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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.

***

Baseball is a game that looks very different when watched at close range. I remember clearly the first time that, as a teenager, my friends and I snuck down into the lower reserve section at Jacobs Field and watched half an inning from the first row behind the backstop before a nice usher politely asked my friends and me to kindly remove ourselves from that area, lest we they kindly be removed from the park. (My friends described it to me in such vivid detail that it was almost as if I had been there myself.) The pitches moved. It wasn’t video game movement. They still obeyed those laws of physics that we had been learning about, but they moved. And the batter muttered. And the pitcher danced. Calls were on the corners. There was emotion coming from all of the participants after each of those pitches.

For most of my life, when I had gone to a baseball game, I had sat in those $12 seats. I knew that the outcome of a pitch, whether ball or strike, was important, but I experienced it as the ball being tossed down the chute and the umpire making a call. In fact, I mostly considered it important because I knew that a strike brought the batter closer to a strikeout and a ball brought the batter closer to a walk. I didn’t think about how it changed the 2-1 pitch that was about to come (or how that would have been different from the 1-2 pitch that would have happened if the call had gone the other way.)

There’s a lot of action that goes on between the pitcher and hitter on all of the pitches. I knew of this action, because I watched the games on television, and the center field camera gives a decent perspective on the ball’s movement and I could see the body language of the pitcher and batter. It isn’t the whole picture, but it’s part of the picture. There once was a time when baseball games were not shown on television. That means that baseball spent a great deal of its existence where there were only two ways to experience the game. One was on the radio and the other was in person, probably sitting a few hundred feet from the batter’s box, watching the white ball be fired in the direction of home plate and the umpire yelling something. A little further back, and the radio wasn’t even consistently an option either.

Baseball is a game played in two parts. There’s the delicate dance of the batter and pitcher and then there’s what happens at the end when the batter hits the ball or the batter fails to hit the ball or the pitcher hits the batter. Much of the first part of that dance is played out in the realm of inches. Plenty of pitchers live either just on the corner or just off of it. The difference between a “good” slider and a bad one might be a couple inches of break. It’s the sort of resolution that even the best human eye can’t get from a few hundred feet away, often off-set at an angle. From that distance, they all look the same. But a fly ball hit in the air 300 feet from the batter’s box? That was easy enough to see.

That too had consequences. In baseball’s formative years, a language grew up around the end of the dance. Hitters “singled” or “grounded to third” or “flied out to center field.” A quasi-mathematical notation was invented so that 8-year-olds could document these events and learn about matrices. From these events, there came forth numbers, numbers that came to be culturally important, and almost all of them based on summarizing what had happened at the end of a player’s turn in the box. Consider baseball’s best known statistics. Batting average summarizes the outcome of a hitter’s at-bats. On-base percentage summarizes the outcome of a hitter’s plate appearances. Home runs are a specific outcome that can end a turn at the dish. So are strikeouts.

Baseball culture grew to speak of its heroes in terms of how their plate appearances ended. There’s nothing wrong with that. That is eventually the object of the game, but what would have happened if baseball had built all of its ballparks with all of its seats behind home plate, close enough to watch the dance of the slider and batter? What if a language had developed where we were not unaware of the fact that Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs, but that one of the reasons he hit those home runs was that he was able to lay off pitches just off the corner?

But alas, that never happened. The physics of the game called for a center fielder and seats that were too far away to fully appreciate that batter-pitcher tango. By the time radio and television were widespread, baseball already had an entire language, poetic and numerical, that it used to talk about itself and a set of cultural norms that went with it. And the fundamental assumption of that language was that what happened at the end of the at-bat was what mattered, with special preference given to things that the fans could see from the stands. (This is the same culture that pretended walks had no value until the turn of the millennium.)

Television might be able to show the movement of the pitches and the emotions on the players' faces, but by this point the announcers didn’t dwell on that as much. There were few words and the fans watching at home didn’t grow up speaking them. There has always been plenty of movement in the game. Each pitch unravels yards of strategic adjustment. And if you’re lucky, the color commentator might mention that once in a while.

