What if?

June 21, 2016

Let’s start with balls. Here’s my proposal: count balls cumulatively.  NEW BASEBALL RULE: Each defensive team will be permitted to have its pitcher(s) throw a total of nine (9) balls out of the strike-zone (referred to hereafter as "balls") in each inning of play, none of which will be counted against any batter UNTIL the tenth ball is thrown, which will result in the current batter being awarded first base. All balls subsequent to that ball will also result in the current batter being awarded first base, until the third out of the inning is made. Each new inning shall begin with 9 more balls not counting against any batter, and the tenth and subsequent balls resulting in the immediate awarding of first base to the current batter.

So here’s how a typical inning might go:  First batter takes two pitches outside and two in the strike zone, but instead of the count being 2-2 as it would be now, instead it’s 0-2.  He flies out to centerfield on the fifth pitch. Next batter singles after three balls and one strike (for an 0-1 count) are thrown. That’s five balls thrown so far in the inning. (Imagine an addition to the scoreboard, a gigantic numeral tracking the number of balls thrown so far in each inning.)

The third batter takes five pitches, four for balls, one for a strike (again, 0-1) and then pops up. That’s two outs, cumulatively, and nine balls thrown in the inning. From this point on, every ball results in a walk, so now it starts to get interesting:

The next batter takes a strike and then a ball. That’s the tenth ball of the inning, and the batter takes first base.  The situation is the same as it would be right now, men on first and second, two outs, the number-five hitter coming to the plate, normally described as "a bit of a jam," but normally not a terribly perilous situation. Except, this way, the pitcher is now in a very tough spot. From here on in (until he starts the second inning with another nine free balls to give), he cannot throw another pitch outside the strike zone without putting the batter on first base.

The next ball he throws (outside the strike zone, that is) will load the bases and another ball will bring in a run, so you know the pitcher is very reluctant to miss the center of the plate by very much.

And since every pitch must be a strike, the batter knows he needn’t swing at anything he doesn’t like, so not only will it be dangerous for the pitcher to throw a borderline strike, the batter is correctly waiting on a pitch he knows will be close to the center of the plate. What we’ve created here (or the pitcher has created for himself) is, in effect, every batter past the ninth ball starting out with a 3-0 count in his favor.

The advantages for the offense of doing it this way may not be obvious, but I think they are in many ways fairly great: 

This will obviously increase run-scoring in several ways.  Pitchers will no longer be able to nibble the way they can today, with three free balls to throw to every batter. From the outset of the game, even ball one to the leadoff batter will be dangerous, because the pitcher can’t know how sharp his control will be, can’t know what the rest of the inning will be like, and he can’t know when later in the inning he may need to pitch to a batter carefully, so he will be throwing strikes from the get-go.

More pitches in the strike zone means more hittable pitches, which means more hitting.

This means fewer pitches will be thrown overall. A pitcher who has good control and good stuff can probably throw a complete game with fewer than 80 pitches. A winning game might look like 100 pitches, 15 hits, no walks, 10 runs, and a complete-game victory. The number of pitches each batter will face would drop considerably, by at least one pitch per at-bat, probably more. Many at-bats will be completed within two or three pitches.

This makes for greater tension in every inning. Nowadays, a pitcher is cruising if he’s got two outs, no runners on base, and he’s thrown only ten pitches, five balls and five strikes, but under this system he’s under great pressure to get that third out before he throws another five balls. Today, he might pitch around that third batter, particularly if he’s a good hitter, but under this system if he walks him, he’s at nine balls for the inning and now he’s in big trouble. Now every pitch he throws must be in the strike zone or else he puts himself in an impossible situation.

