Fixing Baseball– the remedies

In my previous post I laid out the symptomatic details of how baseball has devolved into a game that is, increasingly, periods of boredom and tedium– only occasionally containing action sequences that are reminiscent of the game that it once was, and, I might add, can be again.

The first thing that you have to do, if you want to fix baseball, is to give up the cherished idea that the statistics of the game have a high degree of era comparability. Hand wringing purists like to agonize over the fact that if you change the game too much, then we won’t be able to compare the performances of players from one era to another– that it will be like comparing apples to oranges. They state with fervor that all fans know what it means to get 3000 hits, or 20 wins, or hit .300 or hit 40 Home Runs.

To these folks I would succinctly say, “Hogwash!” It’s never been true that you could, with any high degree of accuracy, compare players from one era to another. The only thing that has ever been true is that you could have fun trying! Historically, eras have been affected by a number of factors that make the effort challenging at best, and at worst, impossible. You can start w/ racial diversity, but other factors such as travel, ratio of day to night games (for decades only daylight baseball was played), size of parks, how tightly the baseballs were wound, how clean they were (often, prior to the 1920’s, no more than 4 or 5 baseballs a game were used– now it frequently is 50 or more), and what kind of surface was played on, have all contributed to variations in the way the game was played and the average statistical results. Plus, the players are now stronger than ever, more well-conditioned, and in some cases have had their statistics fattened by P.E.D.’s.

Comparing players to each other, WITHIN the era they played, has some validity, but even then you have skewing factors that any student of the game is well aware of. How many Homers would Ted Williams have had if he’d played in Lefty Friendly Yankee Stadium. Or for that matter, how many would Joe DiMaggio have had if he’d been able to play in Fenway Park, with the wall only a scant 300 or so feet away? What players have benefited from playing in Colorado’s Mile High ball park in modern times?

There is no way to know the answer, but it’s fun to try to guess. Differentiation of circumstances doesn’t ruin baseball statistics– it gives them additional flavors, and allows many a hot stove league participant a chance to ruminate over whether this player, or that player is more valuable to his team.

The reason that I am making the case for letting go of cherished notions that the game shouldn’t be changed for vague reasons of “tradition and era comparability” is that what I am going to suggest is that, at least at some level, it’s going to be necessary to “blow the game up” with some wholesale changes. Not all of what I will suggest need be implemented, at least at the same time, but radical changes are needed, and if we really want to preserve the essence of the game, then, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to preserve it is to swallow hard and do more than put band-aids on the patient. Waiving batters to first on an intentional walk, and limiting the number of mount visits is not going to save the game. Baseball requires more major surgery than that.

Before I lay out the options I have in mind, let’s remember that changes have been made in other sports, and it has hardly resulted in their death. Football and Basketball, as they are played in the current century, hardly resemble the games that were played in the Middle of the last century, and yet, curiously, there are no traditionalists who are wringing their hands over that fact. No one agonizes over the fact that goaltending is no longer allowed in basketball or that there isn’t a center jump after each basket. No one loses sleep over the addition of the shot clock in all levels of basketball (Roundball’s solution to its own “tedium issue”). And Football has had so many changes in rules, penalties, allowable formations, equipment, location of the goal posts, etc, etc. that you’d need a good size volume to catalog them all. That both sports are enjoying unparalleled popularity would belie the notion that radical changes will ruin a game.

Lest anyone get too inclined to say that Baseball has NEVER had any major changes, let me point out that at a time when baseball had already been played professionally in the U.S. for many years, that the following rules or conditions were in effect:

1. Pitchers were required to throw underhand (or at least submarine)

2. Batters were allowed to call for a high pitch, or a low pitch.

3. A fly ball caught on one bounce was an out. (And a Fly Ball that bounced over the fence was a Home Run!)

4. A base on balls was 9 balls (then eventually 8, 7, etc.)

5. A ball that was bunted foul on the 3rd strike was NOT an out. (Skillful batsmen could bunt foul over and over, ad nauseum, until they either drew a walk or got a pitch they could drive (or bunt) for a single.

6. And maybe most significantly, for more than a half a century after baseball took root in America, the distance from the mound to the plate was 50 feet– 10 1/2 feet closer than it’s been ever since the momentous rule change of 1893 when it was changed to it’s current distance of 60 ft. 6 inches.

