Why do base runners in baseball wear an oven mitt?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching a playoff baseball game the other day and noticed that once players get on base, they put on (don’t laugh) what looks like an oven mitt on one hand. Why do base runners in baseball wear an oven mitt??!!

Thanks,
Estelle
— — —
Dear Estelle,

I’m not laughing! I’ve noticed that too. What we are looking at when we see a base runner put on what looks like an oven mitt is a new evolution of safety equipment. The oven mitt — called, unsurprisingly, a sliding mitt, is a clever combination of two separate pieces of safety equipment that some baseball players wore to prevent injuries when sliding into a base.

Baseball is, on the whole, a very safe sport. The story from the late 1800s when both sports began in earnest in America is that baseball was played by the working class, who couldn’t afford to injure themselves, while football was played by the upper class whose lifestyle could sustain frequent broken bones. Perhaps the most common danger in baseball is sliding into a base. The speed with which players slide, combined with the great need to touch the base and keep touching it before the fielder gets the ball and steps on the base or tags them, leads to jammed or broken fingers and wrists and even torn wrist cartilage. More rare but still possible is a fielding player coming down on a runner’s hand with their baseball cleats. Ouch!

Baseball players have long had strategies to deal with these risks. Before the sliding mitt, players were taught to hold their batting gloves in their hands or even a fistful of dirt as a reminder to keep their hands in the air for as much of the sliding process as possible. For players who favor protective equipment, a slider’s wrist guard is and has been readily available for years. Like something you would have worn in the late 1990s when you learned how to roller blade, the wrist guard keeps the arm from bending back when it hits the base. The other element that the sliding mitt incorporates is rigid, often fiberglass, protection for the fingers. This evolved from a cast that Kansas City Royals player Scott Podsednik started wearing in 2008. Here’s Podsednik explaining it to the brilliant blog uni-watch:

It’s basically just a hard cast that I had fitted to my hand during the ’08 season. I had an injury to my thumb in ’03, and I started wearing a hard plastic piece to protect my thumb, for sliding head-first. I wore that and had no problems with it until ’08, when I ended up breaking my pinkie finger sliding into second base. Then I got with a hand therapist and she came up with this cast to protect all my fingers, including the thumb. She came up with it, it has worked perfectly, and I haven’t had any problems since.

After making fun of him, other players on his team and around the league began joining Podsednik in protecting themselves. Eventually, the combination rigid glove and wrist guard evolved into a single piece of equipment: the sliding mitt! The version that Whit Merrifield wears has metal rods to protect the fingers and a velcro strap to keep it from sliding off. Rajai Davis, who told MLB reporter Jason Beck that his mitt is “good for baking… baking on the bases.” also insisted that his sliding mitt had minimal padding at the tips of the fingers. Any more and it would give him an advantage by extending his reach toward a base and violate Major League Baseball glove regulations that apparently apply to mitts as well as gloves with fingers.

The sliding mitt has definitely become more common in the major leagues over the last few years. Soon, if the entrepreneurs who bought slidingmitt.com have their way, we’ll see sliding mitts on youth baseball fields across the country.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does the stat Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Thanks,
Rich

— — —

Dear Rich,

Wins Above Replacement is one of the many statistics that have either invaded or enhanced baseball over the past twenty years, depending on your perspective. It’s a single stat made up of many parts that tries to summarize the overall value of a player to the success of their team in a single number. The higher a player’s WAR number, the more they have contributed to their team’s success.

WAR is expressed as the number of wins a player’s team won thanks to their contributions as compared to what the team would have won (speculation warning) if they had been replaced by someone else. Baseball Prospectus, one of the several entities that has their own way of calculating WAR, lists Tim Keefe’s 1883 season as the best ever, during which he contributed 20.2 wins to the New York Metropolitans. If, instead of Mr. Keefe, the Metropolitans had had to scour their farm system for another right handed pitcher, this stat suggests they would have only won 34 games instead of the 54 they actually won.

Here’s the thing about WAR: because it’s intended to be an all encompassing statistic, it’s very complicated. It encompasses a lot of stuff! This is a screenshot from the Wikipedia article on WAR:

Woah! Don’t panic though. In order to understand WAR at a basic level, we need to understand two things — what elements are scored to show whether a player is doing well or poorly and what a replacement player is and how their potential contribution is defined.

What contributes to a player’s Wins Above Replacement?

Although different groups calculate WAR using different formulas, there are some general elements that go into figuring out a player’s contributions to their team. Offensive statistics having to do with hitting and base running are used. Defensively, an everyday player’s fielding is looked at whereas all sorts of pitching statistics are available for pitchers as well as the batting statistics of opposing teams. Overarching all of this is availability – in order to contribute, you’ve got to avoid injury.

What is a replacement player and how is their contribution defined?

