What is a balk in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a balk in baseball? I think it’s when a pitcher starts to pitch but then doesn’t but I’ve asked a few friends I have who are baseball fans and no one can explain it more clearly. Can you help?

Thanks,
Jeff


Dear Jeff,

The balk is one of the most unique rules in baseball. It’s controversial, important, and simultaneously confusing to the point of opaqueness. Reading Major League Baseball’s rulebook on the subject is almost entirely useless for anyone who doesn’t already know what a balk is. For example, here is a short passage on what constitutes a balk:

From the Windup Position, the pitcher may:
(1) deliver the ball to the batter, or
(2) step and throw to a base in an attempt to pick-off a runner, or
(3) disengage the rubber (if he does he must drop his hand to his sides).
In disengaging the rubber the pitcher must step off with his pivot foot and not his free foot first.
He may not go into a set or stretch position —if he does it is a balk.

There’s only one response to language like that, and Groucho Marx said it over 80 years ago.

Luckily, we don’t need to understand the particulars of the rule as it’s written to understand how the rule works in actual baseball. We can work our way backwards from what the rule is trying to prevent to how it’s actually enforced.

The balk rule was put in place in 1898. Before then, a pitcher could get a base runner out in the following way. Imagine there’s a runner on first base. He takes a short lead toward second base and waits there. As the pitcher starts his windup to pitch the ball, the base runner takes one or two steps farther toward second base. This is a smart move, because it puts him in a better position to get to second base on a weakly hit ball and it still leaves him with plenty of time to return to first in the case of a strike or a pop fly. However (!) the pitcher hasn’t actually pitched. Instead, he’s tricked the base runner by winding up and starting to throw the ball but not actually letting it go. Now that the base runner has moved further from first base, it’s easy enough for the pitcher to stop, turn, and throw the ball to the first baseman, who calmly tags the base runner out. Now, baseball prides itself on being a tricky sport, but it’s possible that this trick was simply too devious to allow. It’s also possible that the main problem was not the move’s deceptive nature, but its effectiveness. Rules have always been created to balance the power between offense and defense, and a move which is almost guaranteed to remove a base runner from the game may simply have been too effective to allow. In any event, the balk rule was put in place to prevent pitchers from doing this.

For all its complex language, the balk rule can be summarized as this – once a pitcher starts his pitching motion, he must complete it by throwing the ball to home plate. I italicized the word “his” because pitchers all have unique pitching motions. One pitcher’s motion may be as distinct from another’s as a lion is from a house cat. The motion itself is not important to the rule, what is important is that every pitcher’s motion during one pitch is identical to his own motion on every other pitch. Umpires learn pitchers’ motions and are able to notice if a pitcher deviates from it, even slightly. When a pitcher throws to first base, to hold a runner there, or to try to pick him off, he uses a motion that may be similar to his pitching motion, but is not identical. The umpire is able to distinguish a pick off throw motion from a pitching motion.

Although the balk rule exists to prevent a pitcher from intentionally tricking a base runner by starting to pitch and then doing something else, the rule is enforced slightly differently. Most sports rules try to stay away from legislating intent and the balk rule is no different. In order to avoid asking umpires to make a judgement call about whether the pitcher intended to trick the base runner and whether the base runner was actually fooled, the balk rule simplifies the decision. If a pitcher enters his pitching motion but does not complete it, a balk must be called. This results in some unfortunate accidents when a pitcher starts to pitch but slips or stumbles or is attacked by a fit of sneezing or bees. In any of these situations, the umpire should call a balk. Balks legislate action, not intent.

The penalty for a balk is that all base runners get to advance one base. If there was a runner on first, he goes to second. A runner on third would score. The only exceptions to this are if the balk also results in the batter reaching first base because of a walk or a hit batter. In this case, all the runners would advance anyway, so there’s no further penalty. If, in the process of the balk, the pitcher loses the ball and it goes flying somewhere, the base runners are allowed to try to advance more than one base, but they do so at their own risk and can be tagged for an out.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

 

 

What is a shift in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a shift in baseball?

