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March 6, 2014

Skewed Left

The Art of Explaining Baseball

by Zachary Levine

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When you attend a graduate school program that’s 45 percent international, there are some things you expect to come with the territory. You may be asked to edit some classmates’ papers for things that seem pretty simple to us, like subject-verb agreement. You may have to relent and call that all-kicking sport “football” for a couple of years just to avoid an argument. But there will be payoffs. You expect to be introduced to all different cultures, and more importantly all different kinds of food, and that’s more than met my expectations so far.

But one thing I didn’t expect, even in a program that’s so diverse, was to show up at class one day and have this projected onto the pull-down screen.

Except for the part where the word out is up there where no ball could ever be turned into an out, this is actually sensible even for a class on data analytics for business. The lecture du jour was about Moneyball, and the gist was that wins and losses can be predicted by runs scored and allowed, so stop trying to chase wins and start trying to chase the components of them. It was basically a pretty introductory lecture in multivariate regression and what you can do with that. But you can’t walk into that room and just start having a conversation about baseball with so many students from countries that don’t have major league teams—there were students from India, China, Canada, Nigeria, etc. all in the room.

What accompanied the visual was probably four minutes of explaining baseball to the uninformed. It never veered anywhere close to this, but did explain in some painstaking fashion how the season works and how teams make the playoffs and a little bit about the game. But for everything the professor explained about the actual gameplay, he found himself having to back up a step. The concept of a walk, so key to the Moneyball narrative, was meaningless without the concept of a ball, which was meaningless without starting at step one, a pitcher throwing to a catcher with a batter trying to hit the ball between two lines at 90 degrees, and so on.

What it made me appreciate even more than how lucky I am to be from a baseballing part of the world was the fact that I never had to explain the game at that level to anyone. (That I’ve never had kids would explain like 99 percent of that.)

Anyway, it made me think about how fast I’d be able to explain the game of baseball to somebody who had legitimately never seen it before. Not explain it to somebody who still thought batting average was the measure of one’s contribution—that I’ve done a million times with zero enjoyment. But somebody to whom the game was totally new.

Some of the other-sport people have it easy. If the goal is to have somebody be able to start a game from the beginning and watch it without ever getting too confused, you can explain basketball in four sentences. They might not grasp every tiny detail—this ignores things like goaltending and what happens when the ball goes out of bounds—but without leaving them to figure out anything difficult, they’d absolutely get the picture and know why every person on the court is doing what he’s doing and when the game will end. You get 99 percent of the way there in 92 words.

The teams have four quarters to see who can score more points by putting the ball through its designated hoop. Each time it goes in, it's worth two points, unless the shot comes from behind the arc, in which case it's three. Excessive contact is prohibited, and if that disrupts a shot or if a team commits it too many times, you get to shoot uncontested for one point. The ball must be bounced continuously for a player to run with it, and once he stops bouncing it, he can't start again.

Soccer is even easier: Just 74 words explain the world’s game to whatever tiny part of the world wouldn’t have any idea what’s happening on a soccer field, and a good portion of those are just because it uses a stupid clock system.

The team that shoots the ball into its designated goal the most times in two halves wins. A goalie is the only player who can use his hands and can only do so in the larger box. No player can be past the last non-goalie defender when the ball is played to him. Halves will extend past the 45-minute mark to account for unusual stoppages, but that time won't be counted on the board.

Ice hockey is a little harder, and this is my best attempt at that. We’re over the century figure to 103 words, and even that leaves the penalty situation a little murky.

The team that puts the puck into its designated goal the most times in three periods wins. Each team has a goaltender that can stand in the goal and block shots. A team can neither have a player ahead of the blue line before the puck nor shoot the puck from its own side of center ice past the goal. Physical contact is generally permitted on a player who has the puck, but infractions with the stick and excessive contact near the boards results in a penalty. The player sits out two or five minutes, creating a manpower advantage for the other team.

The true degree of difficulty is reserved for the uniquely American sports. We sure like to complicate things, don’t we? Football isn’t all that terrible, I guess, as long as you leave it to the viewer that your guess as to what’s being penalized is as good as the drunk guy’s next to you. Then 184 words should get you the job done without too much unnecessary verbiage.