***

Year

K per game

BB per game

HBP per game

PA per game

NIP percentage

Minutes per game

2016

8.03

3.11

0.34

38.01

30.2%

184.77

2006

6.52

3.26

0.37

38.71

26.2%

171.91

1996

6.46

3.55

0.31

39.10

26.3%

175.77

1986

5.87

3.38

0.19

38.24

24.7%

168.99

1976

4.83

3.20

0.18

38.06

21.6%

149.17

(Data mostly stolen from courtesy of Baseball Reference, values are per team.)

Baseball has decided that it has a problem. It just hasn’t figured out what problem that it thinks it has, and in this case the words matter. Writing last month in Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci put the case succinctly: “Baseball does not have a time of game problem. It has a pace of action problem."

We can see that the games have gotten longer, by more than half an hour over the course of 40 years, despite the fact that patrons still get to see almost the exact same number of hitters come to the plate. But there’s another trend that has walked alongside that increase. Driven almost entirely by strikeouts, hitters are putting the ball in play a lot less than they used to. In the past 40 years, the number of plate appearances ending with a “not in play” event has jumped by almost 10 percent.

These are separate, though related problems, and baseball has never really been clear on which one it’s trying to solve. Maybe the answer is “both.” The game has grown up with a clear cultural preference for the ball being hit into play, but the game has quickly evolved past seeing strikeouts as a moral failing (karma did not punish for Casey for his hubris by having him ground to third). Instead, strikeouts are now seen as more of an unfortunate, though bearable side effect for behaviors that teams do like. But they’re hard to appreciate from 500 feet away, and even though television can show the anguished face of the batter after he flails at the forbidden candy that he shouldn’t have chased, we are still programmed to associate “action” with “hitting the ball.”

This leaves baseball in a weird position. They can’t command teams to strike out less. They can’t command teams to stop valuing a skill that might win them more games, but it’s boring. The league knows that even though they are tempted to make rule changes, they have to do so gingerly. The idea of raising the bottom of the strike zone to the top, rather than the hollow of the knee, has been discussed as a way to encourage more balls in a hittable part of the zone, but tinkering with the rules too much runs the risk of alienating the crowd that believes that You Can't Change Baseball.

So, if MLB can’t make players put the ball in play more, at least it can cut down on the time between balls by instituting “suggestions” like the “keep one foot in the batter’s box” rule and its cousin lurking in the background, the pitch clock. The oddity is that the solutions to the pace-of-action problem are actually more solutions geared toward the time of game. Baseball apparently believes that the game needs a more hyper-frenetic pace so that the lacunae between batted balls don’t feel so lonely.

It might be worth asking why baseball has become a game of dawdling to begin with. There are plenty of suggestions that would knock off a minute here or 30 seconds there from a game, but they mostly boil down to, “c’mon guys, let’s get this over with.” That might end up being counter-productive.

***

The psychologist in me sympathizes with the gentlemen who are on the field, maybe taking an extra moment before stepping into place. More to the point, the father of soon-to-be-five who has played more Candy Land than I care to mention understands. Baseball is a game of sustained attention in a low-stimulation environment under conditions of sleep deprivation. In English, baseball is a game where most of the time nothing happens, but you have to pay close attention anyway because when something does happen, you have to react quickly.

Using PITCHf/x data, we can look at a simple metric of dawdling, which is the average time between pitches. We’ll panel it by inning. I removed all first pitches of an at-bat (because they come after the previous hitter did something, which may have involved running around the bases for days on end) and limited the sample to those where no runners were on, so that pitchers and base runners looking longingly at one another were taken out of the equation.

As the game wears on, things start taking just a bit longer. And that makes sense. Neurologically, it’s hard to sustain attention for several hours, even for someone who does not have an attention problem. When people in laboratory settings are asked to perform a sustained attention task without rest, their reaction time slows and they have more lapses in attention. It’s not surprising if hitters take an extra moment to reset their focus before climbing into the batter’s box to face a 98 mph fastball that could kill them. MLB could legislate that they not take those extra moments, but they’d be legislating against the realities of neuropsychology. The consequence of that would be players who are more likely to be just a bit off their game.