So, with that foundation of past history and comparisons to other sports, let’s roll up our sleeves and come up with some real changes that could make the game of baseball more watchable, better paced, and more tenable for its future survival. I will argue that this can be done, while still maintaining the flavor and feel of baseball, and reminding us of how good and compelling a game it can be.

First, we will premise what I think is the most pressing problem that baseball has. And that is, simply put: Significant actions don’t happen with enough frequency to hold a person’s interest. The leisurely pace of baseball has mutated into lethargy. As a student of the game for many years, I can tell you with certainty, both anecdotally, and statistically, that the length of the game has not been a result of more excitement, but rather, spreading that excitement over a longer and longer period of time.

The most exciting baseball plays are ones where the ball is put into play. The fact that strikeouts and Home Runs are exciting is only because they are rather infrequent exceptions to that. Double plays, relays and cutoffs, great defensive plays, triples, and even infield hits need to happen often enough, to give the game the richness that it has enjoyed in the past.

So the changes we propose will serve a dual purpose: They will increase the frequency of events and they will increase the the likelihood that those events will be exciting and watchable. As a by-product of these changes, games will be shorter, better paced, and there is also the promise that the players who play the game will benefit too, in the long run.

The first change I will propose is quite radical and will disturb many a baseball purists, but it addresses so many issues with one change that it is at least worth considering. The change would be to the number of balls for a walk and the number of strikes for a strike-out. Lest anyone think this is an original idea, I’ll admit that it’s not: even in the 60’s and 70’s there were leagues at various youth leagues up thru high school that experimented with 3 balls to a walk and 2 strikes to a strikeout. My device for implementation would be to set the scoreboard clock to 1 ball and 1 strike when the hitter steps in. I know that there is much handwringing about this, centered around the idea that the dance of the hitter-pitcher encounter, needs length in order for strategy of “working the hitter” and “working the count” to be fully utilized. I would maintain that 3 balls and 2 strikes is enough to do that, and would say that if you checked, you would find that many batter pitcher confrontations start off with a 1-1 count anyway. So what is the value of those first 2 pitches, other than that the batter and pitcher are just feeling each other out?

If the batter stepped up to the plate with the count already 1 and 1, here’s what it would mean: The hitter and pitcher would have to get down to it! There is more than enough pussy-footing around in batter-pitcher match-ups and it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to make the combatants get down to business a little sooner! As anyone knows, with the count 1-1, there is still plenty of time for further developments, but the batter knows right away, that if he gets a first pitch strike, he’s going to be down to 1, and the pitcher knows if he throws a first pitch ball, that the batter is going to be able to be a lot more picky.

Some might argue that starting w/ the count 1 & 1 might be too big an advantage to the pitcher, and I can understand that– a ratio of 2 to 3 is substantially different than a ratio of 3 to 4. But doesn’t it seem likely that, with this change, it would result in more batters changing their approach and looking more to make “good contact” and less in trying to hit the ball over the wall? A hitter who wouldn’t abandon his old approach might deteriorate from a .210 hitter with 35 bombs to a .170 hitter with 27, whereas if he altered his approach he might end up a .240 hitter with 20 Dingers. Who do you think a manager would be more likely to want in his line-up? I realize this is highly speculative, but my point is that players would adapt and it might well be that the game would end up benefiting as a result.

And there is one specific way that the game would benefit, which many of you have already guessed: Pitch counts would drop drastically, which would shorten the games, increase the frequency of balls put in to play, and last, but not least, it would allow starting pitchers to work deeper into a game. A starting pitcher who is on a 100 pitch limit, can likely work 7 or 8 innings, or even occasionally 9, if 3 balls and 2 strikes becomes the norm. There would likely be less mound visits and less pitching changes, which would further contribute to a better paced game with fewer interruptions.

If this change produced too big of a drop off in offense, that could be addressed by combining it with another change, such as moving the mound back slightly, or various other tweaks, which I’ll be discussing at further length later on.

This idea is worth considering because it cuts to the heart of baseball’s problem. Anticipation dragged out too long, results in tedium and boredom and eventually indifference. If the moguls of baseball continue to turn a blind eye to the problem, they may end up with a game that no one cares about. At first it may be that people won’t care during the regular season, when one game means a minimal amount, so at least, it should be watchable. But eventually, a sport ignored during the regular season becomes a game that is difficult to care about even when the stakes are higher.