The offense moves down the field in plays, either runs or forward passes, and the play ends when the runner is tackled or the forward pass hits the ground. They have four plays to either get 10 yards or punt the ball to the other team. A variety of penalties can be called for lining up improperly or illegal tackles or too much contact disrupting a pass or after a play and can either be enforced for a number of yards associated with the severity, or declined if the other team benefited more from the play itself. Scoring is six for getting the ball into the opponent’s end zone (plus a chance for one by kicking through the goal posts or getting it in again on a try after). It’s three for a kick between the uprights and two for tackling an opponent in his own end zone, and the game is played in four quarters with the clock stopping when a runner goes out of bounds or a pass hits the ground with slightly modified clock rules at the end of the halves.

And then there’s baseball. Where do you even start? I asked around a little bit on the BP staff for the input of some people who hadn’t been giving it this much thought.

Here’s R.J. Anderson’s explanation, which runs 147 words (shorter than football) and is pretty thorough.

An inning sees each team bat until they make three outs, which is a fancy way of saying failing to reach base. There are nine of these in a regulation game. Teams score by rounding the four bases in a counterclockwise fashion and are awarded a run for each player who touches the plate. Batters can reach base a few ways: 1) being hit by the pitch, 2) taking four pitches outside of the strike zone before they take three pitches within it, or, the most common route 3) hitting a ball that isn't caught or fielded and thrown to first in time. There are also varieties of hits, depending on how far the batter can run before the ball is returned to the base. If a ball clears the wall on the fly and stays within the two big yellow poles, then it's an automatic run.

The seven ways to reach base are nicely condensed into three, which pretty much grab everything that you’ll see. I’d be a little confused when the runner takes off for second on the next pitch, but we’re not writing a novel here, so I like this one.

Here’s Sam Miller’s submission, which goes 14 words shorter.

A hitter has three tries to hit a thrown ball. After striking it, he must attempt to touch four safe “bases,” in order. If he succeeds, his team gets a point. Nine opposing defenders prevent his progress by three primary methods: Preventing the hitter from striking the ball in three tries; tagging him while he is not touching a safe base; or catching a struck ball on the fly. Each produces an “out,” and the hitter’s turn is over. The game is divided into nine symmetrical sections. In each section, the teams take turns playing defense. In each turn, the hitting team hits until the defense produces three outs. Runners may safely stay on a base for the next hitter’s turn, until all outs have been used in each section. Most points wins.

The critique of this entry is that it assumes a lot for your ability to figure out the ball/strike thing and why a batter might just start walking down to first.

But what I find fascinating about these two is that once contact is made, they take the exact opposite approaches. One tells you how to be safe, and the other tells you how to be out. I won’t ascribe either of those to my colleagues’ outlooks on life, but it’s very interesting how a rule book that spans 132 pages of a .pdf can be condensed in such different ways.

I hope you’ll take a crack at it in the comments section, and I’ll come back with an Unfiltered post on Friday with some of your best submissions—bonus points if you can get them under 100 words (with no syntax tricks) and still leave the untrained viewer in good hands.

Now, I’ve taken foreigners to American sporting events before, and culturally it was a blast. One who was raised with European soccer came to an NHL game with me and was noticeably nervous for the fans who were wearing the visitor’s jersey and even a little surprised the ticket-takers let them in with such ease.

My father tells a story about befriending a British couple completely new to baseball at a Yankees-Astros spring training game a couple years ago, and they couldn’t believe how competitive the game was between the only team they’d ever heard of and the one my father explained had the worst record the year before. Forget the fact that it was spring training; we take for granted the fact that even in the regular season, the lesser team wins 40 percent of the time, not the two percent of the time that a relegation zone denizen might beat a Chelsea.

But I’ve been fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) never to have to explain baseball on its most fundamental level. If I ever do, I’ll probably just use Sam’s second reply to the prompt:

It's basically like kickball except instead of kicking the ball you hit it with a bat.

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

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