And here we need to ask whether the cure is worse than the disease. Yes, the games could be shorter, but there also wouldn’t be quite as much thrill from seeing some of the hemisphere’s best athletes playing a game at the highest possible level that it can be played. There are going to be days when the score is 8-3 and the actual outcome of the game isn’t much of a mystery. But in any one plate appearance a player can make a highlight-reel worthy catch or hit a home run that breaks the tape measure. Even if the game is a dud, the fans can at least go home talking about that. Take away those little extra pauses and you take away some of the player’s abilities to generate those moments. It’s like cutting a few minutes off Swan Lake by sending in the junior varsity ballet dancers, because they pirouette a little faster.

Instead, may I suggest looking at this problem from a different camera angle than the one that inspires most baseball video games to have a “one-pitch” mode?

***

It’s always important to listen to the words that people use to describe their problems. When I worked as a therapist, it was important to understand not only the problem that a person was bringing to the therapy room but why they believed that it was a problem. In baseball’s case, they have identified the clock as the problem, but the reason behind that is a fear. For a business which makes its money by selling an entertainment product, it’s a perfectly reasonable fear, but it’s a fear of being “boring.” Like anything else, “boring” is in the eye of the beholder, though MLB has a business interest in making sure that as many eyes as possible are beholding the game.

I rather like spending three-and-a-half hours at the ballpark, but even I can recognize a dud of a game when I see one. An 8-3 snoozer is no one’s idea of a good time. And yet, while baseball complains about long games and extended pauses, they sure do sell the hell out of those moments when it suits them. Watch the television feed of a close game and you are guaranteed to see extended close-ups of a reliever as sweat drips down his face and he takes a deep breath before shaking off his catcher. The batter takes an extra moment before stepping in and has a determinedly placid look on his face as he wiggles his bat a little bit. Back to the pitcher who comes set as the crowd noise swells behind them both and then, the batter calls time. Baseball can be such a tease.

But suddenly, in a close game, the very issue that baseball had declared as the reason for “boredom” is now a dramatic moment, despite the fact that “nothing” is happening. Now the pause is a reason to love the game. It’s a reason to luxuriate in the fact that the game is in the balance and might be won by the heroes or the villains, and we have no idea who. It’s an invitation to become emotionally invested. It’s the setup for what is often called a “Hollywood ending.”

I’d argue that baseball doesn’t have a time-of-game problem or even a pace-of-action problem, as Verducci suggests. It has a narrative pacing problem. It wants to tell a good story, but the game sometimes gets in the way. To solve it, maybe baseball can take a few lessons from another art form: film. Not in the sense that baseball games should more resemble movies, but instead baseball can learn from the ways in which good filmmakers can take two hours and make them engaging and compelling, while bad filmmakers can make you demand a refund at the box office for the fact that you will never get those 120 minutes back.

Filmmakers don’t tell a story in the most efficient way possible, because humans don’t perceive stories in terms of efficiency. Instead, film uses a complicated visual language all its own that we often don’t even recognize, but one that conforms to the way that people actually absorb narratives. When a scene opens, the filmmaker rarely jumps right to the action, but instead leaves a small “establishing shot” on the screen for a few seconds. If the characters will be interacting at a diner, the screen will show that diner from the outside. The establishing shot doesn’t actually move the plot along, but the brain needs a moment to transition from the last scene where they were in a laundromat. Or a spaceship. Or Mount Rushmore.

Filmmakers also play around with time in their composition. It’s a standard film technique to use slow-motion footage during a particularly important moment in the film. Efficiency would be showing the event at full speed, which is how things actually proceed, but it’s not how humans experience big events. When people experience crisis moments in real life, they will often recall the event by saying, “It’s as if time slowed down.” It didn’t, but there’s a very real cognitive reason why it seems that way. During normal operations, the human brain has millions of pieces of information that it could pay attention to. The problem is bandwidth and capacity. To pay attention to every single detail all the time would be maddening.

