March 14, 2017
Bring Back Ball Four
Strangely, my defense of the “classic” intentional walk—the one where you have to actually throw four balls—begins with the center fielder. In fact, I’d argue that the guy standing out there waiting for a ball to come his way is the reason that baseball needs to bring back ball four.
But first, we need to meditate on the absurdity of the center fielder. There are no other major sports that routinely place a defensive player 300 feet from the spot where the action is. Three-hundred feet marks off the distance from end zone to end zone in football. Three-hundred feet can fit the length of three basketball courts and one-and-a-half hockey rinks. In most other sports, it isn’t even physically possible to have a defender that far away. In fact, a 300-foot fly ball in baseball is rather pedestrian. Three-hundred feet might get you to the center fielder’s starting point, but there’s even more real estate out there beyond him.
Funny enough, most of the time that defender doesn’t actually do anything. In 2016, during 59.8 percent of the half-innings played the center fielder never touched a ball, even if it was to simply pick up a single that had rolled through the middle infield and throw it back in. Yet when you have a small ball that is not launched by the human arm or leg, but rather an extended lever, the physics of propelling a ball 300 feet become easier. However, the rules also say that those balls can be harvested and traded in for outs, so it makes sense to have a worker out there ready to grab something that may never come.
A baseball field is a very large place.
That has a few consequences. Because the game requires building something that can contain a missile launched 400 feet, it means that a good number of the seats in the ballpark are also several hundred feet away from the place where the ball is launched. Unlike a game such as soccer or basketball where the location of the action moves around the playing surface—which means that at different times, seats will be closer to or further away from the game action—the batter’s box doesn’t move.
In fact, baseball is a game that likes its boxes. The batter must stand in one. The pitcher once had a box too, but that was reduced to a small slab of rubber that simply made his cage even smaller. But combined, it means that the two most important people in any at-bat—the pitcher and the batter—are confined to only a few square feet worth of space, 60 feet, 6 inches apart, and 500 feet away from the guy who paid $12 to sit in the center field bleachers.