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October 28, 2008

Doctoring The Numbers

When the Rains Come

by Rany Jazayerli

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Editor's Note: Originally published on May 1, 2006, Rany's observations on how to handle rainouts seem particularly trenchant today.

On Saturday night, the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland A's played a baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. The two teams elected to swap roles for the evening: the A's played the role of doormat, as starter Esteban Loaiza was assaulted for five runs in the first inning and was knocked out in the second. The Royals did their best impression of an offensive juggernaut, drawing seven walks against just one strikeout, and scoring six times, four of them on a grand slam from Reggie Sanders. Kerry Robinson, called up from Triple-A that morning, became the first Royal in two years to garner two hits in a single inning. Jeremy Affeldt had his third straight impressive start, allowing a single run and fanning five hitters in three innings of work.

But you can be forgiven for being skeptical that such an event ever took place. You will find no box score listing the above events at ESPN.com. A click on the box score at MLB.com renders a blank page. What actually transpired on Saturday night is destined to become a rumor, a myth, one eventually completely forgotten. Thousands of witnesses notwithstanding, history will tell us that no baseball game was ever played on this date, at this place.

Because, you see, it started to rain.

As predicted well before gametime, the Kansas City skies opened up and pelted the stadium with something fierce. The rains started almost as soon as the game got underway, steadily coming down heavier and heavier until, with two out in the bottom of the third, the umpires pulled everyone off the field. After a two-hour delay, when it became clear that the downpour would continue through most of the night, the game was officially postponed. And everything that had occurred up to that point ceased to exist, became null and void, was given a mulligan.

And I, for one, find this stupid beyond words. The rule that places major league teams in a position of playing a "do-over" like they were six-year-olds on a sandlot might be the single dumbest, most offensive rule in all of professional sports.

(Quick tangent here: the specific details of this game have nothing to do with my outrage. My Royals fandom notwithstanding, I didn't particularly want the Royals to win, and I certainly didn't want the A's to lose. As far as my baseball loyalties lie, I am perfectly happy to see this game struck from the books.)

As the rules of baseball are written-rules which have not changed since the 19th century-no major league game is considered "official" until five innings have played, or four-and-a-half if the home team is winning. It is a rule so fundamental to the game that no one ever gives any thought to how absurd it is.

Because as the rule stands, any game that you attend as a fan has the potential to be meaningless. Until the magical bottom of the fifth inning rolls around, anything that occurs (Felix Hernandez strikes out the first 12 batters in a game, Albert Pujols hits three grand slams in his first three at-bats) does not officially exist. Once-in-a-lifetime events-an unassisted triple play, a pitcher who gets five strikeouts in an inning-are not officially sanctioned as "events" until the game itself is sanctioned as "official."

This isn't a theoretical concern. The story of Roger Maris is fairly well known, that he hit a home run in 1961 (July 17th, at Baltimore) that was rained out of existence with the Yankees up 4-1 in the middle of the fifth. His final tally of 61 would have been 62; more importantly, the grounds for an asterisk (or "distinctive mark") would have been so spurious that even Ford Frick might not have tried to add one to the record books. On June 1st, 1958, Al Kaline homered to lead off the bottom of the second inning, but the game was rained out in the fourth. (Thank you, Retrosheet!) Kaline finished his career with 399 homers; you do the math.

George Brett holds the Royals' franchise record with 317 home runs. I watched on TV as he hit another one in the top of the first off of Ben McDonald in Baltimore on August 5th, 1990. The game was halted in the middle of the first, which is why his record isn't 318 home runs.

Baseball is fairly unique among American team sports in that inclement weather can force games to be delayed or postponed quite commonly. But let's compare baseball to tennis and golf, two sports whose rulebooks are at least as hidebound in tradition as baseball's is. Golfers are not forced to replay an entire round because they were pulled off the course after six holes. When matches are delayed at Wimbledon, they resume from the point at which play was postponed. Yes, sometimes golf tournaments are shortened from four rounds to three on account of heavy rains throughout the tournament, but those decisions are made before anyone has teed off for the fourth time-the results of holes that have been played are sacrosanct.

In baseball, nothing is sacrosanct for the first four innings. On September 6th, 1995, Cal Ripken played in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig's record. Desperate for good publicity in the wake of the strike that had just ended five months prior, Major League Baseball pulled out all the stops in celebrating the event, delaying the game for 22 minutes while Ripken took a celebratory lap around the field and shook hands with fans in the stands. When did this celebration occur? In the middle of the fifth inning, when the game became "official."

At least Mother Nature cooperated, and no harm was done to fans who had bought their tickets for that game months in advance. But what about the fans who ponied up the dollars for tickets to the Cubs game on August 8th, 1988-the first night game in the history of Wrigley Field? That game was rained out after 3½ innings; the "official" first Wrigley Field night game came the following night. The fans who attended the August 8th game got a rain check and a Screw You sandwich.

Then there is the the utter absurdity of baseball's rules as they apply to a game that is stopped by rain after five innings. According to Rule 4.11 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball:

If the game is called while an inning is in progress and before it is completed, the game becomes a SUSPENDED game in each of the following situations: (1) The visiting team has scored one or more runs to tie the score and the home team has not scored; (2) The visiting team has scored one or more runs to take the lead and the home team has not tied the score or retaken the lead.

Assuming I have parsed the language of the rule book accurately-it appears to have been written in early-20th-century lawyerese-then there are four possible scenarios that can occur to a game that is stopped with two outs in the top of the seventh:

  1. If the home team is winning, the game is considered complete, and all stats count.
  2. If the visiting team has tied the game or taken the lead in the top of the seventh, then the game is suspended and will be resumed from that point.
  3. If the visiting team was already ahead after six innings, then the game is considered complete, but anything that occurred in the top of the seventh inning is struck from the record.
  4. If the game was tied at the end of six innings, then the game has to be replayed from the beginning, but the game is considered a tie and therefore all the statistics from the game are counted.

This is insane.

This is a rule that was concocted at a time when the rulebook also stipulated that a walk required nine balls, a pitcher had to stay inside a box fifty feet from home plate when he threw the ball, and games on Sunday were both illegal and a crime against God. The other rules have changed; this one has survived.

We haven't even considered the nightmare scenario here, which is a game postponed by rain in the postseason. (There may be a rule which allows for the suspension of games in the playoffs, but if there is, I can't find it.) While (to the best of my knowledge) no team has ever had an easy victory taken away from them in the playoffs by Mother Nature, there have been a number of close calls. As Rob Neyer discusses in his excellent new book, the deciding game of the 1925 World Series was played in weather that can only be described as unplayable, in large part because Commissioner Landis had already taken heat after Game Two of the 1922 World Series had ended in a tie because of "darkness" 45 minutes before sunset. After Game Six of the 1986 World Series-you might recall there was a bit of drama in that series-rain postponed Game Seven by a day. And while it may be in poor taste to point out, what if the Bay Area earthquake had hit an hour or two later, with the Giants well on their way to winning their first game of the Series in the fourth inning?

I can't be the only one to envision a scenario that has the Cubs beating the Cardinals 10-0 in Game Seven of the NLCS, when Wrigley Field is suddenly deluged with a rainstorm in the fourth inning, and the game is called off. If you think Cubs fans treated Steve Bartman cruelly…they'll probably drag weatherman Tom Skilling out of his house and toss him into a vat of boiling oil.

The solution here is so obvious that it's almost not worth describing. All games that are postponed will be considered "suspended games," and will be resumed from the exact point that the game was stopped. If the score is 14-0 in the top of the ninth, or if the game is scoreless in the bottom of the first, the game needs to be completed.

It would eliminate shenanigans like a team winning in the top of the fifth purposely making outs to get to the bottom of the inning before the rains came, or a team that's losing in the bottom of the fifth taking their sweet time between pitches while the rains come down.

The solution is so obvious that it already exists-at the minor league level. From Rule 4.11:

National Association Leagues may also adopt the following rules for suspended games in addition to 4.11 (d) (1) & (2) above…: (3) The game has not become a regulation game (4 1/2 innings with the home team ahead, or 5 innings with the visiting club ahead or tied). (4) Any regulation game tied at the point play is stopped because of weather, curfew or other reason.

In other words, for National Assocation (i.e. minor league) teams, games which are tied, or games which are not "regulation" because they haven't finished five innings, are allowed to be "suspended" and continued from the point of stoppage at the earliest convenient moment.

So why haven't major league teams caught on? Simple: money. By allowing games to be considered complete as early as the fifth inning, major league teams don't have to accommodate fans who bought tickets to a game they were unable to see to its completion.

Aside from being an exercise in selfishness, the unintended consequences of this decision are such that it may create as many problems as it solves. Because of the pressure to complete a game in one setting, umpires frequently will have the fans (and players) sit through hours upon hours of rain delays in the hopes of getting in enough innings for the game to count. Games that have to be replayed in their entirety require complete, 18-inning doubleheaders at a future date, which will either cost a team a coveted home gate, or lead to the dreaded day/night doubleheader.

Bud Selig likes to think of himself as "The People's Commissioner," bringing innovations to the game that the fans are clamoring for, or at least innovations that he thinks they're clamoring for: the wild card, three divisions, three rounds of playoffs, interleague play. How about fixing something that's actually broken, Bud? How about fixing a rule that is actively hostile to the fans? How about fixing a rule that one October day may well become the center of the biggest controversy in sports?

As it is, on the Royals' pre-game show Saturday, the announcers discussed the weather situation for several minutes, pointing out that the huge blip on the radar that was headed for the stadium, and they made the point that the teams would be lucky to get five innings in. In other words, the game started without any expectation from anyone that it would actually count. That is psychotic.

So the next time you go to a game, try not to dwell on the fact that everything you're watching on the field is just an illusion. At least until the fifth inning.

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

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