Thanks,
Darrel


Dear Darrel,

If you’ve watched a baseball game on TV lately, there’s a good chance you looked up at your television screen at some point and were surprised by the location of the players on the fielding team. Perhaps the short stop was on the first base side of second base instead of in his normal position on the third base side. Or the first and third basemen were on the home plate side of their bases and creeping in as the pitcher readied to pitch. What you were seeing was a shift – a tactic whereby the fielding team adjusts its positioning before the ball is put in play. A team may choose to shift its outfield, its infield, or both for situational or personnel reasons. We’ll run through a few examples of each scenario in this post.

The shift is a compelling element of baseball because it is simultaneously so obvious and so revolutionary. If you’ve ever played in the outfield of a baseball or softball game, you probably automatically shifted based on who was at bat; that dude with biceps the size of watermelons who hit the ball way past you last time is up to bat? You move back. That’s an example of a shift based on personnel. You see who is up to bat and adjust based on what you think they might do. In the example we gave, it doesn’t feel revolutionary. The personnel shifts you see in Major League Baseball (MLB) games today are the product of a similar type of analysis, just formalized and backed by big amounts of data. By the time a player has been in the league for three years, they will have played in close to 450 games and been up to bat over 1,250 times. This gives opposing teams a lot of information about where they usually hit the ball. Virtually every player has patterns that will reveal themselves over time and with study. A player who has a strong tendency to hit the ball in one direction or location is more vulnerable to a defensive shift.

Other times, it’s not the player who is up to bat but the situation that dictates a defensive shift. For example, if the batting team is down a run, has a player on first base, and is likely to try to bunt the ball to advance the runner to second, the first and third basemen may move toward home plate so that they are prepared to field the bunt they believe is coming. If it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the batting team has a player on third base, and the game is tied, then the fielding team knows that they will lose if they allow that player to reach home. If the batter hits a long fly ball to the back of the outfield, the base runner will stay on third base until the ball is caught but then have plenty of time to run home safely before any throw could reach home plate. In this case, the fielding team knows for sure that any ball hit to the back of the outfield will result in them losing. So why even have outfielders back there? Isn’t it better to have them move in, so a ground ball hit through the infield may be able to be fielded quickly enough to prevent the runner from scoring? It is! The outfielders moving in in cases like that are another classic scenario that calls for a situational shift.

 

Defensive shifts have become much more common and more extreme in recent years. As of this year, they have doubled in frequency every year since 2011. It’s now quite regular for teams to shift all or almost all of their defensive players to one side but it still looks weird. One wonders how professional baseball players, people who are paid millions of dollars to be good at hitting a ball, cannot simply hit the ball in an unexpected direction. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks! Shifts are all part of the greater statistical revolution in baseball. The gloriously large and discreet data that baseball creates have offered numerous opportunities for teams to identify exactly what each opposing player and team does best… and do everything in their power to take that away from their opponents. Shifts are an integral part of the tactical game of cat and mouse that makes baseball a compelling sport to watch.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field?

Dear Sports Fan,

Who owns the rooftop seating near Wrigley Field? My partner and I were watching the playoffs last night and the television cameras were focusing on some bleachers set up on a building across the street from the stadium. We wondered if that was officially part of the stadium or not.

Thanks,
Matthew


Dear Matthew,

Those seats are cool, aren’t they? Wrigley Field is one of Major League Baseball’s last two great old historic baseball stadiums. It was built in 1914 for a baseball team called the (I kid you not) Chicago Whales, but the present tenants, the Chicago Cubs, have played there since 1916. As was true with many of the old stadiums, it’s built inside the city, instead of in a suburb with lots of room for parking like most modern stadiums. One result of this is that the stadium is surrounded by relatively normal city streets with buildings on them that are around the same height, at least on the two outfield sides. As you noticed last night, many of these neighboring houses now sport bleacher seating on their roofs, from which you can watch the game. You can actually see them on Google Maps:

The Wrigley Rooftops, as they are called, have their own Wikipedia page, which I leaned heavily on for this article. How they got there and who owns them is a surprisingly long and twisted story.

