Monday, November 16, 2020


 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


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 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...) 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.