Even if this idea is rejected (or provisionally accepted) there are many other ways to achieve some of the desired effects either as stand-a-lone solutions or in combination with changing the Ball-Strike format or with other alterations. I will refer to these ideas as “Major tweaks” or MT’s.

MT1: 3 Foul Balls on the 3rd strike and the batter is out.

This one actually is one that my wife has repeatedly suggested and it has so much merit that I believe it deserves serious consideration. Part of the charm of baseball is the way that, in the short run, random reinforcement plays a big part in the success of a swing. For example: If you hit the ball fairly well, it may be a fly out, pop out, or ground out. If you hit the ball poorly, it may be chopped in front of the plate and roll out of anyone’s quick reach for an infield hit. Or if you hardly hit it all, it may be a foul ball, which (often) will be out of play. For the first 2 strikes (for this illustration we are back to conventional 4 ball, 3 strike paradigm), the foul ball is weighted the same as a regular strike, which seems logical, but for some reason (lost to antiquity) it was long ago deemed that a batter could hit as many foul balls as he wanted with 2 strikes, and still remain at the plate. It’s hard to think why that makes sense, altho, I suppose at some level it was felt that, gosh, a 3rd strike should be “more pure”– a called strike, or a swinging strike.

At this point, it should be remembered that baseball had the analog of this problem before. Skillful bunters could bunt one pitch after another foul. As a result, late in the 19th century, a rule was passed stating that a foul ball on the 3rd strike, resulted in a strikeout. Obviously, hitting a foul ball deliberately on a normal swing is more difficult. But it’s not impossible, and in fact, many hitters are skillful enough to realize they will not be able to square a pitch up but can adjust enough to get the bat on the ball and foul it off. It seems total elimination of the value of that skill should not be the goal. But diminishing it’s value should. If a foul ball on for the first 2 strikes is a full strike, it doesn’t seem too extreme to say that a foul ball on the 3rd strike should be worth, let’s say 1/3 of a strike. This is a rule similar in structure to the let rule in Tennis, where if you have one fault, you’re allowed a let, but if you have a second let serve, then you’ve double faulted.

Some people might object to this saying, that there is no skill involved in deliberately serving a let so that you get another chance– it’s simply luck. But that actually makes my point– if hitters are skillful enough to deliberately hit foul balls, then the game faces the same issue that it had w/ bunting. That is– how many “good pitches” is it fair to allow a batter to spoil? Maybe it’s disproportionate to say if a hitter fouls off 8, or 7, or 6 pitches, that he still has the right to win the battle? or 5 or 4 even, I think 3 is about right. Obviously the number of fouls could be argued, but I think it’s reasonable (especially if you decide you wish to preserve 4 balls & 3 strikes as the format) that at some point the pitcher has established his advantage over the hitter for a plate appearance. I would add that, if a by-product of this rule would be that more hitters would shorten their swings and try for hitting line drives or hard hit ground balls once in a while, then that would be another way in which the game would be enhanced. While the pitch saving aspect might not be as great as it would be by changing to 3 ball, 2 strike format, it nevertheless would reduce pitch counts to some degree, and certainly give pitchers another way to try to get outs and force hitters to, not to wear the phrase out, but to “get on with it”.

Again, there could be the concern that this would give too much of an advantage to pitchers. As with the change to the ball and strike format, we might need a tweak to preserve the balance of offense and pitching. Which brings us to:

MT2: Moving the mound back to 63 feet 6 inches.

This is an arbitrary distance and it might be that it would require some testing (perhaps in exhibition season), but the object of the change is simple enough. By moving the mound back 3 feet, it would change not only the final velocity of the ball when it reaches the plate, but it would also give hitters a split second longer to determine what pitch is being thrown and where he needs to swing his bat. Pitchers would have to be craftier, and batters would be able to take advantage of the improved swing conditions that would allow a contact hitter to move to the fore. If combined with either the proposed ball-strike count alteration, or the foul ball limit rule, it might help to decrease the all or nothing approaches to pitching and hitting both, and help increase the frequency of exciting baseball plays created by a ball being put into play.

MT3: Limit the number of time-outs that a player can take.

