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August 23, 2016

Cold Takes

Introducing The Dubuque Plan

by Patrick Dubuque

One of the virtues of baseball is its harmlessness. Particularly in the summer, when teams have grown comfortable into their rosters, when seasons aren’t yet won or lost, the game relaxes. Unlike football, with its constant climax and its unending, wearying significance, even the greatest accomplishments and worst mistakes of a baseball player can only do so much; another game waits tomorrow. Summer baseball does not enervate, it does not demand. It’s an old person’s game, not because there is a certain demographic who grew up once loving baseball and will die off, as is often assumed, but because its pace matches the preference of a certain mindset. That demographic, however, still terrifies the men charged with profiting off it.

Recently Rob Manfred addressed the media with his latest meditations on the state of the game, and the potential rule changes that he and the owners will consider this offseason. The majority of these alterations revolve around a recurring theme: making the game more attractive for the Young People, and this primarily by shortening the duration of ballgames. The pitch clock, an invisible success in the minor leagues this year, would trim pace to 20 seconds between pitches, regulating the heartbeat of the game. The restriction of relief pitchers could hypothetically reduce mid-inning pitching changes, along with (perhaps surprisingly) mid-inning advertisements. Eliminating defensive shifts would… well, even in his explanation, Manfred didn’t really articulate what was wrong with defensive shifts. But it wouldn’t slow things down.

A common thread among the resistance to these ideas is that they’re considered an attempt to legislate the natural order of baseball. Teams and players behave the way they do because of their self-interest: a desire to get the upper hand against their opponent, to disrupt their timing. Yankees manager Joe Giradi’s reaction was characteristic: “We’re gonna change the way we play the game and the way you try to win games?” But baseball does, all the time. Think of the umpire mistreatment of the game’s early days, John McGraw’s habit of grabbing runners by the belt as they rounded third, the allowance of leather gloves and batting armor and bullpen carts. Baseball has legislated human behavior for years, and can do so because it’s by definition an artificial construct founded in arbitrary rules. A runner is out when tagged off the base, but the fielder can’t shove him off the base and tag him. Why? Because that’s one of the rules.

Meanwhile, September baseball approaches, which means that October baseball is close behind. The tranquility of the game, at least for the teams that attract our attention in the waning weeks, fades from view, and playoff baseball, to the fan used to memories of youth and Roger Angell essays, reveals itself as something almost totally foreign. Managers behave differently, typically by managing more. The game slows down. The general conviviality disappears as sportsmanship becomes too expensive to afford. This is the point when human nature struggles against the bonds of the gentlemanly and unwritten code of conduct. That’s actually some of the thrill of high-stakes sport, especially for those not invested in the teams themselves: watching the game get stress-tested, pushed to its limits in terms of both talent and drive. It’s no way to live, but it’s fun to vacation there.

Sometimes it’s frustrating that the mechanics of the sport we love transform in the clutch, that fourth starters and seventh relievers transform in value, that we’re suddenly obliged to stop everything and watch the game, rather than breathe it. But we have to accept the dichotomy of playoff and playoff-eliminated baseball as two halves of the same sport, each with their own value. It’s possible, I believe, to reconcile Manfred’s vision of baseball with Girardi’s, as diametrically opposed as they might believe themselves to be, with a simple plan. We can comb through the endless moments of meaningless baseball going on everyday, and trim some of the seconds and minutes, some of the foolishness, while still allowing teams the ability to maximize their chances of victory the way they see fit.

The Dubuque Plan is very simple.

At each baseball game, hire a man or woman, and seat them next to the official scorer. (They could even be the official scorer; I honestly have no idea how much time they have to spare.) Give them a laptop and a big red light that they hang near the window, visible for all the playing field to see, like the opposite of a metaphor in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

This person’s sole job will be to track the win percentage of both teams, based on the game and run state, as the game goes on. When the game reaches a point when one team’s chance of winning crosses a certain threshold—say, 90 or 95 percent, whatever you as hypothetical commissioner prefer—the red light goes up and all of Manfred’s timesaving rules take effect. No more three-reliever innings down seven in the eighth. No multiple mound conferences to switch out signs for a batter who would only be the tying run if the team batted around. Throw on the pitch clock, give the reliever 40 seconds to get to the mound and throw his warmups, it doesn’t matter. Maybe trim a few seconds off the commercial breaks to compensate for all this inconvenience you swear is necessary, but you’re the commissioner. It’s your call.

One time suck that Manfred conspicuously did not refer to in his checklist, replay, is equally adjusted under the Dubuque Plan. If the outcome of a play were to be worth under a certain amount of WPA, say 0.01, the red light goes on in the booth and the New York office is gently instructed that a review is not worth their time (nor the time of 40,000 people in attendance).

This would solve in-game pacing, but could also be applied to playoff odds as well. If a contest were to take place between two teams either mathematically or spiritually eliminated from the playoff race, the red light goes on with the first pitch and the fans can be secure in knowing that they’ll be enjoying a nice, brisk baseball game. Similarly, the crew chief would be allowed the right to overrule the red light in any situation; this would be particularly useful for matters less about wins and losses but individual achievements, streaks, and milestones. We don’t want this to stop us from being as accurate as possible when we want to be, just save us from staring at the microscope on every single play.

Much like the pitch clock portends to be, the Red Light would optimally be a piece of information, like the stadium radar gun reading, omnipresent but not a distraction. There’s potential for unintended consequences, as with any rule change: By rendering sportsmanship into a binary value, it could have an effect on the unwritten rules, though the odds of it being deleterious are probably fifty-fifty. And it might prove to be a sign to the shiftless fan that it’s time to beat the traffic, hurting potential concession sales. But if anything, the Dubuque Plan would be a physical reminder that sportsmanship actually exists, even on the professional level, and that at some point there are things more important than winning, or at least a fraction of a chance of winning.

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

Related Content:  Rob Manfred,  The Plan

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Baseball Therapy: If I... (08/23)
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