Thinking Outside the (Batter’s) Box

Baseball is a game steeped in tradition; changes to the game are rare, although there have been some over the years.

It used to take eight balls to walk someone, then six balls, then four. Walks were called hits and then they weren’t. Pitchers had to throw underhand (which is why we still call them “pitchers”), and then they could throw overhand. Pitchers had to stay in a box, then they had to keep one foot on a slab, later called the rubber. The height of the mound was moved up and down. Spitballs were legal, then they were outlawed. I am sure all of these changes were not without their detractors, people who would argue that such changes would destroy the purity of the game.

More recently, (recent in baseball time, 1969-73) there was the lowering of the mound, batting helmets became mandatory, and the designated hitter rule. When such changes are suggested, they are hotly debated beforehand, and if the change is implemented, it is still debated strongly afterwards.

Take the designated hitter rule. This is a rule that allows a team to use a different player to hit in place of the pitcher. The rationale for the designated hitter rule arose comparatively early in the history of professional baseball. The designated hitter idea was raised by Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack in 1906. Mack’s proposal received little support and was even lambasted by the press as “wrong theoretically”. Finally, on January 11, 1973, the American League owners voted 8–4 to approve the designated hitter for a three-year trial run. It has remained in place ever since. However, the National League has never implemented the designated hitter rule. The difference between the two leagues has created endless debate about which approach is better for the game.

I’ve noted before that baseball is my favorite of the big four professional U.S. sports leagues, but such a view seems to be held by a dwindling number of people. Attendance dropped 0.7% last year and 0.8% the year before that. But so far this season overall attendance is down 8.6%, raising legitimate questions about what is happening.

There could be multiple explanations for the decline, but prime among them is that the game has gotten too long. In 1957, the year I was born, the average baseball game was 2 hours and 33 minutes. Ten years later, when I was perhaps at the peak of my love for baseball, the average game had increased to only 2:37. It wasn’t until 1985 that the average game took longer than 2:40. By 2000, it was up to three hours, and last year the average game was a record three hours and five minutes.

Some of the reasons for the longer games have been more frequent pitching changes and the adoption of instant replay.

So now, in response to the decrease attendance partly caused by longer games, there have been some proposed changes made designed to shorten the game, such as lowering the number of innings from seven to nine, or making a walk three balls instead of four.

But today the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article with another suggestion.

Two academics, NYU game theorist and professor Steven J. Brams and computer scientist Aaron Isaksen, created a rule change they believe will make baseball a more exciting sport—and cut almost a half-hour out of a nine-inning game.

It’s called the Catch-Up Rule, and it’s fairly simple. When the game is 0-0 or tied, baseball is played exactly as it is today—three outs per side. But when the at-bat club has or takes a lead, it gets two outs instead of three.

For example: Your team is in a scoreless contest. Then your slugger hits a home run to go up 1-0. Now your inning ends at two outs. Not three. As long as you keep a lead, your at-bat innings are two outs. That’s it. Tie game, three outs a side. Get the lead, play with two outs. If you take the lead with two outs, the lead stays, but the inning ends.

And there’s evidence to support their claim. Isaksen, who now works in the private sector, took the Catch-Up Rule and applied it to more than 100,000 games over the last 50 years of baseball, both regular season and postseason games. Average margin of victory dropped from 3.21 runs to 2.15 runs—i.e., games got considerably more competitive. Meanwhile, because fewer outs are necessary, outs-per-nine-innings dropped from 52.5 to 45.9—a drop that Brams and Isaksen believe shaves 24 minutes off a nine-inning baseball game.

Making the games more competitive was their primary goal; the reduced time was a nice side effect.

I’ve always been a fan of when someone comes up with a unique way of looking at a problem, and this is a case in point. I hope someone is willing to give this a tryout to see how it actually works, it would be fun to see what the potential changes in strategy might be as a result of such a change.

The only downside I see would be fewer plays like the following, one of my favorites: