Wednesday, January 27, 2021

NOTES ON HANK AARON & THE 2021 HALL OF FAME ELECTION

Class of 1984: George
Orwell approved...
These will be brief--we promise. We'll start with the Hall of Fame: it was a weak year for new potential candidates, with roughly 3% of the votes cast for that group. Weak but not historically weak: that would be years like 1976 or 1984, where no votes were cast for new candidates. 

Such lulls often propel candidates already under scrutiny over the top and into the Hall: 1984 was an example of that, with the vacuum of the new bringing Harmon Killebrew, Don Drysdale and Luis Aparicio over the induction line, and paving the way for Hoyt Wilhelm to make the leap in 1985. (A fifth player, Nellie Fox, nearing the tail end of his eligibility, just missed, topping out at 74% in 1986.)

No over-and-in for anyone in '21, however. Three controversial candidates--Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds--barely had the needle move from the previous year and will have their final BBWAA reckoning in '22. That permitted leaps for viable candidates such as Scott Rolen and Todd Helton, subtle-but-worthy candidates like Billy Wagner and Gary Sheffield (somehow not now as controversial as Manny Ramirez...), and cult phenomena such as Andruw Jones

Due to the logjam of candidates in 2014-19, Rolen, Sheffield, Wagner and Jones are all bidding to jump from 7-12% first-year voter support all the way to Cooperstown, something done only in the primordial days of the HOF ballot process. Our best guess is that Rolen, Helton and Wagner will make it, while Sheffield and Jones will not.

Our semi-clandestine hope is that Tim Hudson, who just barely stayed on the ballot (5.2%) in his first year, will find someone inside the baseball putsch to champion him. All Hudson did was win ballgames: he and Carl Mays are the only two pitchers with 200+ wins and a .600+ WPCT who are not in the Hall. That may seem absurdly "old school" to the "too cool" folks who continue to ram defective "advanced metrics" down people's throats, but Hudson has a number of other attributes to buttress his case: he just needs the right PR. If he were to somehow make the leap, he will have done so from the lowest first-year vote percentage in modern history.

Now on to a no-doubt first-ballot  "inner circle" Hall of Famer: let's call him
Mister Aaron
(in honor of Mister Tibbs). He's no longer first in the consolidated player listings (reliever Dave Aardsma now occupies that slot) but his passing a few days ago at age 86 brought back a multitude of memories that aren't reconcilable with today's longball longueurs. In 1966, when Aaron's team moved to Atlanta, no one expected the steady slugger to challenge Babe Ruth's home run record. 

But with a finishing kick at a phase in his career (ages 36-39) that no one had ever approached to that point, Aaron pushed his way past age (and racial prejudice) to put himself in position to overtake the game's most storied slugger. He hit 159 HRs over those four years (1970-73)--16 more than Ruth, 43 more than Ted Williams, and 73 more than Willie Mays. (Barry Bonds now holds the record, with 209--though some consider that tainted.)

#713, hit September 29, 1973,
off Jerry Reuss
 
The finishing kick reached its glorious apex during the last two months of the 1973 season, a phenomenon that we've not seen discussed anywhere else. At the start of '73, Aaron was channeling those stultifying Three "True" Outcomes, posting a surreal slash line of .125/.300/.411 for April. (That's still surreal, even in our funhouse mirror age.) He had a fine May, regressed in June, and on July 6th he was still hitting just .231. From that point on to the end of the season, Aaron then proceeded to hit .392, with 19 HR in 205 plate appearances, slugging .789 (!) and posting a 1.263 OPS. Four years before Star Wars, Henry Aaron was a Force unto himself.

In a time before easy access to up-to-the-minute occurrences, Aaron's incredible run over the last three months of 1973 was beyond electrifying. Eddie Mathews, his manager and long-time teammate, was scrupulous about resting Aaron, who played in only 120 games en route to a 40-homer season at age 39; and as he moved ever closer to the Babe's mark, there were folks who were annoyed when he wasn't in the lineup during September--when he was less than ten homers back. During this stretch, however, he reminded us that he was a truly great hitter and not just a slugger. On the second-to-last day of the season, he hit #713 and the world hung on every pitch the next day, when Aaron faced off against Houston Astros lefty Dave Roberts (not the Dodgers' current manager).

Aaron went 3-for-4 and raised his season average to .301, but they were all singles and the world would have to (that's right) wait 'til next year for the stirring finish to a tale worthy of Homer (no pun intended). As Watergate simmered its way to a boil, Hank Aaron was the hottest hitter you've even seen--and if you were lucky enough to see it, you will never forget it. Thank you, Mister Aaron, and may infinite flights of angels sing you to a most well-deserved rest. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

R.I.P. DICK

Alas, Dick Allen's passing (earlier today, at age 78) will not be the final act of cruelty imposed upon America in 2020, but it will be as emblematic as any that have occurred in this Year of the Plague.

The Hall of Fame will doubtless rectify its egregious long-standing moral and analytical error and induct Dick sometime next year, but the damage has been done. As with Ron Santo--the player we suggested long, long ago who should have been inducted along with Dick as one of the greatest possible "healing moments" in baseball history--the creaky mavens of privileged idiocy have once again managed to find a way to avert their gaze from an unconscionable injustice.

In Dick's case, of course, the miscreants at the Hall (and the toadies they employ to do their execrable bidding) went out of their way to bar the door...you could call it "voter suppression" and--as some like to say, glibly--"be in the ballpark." Not only did they give him a leering lap-dance in 2014, leaving him just one vote short of induction, they then changed the voting schedule to ensure the greatest possible length of time between elections in which he was eligible.


That brought us to 2020. And, of course, with a pandemic underway, the Hall decided it was really more aligned with football than baseball and punted again, postponing this year's Veterans Committee vote even though other voting functions related to baseball were able to conduct their efforts without undue difficulty.

Nothing overt,  of course: just the drip, drip, drip of a kind of cultural water torture that now appears to be the focal point of a nation incapable of reconciling with anything that happened in le decade maudit: the 1960s. A decade of black hope and black anger, and backlash against black anger that, six decades later, is still shamefully being used to further undermine a nation leveraged by its own greed and self-absorption.

To his immense credit, Dick Allen moved beyond the traumas that surrounded his baseball career. He knew that he'd conjured the furies around himself, simply by being his own man. Controversy would always surround him, so he mastered a Zen-like repose when it came to the Hall of Fame. Ironically, "pandemic ball" might have been the perfect environment for him--less access to reporters and fans, and more of an opportunity to focus on the Tao of baseball.

But then much of Dick's insolent charm might never have surfaced. When he is not whitewashing Bill James for his reprehensible perspective on black anger that he scurrilously projected on Dick Allen, Joe Posnanski is able to remind us of how clever and quotable Dick was, despite carrying the burden of what we once injudiciously termed "the angry Negro problem." Perhaps white folks are scared witless by the prospect of African-American unrest because deep down they know that it is entirely justifiable, and their need to deny this is strong enough for them to vote for racists and fascists with a kind of glassy-eyed impunity.

Dick's acts of defiance were not violent, they were creative. He would create an overwrought reaction simply by tracing the word "no" in the dirt next to first base. His absences, through injury or ill-fated injunction, were always larger than life: he provoked great wit in those who sought to disparage him, and instead revealed his immense magnitude (example: the 1969 jibe about men landing on the moon and finding Dick Allen there). 

He'd merely followed the trajectory of his own moon-shots, of course. And he played just as hard as he hit the ball, which resulted in injuries that wore him down and caused him to turn further inward. Three times he tried to come back too soon (1970, 1973, 1976): the first two of these episodes, which resulted in additional time off the field, cemented him in the minds of many as a malingerer. His career was less than it might have been, but what there was of it was still magnificent; but nothing Dick Allen achieved would ever be good enough for those who'd typecast him and looked for ways to justify ostracizing him from the Hall of Fame.

So--here we are. Dick has died, but Dick lives on. He will always be a living embodiment of baseball as a lightning rod for the hopes of an entire people, searching for an authentic identity--terms that are now so cynically castigated in the current theatre of American cruelty. There have been some interesting characters since Allen walked away from baseball who have captured a fragment of Dick's sly swagger: Jose Canseco, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield. But they don't possess the eternal cultural resonance that Dick learned, over time, to wear lightly, in the hope that it might eventually be a path for healing. 

The Hall of Fame is, again, a Hall of Shame. Surely they will induct Dick soon, adding one more bedpost notch in the ongoing nadir of American hypocrisy. It is up to us to transcend all that, and transcend the disease that is crippling America. Let's do it for Dick: nothing would make him happier to know that a troubled nation could learn how to heal by following the path of a man marching to a different drummer. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

BASEBALL 2024: FOUR LEAGUES & 3 BASES (2 of 2)

 The future of baseball is predicated, of course, on the United States surviving (and thus having expelled from the White House) the nation's ironic, cataclysmic Anti-Christ. We (yes, it's back to "we" for this post...) remain cautiously optimistic, thus we will suggest how to save baseball from its own bestial force of reason with a series of changes that go beyond our fateful yet fanciful "190-foot rule." 

Not that we expect much (if any) of it to happen as we are about to lay it out, but everyone is entitled to his/her fantasy so long as they don't try to impose it on others.

What will baseball in 2024 need (aside from the 190-foot rule, of course)? An infusion of cash. Since there is a chance for another "altered" season in '21, things could actually start to get a little tight. That cash can easily come from expansion, and the view here is that 2024 is the year to add two teams. 

Our choices for those two teams: Montreal and Charlotte. The reason for this will become clear immediately, particularly if you refer back to the title of this post ("four leagues").

Yes, four leagues. We need a bigger change, something signaling that the game is actually moving into the twenty-first century.

The leagues are geographic in structure. We propose that they look like this:

EASTERN LEAGUE: Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Blue Jays, Pirates, Orioles, Montreal.

SOUTHERN LEAGUE: Braves, Rays, Marlins, Astros, Rangers, Nationals, Reds, Charlotte.

MIDWEST LEAGUE: Royals, Twins, Cardinals, Cubs, White Sox, Brewers, Indians, Tigers.

WESTERN LEAGUE: Dodgers, Giants, A's, Padres, Angels, Mariners, Rockies, Diamondbacks.

We'll get to how the post-season works shortly. The eight-team league will combine with interleague play in a way that will allow a few geographical rivalries to continue. (Most of the game's long-term rivalries, such as Yankees-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, are retained in the redistribution of teams into the four leagues.) Each team plays 18 games against its seven league rivals, which covers 126 games. Each team will then play a home/away series with six other teams, probably two from each of the three other leagues, which adds another 36 games, bringing us back to a 162-game schedule.

We're not interested in divisional play with an eight-team league structure. It's more sporting to have eight team leagues, which brings the twenty-first century back to a variation of the game's original formulation. In that way, baseball retains one of its key elements: a sense of the past embedded in the present and future.

The top three finishers in each league advance to the post-season. But wait: there is a wrinkle here, another idea from a different context in the past that needs to be implemented to create some responsiveness to uncertainties and anomalies that could crop up in the league standings. Consider: it's possible for one league to have teams finishing fourth or fifth that have better overall season records than the teams finishing third in their league. We should accommodate any such team(s) who find themselves in such a situation. 

We're thinking of the long-lost "fairness doctrine" that used to provide some checks/balances on American media. While we're not holding our breath for a return of that in the next four years, we can at least incorporate a variant of it somewhere in our public life. Baseball is probably the least unlikely choice. 

So, the initial round, which may or may not happen depending on how orderly the order of finish is within leagues, could be called the "fairness round," but (as Jim Bouton would say if he were here) that "sounds horseshit" so we'll just stick with the "wild card round." Here are how the rounds work in this setup:

Wild card/"fairness" round: Any fourth/fifth place finishers with better season records than third place finishers in other leagues will play a one-game sudden death advancement game, opponents to be determined at random. This gets us a slate of "third place" teams for the next round.

First round: 3rd place teams (or winners from a wild card round) will play best-of-3 series against the second place finishers. (If a fourth place team plays and beats a second-place team, the third place team gets the home field advantage.) Note that this round will be assigned at random, and will not be based on playing within leagues: this will have an interesting possible ramification at the end of the process.

By the way, we should note that all of the rounds up to but not including the World Series will be played at a neutral site. 

Second round, aka the "division series": First round winners play the 1st place teams in a best-of-5 series.

Third round, aka the "championship": The four surviving teams from the second round play best-of-7 series.

Fourth round, aka the World Series: played in the home parks of the participants. We leave it open as to whether the series is best-of-7, or best-of-9 as it was briefly in the 1920s.

Note that such a structure brings us into a twenty-first century scenario (similar to a more fanciful, free-wheeling version of this scenario that we proposed back in the 1995 Big Bad Baseball Annual) where the World Series opponents would be teams from the same league. Let's be honest, all you East Coasters out there: would it not blow your mind if the Yankees and the Red Sox were actually to meet in the World Series? We thought so. 

We had a few other ideas for the post-season, such as creating an post-season slot for the team that has the best record in interleague play (remember, 36 games, so it's more of a presence than ever before) if it isn't already in the playoffs (if applicable). That would add a "wild card vs. wild card" opening salvo á la what we currently have with the second wild card team.

There are a few other matters that need to disposed of before we can put all of this into action. First, we have to decide what to do about the designated hitter. The proposal here is to rotate the DH through the leagues on a yearly basis, probably in this order of application: Eastern, Midwest, Southern, Western. When a league is the DH league, all of its games are DH games, including interleague games at home. But interleague games between the unassigned leagues will not use the DH. Intraleague games in unassigned leagues will add some spice to the application of the rule by flipping a coin before each game: heads, they play using the DH; tails, they play without it. Such an approach will allow the DH to exist in all leagues, but in varying degrees/amounts, which should satisfy all constituencies.

Second--and tying in with part one of this post--we have a proposal for how to incorporate the "190-foot rule" into the game. (The rule has been featured here on a number of occasions, including the next post down in our blog sequence.) Our plan would be to rotate it through the leagues over an eight-year period and let public opinion carry the day. We would begin in the Western League for purely selfish reasons: we live in the West and we don't want to have to travel very far to see this rule in action! It would be in play for two years there, then moved to the Midwest League for two years, followed by a stint in the Southern League, and then finally to the East Coast (where they make too many decisions for the rest of the country as it is).

