. But there is no doubt in my mind that this is the harder issue to address. I agree with Anyone that the things that contribute to winning have turned out in many instances to detract from entertainment and that it should be a goal to reduce the attractiveness of the Three Dull Outcomes.​
7:50 AM May 26th
 
Anyone
Some things I feel strongly about, regarding the proposed changes:

1) Absolutely, this should be so obvious, have umpires refuse to call time when a batter wants to step out without an obvious good reason, something happens that would distract anyone. But that's just an exception. The norm should be refuse to grant time out. That should be obvious. Though also enforce a rule that the pitcher must throw the ball within a limited length of time after receiving it.

2) I agree with limiting throws to first base, but to prevent a result being a lot of extra stolen bases, combine that with having a much, much looser balk rule. A balk is defined as an intent to deceive the runner. That's what a good first base move is, too.

So absolutely, limit pitchers to two unsuccessful throws to first base per batter. But let them do anything they want to on those two throws to fool the runner. If a pitcher can learn to step toward home plate, indistinguishable from a pitch but his arm goes toward first base at the last second, good for him. No one could probably manage it without a boatload of errors on bad throws; but how the throws are made wouldn't change the effect on game time, and some pitchers would come up with amazingly tricky moves that it would be entertaining to see them use.

3) I very strongly support moving the batters' box back and especially making bat handles have to be as thick as the thinner ones (for the time period) were in the '70's or so. No slow phasing it in; if it messes up some hitters as they get used to it, it does. It may mean one really bad season where half the batters are badly messed up and all are to some extent, but rip the bandage off fast: By the second season, the season after the introduction- maybe even by late in the first season- batters would be used to it and the game would be a lot better, with lower isolated power but, if the pro-hitters changes I'm about to support are done also, higher batting averages.

4) Then compensate the batters by forcing a pitcher's foot to be on the rubber, lowering pitching mounds, and moving the mound back 3 inches. I'd enforce the pitcher's foot on the rubber more strictly than you would. I'd limit a manager to one unsuccessful challenge to a pitch per game. If the replay shows the manager was right, he gets to challenge again, and again...until he's wrong ("the one time wrong and you have to stop challenging" limit would be enough to discourage too many challenges; he'd have to be damn sure he was right or have it late enough in the game and an important enough outcome to be worth the risk).

Once he's wrong he can't challenge any further that game. And it doesn't have to be after a strikeout, but doesn't void the whole at bat: It changes the result of the challenged pitch to a ball (so would be useless after a ball or after the batter reached safely, and could void the third strike of a strikeout or a ball put in play that led to an out, leaving the hitter with a slightly better count or if there were 3 balls even cause a walk; it would soon become nearly invisible because pitchers would learn to be very careful not to lose contact with the rubber).

5) In principle, I support "two foul balls after two strikes is a strikeout" but worry it would increase strikeouts. It would have to be done once other changes got K's down to the point a rule that increased them could be added (maybe test it in the minors to see how many added K's it causes). It would also cut down walks, which I saw the value of walks as a kid before reading your writings, and when I read them something I loved was you proving what I had realized. But a lot of walks isn't good for the game, either. Two fouls with 2 strikes = a K could make it harder to spoil 3-2 pitches to get a walk and make hitters more afraid to go deeper into the count. It helps a team for the batter to walk, but more walks is bad for the game as a spectator sport.

6) Mid inning pitching changes were a big problem, but MLB chose the "three batters or finish the inning" rule as the solution and it's as good as any. No additional rule is needed on that now.

7) If bat handle size is increased to '70's levels, and maybe some rule to somewhat increase the height of any close fence (but less than you propose) that should be enough to lessen home runs. Maybe throw in moving the batters' box away from the plate.

8) Moving the batters' box away would make this less of an issue, at least as far as batters wearing body armor so they can hang over the plate, I love the idea that what a batter wears at the plate must also be used to run the bases. No time wasted changing from batter equipment to runner equipment.

