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February 14, 2003

Breaking Balls

La Regle du jeu

by Derek Zumsteg

Early last week, ESPN.com published a column by Jayson Stark that proposed 20 rules changes for MLB, ranging from the cosmetic ("Toughen up the save rule") to the crazed ("But add the designated fielder"). Now, I'm not going to talk in particular about Stark's column today, except to say that I think many of his suggestions sound good until you give serious consideration to how they would affect the way the game is played.

For instance, discussion on this topic has mostly centered around the idea of the intentional walk, and how annoying it is to see Barry Bonds get issued a free pass every time up to the plate.

There's really no other sport where a team can remove their opponent's best player from competing. You've got to put players on rotating Hack-a-Shaq duty, which then puts him at the free throw line, where he's much less effective, but you're still giving him shots. If he'd ever decided to learn how to shoot free throws (say, by talking to Rick Barry), he'd make that strategy even less profitable. You can have multiple guys rush a star NFL quarterback, or try to bottle up a great rusher, but that only limits their ability to compete.

I am opposed, though, to a change in the way baseball rules work. Baseball rules have a philosophy to them, a certain elegance. For every situation, here is what you can and cannot do. And yet, for all of its structure, baseball has great flexibility - you could, if you wanted, play a pitcher, catcher and seven-outfielder defense. Each rule, like every batter-pitcher matchup, stands alone. There is little written on intent, little on what has already occurred in the game.

Attempts to change these principles have had unintended consequences. For instance, take the league's stance on beaning, Rule 8.02. If a pitcher hits the batter with a pitch, the umpire can either eject the pitcher (or the manager and the pitcher) or warn both teams that throwing at another hitter will result in an ejection. And the umpire can, if "circumstances warrant," warn both teams before the game.

This is intended to protect batters, but it alters the balance of the game in a way that's not intended. It forces umps to determine intent of the pitch--did it get away from a pitcher, or was it intentional?

And say my team's going up against young power ace Nick, who throws 95 and is a little wild. It's in my best interest to get warned before the game, or to start one of my scrub pitchers and have him throw way in, fishing for the warning. Because then when Nick gets tossed for letting a ball slip, you've won. Meanwhile, umpires are unwilling to enforce the other side of the hit-by-pitch rule, that a batter must attempt to get out of the way to get his base. These are two rules involved with one situation that make the situation much more complicated and, combined, have done much to take control away from the pitcher.

This is what happens when you add on rules, even for the best of reasons. Baseball would be much better off if it worked on enforcement of existing rules. Call the strike as defined in the book. This is where baseball is fought, from thigh-to-letters. Enforce batters box rules so Carl Everett can't stand in front of the plate, forcing the pitcher to throw to the opposite batter's box.

How do other sports handle this?

Basketball and the NFL make rule changes constantly, and provide an interesting contrast. Basketball attempts to tweak in response to whatever trend they see in the game (Low scoring? Move the three-point line in! Too many three-pointers? Move the line out!), while the NFL seems to be a constant process of refinement (Hey, there was some dispute about this rule last year, so now touching the pylons is OK, as long as...).

Baseball is the worst sport in terms of making their rules, and their decisions, available to the public. I get a lot of e-mails that read, "hey, where can I find out exactly what the hell happens when a player is designated for assignment?" And I don't know what to tell them. While no sport except the independent Northern League offers complete transaction or roster rules for easy perusal, baseball makes even the most basic rule information hard to get to.

Head to MLB.com and look for the rules. Find the link? It's labeled 'Baseball Basics' at the bottom, in eight-point font, just above the grayed-out copyright and trademark notice. It's three page-down presses for me on a big monitor with the browser maxed, way too easy to miss.

That link gets you to a page with a strange overhead shot of a baseball field and instructions to 'Roll over the areas you are interested in' but nothing happens when I do that in my browser. On the left, there's a link to 'Official Rules' which are marked Copyright 1998 and are... well, they're wrong. There are numerous outdated references to the league presidents, for instance, who simply don't exist anymore.

OK, so just for point of comparison: NFL.com has a "Basics" link on the left-hand navigation bar under 'More from NFL.com.' And while that page doesn't have a readable copy of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, it's got all kinds of cool stuff for a rules-interested fan to read: from the basics for the newbie to the latest rules and clarifications. You can look at the "Digest of Rules" and discover that only referees can remove a team from the field. No discussion of the NFL's insane cap rules; it's like a sweet staged introduction to the sport.

NBA.com right now redirects you to a Flash-heavy All-Star site (and clicking 'NBA' to get back to the standard site gets you the redirect-again, you've got to find a specific link to get back... anyway). Has anything worse happened to web design than Flash? Seriously, there was a time when you could in a pinch get around the Internet using Lynx (which is text-based for those of you unfamiliar), on account of things being text. Now there are entire sites you can't use if you don't want a heavy-downloading multimedia experience. How are people with disabilities supposed to access these things, by the way?

NBA.com's rules, for instance, get you to a page with the original rules and then ("Current NBA rules") a lovely listing of rules for taunting and other good stuff. And the NHL ("The Other Major Sport") has a rulebook link on the left side, with fully updated rules.

It's not just the big guys. I headed over to the CFL site ("As powered by SLAM! Sports"), and there on the left-hand side, there's a link to Rulebook, "Updated for the 2000 season" with complete rules. The Arena Football League which I unfortunately watched this Sunday, has a top-of-the-page "AFL 101-Get the Basics" link, which takes you to a slick-looking site with the confusing rules. That link's just above the AFL Fans' Bill of Rights which - despite my initial reaction - is worth reading. Among other declarations about how fans should be able to enjoy the game on the cheap while being 'entitled' to interact with players and coaches for 'autographs and conversation' (which strikes me immediately as a stark contrast to baseball's 3.09 forbidding that for players in uniform), there's this cool bit:

We believe that Fans are entitled to fast, accurate, and complete information about our players, coaches, league, games, and performance.

Of course, whether the AFL is paying lip service or is sincerely committed to these things is up for debate - Bud Selig would have you believe that he wanted a salary cap and revenue sharing to enhance competitive balance, after all. What's to be noted, though, is that of all the major sports, only baseball seems to be trying to keep people from finding a set of official rules easily, and even then it's an old, crappy copy with the coffee ring on the cover.

Why be ashamed? Why is baseball so afraid of teaching people what the game is about, and how it's played? Baseball's the best sport there is. Revel in it. Publicize it.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Rules,  Rule Changes,  NBA,  NFL,  AFL,  Accessibility

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<< Previous Article
Transaction Analysis: ... (02/13)
<< Previous Column
Breaking Balls: Playof... (02/11)
Next Column >>
Breaking Balls: Possib... (02/20)
Next Article >>
Under The Knife: Close... (02/15)

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