For most of Wrigley Field’s history, the neighboring rooftops were home to informal gatherings. Watching the games from them was a perk neighbors enjoyed, perhaps as a consolation for the literally hundreds of thousands of drunk people the stadium brought to their neighborhood every year. Sometime in the 1980s, some of the people who owned the buildings started bulking up their seating arrangements and charging admission. This escalated gradually to where we are today: most of the buildings are no longer residential. Their primary purpose is to support the bleachers on their roofs. Some of them even have bars and restaurants inside. They provide a stadium-like experience at stadium-like prices.

As you might suspect, the people who own the Chicago Cubs have not always been happy about the idea of others profiting off of their investment so directly and in such a similar way to how they are trying to make a profit. In 2002, the Cubs sued the owners of the Wrigley Rooftops for copyright infringement. I guess the idea was that rooftop viewers were engaged in an act analogous to pirating a TV feed. Most of the rooftop establishments eventually settled out of court and agreed to pay the Cubs 17% of their proceeds as a form of royalty. The Cubs agreed to officially endorse those roofs. That led to a detente which lasted almost a decade until the current owner of the Cubs, Thomas S. Ricketts, who had purchased the team in 2009 after the settlements, decided to renovate those sides of the stadium in ways which would obstruct the rooftop views. All hell broke loose. In a classic turn of legalistic fate, the owners of the rooftops sued the Cubs! Their argument was that the Cubs were now breaching the contract they entered into during the settlement of the last lawsuit.

Despite this antagonistic and adversarial relationship, (or maybe because of it), the era of the independent rooftop may soon be over. Frustrated with the lawsuit filed by the rooftop owners, the Cubs have decided that it would be easier and cheaper in the long-run to simply buy the neighboring buildings with their rooftop clubs. To date, Ricketts has purchased at least six of the buildings, a process made easier by the fact that some of them seemed to be in financial straits to begin with. How long the other rooftops will be able to hold out remains to be seen.

That’s the story of the unique Wrigley Rooftops. It’s a classic American story of lawsuit and counter-suit that fits America’s Pastime perfectly.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

The good and evil of baseball's Wild Card game

Major League Baseball’s Wild Card Game is a unique way to start the playoffs. This year’s two games, the New York Yankees vs. the Houston Astros in the American League and the Chicago Cubs vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League, clearly represent what is good and what is evil about the Wild Card Game. The Yankees vs. Astros game has everything that’s good about the game, while the Cubs vs. Pirates game is everything that’s evil. I’ll explain what I mean by this, but first, here’s a quick reminder of how the playoffs are constructed and what the Wild Card Game is.

There are 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. These teams are broken up into two conferences of 15 teams each, the American League (AL) and National League (NL), and three divisions of five teams each. After 162 regular season games, the team with the best record within each division is declared the division winner (said to have “won the pennant”) and automatically qualifies for the playoffs. Since the goal of the playoffs is to end up with the best team from the NL playing against the best team from the AL, three teams from each league is an awkward number to have. Four would be better, because then you could have two teams play each other, and then the winner of each of those matchups play to end up with a single team. The simple way to get from three teams to four is to add a single extra team, called a Wild Card, by selecting the team with the best record in the conference that isn’t a division winner. That’s how baseball did it from 1994 to 2011. In 2012 they added a fifth team — a second Wild Card team — by selecting the team with the second best record in the conference that isn’t a division winner. Since five is also an awkward number of teams, the playoffs are designed to quickly get back down to four. The two Wild Card teams in each league play a single elimination game to decide which of them gets to be the fourth team and play a seven game series against one of the three division winners. (If you want more detail, read my full post on how the MLB playoffs work.)