9) I strongly disagree with any kind of curfew. I always want to see games played to the finish. If one game is suspended due to time, that is one game too many. You offered an idea of a financial incentive to move games along, which is better.

10) While I don't think the strike zone needs changing right now, you spoke of it as something that should be off the table in any event. The strike zone has been changed many times in baseball history, sometimes doing bad things but other times doing good things. At some point it may be needed. For example, if the game had too little offense overall, and that were the problem rather than the type of offense, then shrinking the strike zone could be a solution. I think the game doesn't need the strike zone changed right now, but it will at some point for some good reason, and then it should be on the table.

Note that, the "three two outcomes" (K/BB/HR), dominating today's game...you, Bill, did a lot to help create, by showing that strikeout pitchers are so valuable but for batters K's are just about no worse than any other out, and how walks and home runs by batters- walks especially- were very undervalued.

You were completely right about those things, and it took Billy Beane to write about them because he was a "baseball man" who had success (so people who wouldn't listen to you listened to him) for people in baseball to accept them a lot more.

I'm absolutely not blaming you in the sense that you led to people seeing the truth, and I always wanted people to see it, but the mainstream acceptance led to batters who walked and hit homeruns getting valued as they always should have been, hitters who struck out a lot no longer being undervalued so much for it, etc.. Now what needs to be done is to make hitting for average a better strategy than it had been, and going for walks and HR's not as good.

People are more optimally playing the percentages, we want a lot of things that baseball was before that, and so the game needs rules changes to make hitting for average more valuable and walks and home runs less valuable.

But the game could have been like this decades ago, if teams had played rationally instead of overvaluing the guy who hit .300 but rarely walked or homered. It's ironic that you (and people like me who always agreed with you) have to think of ways to bring hitting for average back into the game (by making it a better strategy) when we all were saying 30 years ago, accurately, how much batting average was overvalued.
2:28 AM May 26th
 
hotstatrat
Thank you, very much, Bill, for presenting these suggestions here.

Why in heck are umpires granting batter's time out in mid at bat? Why haven't they stopped this practice a long time ago? It's been a long time many of us have complained about it.

The part of the game that kills my enjoyment the most: the length of time it takes to bring in a reliever. Making a pitching change in of itself does not bother so much. It is a strategic move - a cerebral part of the game. But, there you are with one team rallying. Can the other team stop it? Well, you are going to have to chill for 7 or 8 minutes while we get this guy out to the mound and let him take another bunch of warm-up pitches. Arrggggh.

I say, give him 90 seconds to get to the mound and ready to pitch. It's ball one, if he isn't ready in time. No throwing around the infield once he's ready either. Give the manager 20 seconds to make his decision once he reaches the mound. And for a manager to visit the mound, he must step out of the dugout within half the time the pitcher has to make his next pitch - otherwise - in both cases: too late.

Except the problem with all these timed solutions is that baseball loses that special quality of being played without a clock. I don't want to be stuck to some useless tradition. These timed rules could just apply to the professional game. No doubt amateurs don't take themselves so seriously as to play so slowly. On the other hand (the minute hand?), having no clock is a quaint tradition. So further limits on mound visits and mid inning pitching changes might be the better way to go.

So, whether the clock thing is sacred or not, I could live with Bill's #3: a penalty for any mid inning reliever without a run scoring.

I prefer that to alternatives 4-7.

I love #8. A batter isn't in the game until he's pitched to. it is both a time saver and a roster saver.

#9 and/or #10 - foot and mound placements. Sure. Moving the mound is the easier one to enforce.

#11 Saving "starting pitchers". Meh, that's kind of inelegant. I'm anti-hero worshiping, so I personally don't like this one. Good on the Rays for following through with their rotation innovation. If saving the starting pitcher saves the game of baseball, though, so be it.

#12 Definitely, MLB needs to slow down player movements to/from the minors.

I prefer #13 to #14 as way to reduce throws to first base. Having a 6 foot marker would lead to more umpire calls and arguments. Yes, please, 3 throws and your either out or its a balk. That seems to me less radical than many of those anti-reliever pitcher suggestions.

#15. Moving the batters box away from the plate: I don't see why not.

#16 Good refinement to #1. Make the batter's box mean something closer to what it was meant to. Additionally, Bill added one of my favorite ideas: making the batter's box the hit-by-pitch box.

#17 & #19 You aren't going to get the players to agree to give up their protection. They aren't gladiators. But #19 could work beautifully. Manufacturers will make batting protection equipement that does not inhibiit running. Great idea. Keep the game going - especially during a rally.

#20 Other equipment changes are apparenlty happening.

#21 I don't think that is necessary. Home runs aren't that much of a problem. Perhaps, require new parks to have those minimums? #22 is worse. More room for questionable calls over whether a hit is a double or a homer.

#23 This is a good example of #20. Yes, gradually make the bats thicker. The only problem I see would be from players sneaking in older thinner bats.

I prefer #24 to #25. If we enforce most of the better rules, so far, I would hope that we won't need to put clocked pressure on the teams. Something to consider down the road, if the other changes don't work well enough. Suspending games I'm pretty sure would be unsatisfactoy to the fans.

#26: No replay on stolen bases? Maybe. I sure hate it, though, when umpires get it wrong.

#27 I find the continuous fouling at two strikes interesting - a real batter/pitcher battle going on. And yes it would be bad in the short run, while it might take too long for the long run benefits to arrive if they ever do. I'd keep my mind open, but for now vote no to this one.

#28 OK, if it can easily be enforced and we fans would have a clear idea of what is a legit check swing and what is not.

#29 It worked in 1969. Sure, perhaps, it is time to try lowering it a little more. But, would this achieve the desired goal? See Strike Zone comment below.

#30 OK, set goals, MLB.

Strike Zone adjustment? Bill is vehemently against this. Geez, the strike zone has been tinkered with before. It had the ill effect of creating a pitcher's era in the 1960s, but the re-adjustment in 1969 seemed to fix matters. I thought they made a change to the strike zone about 10 years ago, but the umpires didn't enforce it. I certainly wouldn't make a major change to it. Given the control of modern pitchers, I would guess shrinking it some would reduce strikeouts much more than it would increase walks. It might be worth testing. I agree with Bill that we don't want to increase scoring too much, but if we take actions that reduce home runs, or if after some of these changes we find scoring too low, shrinking the strike zone is a tool we could bring out some year as needed. I wish to ask Bill why he thinks lowering the mound is such a better idea.

I like it when teams put on a shift. It is employing a strategy we can see. Aren't batters bunting more this year? Are they not thwarting the shift more this year with that polished up skill?

Thank you all for reading my take on these suggestions.
11:07 PM May 25th
 
shthar
And 99% of tv viewers complaints about the length of the game would dissapear if you had better announcers.

Or, if they just didn't have announcers, at all.

The info is on the screen all the time now, what do I need to hear Jimmy Sweatsock for? I can make up my own idiotic opinions and illogical statements all by myself.



7:29 PM May 25th
 
shthar
If you don't have enough time to watch a baseball game, YOU are the one with a problem, not baseball.

Fix your life, leave baseball alone.


7:23 PM May 25th
 
3for3
Regarding close plays on the bases...Change the rule that a player keeps 2d/3d unless they intentionally leave it; just like 1st (and home). This not only discourages those ridiculous 'off the base' appeals, it would encourage more stealing.
7:20 PM May 25th
 
elwarren
First comment here!

Thank you for republishing this! So many great ideas. I have my favorites, with only a few, like the 350 foot rule for balls over the fence-making them doubles-seeming too radical for my tastes.

One way that I have been thinking about this is to consider what rules would incentivize the kind of baseball I think many of us want to see: more balls in play, base hits, and dramatic base-running/fielding/attempts to throw runners out. The one on your list I had been thinking about recently, and which Chihuahua also references below, relates to stolen bases and tagging runners out, though one alternative version that would incentivize base running would be to make safe plays unappealable, while outs could remain appealable. It wouldn't have as much impact on pace of play, but would make stolen base attempts and aggressive base running more likely. And I agree with Chihuahua that calling players out for milliseconds of being off the bag is really detrimental to this goal, and should be stopped ASAP.