The fans will be rooting for every pitch to be a strike or a ball. Instead of "Ho-hum, the count is 2 and 2" every pitch will contribute to that inning’s 9-count, and that will generate a ton of offense. IOW, there are no more ho-hum innings. Every inning, even a good one, will be close to reaching 10 balls before the third out is made, and of course many innings will go over that 9-ball point, after which the offense will have a great advantage. With every ball after 9 in the inning resulting in a walk, the pitcher will need to throw strikes and the batters will have good balls to swing at. I don’t know exactly what will happen to the offense, but I’d guess that scoring only two or three runs in an inning after the pitcher exhausts his 9-ball limit will be a mild disappointment.

No game will ever be out of reach. If one team is ahead eight runs by the fifth inning, the other team will still be very much in the game.

The games will be much faster, in addition to being much more action-packed. IOW, we will have both more scoring AND a faster pace.  No more nibbling, no more waste pitches, far fewer intentional walks and far fewer intentional unintentional walks. Every single pitch will have fans on their feet, cheering and booing every pitch.

The game will be more of a team-game, I suspect. That is, a batter will make a genuine, tangible contribution to a big-scoring inning even if he strikes out, IF along the way he’s managed to take four or five balls before striking out.

Relief pitching will be different, too. Since the 9-ball limit applies to a team, not a pitcher, during a given inning, when relievers come in and inherit the previous pitcher(s)’ ball-count total,  relievers will no longer have a few pitches in which to settle themselves down. A reliever who is wild at first will, instead of going 3-0 on the first batter, walk the first three batters to face him, so relievers will require incredible control because they will usually be coming into innings that already have reached the 9-ball count.  A reliever who can be relied on to throw strikes will be a very valuable player.

It will be dangerous to put in relief pitchers, I suspect as well, since they often need to settle down. There will certainly be fewer casual single-batter substitutions of pitchers since the odds multiply that some pitcher will not be able to find his control right out of the box.

This would really change our understanding of what an inning IS. The structure of an inning, offensively and defensively, would change from a roughly equal emphasis on each batter to a heavily end-loaded emphasis. The first few batters’ job would remain roughly the same, to get on base (and to draw balls and drive up the pitch-count) with an added emphasis on refraining from swinging at bad pitches (which would be less numerous), but the new strategy would focus on the end of the inning: can the pitcher operate efficiently with no margin for error? Can he get men out while throwing only strikes? Can he reduce the damage looming at the end of most innings? I think this would separate the sheep from the goats: most pitchers could not operate throwing overwhelmingly in the strike zone, but some, I think, would do okay. ERAs would soar all around, but Kershaw and Arietta would give up only a run or two more than they do now, while less talented pitchers would perhaps give up an extra five or ten runs per game.

Even 1-2-3 innings will be fairly dangerous, and anything except a 1-2-3 inning will be very dangerous. One downside is that you will no longer be able to walk to the fridge for a beer while an inning is in progress, because every pitch will be more meaningful, and every pitch after 9 balls will be extremely exciting. 

I should mention a possible advantage for the pitcher, if he can retire a batter or two without throwing a ball. Suddenly the balance of power, it seems to me, would shift over to him, rather than to the batters, since he would be able to throw borderline pitches at will (assuming he can) without a risk of putting the batter on base.  Imagine the first two batters in an inning are retired without a ball being thrown—the third batter could be pitched to very tough, the pitcher could then nibble away, and the batter, knowing he needs ten balls to work out a walk, will be swinging at borderline strikes.   It will be rare, it will be difficult, but when a pitcher puts away the first two batters without issuing a ball, he’s got much more power than he ordinarily would have.

It seems to me that pitchers would be rewarded for having good dominating stuff even more than they are now. Pitchers who can throw 96 MPH for strikes are going to prosper even more than they do now. Pitchers who can change speeds effectively in the strike zone will also do well. Throwing strikes would be rewarded, and throwing balls would be discouraged, which (in my view) would only help the game, make it more exciting, make it faster, make it more competitive.

Of course (need I remind you?) this proposal is only a thought experiment. I have no doubt I could never have it even considered seriously by any body that might be in a position to enact it, and I wonder if perhaps there is some fatal drawback here that I haven’t considered. But just on the merits I have described here, I think it would have a dramatic effect on MLB, and a largely positive one.


