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September 11, 2012

Out of Left Field

Case Study: What Makes a Bad Baseball Game

by Matthew Kory

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“The thing I love most about baseball is that on any given play, in any given game, you can see something amazing you’ve never seen before.”

– Anonymous

That is certainly true. While many plays feature banal aspects you’ve seen before, if you make it through those plays, most major league games will yield something worthwhile.

But what if they don’t?

Last Saturday, the Red Sox and Blue Jays got together and, well, it’s a sad state of affairs when, after watching a game, the predominant thought bouncing around in your skull is, “I should have scrubbed the driveway.” Beyond that missed opportunity, if like me, you sat through the five hours of what the Red Sox and Blue Jays passed off as the great American pastime, you might have come away as I did thinking that was maybe the worst major league baseball game I’ve ever seen.

Was it?

Let’s ask the question, then. What makes a bad baseball game?* I came up with a list of six items. Here they are and how they apply to last Saturday’s game.

* It should be noted that Sam Miller asked this exact question last year and then answered it. If you haven’t read those pieces, read this first because that way you won’t realize what a waste of time this article is in comparison.

Nothing at stake
Aside from the specific elements of baseball itself that we love, the pitching, the hitting, the sights and smells and sounds of the game, perhaps the most compelling part of the game is drama. The moments in between pitches when the game can be savored, when tension builds and the stakes of each pitch are at the forefront of your mind. What does a hit mean right here? What is the count and how does it impact the game situation? Then comes the play and the release, which is followed by more rising tension.

Except, what if there are no stakes? What if the game means nothing in the grander scheme of the season, if both teams are simply slogging through to the finish, two hobos walking slowly through a driving rainstorm, soaked to the bone, with no hope of finding shelter or relief.

How this applies: The hobos thing might be overstating it a bit, but it’s not too far off from where the Red Sox and Blue Jays find themselves this season. I suppose if you consider the battle to see who finishes in last place--or to put a better spin on it, who finishes in better draft position—scintillating, then this was the game for you. But for most of us, draft positioning is something we deal with after the season. Does anyone really sit there with a Blue Jays hat on and root root root for the Red Sox because if they don’t win it’s a shame because the Blue Jays should pick eighth instead of ninth in next June’s draft? Doesn’t quite have that ring to it.

Probably the thing we all love most about going to the grocery store is long lines. If waiting at the grocery store weren’t so fun, why do we all wait until 5:30 in the afternoon before we go?

OK, fine, lines are awful. I mean, they’re awful in a “I hate waiting” kind of way, not a “without lines society will fail” kind of way. Either way, nobody actually likes waiting, and this applies to more than our grocery-getting. It applies to our entertainment too. Nothing like shelling out a hundred dollars to take your family to a baseball game on a work night and then having to wait a few extra hours to get the entertainment you paid for.

Delays also sap the momentum and the drama that build in a baseball game* and there is no bigger delay than that imposed upon us by, as meteorologists have taking to calling it, a rain event. (This is markedly different than a rainstorm because it is.) And even through all that, some games are worth waiting for. Some games are not.

*This by the way is an argument for instant replay because nothing grinds a game to a halt faster than two old men spewing spittle at one another from short range for five minutes while the pitcher and batter wait around trying to remember what the count was.

How this applies: The Blue Jays/Red Sox game itself took a seamless two hours and 55 minutes. However, that’s if you don’t count the two-hour rain delay. This is what turns a normally lousy game into something like a Turkish prison. Thoughts of “How can I escape?” come to mind. Ditch your family, leaving your beer under the seat to make them think you are returning and flee on foot. It’ll be an hour before they realize you’re gone and four hours before the game ends and they can do anything about it.