Instead, the brain is predisposed to pay attention to certain bits of information, process others on auto-pilot, and ignore others. But in a crisis situation, the brain is cued to realize that this is an important moment and it begins collecting as much data as it can for this short burst. We are used to a certain amount of information representing a certain amount of time, but the brain’s short-term information-gathering binge messes with that ratio. Filmmakers have learned to use that to their advantage, mirroring the brain’s natural tendency to “slow things down” as a signal to the viewer. Pay attention. This scene is really important.

***

The intentional walk (you were wondering when I was going to back around to that, weren’t you?) is a counter-intuitive strategy. The pitcher is not supposed to want the batter to reach base, and yet there he is doing something that he could easily not do that will guarantee the batter first base. The whole process used to take a minute or so in the good old days when you actually had to throw the pitches, and now we can shave most of that minute off the game. But at what cost?

Using data from 1993-2016, I found that the average Leverage Index for a non-eighth-spot-in-the-lineup (to get to the pitcher) intentional walk is 1.4. For those unfamiliar with the Leverage Index, it was created by researcher Tom Tango and is a mathematical representation of how important a situation is to an individual baseball game. Situations where the game is in the balance have high leverage values. Those where it doesn’t matter have low values. An “average” situation has a value of 1.0, and so the intentional walk is generally pulled out of the manager’s back pocket during a situation that is 1.4 times more important than a garden variety situation in a baseball game.

Whether by accident or design, the intentional walk is most often placed at an important juncture in the game, and like a good filmmaker who is trying to set a good narrative pace, the IBB slows the game down and allows a bit of time for baseball’s version of an establishing shot (as we watch two grown men play catch exactly four times). And yes, we could get rid of that establishing shot and it would cut a little bit of time off of the movie, but would the movie actually be better for it?

I think we need to keep the “classic” intentional walk around. Not for the occasional giggle-inducing moments that it spawns when someone reaches out and hits one of the four pitches or the pitcher throws one of them away. Instead, we need those four pitches because they are part of the unspoken, visual language of the game. As the narrative of the game unfolds, the seconds that those four sham pitches consume actually serve a purpose in making the game fit with how humans process information, and by that measure, more engaging and interesting.

***

I think we need to accept something about baseball. It is not realistic to expect that a non-obsessed fan will watch every pitch of a game, especially one that isn’t all that interesting. It might even be a little much to ask the obsessed ones to do it. The rules of basketball and football provide for “action”—with action being defined people moving around in 10-yard increments—on a regular and predictable basis. Baseball suffers from an unpredictability in that sense. It’s entirely possible to get through a half-inning without anyone hitting the ball into play and it’s possible that any pitch might be the one that sets everyone running. To be a baseball fan, or a baseball watcher, is to have no idea when the next bit of “action” might be.

The fact that “action” in a baseball game is defined so narrowly turns out to be a historical accident that followed from the physics of the game. When you need a space so cavernous that it involves a center fielder and yet you do not allow the origin point for launch of the ball to move, you create a fan base that is largely ignorant of the great deal of action that goes on in the exchange of pitcher and batter as they negotiate the five pitches before the batter grounds out to second. When you create a long game that requires sustained attention and quick response times, you create a game where dawdling will happen. In some sense, I feel bad for Rob Manfred in his fight against the clock. He is actually fighting a two-front war against physics and the human brain. That’s a hard battle to win.

I don’t object to the idea of trying to shorten games, but if baseball believes that the reason it teeters on boring is the fact that there aren’t enough balls in play per hour to satisfy people’s craving for stimulation, then it should make changes that work on the numerator in that ratio, rather than the denominator. Viewing the exercise through a simple lens of the ends (a few seconds saved) justifying the means is short-sighted. Sometimes the rituals that we take for granted have deep functions that we don’t appreciate until they’re gone. I think the intentional walk, as silly as it may seem, is this sort of ritual.

It serves a purpose in making a game that can be hard to watch a little easier to watch, because it calls out to the viewer, “Hey, if you’ve checked out of the game mentally, you might want to check back in. We’re about to do something important!” It gives the viewer a little time to re-adjust and re-engage in the narrative. It even gives the announcers a chance to set the stage for what’s going to happen next.