Imagine how silly it would be, if right before a player shoots a free throw, an opposition player could call out “time”, step away from the free throw lane and the referee would grant it, almost every time. In baseball, a pitcher can be ready to pitch, and out of the blue, the batter can signal for time and it is almost always granted. Why is this practice permitted? It is, because it didn’t use to be so excessive, and, as a courtesy, typically umpires would allow it. But what if we were to say, to a batter, and a pitcher, you’re allowed one time out per at bat? Would that help speed the game up? Maybe not very much, but it would aid in the philosophy that we are developing of “moving the game along”. I don’t think there is any good argument why more than one is needed, and probably you could make a case for saying that they don’t need that many. But if you go less than one, it becomes problematic. However, if you combine this rule with a pitch clock, it may be that players would seldom even use the time-out they had. Let’s take a look at that further:

MT4: Put in affect a 25 second pitch clock.

Both the time of the pitch clock and the way in which the rule is enacted are open to revision, but here is one way in which this rule could be effected:

At the point in time that the Catcher receives the ball, either from the umpire, or from the pitcher, the pitch clock is turned on, and the battery (pitcher & catcher) has 25 seconds to get the ball back to the pitcher, and RELEASE another pitch. Instant replay would not be used to determine if a pitch was released in time; that responsibility could be assigned to either the 1st or 3rd base umpires, and like balls and strikes, that decision would be final. If the pitcher failed to release the pitch in that time span, it would register as a ball, and the clock would immediately be reset to 20 seconds. If either batter or pitcher called their one alloted time-out, the pitch clock would be stopped, and reset to 5 seconds earlier, but not exceeding 25 seconds, and not exceeding 20 seconds, if there has already been a pitch clock violation resulting in a “ball”. Defenders of baseball tradition are horrified by this idea but it is a natural outgrowth of the game being delayed by batters and pitchers that are trying to win the battle thru gamesmanship, rather than a demonstration of skill. A certain amount of gamesmanship is part of any sport, but again, we are talking about proportion here, and a pitch clock with the above conditions would likely keep that gamesmanship to an acceptable level.

MT5: Deaden the baseball.

All of the previous suggested changes may accomplish a lot, but they may not sufficiently discourage the all or nothing approaches that have become so common for many Major League hitters. There is no way to ignore the fact that with modern strength training, and with pitchers throwing harder than ever, that many hitters see no down side to trying to hit it over the fence every time they are up. While there have always been tape measure home runs, in any era, the % of home runs that clear the fence by 40 or 50 feet or more has never been so high. The stark truth is, in many way, it takes more skill to hit a line drive single than to hit a home run, since you don’t even need to get completely squared up on the ball to leave the yard. You can blame this on steroids, stronger players, or more tightly wound baseballs, but whatever you blame it on, it comes down to one thing. Today’s ball parks, with the conditions that the game is currently played, have become too small to hold HR’s down to reasonable levels. When everyone in the line-up is a HR threat, pitchers never get any reasonable opportunity to pace themselves, and so burn-out in either a particular game, or a season, or a career, becomes more likely.

Since making the ballparks larger is not feasible (not to mention affordable), the solution has to be to make the game “play smaller”. Making the ball just a little deader would enhance the game in so many ways, that one scarcely knows where to begin. First of all, let’s dispense with the idea that this wouldn’t be feasible. Hopefully no one is naive enough to suggest that the powers that be don’t know how tightly wound the ball is. Rather, it’s more likely to say that they know EXACTLY how live the ball is, and have recorded statistics that provide that data, even if it isn’t always made public.

If you very slightly deaden the ball, and again, I would stress that they could deaden it exactly as much as they want, it could be done in such a way as to take, say— 10 feet off of a 400 foot drive. That may not seem like much, but it would force many hitters to adjust their approach. Many balls that would previously be home runs, would be caught on the warning track. At least with the bases empty, a great number of batters would find that trying to crank it wouldn’t give them enough bang for their buck. Having hitters opt for trying for singles, or doubles, would make the game more balanced and provide managers with other strategic options besides “try to draw some walks and hit 3-run homers”. Pitchers would once again be able to occasionally take the tack of “letting the batter hit it”, knowing that he may get a long out from a well placed pitch, depending on the hitter and the hitter’s philosophy.

So these are a few ideas for saving the game, and to me, baseball is very much a game worth saving. A whole generation is growing up in a world of short takes and sound bites, and I fear that the laborious pace that baseball is currently played will not allow many who are sampling the game for the first time to be bitten by the baseball bug. If you care about it’s survival, I think you have to at least want to restore the pace that the game is played to something approaching the way it was played for the majority of the 20th century, when it balanced leisure with anticipation in a magical, captivating fashion.

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