The Wild Card Game is at its best when it’s between two teams like the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. The Yankees are the winningest team in baseball history. They have won 27 World Series, a whopping 16 more than the next best team. Although they are only second in the league in payroll this year, they’re famous and infamous for spending more money on players than any other team can afford or would want to afford. They’re the bullies of the league, the royalty — Darth Vadar and his army of clones. They were the first Wild Card team and would have been the only one had the system still only taken one. Playing them are the Houston Astros. The Astros are almost the complete opposite of the Yankees. They’ve been playing in MLB since 1962 and have never won a World Series. They haven’t even made the playoffs in the past decade. They have the sixth lowest payroll in the league. As a very casual baseball fan, I literally cannot name a single player on their team. They are a surprise, a heart-warming story. The Wild Card game gives the Astros a chance when they wouldn’t have had one otherwise. It creates a wonderful and dramatic spectacle. And it provides a clear rooting interest for all non-partisan fans. Why wouldn’t you want to see the Astros knock off the Yankees and stride into the playoffs? Watching this game is all upside – if the Astros win, it will be glorious; if the Yankees win, then giving the Astros an extra game didn’t cause anyone any harm. This Wild Card game is all about opportunity.

The NL Wild Card Game between the Cubs and Pirates is bad in all the ways the AL game is good. The Cubs and Pirates are both teams that are easy for unaffiliated fans to root for. The Cubs famously have not won the World Series since 1908, the longest streak of bad fortune in the league. What you might not know is that they’ve actually played in the World Series and lost seven times since then! The Pirates have won it more recently, in 1979, but haven’t been back since. Both teams are chock-full of young, talented, exciting players, like Andrew McCutchen on the Pirates and rookie phenom Kris Bryant on the Cubs. Both teams have strong-fan bases who have stuck with them through the fallow years. There are lots of reasons for neutral fans to want both teams to advance, so while this game may actually be a better baseball game than the Yankees vs. Astros, it’s far, far more insidious. There’s simply no way you’re going to watch this game and leave without your dominant feeling being one of sadness for the eliminated team. This Wild Card Game doesn’t feel like it’s about opportunity. It feels like it’s a cruel trick to play on teams that have worked so hard during a long, grueling season.

What’s the solution? A third Wild Card team? A three game Wild Card mini-series? I’m not sure. My short term-solution is to watch the AL Wild Card Game and root for the Astros but ignore the NL Wild Card Game entirely. Just tell me which team advanced and which team got screwed. As intriguing as I find both NL teams, the inevitable heartbreak is not worth the investment.

Why do baseball players slide?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do baseball players slide? Surely it’s faster to keep running than to slide in the dirt, right?

Thanks,
Ellis


Dear Ellis,

Running is faster than sliding but speed isn’t the only consideration. Baseball players have two other reasons for sliding into a base: elusiveness and stickiness. In this post, we’ll explain each of the major reasons why baseball players slide instead of just running.

Often in a baseball game, a fielder only has to catch the ball while touching the base that a runner is headed toward in order to get him out. This is called a force play and we’ve covered it extensively before, in case you need a refresher. When a force play is not in effect, a fielder must tag the runner in order to get her out. Tagging involves having the ball securely, usually in her glove, and then touching the base runner with the hand or glove that’s holding the ball. In order for a tag to count, the fielder must touch the runner while he isn’t touching the base and must maintain control of the ball throughout the process. A tag is a rapid and precise moment. A fielder sets up near the base, reaches out to catch a throw from a teammate, and then sweeps the glove with the ball in the direction the runner is coming from to try to touch the runner before the runner is able to touch the base. It’s much easier for the fielder and for her teammate who is throwing the ball to aim waist to head high. This offers the best chance for a safely completed throw but it leaves the fielder with the ball pretty high up. Sliding on the ground forces the fielder to have to catch the ball and then sweep it down to reach the runner. This is slower and harder than tagging closer to the height at which the fielder caught the ball.

You might have wondered why I described a successful tag as needing to happen when the runner “isn’t touching the base” as opposed to “before the runner touches the base.” This is because a runner must maintain contact with the base in order to continue to be safe from tags. A runner that touches a base and then stops touching it while play is going on is at risk for being tagged. Sliding helps a base runner stay in touch with the base they are aiming at for the very reason you suggested sliding might not be a good idea – sliding slows the runner down. Sliding is perhaps the only way for a very fast runner to shed the speed she needs to in order to not run by or overrun the base.

