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January 4, 2007

Schrodinger's Bat

New Year's Wishes

by Dan Fox

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"Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. - Mark Twain

For me, New Year's resolutions are always problematic. Do I really want--let alone will I even be able--to change ingrained behaviors that I'm apparently only motivated enough to change once a year? Should I let others in on the resolutions to thereby provide accountability? Is it worth the feeling of failure and self-recrimination when, by early March, I realize that I've not only let myself down but them as well?

Nah.

So instead of all that pressure we put on ourselves with a list of New Year's resolutions, why don't we instead generate a list of New Year's Wishes? The beauty of the wish list is that you're free to put the burden of fulfillment squarely on the shoulders of others, so that when the wish doesn't come true there is no aftertaste of guilt. I think in business management speak this is called a "win-win," or at least a "win" where I'm concerned.

Partly inspired by the excellent article by our own Maury Brown on the state of the game, this week I'll run down my New Year's wishes regarding baseball. While there is much right with the game, as the contributors to that piece indicated, there are always aspects that can be tweaked.

  • A Little Variety Please. The first televised major-league game was broadcast on August 26, 1939, with Red Barber calling the action in a Reds-Dodgers contest for W2XBS. Certainly the technology was primitive and even with cameras set up by the visitor's dugout on the third-base side and behind the right-handed batters' box, a reporter noted that "The players were clearly distinguishable, but it was not possible to pick out the ball."

    From those humble beginnings. the technology did improve leading to the sale of television rights in 1946 (the Yankees, of course, for $75,000), the introduction of color broadcasts (1951), instant replay tried in 1959 but then scotched in the television deal with ABC in 1965 amid fears it would cause umpires to be "overcautious," slow-motion replays tried in 1965 and then reintroduced for the 1966 World Series, and split-screens becoming common somewhere around 1967.

    Unfortunately, since the late 1960s the innovation has slowed considerably, leading to a fairly stagnant experience of watching baseball on television that is wholly unlike actually being at the ballpark. Yes, there have been refinements including better and more complex graphics for both statistics and in-game tracking (introduced by Fox in 2001 and morphing into the now-standard strip that runs across the top of the screen), "Catcher-Cam" (FOX, 1997) and "UmpireCam" (ESPN, 2002), K-Zone (ESPN, 2001), in-game interviews (FOX and ESPN in the past two or three seasons), and even several new angles like ESPN's "SkyCam," introduced in 2005.

    The problem, nicely summed by columnist Thomas Sowell several years ago with little change since then, is that the industry seems to have adopted a fairly rigid formula for how baseball games are "supposed" to look on TV; dugout angle closeup of the batter in the box, closeup of the pitcher, center-field camera showing the batter and pitcher for the pitch; "high-home" view of the fielder making the play. Those four angles comprise the vast majority of the broadcast time with a large percentage of the remainder focused on Tony LaRussa standing or pacing in the dugout. Why not show multiple pitches from the SkyCam or "high-home" view? How about a view from the left-field stands? How about staying behind the plate for a half-inning, or behind third base? In short, how about showing the game from the perspective of the fan in the stands, which is the best way to view the game?

    Two of the most distinctive aspects of baseball are the wide-open spaces and interesting angles of its ballparks, and the speed at which the game is played. Both are lost or distorted in the traditional television formula. While there are challenges not unlike those encountered in that first broadcast, and although it will probably be possible some day to choose our own angles, here's a wish for a little innovation in the near term.

  • "Small Ball" and the Postseason. This is admittedly more of a pet peeve but neither time, nor reasoning, nor counter examples (the 2005 White Sox being preeminent) seems to put much of a dent in this urban legend. My wish for 2007 is simply that announcers, sportswriters and bloggers would at least acknowledge the counter evidence when they wax eloquent on the wonders of sacrificing and productive outs in the postseason.

    Recently, David Gassko wrote an interesting piece on lineup balance where he also investigated the correlation between teams that rely more on the home-run and both Pythagorean winning percentage and success in the post season. While the results for regular-season success were small and marginally significant, those for postseason results were noteworthy.

    It turns out, there is a strong (r = .153, p = .002) correlation between a team's reliance on home runs and its success in the playoffs. If an average team jumped to the 68th percentile in terms of its reliance on home runs, it would increase its postseason winning percentage by .037 points (or six wins per 162 games). That is a huge effect. It would most certainly behoove playoff contenders to build up their power.

    This result not only makes sense quantitatively but also intuitively. As Gassko points out, since the only way to ensure a loss is to get shut out, hitting home runs more frequently raises the probability of winning the game. Beyond that, because teams that make the postseason are generally better at run prevention than those who don't, the postseason is played in a run environment that is restricted. From 1995 through 2006 the average runs scored in the regular season per 27 outs was 4.88 whereas in the postseason during that period it was 3.90, a drop of 20%.

