Friday, May 14, 2010

Sorry, Mr. Deford: Baseball's Length Is Its Gift

Dear Mr. Frank Deford,

Last week, you wrote an article for lamenting what you described as the "stultifying sluggishness" that is presently plaguing Major League Baseball.  The article bemoaned the "dreadful strategy" of hitters allowing themselves to see as many pitches as possible in order to tire out the pitcher.  You seem to see this as one tactic among many from which teams can choose, a gameplan just like using the hit-and-run or a zone blitz.  However, this "virus" that is pushing the game to average lengths nearing three hours is not as quite as simple as a belt-high fastball or a pop-fly to the pitcher.        

To be clear, baseball has never been about time.  There is nothing in major professional American team sports that rivals the inning, a yardstick that measures the progress of the game by action rather than duration.  It's not like the game has undergone a radical rule change like the introduction of the 3-point shot or the forward pass.  Working the count, rather, is the logical progression of human thinking that has been years in the making.  In the days of Frankln P. Adams, who is mentioned in your article, starting pitchers regularly threw over 300 innings in a season, meaning that complete games were far more common than they are today.  For batters, it made sense to swing more often at that time, particularly later in the game, because pitchers who were still pitching after six innings would be at a huge disadvantage.

Having already faced a team's lineup twice, hurlers would be physically tired, thereby making them more likely to throw pitches that missed the strike zone; if batters wanted to get on base, they had to swing at a fastball that was too far inside or outside to be called a strike, or they could wait for a breaking ball that (lucky for them) saw way too much of the plate.  Or, heaven forbid, they could wait for a good pitch and stay still if one never came.  Most of the time, they swung because, as Bob Klapisch points out, they had to: if they didn't, the game would extend beyond the regular nine innings and (presumably) they would not be able to finish before it was too dark to see the ball.
In the last 30 years, the only pitchers to even approach the 300-inning mark (for one season each, mind you) were Bert Blyleven (1985) and Jack Morris (1983).  The reason for that, whether you agree with it or not, is the medical concern that overworking pitchers would cause them to wear out more quickly, and signing new arms every few years would be substantially more expensive than retaining one arm for the long haul.  Enter the pitch count, sworn enemy of young pitchers' mental development and aggressive hitters everywhere.  Armed with the idea that throwing their aces for too long would be detrimental to their performance, managers at every level have begun yanking their pitchers after a certain number of pitches thrown, often with little regard for the game situation in which the move is made.

For disciplined batters, knowing that the man on the hill is on a pitch count is a tantalizing prospect: they realize that if they can force the starter to throw a lot of pitches in a short time, there is a better chance that they will have more at-bats against a relief pitcher who is not as skilled at getting them out.  So, they watch, and they judge, and they swing if forced by the count or if lured into doing so by a floating meatball. But the ultimate goal is to wear down the opposition, just like a football team pounding run after up-the-middle run to keep the defense on the field.  The difference between the two is that batters have no game clock and can therefore hold out for as long as they are able, and with many games now played under artificial lighting, they can mark time all day and all night if that's what it takes to win.  A good bullpen, then, becomes the great equalizer for managers whose pitchers are lacking in stamina, having an off night, or limited by the pitch count.    

To attack the practice of working the count ignores the evolution of baseball itself.  The Klapisch article mentions that the Yankees saw more pitches than any other team in the American League last season, and sticking to that strategy earned them some valuable dividends, namely a world championship.  If you want to fault the Yankees and Red Sox for lollygagging in the batter's box, that's alright, because according to The Hardball Times, they do.  However, it should be said that the growing length of a baseball game is not a deal-breaker in terms of whether or not a baseball fan will watch a game, especially a die-hard Boston or New York fan who will fawn over their team and soak in all the ridiculous instances in which their favorite players take obscene license with the time allowed by the umpires.  Admonishing the umpires and MLB officials to enforce time limits between pitches, in warm-ups and within at-bats is one thing, but blaming teams for using a strategy that has proven itself to be successful is wrong.

You're right in saying that baseball enjoys a sense of intellectual suspense that just isn't possible with timed sporting events.  Your irritation, however, is misdirected - rather than wag a finger at teams for taking too long because of their strategy, be upset with players who dawdle in their at-bats. In this case, it's OK to hate the player rather than the game.  

Sincerely and respectfully,

Tyler Springs

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"...And Then We F----- Up The Endgame"

Botched end-of-game scenarios drive everyone crazy.  It would seem logical, especially for professional teams that practice regularly during the season, that coaches would make sure their teams practiced these scenarios until the Gatorade ran out, but time and again teams manage to bungle their chances of winning the game by making stupid mistakes (usually rushed decisions) or forgetting simple things that they would easily remember in a morning shoot-around. I won't claim to know what the best plan is for every time-sensitive situation, but there are certain situations in which teams seem to make bad decisions that any fan watching on TV could make.

Exhibit A: Lakers-Thunder, Friday night.  LA down 1, OKC ball, :30 to go.  Russell Westbrook misses a J and Kobe Bryant gets the rebound, :17 to go.  And then this.

Where do I start? First, Oklahoma City lets Westbrook (6'3") pick up Kobe (6'6") as he brings the ball upcourt.  Mind you, Kobe's had a lot of trouble in this series when being guarded by Kevin Durant (6'10") because of Durant's length, but Westbrook is doesn't present the same degree of difficulty.

After crossing midcourt, there is about a 3-4 second window in which Kobe is completely stationary, priming Westbrook for his next move.  If you're Westbrook and you realize that you are guarding the man who has made more shots in the last :10 of games this season than any other player in the league AND you are not the best man on the floor for the job, shouldn't you foul him instead of risking embarrassment when Kobe (more than likely) makes the winning shot? More to the point, shouldn't you foul him, so that even if he does make his free throws, you still have time to retaliate rather than watching him score at the buzzer?

I realize I'm acting like Kobe made the shot, but effectively he did.  If the shot had gone in, there would have been roughly 2.5 seconds left on the clock, which is ample time to run a decent inbounds play from halfcourt, but it seems like having 5-8 seconds and the ball while being down by 1 or 2 is a better option.  In that scenario, there is at least time for the player receiving the inbounds pass to consider dishing to a teammate rather than just shooting.        


On another note, here's ESPN's preview of Madden 11. The video below isn't tied to the article, but it gives a decent taste of the action.  The new system for calling plays looks good, but the lack of a turbo button will take some getting used to.