The Importance of the Long Baseball Season

Baseball blogger Joe Posnaski speculates on ways baseball would be more like football if it had a 16 game schedule, with one game per week.  The ace starter would be your only starter, he says, and the five to eight teams with true aces would be at a huge advantage, similar to the five teams or so with elite quarterbacks.  Some starters would be game managers, just trying to keep their team in the game, he says.  The difference is that the pitcher is more truly alone- he can’t “keep the offense off the field,” nor can he rely on his running game or punter.  He can avoid turnovers (big innings) by avoiding walks, however. 

You would see teams stuck with a game manager bringing in great glovemen, outfielders if he’s a flyball pitcher, infielders if he’s a groundball pitcher.  They would try to build an offense good enough to take a lead against other teams’ game managers, then perhaps bring in their defensive team once they succeeded in doing so.

Posnaski anticipates a “backup pitcher” or long reliever on each roster, with two short relief specialists.* 

If there’s four or five pitchers on a roster, you have 20 roster spots to play with and can do all sorts of crazy things: Posnaski suggests signing Usain Bolt as designated pinch-runner.  You can play for matchups like crazy, especially in the late innings (but beware- perhaps games would have a greater tendency to go to extra innings.)  Perhaps a very strong-armed catcher can be brought in to neutralize the opposing running game in key situations.  You would probably have lineups structured to beat aces (you’ll want Ichiro leading off) and alternative lineups structured to beat up bad pitching (you’ll want Jay Buhner or Jim Thome batting fourth or fifth.)

Posnaski claims that with every run more valuable and teams having more preparation  time, “Baseball would get its own Bill Walsh or Sid Gillman who would revolutionize offense.  Baseball would get its own Buddy Ryan or Tom Landry who would revolutionize defense.”  Don’t see it.  In football, offense is about getting eleven people acting in concert to put the defense at a disadvantage.  In baseball, offense is about…hitting a baseball.  That’s 90% of it.  The rest is base-running- probably you would see a comeback of the Jackie Robinson-style base running genius, but that’s a matter of individual skill and improvisation, not coach’s strategy.  There’s a few actions that coordinate hitting and running- the hit-and-run, for instance, and the bunt.  Would there really be more?  Posnaski foresees “20 different kinds of hit and run,” and “all sorts of innovations that my mind can’t reach now.”  I don’t see it.

Similarly, Posnaski says, players would watch far more film: “I’ve spoken to many former baseball players who see no value at all in the video work that teams do.  They say that breaking down the swing too much can mess with your mindset.  They say that breaking down the pitcher fills the mind with too many thoughts.  Hitting is a natural act.  ‘See the ball, hit the ball,’ Tony Perez always said.

“I’m not sure how much of that is true but I do believe this: If they played baseball just once a week, managers and coaches and players would SCOUR over video just like in football….They would gameplan each game differently.”  They can’t do these things now, he says, because there’s no time.

The thing is, though, hitters most likely react physically to the spin on the ball before they register it consciously.  Some are purely “see ball, hit ball” batters, some do some guessing.  What we call guessing may be more like anticipation, a slight prejudice or shift in focus that is subject to rapid adjustment mid-pitch.  Things happen too fast for use of conscious strategy- or rather, some players manage to benefit from studying and anticipating despite these limitations, but the game is welcoming for those who do not have or need this skill, and that won’t change.

Baseball would be dramatically more violent, Posnaski says;  Perhaps football is so violent because there is so much time to recover between games and each one matters so much, and baseball is so non-violent because there are so many games.  I think conventional wisdom is right, and it’s the other way around.  Football has a short season because it is inherently violent.  Posnaski himself notes that baseball used to be much more violent, but violent baseball (spikes up, basepath collisions, beanballs) is just inherently different from a game where you sprint into people and hit or tackle them on every play.  Still, perhaps baseball would return to the levels of violence of the Ty Cobb days.

Baseball would get better TV ratings and crowds, Posnaski says, since there would be more buildup and importance to each game.  Perhaps football isn’t inherently a better television game than baseball.

I would say that in theory, football is a terrible television game.  You can’t see half of what’s going on; the camera focuses on the quarterback, but does not tell you what he’s seeing.  Even apart from that, few of us really understand the process behind the play.  Somehow, a guy got open and the QB threw him the ball, or nobody got open and the QB had to throw it away, or someone was open but the QB didn’t see him.  Or, sometimes, the defensive lineman gets to him for a sack, or forces him from the pocket to improvise, or else makes him move around in the pocket- this at least we can see, and so is a main source of excitement.  Even if we could see what was going on, few of us understand the process behind a play at more than a rudimentary level; we depend on the commentator and replay cameraman for interpretation.  We really only see the results of the play- a spectacular catch, an interception, a long run with broken tackles; exciting!- without the process behind it.

Plus there’s those penalty flags on every other play, which are terribly disruptive and mean you’re never sure whether a play really happened.  Replay challenges, needless to say, make things five times worse.

In baseball, on the other hand, there is plenty of time to follow the process.  We can see pitch type and location, and there’s time between pitches to consider how the pitcher is setting the hitter up, what the count is, what the hitter’s approach is.  On the other hand, for those who only want to see results, all this process is boring.  I myself find myself enjoying watching football, simply because the results of the play are so often exciting and feel like they are potentially crucial to the outcome of a game- the way football is structured, with its downs and its 100-yard field, plus the fact that a game only happens once a week, it creates a feeling of magnified importance for each play.

Somehow, the once-a-week intensity seems to fit football better, and the long grind seems to fit baseball, even apart from the different violence and preparation levels the games lend themselves to.

Posnaski claims baseball stats would mean a less.  This is true for one of the reasons he advances, small sample size.  However, he also says “everyone knows that baseball is the numbers game.  This is again at least partially a function of the 162-game schedule.  It isn’t necessarily that baseball statistics are BETTER than the football statistics.  Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.  But baseball has so many games, the only way you can really keep up with the game is through the numbers.  We need them to make sense of a very long season with millions of events.”  But of course baseball stats are better than football stats.  In football, stats attribute the outcome of the actions of all eleven offensive players to one man, the quarterback, on passing plays.  On running plays, they attribute them to the running back.  On passing plays, the receiver who caught the ball also gets credit separately from the quarterback, attributing the result to him; but obviously, having a good teammate as a receiver diminishes your own receiving stats.

You don’t care that Aaron Rodgers completed 67.2% of his passes for 8.0 yards per completion and ten interceptions, or whatever, you care about that lazer he threw on the run to the well-covered receiver, that he put just outside the sidelines, where the receiver could still haul it in.  You don’t care that Tony Romo completed 64.3% of his passes for 15 interceptions, or whatever, you care that he threw another bad interception on Monday Night Football.  You don’t care about Calvin Johnson’s stats, you care about all the spectacular catches he’s made, and all the balls DeSean Jackson drops.  And so forth.

None of this is true in baseball, a game of almost pure one-on-one matchups.  There’s a lot of games in the basketball season, 82, than in football.  As a matter of ratios, that’s closer to baseball’s 162 than football’s 16 (2/1 versus 5/1).  And we still rely far more on subjective impressions of basketball players than we do of baseball players, though we treat stats as more meaningful than in football.  That’s because basketball is more about team context than is baseball.  You can more meaningfully account for individual contributions than in football; rebounding statistics in particular are useful.  But obviously, we don’t treat one 20-point scorer on 48% shooting as interchangeable with another.

 

* For whatever reason, he creates a separate roster spot for “backup” and “emergency starter/reliever.”

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