Secondly, and this has not been mentioned in anything I have seen (and forgive me, baseball purists), the movement back to grass fields--and seemingly perfectly landscaped ones at that--over the past 30 years has greatly affected how ground balls act. I don't really know how the current infields compare to one another, but it seems like there is a greater degree of consistency among infields in such a way that increases predictability of balls off the bat. I don't know that people like "bad" bounces as a result of astroturf and badly scaped infields, but, with error rates continuing to decline to historic lows per game (.58 , down from around .8 per game and higher not that long ago, and, likely, though I have not checked, similar reduction of BABIP), we should also consider ways fields can be adjusted to incentivize ground balls. Not sure what that would be.

I particularly like slowly increasing the minimum size of bats while also increasing the size of fences.

Again, thanks for sharing. I am sure it saves you time as well!
6:43 PM May 25th
 
DavidHNix
My proposal to improve pace of play and keep the fans focused on the field would be strict pitch clock and no-step-out rules — enforced with a shock collar.
5:47 PM May 25th
 
sroney
There is an article on Baseball Prospectus (Which may be behind their pay wall) from May 21, titled A Lighter Baseball May Be Behind The Strikeout Increase.
It basically says that the new doesn't carry as far, but also increases the spin rate, causing the ball to move more, which may be affecting the strikeout rates.
I also wonder if the extra movement is also why the umps seem to be calling so many pitches off the plate as strikes.
5:23 PM May 25th
 
ksclacktc
I have been of the belief for many years that the problems with long games is strongly related (as Bill says) to a few a things that should be attempted first and enforced.

1. Batters screwing around and stepping out, going for a walk etc. stay in the box and enforce it with a strike call

2. Pitchers screwing around and a pitch clock of 20 secs. between pitches is needed

3. Way to many pitchers and pitching changes, reduce to 10-11 per team

4. reduce the transactions that enable roster to become much bigger than 25.

Do these things for starters and many of the other issues go away.Thanks
4:40 PM May 25th
 
wovenstrap
I think the one change that everyone reading this would probably sign onto is, making the batter stay in the batter's box for the whole at-bat. It has to be possible to do this. The puzzle there is that MLB knows perfectly well that this would be a deeply effective change so the question is, who is blocking it? the umps?

Pitchers have an incentive to wait before throwing to charge up their arms; it might be appropriate to charge a strike to a batter who steps out of the batter's box to make an equipment adjustment and to charge a ball to a pitcher who cannot deliver the ball to home within 30 seconds. It sounds dumb but just start issuing these penalties and the players will adjust.

I always think of Jim Kaat's comment about his arm turning into a pumpkin after 2 hours. A side benefit of making the pitcher stay in the game for longer (see my rule change below) is that they would also become incentivized to hurry the pace along in order to prevent their arm from turning into jello in the 5th inning. I think exerting such "macro" incentives on the players work the best, if they are well thought out.


4:39 PM May 25th
 
Chihuahua332
To Tangotiger’s last comment; by increasing the value of stolen base attempts a knock on effect is that it slightly increases the value of singles (and walks). In effect, it makes contact a bit more valuable which can’t hurt the larger effort.

Overall my biggest one is making batters stay in the box. There are an average of 290 pitches per game. For every second of wasted time before pitches that we can recover, that is almost five minutes of real time gained per game.
4:26 PM May 25th
 
tangotiger
Bill: In the low-A and high-A leagues, they are playing with pickoff rules, and the result is an increase in SB of 75%. This basically turns today's running game into the 1980s running game.

The rules for those who don't follow: (a) for one league, you are limited to 2 pickoffs; a 3rd unsuccessful attempt is an automatic balk (b) the other league requires a step off before you can attempt a pickoff.

Can you comment on your view as to how this will impact roster construction (more Willie Wilson ?), as well as how batters may change their approach (more focus on in-play ?).

