Once and For All, is Baseball Boring?

Sports of all sorts interest me, and I can be a bandwagon fan of any Bay Area sports team: the Warriors currently, the 49ers a couple years ago, Cal football from 2004-2008. I’m watching Cal-Hawaii in March Madness as I type this. But baseball is the only sport I’m in for rain or shine (well, they don’t play in the rain, but you get me). It’s the only sport I’ve followed in some capacity every year since 1993, the year Barry Bonds joined the Giants and they won 103 games. It’s the only sport I’ve ever had a fantasy team in (two at once for a few seasons). Thinking about it, it’s the only sport I’ve spent any money on, like, ever, unless you count beers while watching basketball or soccer in bars, or provisions purchased for the odd Super Bowl party. (I’m even the sports blogger who doesn’t have ESPN, since, following only one sport closely and outside of my chosen team’s blackout radius, I can get by with an MLB.tv subscription.) My sports library is a bunch of baseball books (Bill James, Roger Angell, Moneyball) and one non-baseball book (Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, although I owned The Blind Side for a while before selling it). This blog is just an outlet for my thinking about sports, and I’ve thought far, far more about baseball than any other sport.

But a lot of the time, the more you think about something, the more you fail to think about it, because you fall into patterns of thought that become invisible to you, and you start to accept or reject premises according to those patterns of thought rather than according to your reasoning. So in honor of the resumption of baseball, I’d like to consider a complaint that is ubiquitous among those who don’t like baseball and reflexively rejected by those who do: the complaint that baseball is boring.

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Why Criticism of Baseball’s New Clock Misses the Point

As part of the time-saving measures baseball is implementing this year—which, by the way, seem to be working—there will be countdown clocks in all major league stadiums, giving players 2:25 from the end of each inning to begin the next. The clocks are only going to operate between innings, but Joe Posnanski, in a piece railing against the idea, says it won’t stop there:

Soon there will be clocks to make sure pitchers don’t dawdle, clocks timing relief pitcher changes, clocks timing managers trek to the mound, clocks to make sure that home run hitters get around the bases. That might sound crazy, but here’s the thing you already know from your own life: You let clocks into your life and they take over.

Posnanski is one of my favorite baseball writers, so I feel bad that my first two mentions of him on this blog have been to rake him across the coals a little bit (I talked about his Pete Rose take too). But it really depresses me when arguments about rules simply beg the question, à la “there’s no tying in baseball.” Posnanski’s argument is that the new clock is bad because it’s a clock, a tautology that completely overlooks the actual function of the new clock, as opposed to the ones he talks about in other sports: to Posnanski, a clock is a clock is a clock, and all of them represent “the tyranny of time”: “You don’t wear a watch to the beach. You don’t put a clock at a baseball game.”

Well, if we’re going to be that literal about it, ballparks have had clocks for a century now. Here’s a prominent one at Wrigley Field:

Forgive me. But you see the point: it’s not the presence of a clock that’s the problem. It’s the effect it has on gameplay. The clock Posnanski is incensed about has no effect on gameplay, because it only operates between innings; it won’t even be seen by the TV audience because by definition it runs while the cameras are not rolling. A fan watching basketball has to keep an eye on the shot clock and the game clock, because they’re both important to understanding how the game is going, but if a fan at the ballpark can’t tear his or her eyes away from the between-innings clock, I think that’s their own neurosis, not something baseball is doing wrong.

Posnanski’s piece is a classic example of thinking that the rules are the same as the game. Someone, I want to say it was Bill James, talked about this, but I can’t find it…at any rate, only a tiny percentage of the changes to the game of baseball in past decades have been caused by or reflected in rules changes. There’s nothing traditional, or relaxing, about lengthy breaks between innings, but since they’re not reflected in a rules change, they escape Posnanski’s ire. (Which is a more likely slippery slope: the between-innings clock leading to a home run trot clock, or a three-minute delay between innings stretching to three-and-a-half minute delay?) For that matter, the time between innings at ballparks today isn’t just spent contemplating the patterns cut into the grass and the timeless symmetry of the diamond; it’s spent (at least at some stadiums) watching full-volume TV commercials broadcast on the HD scoreboard. So what is being defended against the intrusion of a clock?

Even the clocks that Posnanski sees coming down the slippery slope—clocking the pitcher’s delivery, the manager’s trip to the mound, etc.—are different from the game clocks in other sports. The manager’s trip to the mound, the home run trot…these are breaks in the action, they’re not the action itself. As for the pitcher’s delivery—which is on the table; a pitcher clock has been suggested for the major leagues and was tried out in the Arizona Fall League this past year—this is where people who want shorter games but don’t want a clock are going to face a reckoning. Because when Posnanski, as an alternative to clocks, advocates “having umpires enforce rules already on the books,” he almost certainly is thinking of the rule that pitchers must deliver the ball within 12 seconds of receiving it. And how is the umpire meant to enforce that rule—by counting “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi”? No, presumably he would have a stopwatch to know when the pitcher had definitively broken the time-limit. Yes, that particular clock would be out of the view of the crowd, but unlike the between-innings clock it would actually affect gameplay. So why is this attention to time acceptable to Posnanski, where adding a prominent clock isn’t? Because, again, he is emphasizing the violation of superficial tradition (no visible countdown clocks) over the violation of how the game used to be played, and should be played.

Like it or not, for umpires to make games shorter, they need to figure out how long the games are taking in the first place. And that means we’re going to have to accept clocks somewhere in the process. It’s in our interest to figure out where and how they can be most inobtrusively implemented, rather than just tilting against the whole concept of chronography.

Image credit: Clock by Christina B Castro is distributed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Opening Day Mini Link Dump

Happy Opening Day! Post your favorite analogies to Easter and Passover in the comments.

Usually a link dump is supposed to be, like, a lot of links (hence “dump”), but I wanted to call attention to just three to make sure you actually read them (or view them in the case of the video). After all,you only have five hours to read them before we have actual baseball to talk about!

  • First, as a follow-up to the pace of game post, Vox has a good video explaining the pace of game problem: how much the game has slowed, why it’s slowed (including helpful video illustration), and what’s being done to fix it. (I’ve got another post in the works on this, too.)
  • The video features Grant Brisbee, who also has an absolutely stellar long read up about Barry Bonds and what he means to Giants fans and to baseball. Even aside from being a Giants fan, Brisbee may be the smartest baseball blogger out there, even though he masks it with self-deprecation and humor; he routinely captures the nuances of issues that others miss or prefer to blunder past, and this post is no exception. Here, he doesn’t treat Bonds’s steroid use as no big deal or something to rationalize, but neither does he condemn him categorically; he considers him, and our reactions to him then and now, in context. Giants fans are already privileged to have the consensus best broadcast team in baseball; having the best baseball blogger too just seems unfair. (If you want some juvenilia, and a sense of this kind of conflict being lived in real time, here’s my post about Bonds on my old blog, from the time that the extent of his juicing was becoming known.)
  • Finally, I linked to this in my last post, but Craig Calcaterra’s piece on how the Angels are treating Josh Hamilton is a must-read. For the uninformed, Hamilton is a player with a history of drug addiction, who pulled himself out of the gutter and made it to the major leagues, but has suffered from periodic relapses, including one this off-season. Baseball attempted to get him suspended for drug abuse—which in itself is a horrible way to treat an addict who admitted to a relapse—but lost the case, and the Angels immediately condemned the decision not to suspend their own player, whom they signed knowing full well of his troubled past. The Angels signed Hamilton to an expensive contract, but he has not performed especially well—a clear case of caveat emptor—and the suspicion that they want an excuse not to pay him this year is overwhelming, especially since the evidence suggests they’re the ones who exposed his relapse to the press. There’s no question about the ethics here; this is a disgusting situation, and one wishes a grievance against the Angels was in the offing.

Woof, sorry to end on a down note. It’s Opening Day! Let’s not care if we ever get back.

Why Pace of Game Matters: The Apples to Oranges Problem

Baseball games are taking longer than ever before, with the average game lasting almost half an hour longer now than it did just thirty years ago. There are a lot of reasons for this, the largest one being the expansion of the time between innings in order to accommodate more commercials, but a significant amount of the problem is also caused by players delaying or interrupting play: batters stepping out of the batter’s box, pitchers taking a long time to warm up or deliver their pitches. Baseball, not surprisingly, is implementing rules to address the latter set of issues, leaving the advertising question—the one that makes it money—untouched. We can roll our eyes at that blind spot, but the changes that are being put in place seem sensible and uncontroversial, trying to get the game back on track to how it’s meant to be viewed: a smoothly-proceeding affair with few unnecessary interruptions.

But Jorge Arangure Jr., in an article on Vice Sports, argues that the new rules are pointless, because baseball’s problem is with its fundamental image. To change that image, Arangure says, baseball would “have to massively restructure the game and enact drastic measures like changing the number of outs in an inning, the amounts of innings in a game, and the amount of players allowed to hit in a lineup.” (Arangure doesn’t seem to be actually proposing these things, only setting the level of change that would be required to have an impact.) Short of massive changes like that, Arangure says, “Baseball shouldn’t even bother.”

With all respect due to Arangure, his piece perfectly represents the blind spots that so often come up in these sorts of discussions. Basically, the flaw in arguments against these sorts of changes usually comes down to mismatched or overlooked comparisons: the difference between the interests of the individual player and the interest of the fan, between abstract issues and practical ones, and even between different sports. Arangure’s article is just the latest to make these mistakes, so I think it’s worth looking at how the discussion tends to go off the rails.

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