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August 3, 2004

Breaking Balls

More on Rules

by Derek Zumsteg

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I had hoped I'd get some good e-mail when I wrote about the changing nature of rules debates, and my own endorsement of Bill James' list of things to do. I got a lot, and it's delicious:

How would it be if throws to first were called balls? Then you could have up to four of them if you liked but you'd have to decide if it was worth the trade-off.

--Richard Poole

I love this. It's an elegant solution to the problem of excessive pickoff throws that uses existing rules and logic to fold them up neatly. Pickoff throws are throws, the batter can't hit them...they're balls, right? As a weapon against the running game, pickoff throws would become as costly as pitchouts.

Thinking it through logically, then, what happens? Would pitchers just fake the throw over and over, only throwing if they noted they'd caught the runner napping? It seems ridiculous to think that a pitcher might turn and fake a throw to first over and over, but is that any less crazy than pitchers throwing the ball to first over and over?

A solution to that is to re-implement the balk rule (which, yes, I argued against last week) in simplified form: Once the pitcher gets ready to deliver, he must throw the ball somewhere unless time is called. No faking.

This of course starts to create problems in practice if I want to allow deceptive deliveries, but it's as good as I've got so far.

I mentioned getting beaned in passing, and it came up in e-mail frequently. I didn't mention that there's been debate on the whole concept behind this as well; there have been those in baseball's history who've argued batters shouldn't get a base for being hit. It's sissifying, you see. There's some wisdom in this argument. If players are rewarded, at all, for being hit by a pitch, they will inevitably start to base the decision on whether to get out of the way, some will bravely try to get hurt, and so will get hurt. No reward for being hit would make baseball meaner and more dangerous, with the less mobile players in danger of having their kneecaps or eyeballs knocked out with every at-bat. I'm a big fan of baseball's balance, that everyone on a roster (nearly) is required to be a two-way player. I don't feel like "dodging fastballs thrown repeatedly at him" should be a required skill for players.

If we agree that players should get the base, what about protecting themselves with pads or elaborate armor? Few would argue that players coming back from injuries shouldn't be able to protect themselves, but how would you enforce that as a limit to protection? Doctor's note? Teams have no problems getting doctor's notes for all kinds of DL-related hijinks. Having someone write a note allowing Gary Sheffield to armor up wouldn't take a minute.

If a ball hits a pad or other protective equipment, it also requires umpires to make a quick decision about where the ball hit, something they're ill-prepared to do. An ump's watching the ball in flight, concerned more about the ball/strike call and his own safety. The ball is likely to hit the batter where the hitter's body obstructs the home plate ump's line of sight, and the other umpires will be far enough away to make the location of the beaning debatable.

Another problem with changing the rules around hit batters that I didn't mention last week: Umpires don't always enforce the rules. Hitters are required to try and get out of the way of a ball (Craig Biggio) to get their base, and getting hit by a strike (Carl Everett) similarly should not be rewarded. Both rules are hard to enforce, though. While it's easy for us in the stands or in the comfort of our own recliners to yell at hitters for not doing much more than flinching, even that's not so simple.

I got tagged playing baseball this week, and it wasn't for lack of trying. The pitcher was all over the place, and finally he threw something I couldn't figure out how to avoid. I did exactly what you see players do--flinched, drew my elbow in, and took the fastball right on the triceps. Hurt like all hell, too. One base didn't seem like a fair reward for how much pain I was in.

So I'm going to ignore that rule. If you get plunked and it's not on the pad, take your base. Determining whether a batter made an adequate effort to get out of the way or just froze isn't something any umpire is going to be able to determine.

The strike call's easier. If the hitter's standing on the plate and gets plunked, that's his own fault. If he lunges at pitches and takes a ball off the forearm, well, he should have swung at the ball with his bat, not his arm.

Of course, given how hard it is to call balls and strikes now and the conflict of attention I mentioned, I wonder if this is also impossible for umpires to enforce.

Some e-mailers suggested that players should be allowed to wear as much armor as they want, as long as they wear it running the bases (and, for some hard-core readers, in the field). That's amusing, and appeals to my sense of balance. And yet, we don't require catchers, who play defensively in serious protective equipment for good reason, to do the same. Which brings me to the other side of this, noted by many: Let the batters armor up as heavily as they want. Cricket players do this. If they want to strap some kind of crazy exoskeleton on their body when they go up to the plate, that's fine.

And then you look at eliminating the free base. If hitters are impervious, then there shouldn't be a reward for being hit.

Another once-debated issue was whether foul balls should be considered in play--whether runners should advance, or outs be recorded if the balls are caught as with normal flies. An interesting point raised by several readers was that foul balls, with home runs, are rules issues decided as much by stadium layout as the rule book. Some parks, in the quest for maximum super-high-priced seats, pack them in so close to the lines that there's almost no foul territory at all, while others, particularly older parks (i.e. Oakland), can have much more. If identically-hit balls count as strike one or two in one park but make an out in another, or a home run instead of a long fly out, does this give baseball charm, or make it unfair?

There's the difference in type of argument, as well. In equipment and hit batters, we argue the same kind of tweaking that has pervaded baseball's rule changes for 80 years. When we argue the fairness of home runs, we think about the nature of baseball and the conditions in which it's played. But I've come to realize that they're inseparable: Tweaking the rules is a smaller move in philosophy, but in implication and consequence can be just as large as the sweeping one. Which in turn is why this is such a fascinating discussion for me.

Related Content:  Baseball Rules,  The Call-up,  Reward

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