There is more to such a reform, of course, than just the 190-foot rule. Since ballpark dimensions are now highly fixed by postmodern stadium design, additional measures to curb HRs will be needed to reorient things so that the teams in the 2024 Western League will be participating in what we might call the "ball-in-play league." This involves a variation of the approach adopted by the Los Angeles Dodgers when they first moved west; forced to play in a football stadium with a 250-foot left field foul line, they erected a 40-foot screen to curtail home runs. (One shudders to think what the homer count would've been had they not done so...)

So teams in the Western League will be asked to do the same thing from the foul poles to the power alleys, in order to curtail HRs. The target result is a reduction of HRs by 35%, which would take things from 1.28 HR/G (the MLB average in 2020) down to roughly .90--a figure that, unimaginably, is the mid-point between the HR/G average in 2013 and 2014. (As we've all learned the hard way, four years can create a lot of havoc.)

Such a change would likely drive doubles up to a per-game average at or near a major league record (1.93, set in 1930). The shape of XBH in the Western League would likely be at serious odds with those in the other leagues (for example: 1.93 2B/0.44 3B/.90 HR in the Western League; 1.59 2B/0.15 3B/1.25 HR elsewhere). The differences in style of play will be immediately apparent.

Of course, underlying issues with offensive strategy may still need adjustment. As Brock Hanke points out, a total change in style of play cannot occur until hitters, hitting coaches and the various appendages of what we like to call "analytical amuck" address the radical approaches implemented over the past five years and its relationship to the 25+% uptick in strikeouts over the past decade. Putting balls in play will increase batting average--and despite the ongoing groupthink suffocation about the meaninglessness of BA, the chart at right makes it clear that, all else being roughly equal, teams with higher BA score more runs. (Strikeouts are not quite so linear in their behavior, but Hanke's general notion is only mitigated by this, and not refuted.)

We noted in the previous post that a shift in analytic thinking needs to occur, and such a need is becoming more desperate as time goes on. The shift from applying actions to theories that push baseball further into the invidious "Three True Outcomes" clusterf*ck (there is no other word that will really do, folks...) to applying controls that can stabilize run scoring without the type of extreme performance shape that has manifested itself from 2017 on is barely on the horizon line of those who either run the game or participate in the increasing "embedded discourse" that is providing justification for the existence of teams that hit under .220 for an entire season.

Indeed, the most under-reported fact of the 2020 season (of course, much was going on in and around baseball to assist in keeping the news under wraps...) is that so many teams hit in the vicinity of the so-called Mendoza Line. The 1972 Texas Rangers were last team to reside in this area, an event that was at least partly responsible for the introduction of the DH rule in the American League the following year. All of the various ups/downs in offensive levels that had occurred in the nearly half a century since then had never managed to produce a team that cracked the Bottom 20 in team batting average.

As the table at right demonstrates, all that changed in 2020. No less than five teams smashed their way onto the list, including four teams that pinballed their way into the top (er, bottom...) ten. We still have eight teams from the low point of the deadball era (1908-10) on the list, and there are still seven teams from the "second deadball era" (1963-72) residing in the mire. They've been joined, however, by five teams from 2020 whose best excuse is that a somewhat colder-than-usual September took the wind out of their sails and influenced their numbers more because of the length of the season.

We'll find out about this trend for sure over the next couple of years, but we would caution you if you decide to bet against it. We've crossed a threshold here, and while HRs will doubtless remain all too plentiful, many of the other type of hits will continue to wither away before our eyes. For the Rangers, they have some rueful symmetry in play, with their first team in Dallas and their most recent season being tied for fifth worst team BA. That's an achievement that a franchise can truly hang its ten-gallon hat on, n'est-ce pas? Backing away from the populist hegemony of those "Three True Outcomes" may be as difficult as tamping down the neo-fascist insurgency, but what makes it that much more unsettling is realizing that the folks tearing at the fabric of baseball are clearly supposed to be able to know better. What we present here is a path through the forest: it is still an open question as to whether anyone will decide to change direction and see where it can take us. As we like to say at this point: stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

BASEBALL 2024, or: FOUR LEAGUES & THREE BASES (1 of 2)

For years now, folks have crossed to the other side of the street (and some have even run down alleys á la Dr. Richard Kimble in a claiming race vs. the insane Lt. Gerard...) whenever the subject of my 190-foot rule would rear its ugly head. The ultimate denial of the idea that is destined to save baseball in spite of itself is manifested in a conspiracy of silence that even those who still nod at me as I take a wild-eyed morning walk with two desperately straining dachshunds (yes, even they are trying to escape my infernal penumbra...) are desperate to cling to as they swallow hard and quicken their pace. (One fellow even flagged down an Uber without using his phone... a sign of serious desperation.)

So apparently the 190-foot rule actually applies to me--and not, as I'd been mistakenly believing for all these years, to a nifty innovation that can both heal all wounds and wound all heels as we try to at least make something work the way it should in this cockeyed caravan we call America. (Why baseball? Why not?) I would claim to be bloodied but unbowed, but such a cliché is particularly meaningless since folks are running away before they can even take a swing at me...now that's respect!

Of course, at this moment in time, as COVID rates are rising even faster than the HR/G averages (no mean feat, by the way...) a 190-foot rule is only good sense, but perhaps as you read this third graf of bemused complaint you are wondering just what the hell I am babbling about. Basically, it's all about triples and how to get more of them.

Which was why, as I wrote up a blueprint for baseball in 2024, I was startled when Bill James, who has morphed into a fearsomely formidable Twitterer over the past several years, finally got around to a burning question that touches upon the need for triples (a need that is fully as desperate as the need for folks to flee my presence--mostly on land, but I did see a guy positively wracked with fear racing away from me in a power boat the other day...)

Ahem...yes, the need for triples. You've all known it, but there's been a conspiracy of silence about that, too. Bill (who is 74.47% worse at keeping his big yap shut than I am, which actually strains all but the most sensitive measurement systems) finally decided to poll his Twitter tribe about triples. You can see his question over at the left. The results might surprise you, but more likely it will resonate with you. 

So...given this blog's extravagant, intransigent proselytizing for the three-base hit and how to save them from the slow extinction that the post-neo age of quant quackery is slowly imposing, it's now apparent that more than two-thirds of you have actually been running toward me--even if you were doing it by way of asynchronous orbit. As with most complicated relationships (Kimble and Gerard, Keynes and Hayek, Kim Kardashian and her brassiere collection), you just didn't know that the person you were shunning and defiling was actually your soulmate. After all, remember what William Carlos Williams said. (You say you can't remember? Remind me to remind you...)

So...you want triples. (Say this with a Yiddish accent to get into the proper mood.) We got 'em...guaranteed. It's simple, even though it's yours truly at his most cheekily convoluted (or, as he so often says: is that vice-versa?). March down the left field foul line (we've had enough of right field to last a lifetime, thank you...) until you are 190 feet away from home plate. Draw a looping line across the field until you reach the other foul line. This is the line that sets up the way we triple the number of triples in the game.

Before the game begins, the managers and umps exchange lineups and pleasantries. In our newfangled game that brings back a forgotten old favorite (the folks in the 1890s took triples for granted...) they also decide which half-inning each team will have to take the field with their centerfielder tucked inside that 190-foot line without benefit of any other outfield shifting. 

What does that do? It creates a great deal of additional open space for balls in play to land safely in regions where they will make it much more likely that the batter will get three bases on a long hit than only two. 

Of course you also have to either deaden the ball or erect screens in front of the bleachers from the foul poles to the power alleys to cut down on the obscene number of home runs, because the current shape of extra-base hits per game (1.54 2B-0.12 3B-1.38 HR) is an abomination only slightly less catastrophic than climate change. I'm figuring that such a rule, even applied to each team for just one half-inning, in conjunction with HR-retarding outfield screens, will alter the shape of extra-bases per game to something like 1.76 2B-0.44 3B-0.88 HR.

You might notice something in that projected shape...note that there would be twice as many HRs as triples, and twice as many doubles as HRs. That is the "golden ratio" that the "statistical social engineers" of baseball should attempt to impose upon the game's "extra-base shape." 

Why can't we just fix the ball, you ask? Because we will have a death valley for offense when a deadened ball reduces HRs. It's clear that the ball was juiced after pitcher adjustments in 2013-14 brought run scoring levels in the league back toward 1960s levels. That, along with "launch angle" and a singularly unimaginative emphasis on relief pitchers with meagre repertoires, has given us the two-dimensional game that fans are starting to run away from as if the game--well, if the game had transformed into your favorite social pariah...

What about larger ballparks? A non-starter...look at the parks that have been built. Like much in post-postmodern America, they have less than the bare minimum of flexibility built into their workings. There is simply no way to alter the ballparks to achieve larger outfields.

But you can shrink the number of outfielders to create a different path to the same thing (which, come to think of it, could be the motto for America). You don't have to do it in every inning, of course--that would be too much of a good thing (and you know what that can lead to...) 

A "190-foot" rule just might put Owen "Chief"
Wilson's triples record (36) within reach..
.

To finish with how the rule is implemented: after those lineups and pleasantries, the head ump pulls out a six-sided die, similar to the ones that send you home from Vegas with a seriously thin wallet. It has some combination of these four numerals on it: 3, 4, 5, 6. He hands it to the visiting manager or his factotum, who rolls it. Let's say a "5" comes up. That means that the visitors will have to conform to the 190-foot rule and move their centerfielder into "short field" position in the bottom of the fifth. Remember, in this inning they cannot move an infielder into the outfield.

Then the home team rolls the die again. Let's say they roll a "4." That means that they will have to conform to the 190-foot rule in the top of the fourth, when they are in the field. 

Probabilities suggest that, via this rule, there will be an additional triple hit by one of the teams in every other ballgame. That will roughly "triple the number of triples" that are hit. 

And the innings in which the rule is in force will produce a kind of anticipation in the ballpark that is as palpable as it unique. These half-innings will have a completely different dynamic: a new randomness and variability will be generated that will keep both the teams and the fans on their toes. 

Remember, 68% of those who responded to James' Twitter poll said they'd rather see a triple than a home run. Clearly this number has risen significantly in recent times--one doubts that such a poll would be tilted in such a way during a period in baseball history that wasn't so egregiously saturated with homers. But it signals that my idea is not quite so outlandish or out of touch as all of you folks still crossing the street to avoid me might first think. I don't care if I remain a social pariah just so long as I save baseball from its own torpor. 

Oh, yes--there's something in the title of this post about "four leagues," isn't there? We'll get back to that. But if you think this is crazy, just wait--all of you will be flagging down Ubers without a phone. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

QMAX: TOM SEAVER--THE EARLY YEARS (1967-69)

Tom Seaver, who passed away earlier this week at age 75, is as iconic to the team he should have played for his entire career (the New York Mets) as Babe Ruth was to the Yankees. 

Ruth joined a good team in 1920 and helped it win seven pennants over fifteen years; Tom joined a team that lost 100+ games in five of its first six seasons and led it to a World Championship in its eighth year of existence. 

While there are greater pitchers in the history of the game (and you are free to supply your own names), Seaver is in the top ten--and he is a close second to Greg Maddux for being the most intelligent man to toe a pitching rubber. 

Rather than follow those who've already eulogized him as a pitcher and a human being, we'll spend some time here looking at Seaver's glorious beginnings with the Mets, using our favorite starting pitcher evaluation tool--the Quality Matrix (QMAX) to track his evolution from a highly effective 22-year old rookie to a Hall of Fame-level pitcher at age 24 (in that magical, mystical year of 1969).

We'll take a little time with the first chart to remind those of you who've been away from QMAX (and/or from this blog) just how the system works. Simply put, it uses hit prevention and walk prevention to create a performance matrix that classifies starting pitcher performance using each game as a separate unit. The best games (to the top and left of the QMAX matrix diagram) are the ones where pitchers prevent the most hits, walks--and, to a somewhat more variable extent, total bases (the system was enhanced once more detailed starting pitcher data became available thanks to Retrosheet). 

Note that these matrix regions do not use runs allowed in any way to make these evaluations. (Unlike, for example, Bill James' Game Scores.) Instead, the system concatenates all of the starts that meet the criteria for inclusion in each of the 49 performance slots in the matrix) and calculates the statistical data for each separately. The key data collected for the purposes of QMAX is the won-loss records for these matrix slots: by applying these to each individual pitcher's dataset, QMAX computes a probabilistic winning percentage for each pitcher. We call that the QMAX winning percentage, or QWP.

You'll see the extra data that is compiled from QMAX shortly; let's revisit the ranges on the QMAX matrix diagram using Seaver's 1967 performance grid as a guide to how the system works. Remembering that the upper left area of the chart is the region where the best games in hit/walk prevention occur, note the green box covering cells 1,1-2,2. This is what we've termed the "elite square," because pitchers win 88% of the games that fall in this region, while their teams win 79%. The greatest pitchers have their starts in this region with the greatest frequency. Seaver's total (eight) and percentage of total starts (8/34, or 24%) on his QMAX chart in 1967 (above left) is good but not great. 

The method is set up so that the "4" region spreading horizontally across the chart represents the starts where hit prevention is almost always equal to the number of innings pitched in any given start. (There are a few exceptions to this now that total bases and the ratio of total bases/hits is factored in, but it doesn't affect the modeling enough to perturb the results.) The yellow region surrounding the "elite square" is the area where pitchers and teams win more than 50% of the time, and was dubbed the "success square" (even though the 4, 4 cell is not part of this area and thus the region is not really a square). The 6 and 7 region shown in orange is the "hit hard" region: only the games at the far left of each row are games in which pitchers can still have a viable chance to win games, since they are often limiting walks and total bases. Seaver's percentage in the 6-7 region is 15% (5/34): again, very good, but not great. The eight starts in the "5" region, though, are somewhat high.