There is one giant exception to these calculations about sliding and that’s first base. Because there is always a force play at first base, the first baseman never needs to worry about tagging the runner. Perhaps as a way to even things out, baseball rules allow the runner a similar advantage — the runner doesn’t need to stay in contact with first base. Once a runner touches first base, they are considered on the base as long as they don’t make a move toward second base. This evens things out – the fielder doesn’t have to tag the runner and the runner doesn’t need to bother sliding. Once in a while, you’ll still see players, even professional players, slide in to first base anyway! This is a dumb move and is always met with skepticism and scorn by announcers and knowledgeable fans. Feel free to join in!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why it's no coincidence that Yogi Berra was a catcher

Famed baseball player, manager, and cultural figure Yogi Berra died last night at the age on 90. There are countless obituaries and remembrances of him today. I’ll list a few of them at the bottom of this piece and I encourage you to spend a few minutes learning more about him. But for Dear Sports Fan, the question I asked myself about Yogi was, “is there some aspect of his story that you need some type of specialized baseball knowledge to appreciate?” The answer is yes. Yogi Berra was a catcher, and given his position as a cultural icon, a source of folk-wisdom and self-deprecating wit, he could really only have been a catcher.

To be a successful catcher, one must be a talented and diligent student of humanity. Someone who doesn’t know baseball might think that the most important qualities for a catcher are strong knees to withstand all the crouching and fast reflexes to be able to field 100 mile per hour pitches. A catcher’s job is much more subtle and complicated than that. Catchers are the primary person responsible for deciding what pitch a pitcher should throw every time he winds up. Most pitchers have a variety of pitches they can execute: a fastball – which generally flies straight, an off-speed pitch, which looks like a fastball but fools the batter by arriving at the plate a beat or two later than he expects, a curveball, which dips dramatically down as it approaches the plate, a slider, which moves down and to one side. Each of these pitches can also be thrown so that they cross the plate at the center of the strike zone, high, low, inside (toward the body of the batter), outside, or outside of the strike zone in any direction as well. The trick to getting a batter out is to literally trick her by choosing a combination of pitch types and locations that she doesn’t expect and cannot react to. A catcher needs to know the tendencies of each batter and be able to read their state of mind as they walk up to bat and throughout the time they’re there. What was the impact of that last fastball thrown low and outside? Will the batter be fooled by a change-up thrown in the same location or are they now expecting us to try that trick? If they’re expecting it, can we fool them by throwing another fastball in the same spot? At the same time, a catcher has to manage his relationship with the pitcher. What is his mind-state? Is he confident? Shaken? Fatigued? Angry? What will motivate him to throw harder? More accurately?

A great catcher possesses an incisive understanding of his teammates, his opponents, and himself. He is a student of humanity. As we know from his many pithy quotes, whether he said them or not, Yogi was one of the best students of humanity ever. It’s no surprise that he was a catcher. It almost had to be that way. If this understanding of the role of a catcher in baseball is new to you, then you may now understand what Yogi meant when he said of baseball, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” Actually, on second thought, you might still not.

To continue to celebrate Yogi’s life, here is a small selection of the many articles and obituaries published this morning:

Why was Carl Yastrzemski wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes shirt?

Dear Sports Fan,

At the ceremony to retire Pedro Martinez’ number, Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski) was wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes football shirt. Does anyone know why? Does he have grandchildren at Iowa? Google failed me on this one.

Thanks,
Stephanie


Dear Stephanie,

It’s rare that any of us gets to beat Google but I think I just did that. Carl Yastrzemski was wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes shirt under his blazer because he is close friends with the father of an Iowa Hawkeyes assistant football coach. The coach is Chris White. He coaches the running backs and special teams. As he explained on Twitter, his Dad played baseball with Yaz when they were both college kids at Notre Dame and play golf frequently today:

Will this become a pattern? Maybe if Coach White has his way. He is apparently going to send Yaz more Iowa clothing to wear.