COMMENTS (28 Comments, most recent shown first)

Can you imagine a Pete Rose hitting lead-off with a 9 ball rule? I once saw him foul off something like 22 pitches. He would OWN pitchers.
12:17 PM Jun 25th
Professor, "my hands felt just like two balloons."

kimchi, I used to go to a bar. For a while a white guy and his Korean girlfriend would come in. One night she had been talking to some people and she came back to sit next to him. He looked at us and said. "Look at this woman, she's beautiful, she's got a body to die for, she's very smart, she's a hard worker and I love her and she loves me. It's perfect, except every couple of months she goes out to the back yard with a shovel and digs up a glass jar. She brings the jar into the house, opens it and pulls out stuff and eats it. The only thing I can do is not look."
12:20 AM Jun 25th
Steven Goldleaf
Guys, I'll try to respond to some your ideas in a separate article in a few days. I can't really type now, my hand is in a huge bandage, so I need to keep this short for now, and no one reads these comments after a few days. SORRY FOR THE DELAY.
4:53 AM Jun 24th
The count has always been part of baseball, increasingly so in the last 50 years as hitters have figured out the sense of working it. If you don't like that part of baseball, you don't like baseball.

This proposed game is to baseball as MMA is to boxing. It says something about our society that we've come to prefer pure brutality to the sweet science, and it's surely possible that regular slugfests would be more popular than the current mix, but as for me, I want the slugfest to be the exception.

Of the 15 games I've seen on this trip, the best were pitchers duels (Kershaw v Cueto in SF the most notable). The next best had both teams scoring 3-5 runs, with lead changes (the Cardinals bullpen blowing excellent starts by Wainwright, Wacha and Martinez to the Rangers being simultaneously exciting and excruciating). I don't think this game is susceptible of improvement in any significant way, without running the risk of making it much worse.
3:36 PM Jun 23rd
Interesting concept, Steven. Not sure I'd like it, but it is interesting to think about.
On first impression, I would think that soon there would be no junkball pitchers, who try to nibble. Fastballers who can just send fire right down the middle of the plate and dare you to try and hit it would be the only kind of pitchers you would see. (Provided, of course, there are enough of those to go around...those kind of pitchers are heavily sought after now...)
10:18 AM Jun 23rd
W.T.Mons: I don't think they'd so often be behind in the count. I think they'd very often be putting one of the first couple of pitches in play, and they'd tend to have high batting averages -- because the pitcher would be extremely wanting to avoid going outside the strike zone.
8:30 PM Jun 22nd
In the 1970s a journalist (using an assumed name) made this suggestion: Instead of nine three-out innings, have three nine-out innings. Fewer commercial breaks, more scoring opportunities, every batter would be guaranteed at least one at bat an inning, a pitcher would still have to retire 27 men in a row to get a perfect game...
8:25 PM Jun 22nd
The first two or three hitters would virtually always be behind in the count, and consequently would hit very badly. Seems to me you'd have a lot of scoreless innings, and a few very high-scoring innings, with a bunch of boring walks.
8:24 PM Jun 22nd
My concern is with giving the umpire too much power to control the outcome of the game. The importance of each ball/strike call becomes more than human umpires are capable of handling and opens up gambling opportunities that are hard to detect and possibly resist.
7:16 PM Jun 22nd
Another thought experiment: A few years ago this occurred to me: Why not eliminate the 9 inning system and allow both teams to use their 27 outs however they want to? You could stop hitting in an inning whenever you wanted or keep an inning going (at least until you used up 27 outs).

For example if you started the game with a triple, you might want to keep sending up hitters and using up outs until you got that runner home. Or, if the opposing pitcher started the game with great stuff and easily got your first two hitters out, you might want to say "OK, the other team can hit now", hoping you fare better against that pitcher later.

It's goofy but fun to think about.

7:12 PM Jun 22nd
Gpasty: Very true. I thought of that too.
The place-in-the-inning effect would probably mostly wash out due to players coming up in different spots in different innings, but probably not entirely.