The ranges on the chart that are tabulated into percentages are thus: the "success square" (which incorporates the "elite square" to give a total positive percentage; the "elite square" (showing the propensity for best possible hit/walk prevention in each start; the "hit hard" region (how vulnerable to games with poor stuff and/or command); the "top hit prevention" region (the 1-2 rows on the matrix chart) which show how frequently batters find the pitcher especially difficult to hit; the "power precipice" (the box from 1,4-2,7) where pitchers who are not good at walk prevention may still prevail due to their ability to suppress hits; the "Tommy John" region (the box from 4,1-7,2) named after the man who frequently could allow more hits than innings pitched but still win games due to superior walk prevention).

These can all be collated into a table that shows what we call the "QMAX range data." (Or, sometimes, called "region data.") It provides a sense of performance shape in addition to value. Of course you can also average the individual scores (cell locations) for each start made by a pitcher in a season, which can then be compared to the league average. The lower a pitcher's average is, the better. For Seaver in 1967, his basic QMAX averages are 3.53 "S" and 2.65 "C." Again, these are good but not great numbers. The QMAX range data summary for Seaver's first three seasons show how he improved incrementally over his first three years in the big leagues. The combined QMAX score of 6.18 in 1967 has improved to 5.04 (remember, lower is better) in 1969. 

The "S" and "C " components show us that Seaver improved his hit prevention and walk prevention in '68, which improved his other range data percentages as well, shown by increases in "elite square percentage" and in games with excellent walk prevention--as measured in the "C1" percentage state (a column near the center of the table above). 

In another year, his 5.14 combined QMAX score would produce a higher QWP than .641; but 1968 was the year of the pitcher, and increased overall hit/walk prevention (and, of course, lower run scoring) decreases the value of these top games--pitchers and teams win fewer of them under such conditions--and this knocks down Seaver's QWP as a result. 

In 1969, hit/walk prevention values (and run scoring levels) increased, and the mound was lowered 5-6 inches in height. This seemed to affect Seaver in the early going, as his QMAX values declined (remember, higher is worse) to around the levels of his rookie year. In mid-May he began a streak of twelve starts that represented his best sustained performance rate to date (2.75 "S" and 2.17 "C" from May 21 to July 14). This included his near-perfect game on July 9, where he set down the first 25 Cub batters he faced before settling for a one-hit, 11-K shutout (a game that, yes, grades out in the 1,1 cell on the QMAX matrix chart).

The Mets had closed to within four games of the Cubs at this point, but Seaver's next three weeks were the roughest portion of the '69 season and coincided with a fade by the Mets such that they were 10 games back of the Cubs in mid-August. Seaver's QMAX score of 4.2 "S" and "3.2" C over those five starts included two "hit hard" games, created some concern for the health of his arm, and caused many to conclude that the Mets were not really ready to chase down the Cubs in the newly formed NL East.

But Seaver not only returned to form with his start on August 16, he began a streak of ten outings that are arguably as fine a streak as ever seen (a statement that includes extended hot streaks from such estimable names as Maddux, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and Pedro Martinez). 

In those ten games, Seaver threw five (5) 1,1 games, was in the "elite square" eight times (80%--as opposed to a league average of 14%), and produced a surreal .911 QWP. (His won-loss record over those ten starts is just about what you'd expect: 9-0.) 

Tom's "S" and "C" scores for these games: an otherworldly 1.4 "S" and 2.1 "C." Together with his left-handed counterpart, Jerry Koosman (2.4 "S" and 2.5 "C"), he carried the Mets into first place when the team was missing its best hitter (Cleon Jones--a topic we've covered in a previous post) for two weeks during the September stretch drive. That set the stage for the most unexpected outcome in the World Series in more than half a century.

That incredible finishing kick lifted Seaver's overall totals for 1969 into the realm of greatness, as he wound up with a .700 QWP for the year, with just under half his starts falling in the "elite square." His level of dominance as a power pitcher, as measured in his "top hit prevention" percentages (the ratio of total starts that grade out in the "1" and "2" rows of the QMAX matrix chart) increased from 35% in 1967 to 60% in 1969.

All in all, 1969 was the year that set up Tom Seaver for his Hall of Fame career that followed. We'll return with a look at the next six years of his career shortly, via the lens of QMAX. 

Thank you for your greatness both on and off the field, Mr. Tom Terrific--and rest in peace.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

THE GOLDEN AGE OF DOUBLES: YOU DON'T MISS YOUR WATER...

Golden Ages are never what they're cracked up to be, for two reasons. First, those who tout them, even assiduous students of history with iron-clad methodologies, are either slaves to hierarchy or have a hidden agenda. Second, no one seems capable of determining that they are, in fact, living in such an exalted era during the time in which it occurs.

Or if they do proclaim a Golden Age in the present moment, we are strongly cautioned to return to reason number one: Ye Olde Hidden Agenda. That's why some folks (no names here: we'll let you find them on your own...) will proclaim that we are living in a Golden Age of home runs. But such things are not supposed to be, nor can they be, in reality, things that go on interminably. We've had a so-called Golden Age of homers since around 1994, give or take a lull in the early years of the last decade, when what we really are having is an extended pandemic of long balls that have finally begun to take their toll on baseball's version of an ecosystem.

And in that protracted, unyielding and ultimately insufferable and stultifying onslaught of homers, there was a true Golden Age that came into being unappreciated and virtually unseen. It took shape in the offensive explosion of the 1990s, flying under the radar as offense in general reached levels not seen in sixty years. But oddly--and somewhat gloriously--it sustained itself after the peak of that run-scoring explosion had passed. 

It was the Golden Age of doubles, the two-base hit--the Middle Way in the shape of offense. As the chart at right demonstrates, it was the longest and most consistent level of high achievement in the history of the game. And it passed us by after close to two decades of silent, unheeded existence.

The earlier peak levels for the two-base hit were much spikier, as the chart also shows us. The American League reached what we might call "Golden Age" territory first, shortly after the start of the live ball era in 1920, with the National League following suit in the run-up to 1930, the biggest offensive season in history for nearly seven decades.

But the NL falls off quickly from that pace, and despite another peak from the AL in 1936 we see the first Golden Age of doubles dissipate. Two-base hits become significantly less abundant for forty years, driven down by the game's first systemic uptick in homers, followed by the overcorrections imposed on offense in the sixties. A slow but steady uptick begins in the mid-1970s; doubles manage to hold their own through the roller-coaster ride for home runs as the 1980s play out. And so they are primed for a big jump when conditions for offense burst back into existence in 1993--with that Golden Age of doubles taking hold in both leagues shortly thereafter. It was a double-barreled Golden Age, as the chart demonstrates: it represented a uniform offensive strategy employed across both the AL and the NL.

We can look at this in another way--one that depicts the emphasis on hitting doubles as brought into play over the history of the game. The two tables displayed here show the number of teams hitting 300+ doubles in a season: the first table shows the raw number of teams in each year who meet or exceed that standard. From looking at the 2B/G chart, you'll not be surprised to see what is a nearly forty-year gap in teams hitting 300+ 2B's in a season (from 1941 to 1978). And the Golden Age of doubles as measured this way can be seen in the 1996-2009 time frame.