I hope this explains the connection. Thanks to Tim Kluender for answering my investigatory Tweet. Here’s our conversation. You should follow him for all your Iowa Hawkeyes and Kansas City Royals needs.

 

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does "the play is to" 1st, 2nd, or 3rd base mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for “the play to be to” first, second, or third base in baseball?

Thanks,
Lora


Dear Lora,

One of the most important rules in baseball is the force play. I wrote a post explaining how it works a few days ago which would be a good post to read before this one. To summarize, a force play is when the defending team can get a runner out by the touching the base he is running to (usually with a foot) while holding the ball (usually in a hand). This ability is predicated on a rule that states that no two players may occupy a base at the same time. Whenever the batter hits the ball, she must run to first base. This forces anyone on first to run to second, which pushes a player on second to third, and so on. When someone says “the play is to” first, second, or third base, or even home plate, they are identifying the most forward force play available to be made. To run us through each of the most common force plays, I asked my friend Al Murray to help explain.

The play is to first base

Assume that there are no base runners. As always, the batter must try to reach first base. A ball hit in the infield or short outfield that isn’t caught in the air (hits the ground) must be picked up “fielded” and thrown to the first baseman. The first baseman does not have to tag the runner, simply stepping on the base while demonstrating command of the ball will record the runner as out. If the runner reaches the base first, or the ball is thrown away from the first baseman (throwing error), or the first baseman (even in female sports the position makes seem to be x-baseman) drops the ball (catching error) then the runner is safe.

The play is to second base

Assume that our runner gets to first base safely. We now have a runner on first who is obligated to run to second base if the next batter hits the ball. There is some complexity here that’s worth exploring in another post but, at least if the ball is hit onto the ground, there is no choice for the runner on first. Let’s assume a ground ball. The batter becomes a runner and has to go to first base. This pushes the runner on first to run for second. All other things being equal, the defensive team would prefer to start pitching to the next batter with a runner on first than a runner on second. So, even though there are force plays at first and second, the ideal play is to throw the ball to second base.

If there is enough time, the player that just tagged second base will try to throw to first base and force that batter turned runner out there as well. If successful this is called turning a double play. The runner thrown out at second has some opportunities and a tactical goal to prevent the second part of the double play and will try to impede the throw to first, sometimes by sliding into the baseman or by obstructing the line of throw. In the modern game, there are limits as to what the thrown out runner may do, due mostly to rules created for player safety. In the “golden age” games a hard, ‘spikes-high’ slide would sometimes dissuade the thrower from attempting the double play in favor of survival. Nothing quite like the prospect of a 180 pound person sliding into you at 15-20 MPH with 1/2” spikes set to slice open your body to make you reconsider trying to turn a double play.

The play is to third base

Assume that both runners reach successfully and that both 1st and 2nd base are occupied. Now the lead runner must try for 3rd, the runner on first must go to second, and the batter has to run to first. There is a force play on first, second, or third base for the defense, since every runner is obligated to move forward, but the best scenario (aside from a double or triple play) is to get the out at third base because that’s the player who will score first if things go wrong.

The play is to home plate

When there is a runner on every base, then ever runner is obligated to move forward when the batter hits the ball. This is called having the bases loaded. When the bases are loaded, the leading runner will score by running from third to home if the defense does not stop her. So, the ideal play for the defense is to throw the ball home and get the force play there. This is not always easy — home plate is usually the farthest from wherever a fielder corrals the ball — but it’s always the best move if it can be done successfully.

What’s the pattern or general rule?

Whether the play is to first, second, or third base or home plate, the strategy is the same. The defense wants tag the base  the lead runner forced off his base by a following runner is headed to. If they’re able to catch the ball and tag the base before the runner gets there, the defense will register an out and prevent the offense from advancing around the base path.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

Why does each team get a player in the MLB All-Star game?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is it that in Major League Baseball, every team have to have at least one representative in the All-Star game? Other professional leagues, like the National Football League don’t require one representative from each team. Why does each team get a player in the MLB All-Star game?