Immediate Non-Competitiveness
Even meaningless games can capture our imagination through individual performance or simply a closely contested battle. The game that effectively ends early yet doesn’t end seemingly for years is the enemy of our interest. And that describes as best I can last Saturday’s Blue Jays/Red Sox game. Daisuke Matsuzaka had one of those games where he fakes everyone out. His first inning went like this: strikeout, groundout, walk, strikeout (had to sneak a walk in there for old time’s sake). I guess ol’ Dice-K has it going tonight, you think. Wrong! Prepare for pitching whiplash of the Daisuke variety.

The second inning went like this: homer, single, hit by pitch (on a 3 -1 count no less), run-scoring double, sac fly, single, [exeunt].

By the time Matsuzaka was forcibly removed from the mound the Blue Jays were up five runs on a team that had scored five runs once in their last nine games. Thanks to Daisuke, the New England region had the cleanest driveways in the nation come Sunday morning.

Noticeably Bad Pitching
Bad pitching and good hitting can be difficult to tell apart. Was the pitch crushed 450 feet over the far bullpen a mistake or was it just good hitting? The discerning fan will enter the game situation with some background as to who is doing the acting in any given game situation. For example, when Daisuke Matsuzaka starts giving up bombs interspersed with walking and hitting batters, we are adept enough to know where to place the blame even if we aren’t scouts.

Sometimes it’s the cumulative effect of the game and season, but even good pitchers can catch Daisuke-itis as it were. Take Andrew Bailey, who faced the light hitting Anthony Gose in the ninth inning of Saturday’s game. At that point the score was 6-2, which was misleading in its closeness as the Red Sox offense had totaled five singles in eight innings against Aaron Laffey and Brad Lincoln, two pitchers with career ERAs in the mid-4s.

Gose, the ninth hitter in Toronto’s lineup that day, is now slugging .330. That is, he’s slugging .330 after hitting this home run:

Two things to note here. First, Anthony Gose demolishes that pitch. I’ll write that again because there is no way you were able to comprehend such a thing by hearing it just once: Anthony Gose demolishes that pitch. You know, doesn’t get any easier to hear upon second mention.

Second, it’s the ninth inning of a four-run game at Fenway Park. There is nobody there. The stands behind home plate are emptied, and so are the right field stands. Nobody is sitting further up than three rows in the right field bleachers. It’s a Saturday night and everyone left. Nobody likes this game. It’s boring!

Perceptibly Bad Hitting
Here is Mauro Gomez facing a high-ish fastball from Aaron Laffey.

This was the high heat from Laffey and Gomez couldn’t catch up to it. “It” by the way, is an 89-mph fastball.

Embarrassing plays
No bad game is complete without a healthy dose of embarrassment, and this contest is well stocked. Immediately after the above strikeout of Gomez, J.P. Arencibia did what catchers do when a hitter strikes out and there are less than two outs: he threw the ball to the infield so they could throw it around. Except he didn’t do that.

The umpire was perhaps most visibly disappointed.

But, dear reader, that’s not all. I give you Colby Rasmus, who was doubled off first base to end the Jays’ five-run second inning because he forgot how many outs there were.

Edwin Encarnacion pops up to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Colby Rasmus unthinkingly, because that’s how Rasmus conducts his business, put his head down and motored, only to remember sometime afterward it was too late.

Have you ever locked yourself out of your house? You have this feeling in the back of your head and just as you’re closing the door you remember, “Oh no!” but it’s too late and the door closes. That’s probably what Rasmus was thinking about before realizing, “Oh [swear] no! There were [swear] only [swear] two [swear’n] outs! [swear]”

Blue Jays manager John Farrell had this to say about the Rasmus mistake:

There’s no way to know if this really is the worst baseball game of the year. John Farrell might think so but probably it wasn’t. Probably there is some game elsewhere that was worse. But if so it was not worse by much. No stakes, no drama, a two-hour rain delay, lousy pitching, lousy hitting, and a fair bit of lackadaisical and embarrassing play is a pretty good list. That’s good in the bad sense, of course. 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Toronto Blue Jays

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