4:00 PM May 25th
 
nemesis
those guys back between 1870 and 1900 or so...they made all these on the spot, on the fly adjustments. some extremely radical, really.

when they moved the pitcher's position back ten feet, eliminated the box and put in a rubber, and i believe put in the mound...they did it all at once, to fix an issue with offense. all of this at once, 1893.

seems to me us moderns futzing and fussing are making a mistake....and adding to the mistakes that have already been made over the last few decades.

move the mound back. hell....let's get real traditional and eliminate the mound and bring back the six foot by four foot pitcher's box.

and yknow....since every pitcher who's been playing and perfecting his technique will all be thrown into the same situation at the same time? that's actually exactly fair.


3:50 PM May 25th
 
tangotiger
Here was my blog post where I comment on each of Bill's ideas, for those interested:

www.tangotiger.com/index.php/site/comments/improving-the-aesthetics-of-baseball-by-bill-james

***

And this is my bonus comment on the strike zone and the run environment, which I will repost here as an extension to Bill's addendum above:

The one that Bill didn’t talk about is to redefine the strike zone. This is talked about all the time. In 1999-2000, runs per game were above 5! Even though the HR rates were similar to what we had in 2016 and 2018.

Entering 2001, the strike zone was more strictly defined, and then strike outs went up, walks went down drastically. Up until 2008, maybe 2009, it was very flat.

But from that point onwards, strikeouts broke records established the previous year. Each and every year. Ks went up and up and up.

Run scoring these last 4 years (2016-19) is simply no different than any 4 year period between 1993-2009.

Its 2010-2015 that was a transition period, as the players started figuring out how to deal with the increasingly high K.

And now we’re back to the same RUN environment, but in very different ways: lots of K+HR.

It’s unclear whether this is good or bad. When I asked my Twitter followers whether they prefer to see Strawberry, Mattingly, or Keith Hernandez at bat, it’s Strawberry that wins the day. And Strawberry more than any other player, would fit right in today.

Maybe, just maybe, we are getting the aesthetic we actually want?



3:35 PM May 25th
 
evanecurb
I like the focus on the three items listed at the beginning of the article. The number one thing that needs to be done to reduce time of game is reduce time between pitches. Batters stepping out is indeed the number one reason time between pitches has gone up. Pitchers taking too much time is number two.

The second thing that increases length of games is number of pitches per at bat, which is a function of more strikeouts and more foul balls. Both of those need to be addressed. Bill's ideas are a start.

And Bill's ideas to reduce strikeouts and home runs make sense to me. I like some more than others, and I especially like the little ones that the fans wouldn't notice.

If I were in charge of the game, I'd take every one of Bill's "small" suggestions - the ones that involve rules enforcement rather than rules changes - and implement them right away. And I'd adopt the goals he sets forth for pace of play, HR, and strikeouts. It'd be a good start.


2:23 PM May 25th
 
FrankD
I like the proposed changes that can be done quickly and unobtrusively to the fans. A lot of these are equipment changes: Deaden the baseball; make the baseball heavier; make the baseball bigger; raise/lower the stitches on the baseball; make gloves smaller; change bat size limits; deaden the bat; move batter boxes further from the plate; enforce rules for batter not stepping out of box when swinging. As for speeding up the games, I like first just enforcing rules already in place like limited umpire called timeouts. Then add in changes mentioned above like limiting pick-off attempts, limiting foul-balls. If we just go to equipment changes and enforcing existing rules then no need for any field adjustments. Baseball can certainly apply some of these very quickly.
1:55 PM May 25th
 