    Playing in such an environment raises the relative value of events that are more likely or sure to score runs. This follows like night follows day since it is less probable that a team will be able to string together multiple smaller magnitude events before accumulating three outs. As a result, as the run environment shrinks the relative value of extra base hits goes up. This can be illustrated graphically using Keith Woolner's Win Expectancy (WX) Framework. Using the framework we graph the change in WX for homeruns over time in the National League.

    As is evident, the value of a home run in terms of its ability to push a team towards winning changes over time with the run environment. In the high scoring season of 1894 its value fell to its lowest ever while in the dead-ball era from 1902-1920 its value was at its highest. To put the changes in perspective for the modern fan, here is the same graph showing only the years 1980 through 2005.

    As readers will probably recall, 1987 was a particularly high-scoring season as rumors of differences in the baseball or fluctuations in the weather abounded and the value of a home run shrunk accordingly. In 1988, the tables were turned in a kind of second "year of the pitcher" thereby making the home run more valuable. Since 1993, as more runs are being scored that value has plummeted bottoming out in 1999 and 2000 and hitting its lowest value since the offensive explosion of 1930. As run scoring has decreased since that time the value of the home run has risen although is still below the fairly stable level of the 1960s through 1980s (1968 excluded of course).

    In the end, this is not the either-or proposition that it is often portrayed as. Good teams should be able to do score in a variety of ways. At the very least, though, can we please stop acting as if a reliance on home runs is somehow detrimental?

  • Let's Play Two. OK, this one is not going to happen in 2007 or the foreseeable future, but as I wrote about in a column a couple months ago, little would make me happier than seeing the return of the doubleheader. Sunday doubleheaders would be good for the game and carry the added bonus of shortening the season perhaps by a week given my modest suggestion.

  • Too Much of a Good Thing. The novelty of interleague play, which began in 1997, has begun to wear off. While Major League Baseball touts the fact that attendance at interleague games is 13% greater than at other games, an excellent piece in SABR's Outside the Lines summer newsletter more correctly puts that figure at 5% after making adjustments for the time of year when interleague games are played and the fact that most games take place on the weekends.

    My wish is that interleague play would be cut back from the average of 15 to 17 games per team played in recent years to something more like nine (or fewer for the NL Central) and further restrict those to one alternating "natural rivalry" (itself a problematic concept for many teams) with two other series, one home and one away, thrown in the mix. This would not only lessen the need for teams to adjust their rosters for play in the other league but also help to minimize the contact between the leagues--a strength of the game when it comes to All-Star and World Series time.

    And while we're at it, we may as well rebalance the schedule a little. While I've been a fan of the unbalanced schedule, agreeing with the logical necessity of intra-divisional play being primary if you're going to have divisions and the fact that it is necessary if you're going to keep interleague play, the current system is a little out of whack. Teams often play 19 games against opponents in their own division but just six against opponents in other divisions. While this allows teams who are behind in the division the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, it's not so good for fans who see the same set of teams week in and week out. Yes there are complexities to the schedule, but playing a few less games against division rivals and the reintroduction of the four-game weekend series and the occasional doubleheader in conjunction with a reduction of interleague games would likely free up enough of the schedule to play other league rivals nine to 11 times per season. Barring radical realignment and the demise of interleague play, this is probably about the best we can hope for.

  • This Time it Doesn't Count. The travesty of the 2002 All-Star Game led to awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the league winner of the All-Star Game. It's time for that short-lived but nonsensical tradition to end and instead award home-field advantage based on the team with the better interleague record or, if interleague play is reduced, simply the team with the best overall record.

  • Baseball in the Sunshine. Yes, this is an old and tired song but my wish for 2007 and beyond is that a sizeable portion (dare I say a majority?) of postseason weekend games, including and especially the World Series, be played in the sunshine as Providence intended.

    Baseball began moving weekday World Series games to the evening in 1971 for good reason. While some are sentimental regarding hidden radios and fake illnesses, the benefits of being able to see Carlton Fisk's home run, Reggie Jackson's homer barrage or Joe Carter's walk-off without threatening job security far outweigh the sentimentality. That said, fans are made by watching the game and kids that can't stay up to see a Luis Gonzalez broken-bat single off Mariano Rivera may not become fans at all. Yes, there's an opportunity cost in the short run but baseball should view this issue as one of long term investment.

  • Four Men, No Waiting. Our own Rany Jazayerli is the resident expert here but someday, someone will try it, stick with it (the 2003 Reds tried it as did the Blue Jays the same year and the Rockies in 2004), and it'll be wildly successful both on the field and to the bottom line leading to a spate of copycats. You can't argue with the math and only pitcher conditioning seemingly stands in the way. In a market where pitchers are arguably overpriced, here's wishing that some general manager takes the plunge in 2007.

I'd be remiss if I didn't cast the perennial wish of the Cubs fan. This season will be the 99th consecutive time the Cubs have attempted to bring a World Championship to the north side. Despite Jim Hendry's spending spree it's still a long shot, but then again that's what wishes are for.

Information on the history of baseball and television was found in Peter Morris' A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball Volume 2: The Game Behind the Scenes published in 2006.

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