Wednesday, May 18, 2011


John Thorn has thrown down the gauntlet about what we might call the intersection of statistics and aesthetics in baseball--in other words, how the shape of baseball's numbers define the intrinsic set of values that the game displays both to its participants and its observers. It is an issue that is hardly ever addressed, and we should be grateful that baseball's Official Historian is turning his attention to it.

In his recent blog post, "Where Triples Go To Die," John writes beautifully about the nature of early baseball. Even though it is clearly impossible to go back to such a game, Thorn's description of it demonstrates why baseball became so pre-eminent a reflection of American culture:

From its earliest epoch, when a runner could be retired by a thrown ball, baseball was a game defined by its adventurous circuit around the bases. The ancient field games — before bats and balls and other implements came into play — involved chaotic chasing, eluding, and capture. When baseball began it was primarily a game for runners and fielders rather than the batsman or the pitcher. The new game of ball took its name from its hallmark feature: the base, a safe haven symbolizing a bay or harbor amid the perilous homeward course.

"Home runs and candy bars--that's Quinlan's version of baseball...
bloated, bloated, bloated!!"
Thorn then goes on to decry the home run as having so utterly changed the dynamic of the game that he finds baseball to be a lapsed form of its former self, bloated (like Orson Welles in a fat suit in Touch of Evil), literally unrecognizable. And his anguish at the loss of the triple is so palpable that it seems that he's internalized all of the systematic despair chronicled in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Of course, the "state of the triple" (which we've touched upon here earlier) has long been a fait accompli, but instead of merely decrying this state of events (a sentiment with which we heartily sympathize), it might be time to look at ways to reclaim the triple in the ongoing context of the game. Why mire ourselves in lamentation when we can dream up a solution to what has been a sixty-year malaise? (We might say the same thing about our country, spending sixty years in a state of polarization as it teeters between the excesses of predatory capitalism and the fragile Eden of a transformed democracy.)

OK, so what can be done? Changing ballparks to reflect a more systematic asymmetry would be a good start. But it may not be enough: in fact, it almost certainly won't be. Baseball needs to figure out a way to literally re-infuse the triple into the game, to find a way to add at least fifty percent more triples. How the hell can that happen?

It's called change the rules. (Politicians do it all the time, of course, and baseball has done more than its share of it in the past, though the dizzying pace of its evolution away from the version that Thorn and others prefer has slowed considerably.) We need to do something completely unorthodox, possibly outright wacky--surreal, even--to reinsert some new wrinkle, a re-invention of that old, lost texture into how the game is played.

A crude depiction of
"The 175 Line"
With that caveat, here goes. To create a set of on-field conditions that simulate an intensely triples-friendly environment, we add a new rule to the game that says that the field manager for each team gets to choose one inning from innings two through six in any contest where the opposition must move one of its outfielders closer to the infield--say, at a line drawn across the field at 175 feet. The other two outfielders must cover the outward ground, which will be opened up considerably and dramatically increase the opportunity for both doubles and triples, depending upon where the ball is hit.

We won't allow managers to call for this configuration in the first inning, because the first inning is the only inning in a game when teams are guaranteed to bat their best hitters in the order designed to produce the most runs. And besides, we want the use of this strategy to inform the context of each game, so that it, too, does not succumb to the perils of uniformity.

And we won't allow the method to be held out for use in the later innings, because that, too, would trend toward a sameness of application that already plagues player usage in the present-day game.

One half-inning like this for each team will add a type of tension that will be palpable both to the players and the fans. It will add a strategic dimension that, literally, has never existed in the game even back in the days when batters could "call their pitch."

How many innings like this would occur where a defensive team managed to keep the opponent from scoring a run? What type of psychological lift would be gained from such an achievement? Well, of course, we don't have any idea. We have to find a way to try out such an idea, even if seems silly or outlandish. We need to test it somehow. And this is not the type of test that can simply be done with regression analyses or modeling, though such techniques might be applied to tell us something about how such a rule change would affect both the shape and the amount of offense.

No, we need a real-life tryout for this idea, surreal as it might sound. Some things just have to be seen to be evaluated. Baseball could regain some of what Mark Twain called its "drive, and push, and rush, and struggle" with such bold experimentation.

The result of this rule change, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations, would be to produce at least one more triple per game. Doesn't sound like all that much, but add it up over 2200+ games and the impact of the difference might become clear. That would be a good start, and it just might encourage our melancholy Official Historian to break out into a jig. I will be right there dancing with you, John. [EDIT: For a somewhat lighter side of Thorn, inspect his long and winding quiz.]