Chihuahua332
Excellent article. My comment is regarding suggestion #26 about eliminating the reply rule on stolen bases. I agree that replays on stolen bases are a significant issue but instead of eliminating replays on calls, I would revise the rules to state that a runner is safe upon making contact with the base. After that point they can only be tagged out if they voluntarily lose contact with the base or if their entire body leaves the bounds of the base. Essentially, once a runner touches a base safely they then have air rights over the base. Replays would only reverse a call if it shows that the runner was tagged before touching the base at all or to see if they completely overslid the bag. Replays to check for those minute gaps where the runner loses contact with the base for a hundredth of a second would be eliminated. Those replays are the problem.
1:40 PM May 25th
 
bjames
jrickert
"... didn’t become a real problem until the late 1970s. By the time the problem arose the idiotic, self-destructive idea had taken hold that baseball was a perfect game in which the rules never needed to be adjusted for new realities. "
I wonder if the reaction to the DH rule brought about this change. It was such a large change and about half the fans at the time felt it ruined the game. Did that quickly evolve into a "any rule change is bad" attitude?


It did, yes. That is is exactly what happened.
1:02 PM May 25th
 
wovenstrap
I sent this to you at "Hey, Bill" and you declined to post it for what I think are good reasons. It's a very simple idea that goes too far but I think it is a valuable thought experiment. We have these interconnected problems of POPLOGI, games taking too long, too much dilly-dallying, starters not going deep enough into games, anonymous people on the roster, too many pitchers on the roster, too many strikeouts, etc.

Part of my premise is that having complex rules about the exact circumstances when a manager can use his bullpen guarantees that the rule innovation will have no impact. What is needed (maybe -- I'm not 100% sure I am actually advocating this) is a simple rule that clears away the clutter and brings us back to basics.

The overuse of relievers (IMO) is at the core of all of these problems and (IMO) many of the problems could be solved if you instituted a rule saying that the manager can change pitchers ONE -- ONE -- time before the 10th inning.

I freely admit that this solution goes too far but even thinking about the problem for 10 seconds is enough to make you realize that a paradigm where Pitcher #1 is expected to pitch about 7 innings and Pitcher #2 is expected to pitch about 2 innings is an equilibrium that many of us on this site remember and enjoyed when it was the paradigm (1980?).

Yes, you have to have an exception if the starter gives up more than five runs or something or puts his team behind by more than 7 runs, say. ... There are ways of finessing that.

Maybe 3 pitchers per 9 innings is the proper amount. In that scenario you get 2 changes, period. Extra innings triggers an extension of the allotment (actually extra innings, you could use as many pitchers as you wanted, that would probably be fine -- how many games go into extra innings anyway?).

If someone comes out because of injury he can't pitch in a game for 2 weeks.

It's not news that this idea is too radical -- it is a little too radical; what's news is that it doesn't look all THAT bad, for a radical idea. If your starter can't be expected to pitch 100 pitches in a game, he shouldn't be in your rotation. We need to get back to that.
10:48 AM May 25th
 
jrickert
"... didn’t become a real problem until the late 1970s. By the time the problem arose the idiotic, self-destructive idea had taken hold that baseball was a perfect game in which the rules never needed to be adjusted for new realities. "
I wonder if the reaction to the DH rule brought about this change. It was such a large change and about half the fans at the time felt it ruined the game. Did that quickly evolve into a "any rule change is bad" attitude?
[Or maybe the DH rule following the movement of teams and expansion.]
I was youngish at the time so I am not familiar with the general attitude to rule changes before the DH rule, but it seems like the objections to changes in the strike zone and pitching mound made in the 1960s did not meet wide opposition.

My current favorites for changes are:
go back to pre-replay era check swings - if the batter tries to stop the swing then it's a check swing;
move the fences back/up -I'd miss the stolen homerun catches, but the extra balls-in-play would make up for it;
and move the mound back 2 or 3 inches.
10:32 AM May 25th
 
Joe_Start
Two things I would add (sorry if I missed them):

1) limit visits to the mound by the catcher or other infielders: they have pre-game meetings to go over every hitter, why do they need to talk about it on the mound afterwards - they have set defensive plays, so if a player doesn't know them, tough.

2) a time limit between the end of the previous play and the next pitch - as you said, the runners need to take off their armor, but the pitcher walks around, grooms the mound, looks disgusted - it's not just the batters wasting time between at bats
7:08 AM May 25th
 
 
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