BTW I think there's some effect of that sort currently, with it being harder for top-of-the-order guys to hit and 'easier' for middle-of-the-order, due to it being 'easier' to hit with men on base. I've talked about this a fair amount on here, and it's one of many things I've talked about that haven't much resonated.
5:30 PM Jun 22nd
Fish: That's extra impressive about that book giving you convulsions of laughter, because a big part of the thing I talked about was the guy's Brit accent, which to us stupid Americans probably gives any story a built-in Fawlty Towers/Monty Python effect. Maybe when you were reading that book you gave it an automatic Aussie accent in your mind's ear. If not, then if you had heard it said out loud with the accent, you may have not survived the experience. :-)
5:26 PM Jun 22nd
Not only would you lose connectivity to old statistics, but your ability to compare hitters would be WILDLY affected, since obviously hitting first or later in the inning would be enormously different.​
4:54 PM Jun 22nd
Marisfan61: Bill Bryson, in his book "In a Sunburned Country" (Australia), has a description of cricket that is so funny that when I read it to my wife both of us laughed so hard that we couldn't speak for a while. The book is worth reading for many other reasons, too.
4:14 PM Jun 22nd
In slow pitch softball, the batter gets three balls and two strikes, and if strike two is a foul ball, the next foul is a strikeout. This speeds up that game tremendously, as does the fact that there are no signals, no commercial breaks, and no holding runners on base. Not saying baseball should adopt all of these rules, but there are probably a couple of things we could use from that.

As for Steven's proposal, the intended consequence is to put more balls in play. There are lots of ways to do that without such a radical change. The three ball walk was first proposed decades ago. That's one way. Moving the mound further back is another. Lots of ways to skin that cat.
3:57 PM Jun 22nd
Is it wrong that there is a part of me that likes the idea of a best-of-three three-inning sets per kimchi's joke? Granted that it would absolutely never happen in MLB but if your team goes down 8-0 in the first inning then the game isn't over, a "blowout" game would end after six innings making boring games shorter while longer games would be the exciting ones, and you could see players used a pinch hitters three times in a game. The more I think about it, this could be a very cool way to run a game.
2:13 PM Jun 22nd
-How 'bout 3 3-inning sets, instead of one 9-inning game; best 2 out of 3 wins? Free substitution in the next set.

-How 'bout, bases empty, we let the batter decide which direction to run around the bases? All subsequent batters in the inning follow that direction.

-How 'bout....oh, never mind (I'm afraid somebody might take me seriously)
12:50 PM Jun 22nd
Cricket seems to me like a game invented by children but played by adults who never really grew up. I'm sure we all remember the games we invented out of thin air as kids, using houses, bushes, tin cans, dogs and cats, making up rules, etc. We didn't want the games to end, particularly, and no one really cared who "won" the game, we just went home when enough people got bored, or it got dark, or your mom called you in for dinner.

Here's my own "no way" suggestion: the pitcher should belong to the team that's batting.
12:01 PM Jun 22nd
One time I was with a bunch of colleagues which included one British guy. The subject of cricket came up, and we asked him how the game works. He went through about a 20-minute description which he didn't intend to be funny but which had us rolling on the floor for reasons that would be hard to explain....no, actually not hard to explain; it was because everything seemed either so formalized or so ridiculous. Since the description didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular and since he was into about the 3rd day of the game, we asked how the game ends. He threw up his hands and said usually everybody just goes home because it starts raining.
11:30 AM Jun 22nd
You know, cricket did something a little bit like this, which I agree is an interesting and well-thought out idea and also with no way. Cricket test matches would last 5 days and not rarely end in a tie for lack of time. Of course, the teams would break for morning tea, for lunch, and for afternoon tea, and then stop when it got dark (lights? Oh, not, that's not BRITISH!). I think those rules might still apply in test matches, but less-exalted games have gone to various limits on things that speed them way up. Interestingly, coming from a cricket environment, it took only one baseball game to convince me that baseball was a much better game than cricket. Part of that was because it's so much faster.
10:05 AM Jun 22nd
While I agree with the "no way," for various reasons including that this would make it a wholly different game and the current game has too much going for it and behind it for there to be a chance of its being essentially replaced (as is also the case for things like the MVP system and the Hall of Fame system, only more so).....shit, this sentence is too long to continue it any further. :-)
White I agree with the "no way," I also think it's interesting, and that unlike some other occasional ideas that get expressed in these articles for radical changes in whatever (by various writers), it actually works, and I like it. I think it accomplishes a lot. Unfortunately I like the existing game better :-) which is the whole problem with it. Enough people like the existing game enough.