Thanks,
Derek Blackman


Dear Derek,

All-star games are a funny reminder of the thin line between sports and entertainment. The difference lies in the competitive nature of the games. Take that away, as you do during most all-star games, and what you’re left with is purely entertainment, even if it still looks like sport. That’s one of the reasons why sports leagues are so concerned about any accusations of match-fixing or betting on games by players or managers. They understand what differentiates them from reality TV is true competition and how easily the perception of its truth can be undermined. An all-star game is a voluntary relaxation on the part of sports leagues. For a day or a weekend during the middle (or in one case, close to the end) of the season, the league takes a rest from competition and puts on a purely entertaining show.

Tickets to the show are expensive – this year’s MLB All-Star game has tickes on Stubhub ranging from just under $300 to over $4,000 – but it’s primarily a TV show. Baseball games are normally TV shows, each one attracting fans of the two teams involved as well as a smaller number of casual (or obsessed generalist baseball) fans but if the league is going to halt all their other shows for a single one, they better be sure it’s going to get the ratings (and therefore advertising dollars) to merit the break from normal games. Baseball has lots of tactics to make sure this happens. It packages the game (made less interesting by the lack of competition) with lots of novelty events (the Home Run Derby, primarily) that don’t happen at any other time during the year. They partner with strong television networks who will promote the game incessantly. Lone among the leagues, Major League Baseball gives their all-star game importance to the regular season. The league that wins the All-Star game (which is played between the American and National Leagues) ensures that its representative in the World Series (baseball’s championship which is also contested between the two leagues) has the opportunity to play four out of the seven possible World Series games at home. The fact which you mention in your question — that every MLB team is required to have at least one of their players on the All-Star team — is another important way of ensuring an audience. Representation from each team, regardless of how bad the team is, is meant to guarantee representation from each team’s fan base when it comes to watching the All-Star game. So far, it seems to be working. The MLB All-Star game does get much better ratings than an average baseball game. In the past few years, it’s averaged around a 7 rating (7% of all households that have a television were watching this) while regular season baseball games averaged only a .7. This means ten times more people watch the All-Star game than a normal game.

Major League Baseball is not alone in this approach to its all-star game. The National Hockey League (NHL) also requires one representative from each team and, although they experimented a few years ago with taking away that rule, they went right back to it. The NBA All-Star game does not work that way, in part simply because of numbers. With 30 teams and only 30 All-Star players, a requirement to have one player from each team would be obviously unfair to players and fans of extremely good teams and would lower the level of entertainment by excluding too many well-known stars. The way the NFL schedules their all-star game, called the Pro Bowl, precludes it from including everyone. Held one week before the Super Bowl, players from the two Super Bowl teams are excluded. Even setting those teams aside, the league allows some teams to be excluded. In 2014, for example, four teams had zero players selected to the Pro Bowl.

Major League Baseball’s approach to team representation in its all-star game makes sense if you view all-star games as purely entertaining TV shows. Many people feel that the logic begins to break if you view the All-Star game as competition – as sport. Normally players, coaches, and fans wouldn’t dream of viewing an all-star game this way, but by making the game decide home-field advantage in the World Series, baseball forces this interpretation to some extent. If the All-Star game is competition, then it follows that each team should be trying to win as hard as they can, even if this means excluding some teams entirely from the game. The argument against this line of thought is that there’s always a balance between entertainment and competition inherent in any televised sport. Surely it would be easier to win if you hid the other team’s cleats from them so they had to play barefoot but it wouldn’t make for as appealing entertainment (actually it would, but you can supply your own example). The All-Star game must get higher ratings than a normal game to justify its existence and a rule that requires representation from all 30 teams and fan bases helps make that happen.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does the ERA or earned run average stat mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Beginning baseball fan here, trying to catch up on some of the basic stats in baseball. It seems impossible to follow baseball without knowing these. Can you help? What does the ERA or earned run average stat mean in baseball? How is it calculated?