So I say bring back ball four. Make the pitcher actually issue an intentional walk, rather than just point the batter to first. Leave alone the language that baseball has evolved for itself to work around some of its limitations. Yes, they might seem like four useless lobs, but they do a job that’s much more important than just allowing the batter a free pass to first. And they’re worth the 45 seconds that it takes to make them happen.

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MacKuen
3/14
Wonderful piece. Your joining together baseball's physics and narrative structure pushes all of us to better understand the nature of the game – and our experience of the game. As you know, any film will have multiple layers of meaning and impact which will be appreciated differently by different individuals in different times and different circumstances. And so it is with baseball. Thanks for pushing the conversation further and deeper than normal.
jnossal
3/14
What did Tarantino think was so important about six guys walking down the street?
jnossal
3/14
Any discussion of baseball game pacing or length that doesn't address the extended TV timeouts is merely an exercise in woolgathering. Intriguing and entertaining maybe, but ultimately pointless.
hmonrdick
3/14
Eliminating the intentional walk would deprive us of another chance to see a virtual repeat of the classic walk-turned-strikeout of Johnny Bench by Rollie Fingers in the 1972 World Series. To me, that's one of the most memorial World Series events in history, and it would be a shame not even to have a chance to see a repeat of it.
mhmckay
3/14
The NFL had its own version of the intentional walk problem called the "extra point". It became a pointless, boring exercise because its outcome became predictable. Some talked about just abolishing it as an unnecessary waste of time. The NFL, in an inspired approach, moved it back to reestablish uncertainty and drama, to make it "interesting" and "necessary to watch". I reflected for a few minutes on "what could MLB similarly do to make the intentional walk more interesting?" Because, honestly, it is boring and tedious, just like an extra point was. And, because it generally removes the bat from a hitter I would like, as a fan, to see hit (great, I'm watching them walk the #8 hitter to get to the pitcher). What about: I can turn down a ball, or by extension a walk. You have to pitch to me, you don't have the right to just let me go. I'm sure more creative people can come up with better ideas. But my point -- let's make the IBB situation more dramatic and interesting in a different way, not hang on to "the way we've always done it"
jnossal
3/22
Well, here's what MLB could do akin to the NFL solution. Just have the pitcher throw the from second base! Hey, now there's excitement. Or maybe require the catcher to use his bare hands. How about an intentional walk cannot be thrown by the current pitcher, you have to bring in the shortstop or another player to do it? Or the pitch has to thrown on a hop, or no pitch is declared. There's no end to gimmicks meant to amuse the dimwitted. The NFL has proven that far more times than necessary. Considering the "boredom" of the XP, the first attempt to goose the afterthrill of a TD was the institution of the two-point conversion. Apparently, that wasn't enough drama for TV. Why any team bothers now to kick a 1-pointer from the 32-yard line is beyond me, but NFL coaches aren't noted for their math skills. Coming soon, the four-poled goal post and variable FG scoring. Then, the 8-pt TD if caught by a designated receiver chosen by fans voting on Twitter at home. Yay! I gave up on the NFL 15 years ago, it will be the same for baseball if it ever stoops to the lows of the NFL.
newsense
3/14
Russell- Best-written piece you have ever done. The pacing of the piece and the turns it takes helps to make your point. You use every tool in your kit exactly when and how it should be used.
prs130
3/14
I resent losing the opportunity to heckle/boo the opposing pitcher for being a cowardly dog over the course of four whole pitches.
muzia02
3/14
Interesting - if interpreted differently, it almost sounds like the best way to improve baseball is through something like training announcers rather than these minor gameplay tweaks that are unlikely to change anyone's psychological impression/takeaway of the game.
jfranco77
3/15
Brilliant article.
erikpvl
3/15
Thanks for this deeper look at the issue. The "traditionalists" need some actual points to make to the pace-of-game agitators, and this is a great start to that argument. Thank you. :-)