The DH: How consistent should baseball be?

Happy New Year! And apologies for the long delay. Unfortunately, my mind has been far from sports, ever since the day my last proper post here instantly aged very badly, like the Nazi in The Last Crusade. Basically, an incoming Trump presidency makes it hard for me to sustain an interest in sports questions, the kind of in-depth attention that is what I enjoy about sports, and what I need to write about them. But since sports matter, since writing keeps the mind sharp, and since one form of resistance is to refuse to be devastated, I’m going to resume posting here, or at Wrigleyville, as often as I can.

My good friend Joseph Kugelmass, whose blog The Kugelmass Episodes has been an influence on my own writing, has helpfully given me a topic. He read one of my recent Wrigleyville posts, about the differences between the pro- and anti-DH perspectives and the fun of both of them having their own league, and wrote a reply over at his blog, in which he argued that the National League should follow the American League. I believe this is the first time The Spiel has been flattered with a disagreeing response, so it behooves me to engage.

Joe makes a number of good points, but I’m not going to respond point-by-point to his post, because I don’t want the discussion to sprawl out of control. Instead, I’m interested in one particular argument he makes in favor of a universal DH: that it is important to standardize the rules:

I cannot support your position on the two leagues because I’m a Platonist. Imagine that the American League did not allow instant replays for disputed calls, and the National League did. Obviously, this would be unacceptable and short-lived. Well, that’s the situation with the designated hitter. The rules of the game are absolutes. There’s no chess game in the world where you can’t capture a pawn “en passant.”

This is an important point, because, whatever one thinks of Plato, it’s true that standard rules are what give a game or sport meaning. They provide a common language—to talk about soccer, we need to have the same idea of what a “goal” is—and help to ensure that every occurrence of the game is rewarding the same skills.

And yet standardization is an interesting criterion to use when working out the rules of baseball, because baseball, for idiosyncratic historical reasons, is not standardized in one important regard: the dimensions of the field, which are simply not defined in the rules. Baseball isn’t unique in this—cricket, as I understand it, is the same way, as is Australian rules football, which is often played on modified cricket grounds. But besides those, all of the other team sports I can think of—hockey, all other types of football, basketball, etc.—are played on fields, pitches, courts, or rinks that are standardized, or nearly so (I was surprised to learn that football variants like soccer and rugby have varying pitch sizes, even within a given league, but the variance is generally only a few yards, and the shapes are standardized). The different dimensions lead to dramatic differences between sports; in a pub in Dublin once, I watched Gaelic football and soccer on adjacent TV screens, and the vast dimensions of the Gaelic football pitch (about 150 x 90 yards, compared to 115 x 74 for soccer) made the soccer match look as speedy as ice hockey.

With baseball stadiums, though, nearly all bets are off. Obviously the distances between home and the outfield fences vary widely from park to park, but more than that, the shapes are very different; soccer fields may vary in size, but imagine a league in which some were rectangular and some trapezoidal. Teams sometimes even adjust their parks’ dimensions to begin the year, hoping to increase or decrease the amount of offense in their park. But other elements are inconsistent, too: the bullpens can be behind the fence, on the field in foul territory, or even in play. The amount of foul territory can vary tremendously, meaning that a foul ball that’s out of play in one park might be caught for an out in another. The fences can be different heights, and made of different materials. Even the elevation of the field isn’t standard—in 2000, the Astros decided to put a 90-foot wide, 30° hill in center field in their new ballpark, and there was nothing to stop them.

One might object that these variations aren’t changes in the rules, but functionally, they are: “home run” means something different in Oakland than in San Francisco. Just because the oddity of the Green Monster isn’t stated in the rulebook—”a ball that is 38 or more feet high when it passes 310 feet from home plate shall be scored a home run, but one less than 38 feet shall be in play”—doesn’t mean that it doesn’t adjudicate between different on-field outcomes, which is what a rule is.

So is baseball’s lack of absolutism in the rules in this regard a problem? I would say that the variation in stadiums makes baseball a worse game, but a better sport. It’s worse for fairness and record-keeping that different stadiums play very differently; it’s hard to internalize the difference between a run in a low-scoring park and in a high-scoring one, and that has costs when it comes to honors like MVP awards and Hall of Fame inductions. And variation certainly doesn’t make things any easier for outfielders, who have to learn a bunch of different outfield arrangements. But it’s better for baseball as spectator entertainment: who would prefer baseball without the Green Monster or the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field? Without idiosyncratic ballpark design, Babe Ruth wouldn’t have hit 60 home runs and “The Catch” by Willie Mays in 1954 would have been just another three-run homer. (Though I say good riddance to Tal’s Hill in Houston, which is being flattened for the new season: ballpark quirks should be organic, not added as focus-tested gimmicks.)

But this isn’t to say that any such variation would be an improvement on the game. Ballpark dimensions matter only on deep balls to the outfield or into foul territory; that has a significant effect on games but not a fundamental one. A situation in which one league had three outs per inning and the other had four, or in which one stadium was 90 feet between bases and another was 80—something fundamental, which affects nearly every aspect of the game—wouldn’t be enjoyable, because we would be constantly readjusting our assumptions about what’s happening on the field.

So if I’m right, rule variations can be beneficial to baseball’s entertainment, provided they only affect the game on the margins and not at its core. If you agree with me, then the question of a universal DH isn’t answered by the fact of rules variation, but raises two further questions:

  1. Is the DH the kind of rule that matters on the margins, and so can be an enjoyable variation between leagues? Or is it something more fundamental, such that a lack of uniformity on this point harms the game?
  2. Assuming for a moment that the non-universal DH is an enjoyable, marginal variation, is it enough of a benefit to the sport to make up for its costs to the game? (And yes, I know that I’m using these words in an idiosyncratic way to make this distinction.)

The first question I find surprisingly difficult. On the one hand, there’s a good argument that the DH (or lack thereof) doesn’t fundamentally change the game. A pitcher’s spot only comes up every three innings, give or take. Pitchers are not generally going deep into games these days anyway, DH or no DH. Nor are there a lot of players in the Edgar Martinez mold, whom we wouldn’t be able to see were it not for the DH. If you look at it as just one lineup spot out of nine, it’s a pretty slight impact.

However, viewed another way, the DH is fundamental, because the effects of a single lineup spot ripple outward. With the pitcher batting ninth, it’s harder for the number eight hitter to have good at-bats: especially with two outs, the opposing pitcher can just walk him and go after the pitcher. With only three outs an inning, a roster spot that’s a nearly automatic out has a substantial impact on the way the game unfolds.

I don’t see any way to definitively settle this question; it seems subjective. For me, the DH is significant, but not so momentous that it needs to be standardized between the leagues. But I can see the other side: if you think the variation in the DH hurts the sport, then certainly you’ll want it to be the same in both leagues.

However, the second question—does the DH variation add enjoyment?—is easy, from where I’m sitting: absolutely it does. In his post, Joe draws an analogy to a situation in which one league uses instant replay review and the other doesn’t. The comparison isn’t apt, I think, because instant replay addresses how the rules are adjudicated, not how play proceeds on the field, and the variation in play has the power to add interest. This is what I was trying to demonstrate with my Wrigleyville post: the choice between an emphasis on strategy (no DH) and an emphasis on elite performance (DH) is itself an interesting one. I’m glad we get to see it both ways.

But my point here isn’t really about the DH, but about the standardization debate itself. It’s a mistake to think that because uniform rules would be good for the orderliness of the game, they would be good for the entertainment value of the sport as well. More broadly, it seems to me that a lot of sports commentators tend to focus more on what makes the game fair than on what makes it fun to watch; such commentators are likely to dismiss complaints that replay review is boring, for instance, because they’re only interested in the benefit of improving the enforcement of the rules. (To be sure, plenty of people embrace the DH because they think it makes the game more entertaining.) That’s not a surprising perspective from professional sports analysts, who after all are going to be watching the game whether or not it’s exciting, and whose analysis is made easier by an orderly, uniform set of rules. But we fans shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the entertainment value of a little mayhem.

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 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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Disagreeing with the River: A Response to Jon Bois

Jon Bois is one of my favorite writers online, up in that Mallory Ortberg tier, but his stuff is harder to characterize than any of my other favorites. A lot of his humor writing, especially on Twitter, is in the style of “enthusiastic bumpkin” or “e-mailing relative”—see his 50 fast facts about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance—and yet he’s also capable of real poignancy. A lot of that poignancy comes from his appreciation of randomness and error in supposedly ordered systems: witness Breaking Madden, or my favorite post of his on the death of the NBA, both of which involve him setting up a sports video game with certain odd parameters and just seeing what happens.

Last week, Bois’s love of randomness got its most direct expression yet, through a post purporting to explain what exactly constitutes a “catch” in the NFL. This has been a frustrating topic in football, as high-def instant replay has turned what used to be a quick, if often wrong, decision by the officials into a thicket of legalese and post-facto rationalizations (as I’ve written about here previously). Bois’s piece on the matter—you should go click that link, before I spoil it here—starts off looking like it’s going to be another one of his “the naïf looks at a sports issue” posts, but it ends up going somewhere very different: to a philosophical look about why, exactly, we care about settling this issue and how we could choose to look at it instead. It’s an approach I’d like to see more of in sports writing, one that scrutinizes the assumptions that are so often unspoken in these kinds of issues. It’s also a piece I disagree with on a key point, and it motivated me to think about the beauty I find in sport’s order, as opposed to its randomness.

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Embrace the Wrongness: What Replay Is and Isn’t For

I’m gratified by all the attention given to my last post, about writers engaging bad opinions by nobodies! There have been a couple of responses in particular that I greatly appreciated. Dan Brooks expanded on the post by talking about how prevalent this practice is more generally, not in sports—only two weeks ago we had the fake #BoycottStarWarsVII controversy, in which people were embarrassingly eager to disagree with folks who were too racist to see a Star Wars movie—and arguing that “finding a bad argument to disagree with is functionally equivalent to bringing that argument into existence.” On the other hand, Craig Calcaterra, whose tweets I criticized in the post, wrote a thoughtful response in which he pointed out that though these opinions seem insignificant, taken together they make up the audience expectations for sports talk radio and the like. It’s all part of a larger debate the Internet is having right now, in the age of social media and click-based journalism: are awful views better shamed, or ignored? How do we tell the attention-seeking trolls from the earnest folks who might legitimately be persuaded?

But anyway, enough with media criticism for now. Let’s get back to rules disputes.

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The Hidden Harm of the Designated Hitter

I swear I wasn’t going to talk about the DH yet. I was going to wait until I had a desperate need for pageviews and a total lack of ideas. But blog topics wait for no one, and the recent injuries—one probably season-ending—of two pitchers while batting in the National League has caused the topic to flare up again. At HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra has maybe the best pro-DH post I’ve ever read: thorough, convincing, exploding one bad anti-DH argument after another. It has, I think, one big blind spot, and it’s in that blind spot that my opposition to a universal DH rule lies. I hope my response does justice to his post, and—not to be vain—points out a way of thinking about this issue that I’ve never seen anyone take up, yet is crucial for understanding why a reasonable person might oppose the DH. Continue reading

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.

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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