Thanks,
Sharon

Dear Sharon,

Baseball requires more of its viewers from a statistical standpoint than any other sport. You can group baseball stats into three main categories: basic stats like runs, hits, runs batted in (RBIs) which seek to simply state what happened during a game, advanced stats like BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) or Isolated Power that try to create objective and detailed truthful interpretations out of what happened, and intermediate stats that do limited interpretation. Earned Run Average (ERA) is one of the earliest intermediate stats. The statistic was invented and popularized by Henry Chadwick, a newspaper man and early baseball statistician who died in 1908. So, it’s been around for a long time. At its essence is an attempt to compare the performance of pitchers. The formula for ERA is 9 x Earned Runs Allowed/Innings Pitched. Let’s unpack what that means and why it’s meaningful.

The simplest way of comparing pitchers would be to state how many runs opposing teams scored while a pitcher was playing. There are two key problems with this approach, one obvious, one less so, both of which the ERA statistic attempts to solve. The first and most obvious issue is that pitchers don’t all pitch for the same number of innings or at bats. If you only compared how many runs opponents scored while a pitcher was playing, pitchers who pitch fewer innings would always seem better than those who pitch more. Of course, we know that’s not the case. Usually, if a team wants to win, it plays its best player at every position for as long as it can. So, ERA normalizes the number of innings a pitcher has played by taking the number of runs allowed, dividing by the number of innings pitched, and multiplying by nine. It sounds like fancy mathematical footwork, but all it’s doing is ensuring that a pitcher who allows one run in one inning has the same ERA as a pitcher who allowed nine runs in nine innings or three in three.

The second issue that ERA tries to accommodate is that sometimes a run will score while a pitcher is playing that is not the pitcher’s fault. Let’s create an extreme example that’s theoretically possible even if it’s insanely unlikely. Imagine that a batter hits a weak little pop fly ball directly to the third baseman. He should be able to catch it easily and get the batter out. Instead, he gets distracted by a tasty-looking plate of nachos in the stands and instead of catching the ball, he lets it hit him on the head. It knocks him out and as he falls to the ground, the ball somehow manages to slide down his shirt. His teammates are torn – provide medical aid, find the ball, or stare at the nachos. They stare at the nachos. All the while, the player who hit the ball is tearing around the bases, running like the wind. Before the ball can be found, the running goes all the way around for an in-the-park home run. Sure, it’s a run, but is it really the pitcher’s fault? If we’re trying to compare the performance of one pitcher against another, should we really take it into account? ERA says “no.” In order for a run to be included in the ERA metric, it must be an “earned run” that is not the result of an error or series of errors on the part of the pitcher’s teammates. In addition to errors, a pitcher is not responsible for the runs scored by base runners who were already on base when the pitcher entered the game. This means that if a relief pitcher comes into the game with two men on base and then gives up a home run, he’ll only have one of the three runs go into his ERA formula. The other two will go into the previous pitcher’s ERA total.

ERA seems like a pretty neat statistic and it’s certainly passed the test of time. It’s been a key statistic in baseball for over 100 years. It’s not perfect by any means though. It’s key problem is that, while it does a good job at reflecting the outcomes for pitchers during a previous period, it’s not good at predicting the future. A pitcher with a good ERA this year is not much more likely to have a good ERA next year than a player with a bad ERA this year. This is because, despite weeding out errors, ERA still judges a pitcher for many things which aren’t under his or her control. For example, a pitcher who plays for a team with an extraordinary outfield may benefit from their ability to get to difficult fly balls. If that pitcher switches teams to a team with an average outfield, his ERA is probably going to fall. Situations like our example above, where a relief pitcher came into the game with two men on base, happen often in baseball. A starting pitcher’s ERA is to some extent at the mercy of the relief pitchers that replace him.

Many new advanced stats have been created to improve upon or replace ERA but for now, it’s still an integral, commonly used statistic.

Good luck and thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer