Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014: SLOW DRIP DRIES UP (AT LAST!!): FINAL INTERLEAGUE RESULTS

If people would cease to care about Derek Jeter in the way that they've ceased caring about interleague play, we would really be on to something.

The 2014 battle between the AL and NL wound down with less suspense than the slow-motion "backing into the playoffs" in the final week of the season, as the AL went 14-4 in its home games during interleague play in September en route to a 15-9 final month to wind up with a 163-137 advantage over the course of the year.

We have several more tables for you in addition to the calendar overview.

First, we've got the overall interleague standings. Part of what got the Royals into the postseason was their superb performance against the NL in 2014 (15-5).

We haven't gone back to look at whether this is something that shows up in the data in other years, but the playoff-bound teams did quite well in interleague play in 2014: 127-93 (.577 WPCT).

Teams that played over .500 but didn't make the postseason (and by the way, did you know that there was only one non-playoff team in the NL this year that managed to finish over .500 this season, as opposed to four in the AL?) also fared rather well in inteleague play: 56-44 (.560 WPCT).

The "bad" (sub-.500) teams took it on the chin: 113-163 (.409 WPCT).

The most interesting chart, however, has nothing to do with individual successes or failures amongst the 30 individual teams with respect to interleague play. It is the ongoing (presumably random) bias that continues to favor the AL in terms of quality of opponent.

As you can see, the AL played only 40% of its games against NL teams with winning records in 2014. That certainly doesn't hurt their prospects any! As the chart shows, the NL--which plays the good teams of the AL reasonably well at home (46-44)--just takes it on the chin in road games against .500+ AL opponents (25-65, .278 WPCT).

We figure that this amounts to about a six-game advantage for the AL over the course of interleague play. Based on calculations that adjust for the "good team" bias, the NL would add six more wins against the AL if games are balanced for quality of opponent. They'd still trail in games won, 157-143, but there's no question that the vagaries of the interleague schedule are not favoring the NL.

And they haven't done so for the past five years: AL teams have played sub-.500 NL opponents in 57% of all interleague games since the 2010 season.


Monday, September 29, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #111, #112, #113

Three more CGs on the final weekend of the 2014 regular season, bringing us to a grand total of 113 (remember, we aren't counting any CGs where the IP total is lower than eight innings...).

The Nationals had a mini-crescendo over the weekend, with Doug Fister's three-hit shutout (#111, 9/26) against the Marlins one-upped by Jordan Zimmermann, who added to the lore of "last day of the season" heroics by tossing a no-hitter at the Fish (#112, 9/28) to close things out.

Sonny Gray (#113, 9/28) could not let down either the flailing A's or his mother (whose birthday fell on the final day of the '14 campaign). His six-hit shutout, leading Oakland to a 4-0 win over the Texas Rangers, pushed the A's into the post-season (even as they set a record for the worst WPCT in the second half for a playoff-bound team: .433 WPCT).

As we noted in the last post, we're likely going to stick with the CG watch in '15, simply because there's an awfully good chance that managers will continue to "knee-jerk" with respect to pitch counts. The number of CGs could more than double if pitchers were permitted to go on into the ninth when their pitch counts are at or below 105 pitches, but the chances are slim that this will happen any time soon.

At left is the final "calendar chart" for 2014 CGs. The basic trends we noted last time were not altered over the last portion of the year...

--CGs are rarest on Mondays (just six all year).

--Wednesday was the most likely day to see a CG in '14 (23), with Thursday (21) a close second.

--The Tuesday-to-Thursday axis (62 CGs out of that total of 113) dominated in terms of "days of the week."

The numbers in orange on black have nothing to do with either the O's or the Giants (who have one more opportunity to bring us a double shot of Halloween colors for the World Series this year); they refer to the number of days in each month when there was at least one CG.

That's a total of 82 days in a season that lasted a little over 170 days (we aren't counting the late March stretch after Budzilla's premature you-know-what for the season and the formal beginning on March 30), which means that there was an average of at least one complete game every other day.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ACTIVE HIT LEADERS: A PARABLE FOR OUR TIME

Why a parable? Why a duck? Hell, why bother, for that matter? Because somebody's got to do it--and besides, we've got the ticket to ride, and we don't care.