We can see it in a similar but possibly revealing formulation in the second chart (below right), which measures the percentage of possible teams hitting 300+ 2B's in a season across all these years. In 1996-97, teams approach the percentages achieved in the 1930-32 peak (30+% of all possible teams); they match it in 1998-99; and they take it to an unprecedented new level in 2000. They pretty much sustain that rate until 2008, whereupon the percentage of possible teams subsides. The 2010s are still stronger than any other time except for the 1930s, but the Golden Age is over. 

Of the 283 incidences of teams hitting 300+ 2B's, 222 of them (78%) have occurred since 1996; 173 of those (78% of that subset, and 61% of all such teams over baseball history) happened from 1996-2009. And it happened right under our noses. 

Of course, no team will come anywhere within a hemisphere of 300 2B's in 2020. But the chart at top shows an unprecedented drop in 2B/G occurring this year--not quite a stock market crash, but what folks in the financial world like to call a "correction." Is it a one-season blip, or has the emphasis on homers finally reached a tipping point for other forms of offense? We won't know the answer to that for awhile, but what we do know is that the Golden Age of doubles is not coming back anytime soon. 


Thursday, August 6, 2020

RUBICON FOR THE RELIQUARY & A POSSIBLE PATH THROUGH THE FOREST OF DREAMS

Of the folk in the past quarter-century who have altered perceptions of baseball and its relationship with American history, Terry Cannon deserved to be the last man standing. But life is inherently unfair, and the life's work of a man who contained more multitudes than any present-day "public spokesman" for the game was cut short this past weekend. (Terry was only 66: by rights, he had another fifteen years coming to him, but such was not to be.)

And so those who appreciate Cannon's unique achievements--a singular combination of intellect and charm, buttressed by a barely repressible whimsy--must wonder about the great torso he has left behind. The Baseball Reliquary was always a work in progress, but it now faces its truest and most fateful of all possible "Rubicon" moments. 

Its depth and substance are (mostly) not in dispute, but was it dependent on a cult of personality? Its Shrine of the Eternals--a far more felicitous and wide-ranging group of personages than Cooperstown--requires a guiding hand to continue its project. And it needs someone to keep the Reliquary ritual intact--the cowbell, the unlikely rendition of the National Anthem prior to the keynote address and the Shrine inductions. Can anyone possibly be as amusingly dead-pan as Cannon in his role as overseer and master of ceremonies?

We will need to find out--and such a discovery is, fortunately enough, deferred due to even greater tragedies that are playing out in America this summer. Presuming that we emerge relatively intact from the effort of the majority to throw off the tyranny of the minority, we'll be able to turn our attention to preserving this sacred-yet-profane anti-institution as the manifestation of a "People's Hall of Fame" in a way that honors Cannon's unique vision and provides a platform for it to take hold as more than the "quirky West Coast phenomenon" that various factions wish to dismissively characterize it as being.

As Executive Director of the Reliquary, Terry Cannon brought together a matchless sense of art curation, historical sweep, unwaveringly and unapologetically left-leaning cultural orientation, and a serious case of silliness to his brain child. He had a great deal of help: his wife Mary, the wise counsel whose behind-the-scenes efforts brought an anchoring stability; conceptual partner Albert Kilchesty, the voluble polymath whose writerly skills were so outlandish that they obscured Cannon's own formidable talents; allies and project coordinators such as Tomas Benitez and Kerry Jo Nakiyama, who opened our eyes to baseball's impact on immigrant communities; and a bevy of accomplished writers from John Schulian to David Davis, who recognized the depth of the cultural synthesis that lay beneath the irreverent, playful veneer of the organization.

The most important of these allies, however, has been artist Ben Sakoguchi, whose incredible series of baseball history paintings are the pictorial embodiment of what the Reliquary is all about. The symbiosis between Cannon's project and Sakoguchi's unflagging visual invention is one of those rare occurrences where concept and object merge as one without the need for a physical partnership. In a perfect world, Sakoguchi's series of orange crate art-styled baseball paintings would reside in a Reliquary museum, where their shared connection in a more encompassing world-view of baseball's cultural importance and its (often subterranean) impulse for progressive change could be displayed and celebrated. 

Cannon had originally felt that the Reliquary should be a "stateless" anti-organization, but he was persuaded to change his mind a few years ago--and his association with Whittier College, where the Institute for Baseball Studies has been housed, helped to put in place a broader platform for events and projects that otherwise were subject to the vagaries of finding appropriate and available venues. The first effort of those following in Terry's footsteps will be to ensure that this arrangement continues.

Why do we need a Shrine of the Eternals? The answer to that is another question: why do we need fresh air? While Cannon and the Reliquary leaned left, the hard-core political content was not worn on its sleeve; while progressive elements and individuals (people of color, women, LGBTQ) had a home in the organization's cultural outreach, these elements blended into its insistence that the idea of an American melting pot was neither moribund nor passé. The Shrine of the Eternals was the perfect instrument to impart such a message to the rest of the baseball community busy factionalizing itself.

It is still that perfect instrument, and it needs to be continued. In 2021, the three inductees from this year will be given their belated due: Rube Foster, the ebullient but tragic Negro Leagues pitcher and entrepreneur; Max Patkin, one of baseball's most fabled clowns; and Bob Costas, the highly-regarded media figure whose reverence for baseball history in its larger sense is unique amongst his peers. Instead of conducting the traditional vote for 2021, the new leadership of the Reliquary should re-iterate their commitment to the literary vision of baseball and its history that is at the bedrock of its mission. They should focus their future efforts around these ideas by adding three inductees for 2021 who capture this better than any others:

--First, Terry Cannon himself. Cannon's deadpan showmanship, networking skills, and boyish irreverence have kept hidden his other skills, including his own writing. His last act as Reliquary director was to pen a firm but fair rebuttal to the estimable Historian of Baseball, John Thorn, who had questioned the long-term commitment of 2001 Eternal inductee Jim Bouton to the Baseball Reliquary. It is a masterful piece of writing, revealing facets about Bouton's viewpoints and character (and his ongoing devotion to the Reliquary) that even his indefatigable biographer Mitchell Nathanson was unable to capture. 

And, of course, the man who thought up and nurtured the Shrine in the manner of a patient but ever-vigilant gardener, is himself an Eternal.

--Second, the great nineteenth-century baseball writer-scholar David Nemec, whose work takes us back to the dawn of the professional game in America and whose obsession for completism has brought us more information and grassroots insight about baseball's early years than any other writer (even the estimable Thorn, whose approach is loftier and more academic--probably more suited for enshrinement in that East Coast institution). Nemec's multivalent skills as historian and novelist permitted him to write a fascinating novel about baseball in the "exploding year" of 1884, a book with a title that evokes much about what remains important and essential about the spirit within baseball: Early Dreams

Others may eventually eclipse his historical work, but Nemec is the giant upon whose shoulders they will still be standing.

--Third, and not least, the great lexicographer of baseball, Paul Dickson, whose Baseball Dictionary is one of the game's most essential cultural and historical resources. Like Nemec, Dickson's interests span beyond baseball, but there is something incandescent in their obsession with the game that exemplifies what the Reliquary has been endeavoring to cement into the minds of its membership (and all others who may yet hear its clarion call)--a transcendental relationship between the National Pastime and the nation that still needs it, warts and all.

These three individuals are each Eternals, each an individual who is not reproducible or repeatable in baseball history. The argument for bypassing the standard election process is predicated on the idea that these three capture the essence of what those of us who should appreciate, support and sustain in the impulse to engage with baseball as more than a set of statistics, or as a media spectacle. These choices reconfirm that the Reliquary is a place for a Platonic communion with a game that, unlike any others, takes us back to childhood--reminding us that even in a nation currently torn asunder by chaos and corruption there are symbols that can help us to transcend our ills, forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from evil. 

That is why the Baseball Reliquary and the Shrine of the Eternals must continue, so that the vision of the Good Shepherd Terry Cannon cannot, and will not, vanish from the earth. Godspeed to you, Terry, and thanks for everything.

UPDATE 8/9/20: Richard Sandomir, jack-of-all-trades at the New York Times, has published a thoughtful, detailed tribute to Terry today. In it, he notes that a large portion of Terry's sizable collection of baseball memorabilia will be transferred to Whittier College (where the Reliquary-related Institute for Baseball Studies is located), and that Joseph Price, a Whittier College professor emeritus, was tapped by Terry to guide the Reliquary to the other side of the Rubicon. Best of luck, Joe.

And from it, we've appropriated what is perhaps the most indelible photo of Terry that is publicly available--an image that reminds us that Terry was born near Detroit and retained his attachment to the Tigers even after relocating to California, where his true calling awaited him. We propose that the Reliquary brain trust invest some of their not-so-plentiful cash in a standee of Terry that can ensure that he will always be present at Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremonies; his puckish sense of humor would surely appreciate the fact that such a presence would ironically echo the efforts of present-day baseball to keep a strange semblance of humanity on hand even as ballparks across America were kept empty in 2020 so that the show could go on. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

2020: A SOBERING ISOBA UPDATE...

Baseball is back: that's both good and bad, from so many perspectives. It's good because its fans need it right now, with a virus raging and politics turning even more virulent; it's bad, because the games are forced to be played in cocoon-like settings offering only a small fraction of its usual "comfort food" blandishments. It's good, because there will at least be some continuity (despite the efforts of both labor and management to create a hole as gaping as the one bored into the game in 1994); it's bad, because the game on the field is almost certain to reflect and exacerbate the calamitous trends of the recent past.

We could go on with such cheap parallelism for maybe six paragraphs, but others have seemingly procured a patent on that, and we don't want to shell out any of our precious dough at a time when the economic indicators are so dire. The so-called great champions of the sabe-neo-post hoc "enlightenment" (aka the institutional analytic madness) are either apologists for these catastrophic developments, or they are whistling loudly past the graveyard as the bodies pile up. (Now there is a parallelism that is not cheap, except in the eyes of certain "politicians" who've concluded that a certain portion of American life is decidedly unprecious.)

The data measure we employ to highlight baseball's escalating descent into two-dimensional irrelevance is called ISOBA. (Sounds like it might be a virus, yes? It might as well be.) The relative health of the game, in terms of "shape variety" existent in baseball offense, is captured by ISOBA, which takes isolated power (a wonderfully simple measure from Bill James, before he fell into a series of rabbit holes: it is, simply enough, slugging average minus batting average, or SLG-BA) and divides it against batting average itself (in order to see just how much hitting is being moved around by hits other than singles).

In the course of baseball history, triples have been marginalized, so doubles and homers have vied for prominence in the ongoing measurement of ISOBA. As the chart below intimates, these two principal pillars of run creation have been in relative balance since the live ball arrived in 1920, with a few oscillating escalations over time.


But look at what has happened since 2015. In a manner not un-analogous to the escalation of economic inequality in a certain nation (in danger of being traded for an autocracy to be named later...), ISOBA has gone...well, virulent. Worse than that, the two leagues--which had often shown divergent paths with respect to the power/BA interaction, had achieved a hegemonic lockstep that could only come from the incursion of antigens akin to a pandemic. The "second wave" of sabermetrics, as infused into baseball organizations as a giant "booster shot", has, in fact, produced a "death spiral" leading the game further into an "all or nothing" approach to scoring runs.

2019 brought absurd (as in Beckett/Ionesco-style absurdity) new highs in terms of HR/G, with both leagues cracking the previously unthinkable .700 ISOBA barrier. We warned at the time that the implementation of practical approaches emphasizing "launch angles" and "three true outcome" theorizing would result in a game where batting average would decline. The "official bright minds" (James, Tango, Posnanski) were mostly silent on this. (After all, batting average is such a flawed measure; why would we care if it declined more, so long as run scoring didn't crater?) Only Joe pushed back in public, praising hitters for a "smart adjustment" as pitchers became more strikeout-oriented. (Of course, Joe tossed his shiny penny-wise brain into a mud puddle by omitting the fact that it takes two to Tango--pardon the pun--and the batters were at least as culpable for the rise in K/9 as their counterparts on the mound.)

So, here, in 2020, with a strange version of baseball on display--and in an preparatory environment that due to the disruption of spring training would seem to favor the hitters--we have the first results to examine. ISOBA is down--but not by much: it's still over .700. HR/G are down--but not by much. The ratio of D/HR is down, and to a marked degree: in the 2020 AL thus far, that ratio is 1.19, whereas in 2014 the ratio was 1.91. 

What else is down? You guessed it: batting average. The most precipitous drop in BA in either league in any given year is 1931, when the NL lost 26 points of BA. In the 2020 AL, we currently have a drop of 21 points of BA (from .253 to .232). Worked out as a percentage, the NL BA drop from 1930 to 1931 is 8.6%; right now, the AL BA drop from 2019 to 2020 is 8.3%. The delta in the 2020 NL is milder, but only mildly so...

Baseball fans from the Reagan era will "capture" this reference...
How likely is what we're seeing the "sea-change into morbid two-dimensonality" we'd previously suggested would be the case? It's hard to say. This year is, of course, aberrant in more ways than we can enumerate without subjecting our readership to act upon pent-up urges to slit one's wrists. (And we still need you around to vote in November...so we will do no more harm.) But the picture is not a pretty one--one way or another, sooner or later, our dire predictions about the direction of offensive shape will come true, and the fans will suffer enough from it that it will put the game in the kind of peril we've seen democracy fall into over the past four years. 

We'll let you decide which one you think is more important to world history; all we can say is that it is symptomatic of a malaise that has systematically befallen America, gestating slowly and picking up steam, triggered by forces that care little for nuance or the give-and-take of true reasoned discourse. It's all of a piece, and it's got to stop. For baseball, ISOBA is the measure that tell us that the consequences are dire, and the sand in the hourglass is picking up speed...

Sunday, March 29, 2020

2020 IS NOW THE PERFECT YEAR FOR RADICAL EXPERIMENTS IN THE GAME...

MLB is forced by the Coronavirus situation to examine alternatives to its usual schedule. There is no way that a 162-game schedule can be played, and their first efforts in dealing with this reality has been to work with the Players' Union to work out workplace issues stemming from that fact.

But what about the games themselves? How many will there be, and how many will involve games played with no one in attendance? What can be done to make those games (however many there may need to be...) more entertaining, more unusual, more watchable?

For many, such a question is moot--baseball's deep nostalgic connection with much of its fan base will be sufficient for people to engage whenever games start getting played. Folks will shell out $$ to see games in some revised pay-per-view package, and many will be satisfied with what they get.

But for others, it's a time of radical disjuncture from established norms. Baseball literally has no idea how such a cultural force will manifest itself during the weeks where it is virtually certain that they will be relying on fans to supply revenue by paying to watch from home.

With that in mind, it's time to consider how to use that time in a more creative and unusual way--to create what would unquestionably be the most unusual "spring training" ever held. It's time to go outside the box and experiment with some versions of the game that no one has ever seen before, and use the likely "fanless" games as a laboratory for rules changes that would otherwise never be considered.

(Yes, the minor leagues have been designated as the place for such activity. But the minor leagues are in their special form of peril at this time: it's a situation that the 2020 season is only going to make worse. That laboratory is simply unavailable.)

What are these "radical" rules changes that we are endorsing as incremental experiments for a spring training that would occupy 4-6 weeks beginning on June 1st? Hang on to your caps...as long-time readers know, we are capable of going not only "off road" but (as a dear friend said...) "off galaxy."

Experiment 1: Change the number of outs per inning (and change the number of innings in a game). Here is possibly our greatest sacrilege, and so we'll lead with our chin. What could possibly be the rationale for changing the sacrosanct "three outs in an inning rule"?

Because it would change the game in ways that no one can predict without implementing it. Other changes can be modeled: you can change fence height, OF distances, the nature of the baseball, etc., and get a pretty good idea of what effect it will have on run scoring. With four outs an inning, however, strategy changes. Aspects of the game that have been marginalized and minimized by the aggressive modelers of the past twenty-five years will have a new lease on life.

Of course such a change only works if you also lower the number of innings in a game. (Yes, you're no longer just gnashing your teeth now, you are thinking about whether you can waive your objections to the Second Amendment in just this one instance...) We figure that the optimum number of innings under a four-out-per-inning scenario is six. It is harder to get 24 outs four at a time than 27 outs three at a time? Will the games be longer or shorter? Higher scoring or lower scoring? Who knows? Let's find out. Two weeks of applying these two simple changes will tell us everything we need to know.

Our prediction: people will be mesmerized by the idea of two double plays in the same inning. They will be happy to see teams try to steal more bases because giving up one out in such a structure will be less detrimental to their chances of scoring in any given inning. Pitchers will hate it, because their ERAs will automatically be higher if run scoring stays constant over a four-out, six-inning game.

Experiment 2: Change the number of balls needed to draw a walk from four to three. This idea is not quite so outlandish, we admit: it has surfaced in many discussions over the years. So why not try it for a couple of weeks and see how pitchers and hitters adjust to it? Such a change should produce fewer pitches per plate appearance...the only question is whether walks will go up at such a rate that the length of the game remains the same. We're betting that it will knock 20-30 minutes off game duration.

It will fascinating to see, even in just a two-week period, how pitchers adjust to such a rule change. We'd figure that some guys would do just fine from the beginning, while others would struggle; but by the second week, many of those who had a problem with it would have found a way to adjust what they do to the demands of such a rule change.

You could argue that we'd need more than two weeks to really see the difference. We grant that, but we suggest that the idea be given a spin for a couple weeks, as most of the starting pitchers would receive at least two starts to deal with the idea. We expect run scoring would be up in the first week, and down in the second.

Experiment 3: Implement our wacky but wonderful "190-foot rule" and create the random half-inning of defensive deprivation (aka "in search of the endangered triple"). Many of you have read about this one before. To recap for those who've not yet signed the petition to have us escorted to the nearest booby hatch, the idea works like this. At the beginning of the game, each team spins a wheel which features the numbers 3 through 6 on it. Wherever the wheel lands--let's say "4" for the home team and "5" for the visiting team--the inning in which the team must move its center fielder inside a line painted across the field at 190 feet from home plate and not shift anyone else into the outfield is established.

What this rule puts into play is a situation where the team on defense is deprived of some of its ability to chase down balls hit into the gaps, resulting in more time for the hitter to advance further on long hits. The result of this rule change will be to create more triples, which will redress some of the ongoing imbalance in extra-base hits that has come into being as the game created ballparks with smaller and more regularized outfield areas.

As far as we're concerned, it's high time to see exactly what happens when such a rule is put into effect. We'd recommend, however, that this rule be tried when fans can actually attend the games, because it is likely to create the greatest visual excitement amongst these proposals. The sight of a center fielder forced to play short-center and a team with no recourse to make sufficient adjustments to overcome such a defensive privation would almost certainly create a monumental anticipation in the spectators.

Some may initially find it to be too gimmicky, that's true. But we still contend that once people see such a rule in actual operation, they will glom onto it as one of the great enhancements of essential baseball drama that's ever been devised.

***

MLB is still struggling with how to implement the 2020 season. We propose that if the game can begin on June 1, then those leapin' Lords of Baseball should try out each of these radical experiments in the spirit of "nothing left to lose," and do so as follows:

1--June 1-15: Initial spring training--the six-inning four-outs-per inning rule. Since pitchers will be building up arm strength over the first month of baseball's return, expanded rosters could support this notion better than any other. Two innings of four-out baseball would be roughly equal to three traditional innings. And in spring training games, teams could afford to try out every possible strategic modification that a four-out scenario would provide.

2--June 16-30: Phase two of spring training--three balls for a walk. We return to "normal" baseball (three outs, nine innings) but substitute the three-ball walk. Run scoring and BB/9 is monitored.

3--July 1-15: The 190-foot rule rides high. Everything goes back to "normal"--four balls, three outs, nine innings. Bring the fans back to the ballpark. Only when you do so, you've got this line across the field and 20-foot nets from foul pole to power alleys in place (to lower HR levels a bit--Lord knows they need lowering). Play two weeks under such conditions and see what the results look like. See how people react to games where they realize that in the top of the fourth, the home team is going to have to bring its CF in to play at little league distance and the other two outfielders are going to have to (as they say in the hallowed halls of Congress...) bust their asses.

Oh, yes. And you make this last klatch of games count in the standings. Then, on July 18, you hold an All-Star game using this rule.

On July 21, you start a truncated 81-game season that extends into early October. It includes a smattering of doubleheaders and leaves out interleague play. The 14 games played under the 190-foot rule count in the standings, so you actually have a 95-game schedule.

Then, at the end of that year, you ask the fans to tell you what they think of the three potential rule changes. Our guess is that they will be lukewarm to #1, mixed-to-positive about #2, and--

...Puzzled, mystified, but strongly and strangely enamored with #3. "Sure were a lot of guys running around the bases in those innings, weren't there?" "Sure would've been fun to see that rule in the post-season..."

We're ready if you are, MLB. It's time to excite the fans and get their minds off what they will have just lived through. Your golden opportunity is right here...right now.