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July 29, 2004

Breaking Balls

Rules Were Made to be Broken

by Derek Zumsteg

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I've been avoiding columns on columns lately, because I feel like every time I try, I dig myself in ever-deeper. But I got a ton of email on Tuesday's column, and it ran about:

  • 33%: "That was hilarious, loved it."
  • 33%: "I don't get it." or "I'm tired of your ranting."
  • 33%: "How can you say that Derek Jeter's the AL MVP when he's only ninth in overall offensive value and your own metrics...."

So skip ahead a couple paragraphs to get to the baseball if you'd prefer not to hear the meta stuff.

To 66% who didn't get it: the column was intended to make fun of the sports talk radio Jonah and I had to listen to while we were driving back and forth to the Baseball Prospectus business meetings in San Diego last week. I don't even remember the names of the personalities, but between San Diego and Los Angeles, every time we hit the seek button to get away from one of these guys, we ran into another broadcaster spewing the same stuff. They all talked in circles as they tried to figure out what they were going to say, and when they finally got to the point, you'd think, "I waited two minutes for that?"

I did the column out loud at first, bombarding poor Jonah with crazy patter as he tried to concentrate on proper lane-weaving technique until I got him to crack up consistently. We then had to pick a final point hoped was ridiculous enough that people who had caught on would laugh even harder, but the people who hadn't caught on would fall for. "Cesar Izturis is the best player in the National League." "Curt Schilling will never be a true #1 starter." Something intangible but a little nutty. So Jeter, who sparks more heated discussion than anyone, was drafted at the last minute. It only took me a little while to write up, because we'd been hammering it out for days.

I will say this, though: I've written 300 articles under my own byline for Prospectus. I've gone from designated ranter to something else, and for the last year, or two years, I've been trying to figure out what that something is. I haven't written anything I'd consider a serious rant since last November, and since then I've written commentary, some stuff I'd hoped was funny, and some modest analysis. I look at a column like Tuesday's and I'm happy I managed to delight a third of my readers, but it also makes me feel like I need to hit the cages. Which brings me to my point--this kind of feedback's amazingly instructive in figuring out what works and doesn't. When I only get a couple emails, and they're all raves, or even all complaints, I wonder what everyone else thought.

In a case like Tuesday's, the sample size is large enough I can start making adjustments. So seriously--if you've got column ideas or want to steer me in one direction or another, drop me a line. The column's contents and tone, the move from flame-throwing to something calmer and considered, the tone and quality of humor--they're all the result of a four-year conversation with my readers, and that's going to continue as long as I'm writing in this space.

Back to baseball.

I've been doing a massive amount of research for a yet-to-be-revealed project, and the thing that amazes me is the more I get into baseball's history, the weirder it gets.

For instance, I've long thought that Bill James's ideas for rule changes (regulating bat thickness, for example, to eliminate the super-light shatter-happy whips players swing) were well-considered topics for thought, but ultimately a dead-end argument. Through baseball's history, though, there are many rule changes that dramatically changed the way the game was played. There were heated debates over whether runs scored by runners who reached on walks should be earned runs, or how many balls those walks would consist of.

Today, even the modest reforms floating around out there are pretty minor. The last huge change to the rules, in my opinion, was the introduction of the designated hitter, which broke baseball's symmetry in one league in favor of increased offense in every game. Interleague play, re-alignment, all of Selig's proposals--they basically leave intact what can happen in the game after the ump calls "Play ball!"

Many themes run throughout baseball's history: changing rules to reduce injuries, for instance. Running through first base was so successful in preventing injuries from sliding that people argued in favor of letting players run through any bag. Home runs (the running-around-the-bases-kind) were once mocked as being too exhausting for hitters, with the safe, effective alternative of the sacrifice hit proposed instead.

Seeing that recurring theme, the recent arguments in favor of eliminating body armor seem to run counter to the flow of baseball's history. Every fielder once played without a glove, and every game resulted in a couple of broken fingers, sprains, hurt wrists, and probably some nasty hangnails. No one would argue that players should go back to playing without equipment so they can be injured more often. So why do some argue that they should abandon protective equipment as hitters? Why not just have the umpire brain them with a blackjack if they crowd the plate?

Beyond the refinement of rules and the constant drive to protect players, there were arguments about the tenets of the game. Is the center of the game a fair and direct confrontation between batter and defense? If so, shouldn't the scope of the field be narrowed until only that fair confrontation is a part of the game?

It was up for debate whether a batter should be out on a caught foul ball. The argument was that on a fair ball, the batter had a chance to get on base, while the defense had an equal chance to make a play and put out the batter. On a foul ball, though, the batter had no chance to advance, while he could be put out.

It's interesting to think about, even today. If the game turns on the battle between batter and defense, and it does, is a rule change to eliminate the intentional walk that out of line? If Barry Bonds demonstrates that a truly great hitter can expose a flaw in the way the game is played, we should consider how to improve the game. Should a pitcher be able to opt out of central confrontation and get off with so light a penalty, or should Bonds be able to force it by declining the walk?

Bill James has argued that we should eliminate the balk rule entirely, and this is probably the best debate going on right now over the rules: does the pitcher have a right to deceive the runners in trying to pick them off? Should a pitcher be able to throw over to first as many times as they want? What, if any, rights should a batter have to see a straight delivery that doesn't pause or otherwise engage in wacky shenanigans? Would allowing deceptive deliveries in tandem with limiting the number of pick-off throws make for faster, more exciting games without changing the basic dynamics?

Why aren't we debating this stuff seriously every off-season? It seems like the only rules debate anyone has any more is whether or not the DH is an abomination. That can't be the limit of serious discussion. Baseball's history is filled with interesting debates on rules and how they relate to the way the game is played. I don't know at what point the rules became hallowed, to be tinkered with but not deeply questioned, but baseball as a whole went down the wrong path when that happened.

Related Content:  Baseball Rules,  The Who

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