In theory, though, there could be a way around the "no way." If some crazy person with money to throw around felt strongly enough about some such idea that he started a new league or set of leagues, there could be whatever rules he wanted. I don't think there's any opening for any such thing to succeed now, but if at some future time, regular baseball were to really be felt to be too slow, as opposed to the minor bitching about it that we have now, there could be an opening. I can imagine that there could be just enough remaining interest in the existing game that major change still wouldn't be considered, but enough growing uninterest that there could be an opening for some competing offshoot. I can also imagine that there could be an opening for some such thing sooner than there seems to be.

Indeed there probably are issues with it that wouldn't be seen until it were tried. But to me, this reads like it basically works.
4:24 AM Jun 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
The game is fundamentally designed to have the ball be hit—strikes and balls exist to force the pitcher to throw the ball where it can be hit and to force the batter to swing at hittable balls. But we’ve turned the count into a game within a game, and not one that’s interesting to watch. I think we’ve lost sight over the past few centuries of the fundamentals, and we’ve gotten into a rut of watching tedious “games” consisting of the umpire passing his personal judgment on the placement of pitched balls, and away from the pleasure of watching batters hit and fielders make plays. This proposal would return the game to its essence.
3:51 AM Jun 22nd
I love crazy ideas. Maybe not for major league baseball, but for some minor league or even a recreational league. I once played in a slow pitch softball league where the first two balls hit over the outfield fence were home runs. Subsequent hits were strikeouts and the batter was ejected. Suddenly you have a whole new strategy you have to figure out.

And 5 years into this 9-ball scheme some player with some very unique skill set will figure out a way to totally dominate. Maybe a player who is really good at fouling pitches and can usually milk 5-6 balls in an at bat. Even if he bats .193 you might still put him in the lead off spot. Now there really could be guys who make everyone else better.
1:31 AM Jun 22nd
No way.
11:16 PM Jun 21st
Very creative. The adoption of the nine-balls rule would sever all statistical ties to the historical game. But it would make for a much more exciting game. The powers-that-be wouldn't adopt the idea unless they were under a lot of pressure to do so. How could that pressure be applied? Sell the rule change to an independent league or leagues on the verge of extinction. (What would they have to lose?) The resulting publicity and fan interest could cause the rules to be tried in some minor leagues of so-called OB, and then perhaps in the major leagues (first in spring training/exhibition games, then in regular-season games). What about all of those sacrosanct records (Ty Cobb's lifetime BA, etc.)? They could be simply be enshrined as pre-nine-ball records, not to be supplanted by any subsequent achievements, which would be kept separately.
10:22 PM Jun 21st
Interesting idea, as Oldbackstop said for a car trip, but now it seems you've made a different game. How about this? You could eliminate the strike zone entirely, and say if a hitter swings and misses he's out, otherwise there can be no out unless the hitter puts the ball in play. No called strikes, no bases on balls. Obviously you've given far more thought to your idea than I have to mine (or yours), but I think your change is big enough that it crosses some line. No, I have no good idea where that line is.
9:38 PM Jun 21st
This stuff is fun for long car trips, but why lose the connection to a century of statistics.
9:14 PM Jun 21st
No way.
8:56 PM Jun 21st
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