Here’s where WAR gets all highfaluting and counterfactual. It’s all very well to measure a player’s contribution to their team’s victories but that’s just the first letter in a three letter statistic! The AR in WAR means “above replacement.” In other words — if Old Hoss Radbourn (the second highest single-season WAR player ever) had broken his ankle before the 1884 season, how would the Providence Grays have done? This question begs another question — who would he be replaced by?

The creators of the WAR statistic believe that there is a generally available and definable level of baseball talent that we can assume would replace any player out there. Given baseball’s well established farm system, (there are 19 minor league baseball leagues with 256 teams in the Major League Baseball ecosystem) that’s probably somewhat true. A replacement-level player is defined for most WAR calculations as one who is 80% as good as the average major league baseball player. One exception to that is the catcher position, which despite (or perhaps because of) being the coolest position in the sport, has fewer players who are decent at it. For that reason, replacement-level catchers are defined as 75% of the league average catcher.


So that’s WAR or Wins Above Replacement in baseball. I find it an interesting statistic because it contains within it the terrifying truth of many professional athlete’s lives that they are eminently replaceable. It’s also sort of funny to think about extending the logic of the statistic to everyday life. “How’s the fried calamari at this place?”
“It’s great — I’d say it’s about seven YAR”
“YAR?”
“Yums Above Replacement…”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do athletes make so much money?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do athletes make so much money?

Thanks,
Venita

— — —

Dear Venita,

Your question is a topical one given the last week of sports in the news. Just in the last week, four NFL football players made news for signing record new contracts for their positions. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed a $95 million dollar five year contract extension, quarterback Aaron Rodgers signed a $134 million dollar, four year contract extension. Then, defensive players Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack signed new deals for six years and $134 million dollars and six years and $141 million dollars respectively. And, as Mike Oz on Yahoo Sports points out, dozens of baseball players make more money than these top football players. How is this possible?

The conventional answer is that it’s possible because market forces allow it. Taking that down one level, the owners of sports teams are willing to pay players as much as they do because owning a sports team is so lucrative. That’s driven by two related forces. The first, and primary one is fans; people love watching and rooting for sports teams and they are willing to pay a lot of money to do it. Tickets for a game, are just the start of the money spent on a day at the ballpark or field. There’s often the cost of parking, you’ve got to buy popcorn or a hot dog (or at more modern stadiums, some fancy BBQ or a fusion short-rib taco). Outside of game-day, people buy all sorts of items that show their fandom, like jerseys, team hats, team licence plate or cell-phone covers. The list goes on and on.

The other thing fans do, and this is the catalyst for the second big force driving player salaries, is they watch their favorite team on television. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this. Sports broadcasts on television are reliably the highest rated programs. In 2017, the top five and 18 of the top 20 rated television shows of the year were sports. In a world of splintered viewing, sports are seemingly the one force that can still bring a mass audience to the screen. Cable companies are therefore willing to pay leagues massive amounts to carry their sport. The NFL sells its television rights for over four and a half billion dollars per year! The NBA is second at over two and a half billion dollars per year. A single team in MLB baseball sold their local TV rights for more than eight billion dollars over 25 years.

The money flows from consumers through their cable companies to sports leagues to team owners to players. That’s only one way of looking at this though. The market approach only really works as an analysis of why athletes get paid so much if you assume each actor is willing to share their profit down the line. We know, particularly with sports team owners who are often hard-nosed million- or billionaires that no one gives up profit without a struggle. The other way of looking at this topic is through the history of players advocating for themselves in locker-rooms, boardrooms, and court rooms often at great risk or cost to themselves. Here are three major stories from this struggle.

Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?

Dear Sports Fan,

We were watching baseball yesterday and the second baseman clearly messed up when trying to field a ground ball. After dropping it, he was able to recover in time to get the runner out at first base. Would he get an error? Does a fielder get an error in baseball if nothing bad happens?

Thanks,
Sonja

— — —

Dear Sonja,

In the scenario you are describing, the fielder would not be given an error for that play. This is because, like you wrote,  “nothing bad happened.” According to the rules of MLB baseball (Rule 10.12(d)(4)) “The official scorer shall not charge an error against: any fielder when, after fumbling a ground ball or dropping a batted ball that is in flight or a thrown ball, the fielder recovers the ball in time to force out a runner at any base.”

This seems bizarre to me. I’ve always had a hard time understanding and accepting the importance of errors in baseball. They seem like a truly bizarre mixture of process, intent, and outcome. In your scenario, the fielder’s intent was good — he wanted to catch the ball and throw it to first base. His process was not good — he dropped the ball. The outcome, however, was fine — he got the runner out. So, no error. He essentially lucked out. 

If, however, the the fielder had done the exact same thing but he was up against a faster runner who beat the throw to first base, he would have been assigned an error. No difference in process, just in outcome. Of course, outcome matters — it’s what leads to a win or a loss, which is the whole point. On the other hand, baseball already has outcome stats – if a runner makes it to first base, it’s called a single! The error seems like it’s supposed to be a different kind of stat; one that shows who messed up but in this case, it blends outcome and process.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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: