Friday, September 12, 2014


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
, 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...)