For you see, parables are written by people who once cared not wisely but too well. And so it goes, even though where it's going, no one knows.

Or cares.

So...now that that's understood (!), let's move right on to the parable, shall we? Poor Fergus McFollicle has torn out the remaining scraps of hair from his head (you can call it a bald pate if you like, he doesn't care...) trying to keep up with the crescendo of chatter over the end of the Jeter Affair that is (mercifully) wrapping up this weekend. (Imagine if the Yankees had made the post-season!) C.O. Jones reports that Fergus is so frazzled by the clatter he's been forced to track over these past several weeks that he's considering several job offers with the intelligence community simply in order to relax.

So, to distract him long enough so that he won't make yet another ill-advised career decision, we've devised what we've taken to calling "the parable of the hits." Now, hits have taken a hit over the past twenty years: as a baseball statistic they are now considered just about as meaningless as RBIs; but we wanted to look at them in a way that no one seems to have considered during this long rush-to-a-modeled-reality phase that has afflicted baseball--and everything else that's been touched by the "lounge lizard MBA approach" (yes, yes, a quick nod in the direction of our sponsor, "Fright Quotes R Us," a company that doesn't care about anything, either, except how many times a fright quote appears across the cockeyed caravan that we call the Internet).

How to get to parable from the increasingly parabolic? In this case, simple--though tedious, as Forman et fils displays how semi-manual and repetitive some of the research still is when one thinks outside the box. (And Sean might actually care about that, except he's too busy buying boxes of Band-Aids for those clanky defensive "metrics" to which he's committed himself.)

We went through and compiled the yearly list of the active hit leaders beginning with the first year in baseball history that the active hit leader had 2000 or more hits. That occurred in 1888, which happens to be another of those election years in America where a candidate (Benjamin "Don't Call Me Bennie" Harrison) won without carrying the popular vote. (You see, the Electoral College doesn't care, one way or the other.) As we compiled the year-by-year list--all the way to 2014--we kept track of the number of hitters with 2000+ hits, with 2500+ hits, and 3000+ hits.

We wanted to see the ebb and flow of the active hit leader board, if for no other reason than the fact we'd never seen it before: if it had been thought of by anyone, it had been discarded (for reasons we've already covered above).

We also wanted to see how many of the yearly active hits leaders were Hall of Famers, just to see how reliable a statistic hits proves to be, despite its precipitous decline in the minds of the increasingly overzealous.

Now, we'll get to the findings, but first we have to fill a little time here so that there's enough text here to cover the size of these jumbo tables we've created. (Not that you care about our problems...)

So, here (at right) the first fifty-three (53) years of data, from 1888-1930. What we see here are three clear trends. First, twelve of the thirteen players who appear on the active hits leader list (and we include all hitters still active with 3000+ hits in any given year even they aren't actually #1) are in the Hall of Fame. (Only George Van Haltren, who held the #1 slot in 1900-01, missed the Hall. And yes, that's right, nobody cares.)

Second, such a list tends to be dynastic. Cap Anson (ten consecutive years as the active hits leader from 1888-97), Honus Wagner (six years, from 1912-17), and Ty Cobb (eleven years, from 1918-28) dominate this list.

Third, there is a kind of generational component in the ebb and flowof the active leader list. We see big drops in the leader list from time to time as a result  (Anson to Bid McPhee in 1898, for example; another is Wagner to Cobb in 1918, something that might not be immediately apparent, since folks tend to lump those two guys into the Deadball Era--whereas Cobb's dominance of the active hits list lies mostly in the heavy-hitting twenties).

So now let's move on to the next large swatch of active hits leaders data, covering the next fifty-nine years (1931-1989).

As will be clear, the patterns we discussed above are readily apparent here as well.

We see the same high correlation of active hits leaders with Hall of Fame slots (aside from Pete Rose, we have three "unworthies" who slipped their way into the active hit leadership due to various lull points: Doc Cramer back in the late 40s, and two ex-Dodgers, Steve Garvey (1987) and Bill Buckner (1988-89).

And the tendency for dynastic succession interspersed with some generational chaos is also here.

It turns out that Stan Musial was the "man" with the active hits lead for the longest time, pushing his way to the top in 1952 due to a dearth of long-career players at the time (WWII had messed up the generational continuty). He stayed right there for twelve consecutive years until he retired in 1963.

And there was the big drop when that happened: the new active hits leader, Nellie Fox (who held that slot for two years before his retirement in '65) had almost a thousand fewer hits when he became the leader.

The only greater drop occurred in 1986-87, when Garvey took over the top spot from Rose, with close to 1700 fewer hits.

We also see an ebb and flow in the number of active hitters with 2500+ hits during this time frame. Expansion has something to do with it, of course, but there seems to be a clustering effect that takes hold about every 7-8 years. Despite the greater profusion of 3000+ hit players, we only have two instances where we have three of them active in any single year.

So let's push on to the present day (our third and last table covers the years 1990-2014). With this group, we see a few changes in the patterns.

First, there's no dynastic pattern. (At least not until Jeter took over in 2010. He's the first hitter since Rose in 1986 to hold the active hits lead for five or more seasons.)

Second, the pattern of multiple active hitters with 3000+ hit totals is more pronounced--or, at least it is up until 2002. Some have speculated that Jeter's outsized veneration has to do with returning us into an era with a 3000+ hit player. It looks more like a combination of East Coast media hype and a cohesive mainstream press attempting to steamroll the backlash from (mostly) the post-neo set who have operatically overstated Jeter's (very real) defensive shortcomings, but Derek did make the climb to the highest lifetime hit total since Rose (he ranks 6th all-time).

And that just might be a residual reason for all the rancor. We remember how unseemly Rose's pursuit of the hit record was in the mid-80s. There has probably been some transference of those feelings from that event in a certain subset of baseball's collective memory that has glommed onto Jeter. And, to a certain extent, they're right: Jeter is the epitome of a media phony, whose "humility" is manufactured as cheaply and baldly as the products that came from Kathie Lee Gifford's infamous sweatshop.

But some people project even more onto this than is actually there. They waste valuable time and effort on the maelstrom of media spectacle, and by doing so feed further into it. They have created a kind of caring that is untenable and unusable, and that will have little or no effect on those who've swallowed what the media has concocted. If anything, they will actually reinforce it.

In short, they should take a look at this list, and all the other leader lists, and realize that "fame" and "value" (and "fright quotes") are all wispy shadows of a reality that isn't really any more real just because we keep score and have all the numbers that go along with it.

They should let go, and cease to care. They should simply admit that, despite his shortcomings on and off the field, Derek Jeter was a great player and, barring some unforeseen scandal, he is going to be in the Hall of Fame in 2020.

He will be overrated by many. He won't be the first, and he won't be the last. But fixating on him won't solve anything.

We'll return to this data a bit later from a couple of different vantage points. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #105, #106, #107, #108... (AND #109, #110)

The Great Complete Game Chase is over. Yesterday (when all our troubles weren't nearly so far away as we might have hoped...) was the backbreaker, as the tie that had been achieved back on September 17th was finally broken.

It was the Mariners' Taijuan Walker, in a hard-luck, 1-0, eight-inning loss to the Blue Jays, who came to rest with #109, which put 2014 beyond the record low for CGs established back in 2007. (The M's, poised to give Oakland and Kansas City a real run for a Wild Card slot, have dropped four straight to steer themselves right over the edge of the horizon.)

And #110 followed from a pitcher (Kyle Lohse) whose team (the Brewers) had preceded the M's in playing themselves out of the post-season. Kyle was 7-1 in early June when he recorded his first CG of the year; his ERA in his next sixteen starts (prior to his second CG yesterday) was 4.97.

Previously, we'd seen the return of Andrew Cashner, who had 2014's very first CG--an electrifying one-hitter with eleven K's--but who was sidelined twice during the year. We're not sure if Andrew will ever be able to remain healthy for a full season, but if he does...watch out. His second CG (#105 on the year, on 9/15; a two-hit, 1-0 shutout win against the Phillies) was nearly as impressive as his April gem.

Next was the Cubs' Jake Arrieta (#106, 9/16), continuing his astonishing transformation in '14 after protracted mediocrity in his stints with Baltimore, completing a one-hit, 13-K shutout against the Reds.

9/17 brought us two more CGs: Adam Wainwright (#107), who scattered seven hits as the Cardinals pushed the Brewers out of the playoff hunt with a 2-0 win; and #108--from the Indians' on-the-rise Carlos Carrasco, who brought the hammer down on the Astros (a two-hit, 12-K shutout).

While we're thinking about shutouts: the total for the year (62) is nowhere close to the record for least in a season (43--set, as with the CG low, in 2007). Remember, this refers to shutouts by starters pitching a complete game; overall team shutouts--where the starter and any number of relievers who follow collectively blank the opposition--went up in 2014 to 344, which is the second highest total in baseball history, behind only the 1972 season (357--of which 295 were CG shutouts).

We're thinking we should stay with this in 2015, as odds are high that the situation will be much the same. Can managers take the CG below the "100 a year" horizon? There's no reason to rule it out...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014: WHO'S BEEN HITTING DOWN THE STRETCH?

We once again go to David Pinto's loverly Day-by-Day Database, as we collect data for our post-season post-mortem known far, wide (and especially deep...) as the Ptolemaic MVP, in order that we might see just who's been slugging the baseball over the concluding two months of the season (that's from August 1st to the present).

Here are some lists. We begin with that favorite moribund statistic, batting average:


Victor Martinez, DET, .365; Starling Marte, PIT, .361; Buster Posey, SFG, .361, Josh Harrison, PIT .355

Sure looks like Buster is a second-half hitter, doesn't it?

Now, on-base percentage:

Jose Abreu, CHW, .451; Victor Martinez, DET, .448; Jon Jay, STL, .429; Jayson Werth, WAS .429

Notice a trend? Six of the seven hitters listed thus far in the "stretch drive" sweepstakes are from playoff-bound teams.

Does the trend hold up for slugging average?

Starling Marte, PIT, .611; Buster Posey, SFG, .602; Victor Martinez, DET, .586; Giancarlo Stanton, MIA, .581; David Ortiz, .BOS, 567

A bit of a falloff in the #4 and #5 slots, bringing the playoff-bound average down to two in three.

How do we do when we move to those paltry counting stats? First, homers:

Chris Carter, HOU, 15; Giancarlo Stanton, MIA, 12; Jose Bautista, TOR, 12; Adam LaRoche, WAS, 12

One out of three new names, we're now 7-for-12 in batting leaders who are headed to the post-season.

Shall we sully ourselves further, with RBI? Oh, what the hell:

Victor Martinez, DET, 42; Jose Bautista, TOR, 37; Evan Longoria, TBR, 37; Kennys Vargas, MIN, 37, Chris Carter, HOU, 36

That gets us to 7-for-14, or a 50% chance that a hitter on this "down the stretch" list will be on a post-season club.

Now, let's use OPS to look at the guys having the worst last two months of 2014. Here we go:

Matt Dominguez: generic...and bad enough
to be "two steps away from the county line..."
Matt Dominguez, HOU, .426; Derek Jeter, NYY, .486; Omar Infante, KCR, .549; Chris Johnson, ATL, .558; Brett Gardner, NYY, .559; Austin Jackson, SEA, .562

All new names, of course, and all of them (save KC...) are going to miss the post-season. That Austin Jackson deal didn't help the Mariners' offense much, did it? And clearly Gatorade™needed to spike their drink for Derek Jeter, as his final two months don't quite track with the awe and ecstasy of the teeming Bronx masses fawning over him in their puffed-up paean.

Worst batting averages since August 1? Two guys from Houston, and two from the Yankees make the list:

Jon Singleton, HOU, .160; Matt Dominguez, HOU, .165; Javier Baez, CHC, .173, Brett Gardner, NYY, .182; Mark Teixeira, NYY, .188; Chris Davis, BAL, .189.

Again, only the one playoff team member (the otherwise fallen-from-grace Davis). Proving, perhaps, that playoff teams avoid debilitating negative performance extremes as much if not more so than having a big surge from someone in the final two months.

Monday, September 22, 2014

2014: SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM??

There are now seven days left in the 2014 baseball season...a year that has been slow-cooked in a weird kind of high-achieving mediocrity. Two teams in the AL (Angels, Orioles) and one in the NL (Nationals) have managed to break through the gauzy veil of "meh-ness" that has enveloped the season from the first pitch of the year (which happened on foreign soil and at an ungodly hour--more artifacts of the "BS Era").

What typifies this pervasive, pervading torpor can be found in what would at first seem to be an exciting race for the AL Wild Card slots. As has often been the case, there are anywhere from three to six teams vying for what is now a double shot of post-season love, depending on how you read the tea leaves. We're going to leave the Tigers out of the mix for now and leave the Indians and Yankees in, if only to cherry-pick some data.

Our cartoon--stolen with rueful impunity from this week's New Yorker--sums up the situation quite nicely. There's a whole lotta flatlinin' goin' on, to put it in the twangiest parlance we can muster. (After all, the excitement is killing us!)

But the batting data summary for the five teams slouching toward the post-season (if not Bethlehem...and which teams would W.B. Yeats be rooting for, if his swoony, spectral ectoplasm could be summoned from the mists of Lethe? Perhaps we are better off not knowing...) indicates that all of these guys are stuck in a vat of offensive molasses that seems to have extended from coast to coast.




In short, none of these teams (Royals, A's, M's, Yanks, Indians) is hitting, and during the month of September they collectively under .500. Did we say that the excitement is killing us? (Is this thing on??)

The week ahead will certainly bring things to clarity, but probably more in the whimper vs. bang category. The Yanks and the Indians have to pretty much run the table this week to have a chance; frankly, that looks more doable for the Tribe, particularly since they are in position to add a delayed win to their total today, playing the "bottom of the ninth" at home against the Royals in a game suspended due to weather back in August. But they're going to have to sweep KC to get into it, and the vagaries of the schedule have deemed that they'll have to do that without ace Corey Kluber (17-9) in the mix.

Will KC put James Shields on the
mound twice this week??
Both the M's and the A's have to play the Angels this week; both teams have things set up as well as possible in terms of their rotation (A's will have Samardzija-Gray-Lester; M's will have Iwakuma-Paxton-Felix). They've each got to get at least two out of three in those series.

The Royals, those counterintuitive darlings of the "midwestern angst" branch of the neo-post-neosabes, are in need of a turnaround. They were hurt when Danny Duffy missed two starts and Jason Vargas returned to earth; what may have hurt most, though, was when Salvador Perez neglected to tag up on a lineout and wound up running into a game-changing double play against the Tigers. In a pinch, they could opt to put their ace James Shields on the mound twice on three days' rest; that move will likely be dictated by how things go in Cleveland over the next two days.

Well, now, look at this: excitement despite everything. But it's really just the hope that, somehow, something will prove to be exciting. Right now, we have no such proof--we have only the pudding. Stay tuned!

[UPDATE: The Royals have gotten their turnaround, in the form of their two young starters--Duffy and Yordano Ventura, who each posted scoreless outings after Cleveland held on to win the "suspended animation" game, 4-3. The Indians are now 4 1/2 back with five to play instead of just a half-game behind--which means they are through, despite a closing schedule just as favorable as the one they had last season and parlayed into the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Mariners' starting pitching betrayed them--first James Paxton was roughed up, and then--incredibly--Felix Hernandez, too as the Blue Jays put on their hitting shoes and reminded us of how good they can look when they do that. They are three games back, and need to run the table and get some help from the White Sox, who've made things easier for KC by ensuring that Chris Sale will miss their season-ending series with the Royals.

So whimper, si...bang, no--but the whimpering seems to have gotten over and done with. "Midwestern angst" returns to the post-season for the first time in a generation: praise the Lord and pass Joe P. a tablet that types its type in white-on-white...]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

2014: ANNUS MIRABILIS?

Just over 20% of all depictions of "Little Miss
Muffet" to be found on the 'Net partake of a
"goth" variation of some sort--this "little miss"
seems unlikely to be frightened away if "a
spider sat down beside her," n'est-ce pas??
We mentioned it awhile back...but we're getting down to the dregs of the 2014 season, so it's time to revisit the notion that this year may yet have something special to offer, despite its rather draggy overtones (late season surges and collapses have been more wan than usual; exceptional achievements are few and far between; and even a sizable portion of the folks living in the NYC metro area will be relieved when the Derek Jeter Antique Roadshow™ will finally be mothballed).

What is that transcendent moment, that soup├žon of salvation, that pleasant feeling of the highway cop driving by with antlers ablaze that are mercifully not meant for you?

The chart below will make it obvious to most (if not all) of you. It depicts the post-season teams that have represented the American League since 1995, when Budzilla stomped on Little Miss Muffet's tuffet and created the Wild Card.

What should be clear in even the briefest of glances at this chart is that we have never yet had a season since 1995 where baseball fans have been without a post-season appearance from either the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox.

Yes, Virginia, there really is something called "too much of a good thing."

Though we're not sure that this twenty-year "thing" (watch out for that subliminal, flashing "Fright Quotes R Us" ad...don't blink, and you'll miss it!) really qualifies as "good."

The color code--orange for division winners, deep blue for wild card teams, pale blue for teams that get a coin-toss game to be a wild-card team, various shades of blue for the current 2014 situation, where the paler the blue, the less likely the post-season appearance--makes it clear what we've been dealing with, coping with, even (in some instances...) seeing therapists about.

Nineteen consecutive years of some form of puffed-up blowhard-ery in the AL postseason...surely, in the midst of our ongoing litigious renaissance, there must be a class action suit in the works for this.

As the 2014 season reaches its final week, we cannot help but fixate on whether the suddenly plucky Yankees, who've wobbled all year and who've been on the ropes for the better part of six weeks, will suddenly plague those who hope to see them miss the post-season for two consecutive years by winning their last twelve games. (Dare we even mention the idea for fear of it coming true??)

Keep in mind, however, that the Yankees play the Red Sox on the last weekend of the 2014 season. While the Sox are well out of it, we can only imagine how much pleasure they would take in helping the Yankees to join them on the post-season sidelines. Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

2014: COMPLETE GAMES #99, #100, #101, #102, #103, #104...

Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays)
We have our first three-game CG losing streak in 2014. Earlier, you may recall, there were three CG losses on the same day (August 21st), but it was not technically a three-game losing streak due to the fact that Dallas Keuchel's opponent in the Astros-Yankees contest, Brandon McCarthy, also threw a CG--and didn't allow any runs.

Yusmeiro Petit (Giants)
But after CGs from Adam Wainwright (#99, 9/7: STL 9, MIL 1); Marcus Stroman (#100, 9/8: TOR 8, CHC 0); and Yusmeiro Petit (#101, 9/9: SFG 5, ARZ 1, using just 84 pitches...), we had three consecutive CG losses.

The "unlucky despite going all the way" guys are: Lance Lynn (#102, 9/11), whose Cardinals were shut out, 1-0; Scott Kazmir (#103, 9/11), who'd been struggling for the A's of late but wound up on the short end of a 1-0 game vs. the White Sox; and Julio Teheran (#104, 9/13), who--like Lynn--allowed only three hits but was victimized by sloppy defensive play as the Braves gave up three unearned runs while scoring nada en route to a 3-2 loss.

That brings the overall record of CG pitchers in 2014 (remember, in games where the pitcher went at least eight IP without benefit of a reliever...) down to 81-23 (.779).

A few isolated "losing CG facts" to ponder:

Two CG losses in 2014: Jeff Samardzija, Julio Teheran, Dallas Keuchel, Madison Bumgarner.

Rick Langford
In 23 losing CGs, teams whose pitchers have suffered the CG loss have had run support totalling twenty runs.

Melido Perez
Number of 1-0 CG losses: 7.
Number of 2-0 CG losses: 1.
Number of 3-0 CG losses: 2.
Number of 2-1 CG losses: 6.
Number of 3-1 CG losses: 0.
Number of 3-2 CG losses: 4.

The record for most CG losses in a season? Let's just say that since expansion (1961), that record is eleven, held by three pitchers (Mickey Lolich, 1974; Catfish Hunter, 1975; Rick Langford, 1980). The most since 1990 is 8 (Melido Perez, 1992) The record for most CG losses in a single season in the 21st century is held by Jeff Weaver, who had five in 2001. The aforementioned Brandon McCarthy had four in 2011, tying him with Mike Mussina (2000) and Livan Hernandez (2004).

Friday, September 12, 2014

AUSTER'S PITCH: HIGH & TIGHT OR DOWN & AWAY?

Auster's work is to surrealism what
Neufchatel was to real cream cheese...

In the pantheon of penisolate postmodern picaros who've scaled the sideways mountain of "littery" acclaim, Paul Auster is batting in the lower end of the big league batting order. He gets props, however, for his (strangely detached) loyalty to the Mets, whose history is exactly the type of spoon-fed mystical randomness in which Auster has trafficked for lo these many years.

He doesn't have the panache of Pynchon, or the legato backbeat lilt of DeLillo; he's not sybaritic enough, or interested in the promiscuities of language, to match up with Gilbert Sorrentino. In his wistful, involuted existentialist self-reflection, he's a lot like Paul Simon's buoyant-in-his-burden protagonist in his throwaway masterpiece "Keep The Customer Satisfied"--as a practitioner of watery, inertia-prone ficciones (eternally echo-eliding the names of his literary betters in hopes that it will rub off), he's always "one step away from the shoeshine, two steps away from the county line."

If they could ever have filmed
Coover's The Universal Baseball
Assocation
, Jason Robards Jr. was
the man to play J. Henry Waugh.
His embrace of baseball is just as jauntily remote, and after many decades of his moot-court meta-ironic posturing that was--let's face it--woefully incapable of carrying Robert Coover's jockstrap, we'd simply given up on the idea that Auster would ever transcend his ennui by tearing a page from the early scorebook of J. Henry Waugh. But, surprisingly, just a few days ago, he did just that.

Auster outlined a proposed change in the firmament of baseball, a change that has the potential to shake it to its core. It met with two common, abjectly related responses: the Scowl and the Shrug.

What was this change? It's a fundamental change in how pitchers and batters engage, two rule changes for the ADHD generation.

We're giving you the link to Auster's full comments, as they were delivered to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, but that's for background: the actual context of the remarks, as Auster himself has said (or through some playfully indeterminate protagonist, chinning himself on a vertical bar that represents the catechism of contingency...), is not important. The two key rule changes are enough fodder for the fiercely fustian among us:

--A walk shall occur after three balls.
--A batter will be out if he hits a foul ball with two strikes.

Yes, that's right. There shall be no more than five pitches per batter. Call this the new Austerity, a game that can return to the urban brawl it spilled out of its pastoral trappings way back in the eighties (the 1880s), when Walt Whitman and Mark Twain were both mesmerized by its energy (despite the fact that for much of that time, it took more than four balls for a batter to draw a walk).

Auster, of course, made only a feeble attempt to discern what the impact of these rule changes would be--and that was the foremost reason why his ideas were greeted with scorn (or were simply dismissed with a yawn). The sacrosanctity of four balls for a walk, however, is a fiction unto itself, and while it's certainly possible to believe without burden of proof (as Craig Calcaterra and others have done in responding semi-snarkily to Auster's "Big Idea"--and, yes, our sponsor "Fright Quotes R Us" is looking up and down at all this and licking its collective chops...), it's also intriguing enough to warrant the work to anatomize just what might happen to baseball if these rules were put into play.

Calcaterra states baldly that these changes would cause walks and strikeouts to explode in seriously greater frequency, but it's not really clear that this would happen. (We would love to have seen what he and others would have written in 1893 when the pitching distance was adjusted ten and a half feet. Whatever else we can say about our predecessors, they clearly possessed a pioneering spirit--something sorely lacking in current times.)

But before we address all that, let's actually try to quantify just how many pitches would be removed from the game if Auster's idea were implemented.

To do that, we tossed together the following chart utilizing "plate appearances by number of pitches" data compiled awhile back by the multi-hatted Paul Swydan (who is not yet a character in a Paul Auster novel). It's a nice slice of "big data," as it chronicles twenty-six seasons' worth of plate appearances--a total of over four million (though this is just under a hundred thousand fewer than the number of random recursions in Auster's fiction...).

From this, we can (after a little bit of extra detective work) apportion pitch quantities to the various batting counts that are possible at each incremental number of pitches. Here is what we came up with:



















The matchups of this data with the percentages for the "terminal states" of batters' plate appearances turn out to be pretty good (only a few discrepancies--nothing to get hung about, as John Lennon said). We can also identify from this breakout of "number of pitches" the plate appearances that would no longer exist if we were to implement Auster's idea.

Everything in the two shades of orange--a color that is clearly too vibrant for Auster's fiction...he'd never be an Astros fan, or dress poison gal Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead) in all that eye-popping citrus--is what would disappear.

The lighter orange shows the PAs that would not exist due to the three-ball walk; the bright orange--the same color as Madge's malevolent roadster--shows all of two-strike counts that would go away with the implementation of the "foul out" provision after pitch # 5.

It works out to a 25% decrease in total pitches thrown, as our second chart shows.

So, if the average number of pitcher per team per game is now right around 144, this change would drop that to 108. The large majority of "pitches saved" come from that scary three-ball walk--about 70% of the total drop.

How would Mitch Williams have fared with the three-ball rule?
The results would very often have looked just like this...
Calcaterra and others who've pretty much dismissed the idea out of hand are convinced that the fabric of the game would be utterly destroyed by these changes, but we're not so sure. After all, the number of pitches for a walk decreased rapidly during MLB's infancy, and it didn't have anything like the effect on offense that the initial change to the current 60'6" pitching distance had.

We can see batters and pitchers adjusting rather rapidly to the three-ball rule. The game would become more aggressive as a result, and there would likely evolve some kind of resurgence in contact hitting and bat control, particularly for the batters with lesser amounts of power.

We're not convinced, however, that we need the five-pitch rule along with the three-ball-walk. The data shows that we'd reduce pitches by 17-18% with just the one rule change. That's significant enough, and will result in a drop of 25 pitches per team per game.

Oddly enough, we don't think that offensive levels or the shape of offensive statistics would change all that much. There would likely be greater variability in the first few months, with individual pitchers and batters having difficult adjustments. But the power of evolutionary adaptation would surely prevail, and do so within a short period of time.

So we've bought half-way into Auster's idea (just as we've done the same with his fiction). We can see the three-ball walk speeding up the pace of the game, and encouraging a great deal of offensive experimentation by hitters--while forcing pitchers to throw more strikes. If anything, it's likely to reverse  (at least somewhat) the trend toward two-dimensonal hitting approaches and create a greater variance in  both theory and result.

That strikes us as quite possibly A Good Thing. It's time to be bold, you know? It's time to risk falling flat on one's face. That's what a novelist does everytime he/she writes a sentence. But at a certain level of the practice of a craft, no matter how repetitive (not just novelist or ballplayer--think porno star!), the risk just takes care of itself. The pros make the adjustments, and the game goes on.

And they just get it on (there's that porno thang again...). They just get on with it. And that can never be--well, hardly ever be--A Bad Thing. (Unless, of course, you're the Wild Thing...)