Three baseball writers fail to explain their love of the game

Last night I attended a Pitch Talks event in Boston. Pitch Talks‘ website describes what it does by saying it “connects diehard baseball fans with sports insiders by hosting informed and entertaining discussions on all aspects of the game.” Last night’s event, at the Cask & Flagon bar right next to Fenway Park, the ancestral home of the Boston Red Sox, was a moderated panel discussion with lots of opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions. The second segment of the evening was a three-part conversation between host Pete Abraham and panelists Dan Shaughnessy and Nick Cafardo. Each of these men is an eminent sports writer covering baseball for the Boston Globe. During their question and answer session, I was called on to ask a question. I addressed the panel with a question true to the essence of Dear Sports Fan:

How do you explain your love of baseball to people who don’t share it?

The response I got, from all three of the writers was equal parts insightful and profoundly disappointing.

Let’s start with what was good and educational and heart-warming. All three of the panelists expressed their profound love for baseball and seemed completely earnest in doing so. They all think baseball is the best sport to cover and follow, and that’s quite nice to see in people whose profession demands they follow baseball to an extreme degree. As for why, each of the three writers spoke about the everyday nature of baseball. As opposed to football, where teams play once a week, and hockey or basketball where teams play every two to four days, baseball teams play almost every day, sometimes more than once. Shaughnessy was the first to answer and the first to introduce this feature as a main driver of baseball’s unique appeal. He identified that playing almost every day gives baseball players and teams more chances to create meaningful redemption narratives for fans to enjoy. Cafardo built off of Shaughnessy’s comments by pointing out other benefits of the everyday nature of baseball. He said that this makes baseball extremely compelling: “As opposed to football where the rest of the week [other than the once weekly game days] is boring,” in baseball there is a story every day. Abraham chimed in as well, noting that watching a team play almost every day helps fans get to know the players in a uniquely intimate way; much more than in other sports.

It was wonderful to hear people who have devoted their lives to a sport explain what it was about that sport that they found so compelling. What was disappointing was their attitude towards the hypothetical person who didn’t like baseball that I invented in my question. They were dismissive. Shaughnessy said he “doesn’t try to push it” with people who aren’t baseball fans and that if people don’t like baseball, “that’s your loss.” When it was Cafardo’s turn, he added that he doesn’t get people who don’t like baseball.” They made unwarranted assumptions about that imaginary person. Shaughnessy imagined that they were either an impatient young person who couldn’t take baseball’s slower pace or someone who didn’t appreciate baseball’s complexity. He and Cafardo both went out of their way to insult soccer and soccer fans, clearly assuming that this imaginary non-baseball fan must be a soccer fan.

What a depressing response. Sports fans in general and people who make a living from sports even more should be more welcoming to non-sports fans than that. I appreciate Shaughnessy’s choice not to proselytize, but I wish he had a better explanation of why he loves baseball ready and waiting for the many non-baseball fans he meets in his daily life. I love that Cafardo shared with the audience his sense that he was “born with” baseball, how he “loved watching the games as a kid” and how he still “hates it” when the season ends. It’s great to have passion about what you do but surely a professional baseball writer should want to expand the reach of the game to people who didn’t grow up with baseball in their lives. What about immigrants from countries where baseball is not a common sport? What about women who grew up during a time when girls were not expected or encouraged to take an interest in sports? Those people deserve to be treated with respect. They shouldn’t be dismissed, they shouldn’t be belittled, they shouldn’t be stereotyped, and they shouldn’t have their interests (for surely, some of them are actually soccer fans) insulted.

The next time someone asks one of these writers or any baseball fan out there why they like baseball, I hope they have a positive answer prepared. I hope they are open to understanding why the person across from them doesn’t like baseball. There’s simply no downside to open dialogue and there’s lots of upside. Here’s an answer to that question from my colleague Dean Russell Bell in 2013. He likes baseball because watching it in person is like being at an outdoor picnic, because of the emotional investment baseball fans make in their teams, and because of strategy, tradition, and beauty. That’s his answer. What is yours?

How valuable is a signed baseball bat?

Dear Sports Fan,

How valuable does signed stuff actually get? If, for *cough* example, I had a little league bat signed by Brooks Robinson in the 80’s, would that be valuable or just something that a million other kids had?

Thanks,
Justin


Dear Justin,

Brooks Robinson is an awesome dude. During a 23 year Major League Baseball career, all as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he went to 18 All-Star games and won 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards as a third baseman. He played in the World Series four times and won it twice. He had a great nicknames: The Human Vacuum Cleaner and Mr. Hoover. Elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, he in one of only 16 people to be voted in during their first eligible year. At 78, Robinson is still active in the baseball community, serving as head of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. There is a 1,500 pound statue of him in downtown Baltimore. And yet, unless there is something particularly special about the signed bat you have, it’s probably not worth very much.

Sports autographs can mean big money, with the most valuable signatures going for millions of dollars, but they’re also big business. Memorabilia companies arrange for athletes to sign lots and lots of balls, uniforms, bats, gloves, baseball cards, and posters. As a result, the vast majority of signatures are not worth all that much. There are a multitude of factors that effect how much a signed item is worth but the underlying principle is that the more rare something is, the more valuable it is. Here are some of the factors that effect your bat:

  • Is it authentic and authenticated? — Two different things, an authentic item is one that is both real (the bat is a bat, not a loaf of bread shaped into a bat) and really signed. An authenticated item is one that has been certified to be authentic by one of a number of companies that exist for this sole purpose.
  • Is it game-used? — A bat that was used in a game by Robinson is worth more than one that wasn’t. Of the bats that weren’t, those that were produced for him to use in a game are worth more than those that were produced primarily so he could sign them before being sold to the public.
  • Is there something special about your item? — Did Robinson use it to hit during a memorable game? Was it the last he ever used? Or the first? Did he set a record with it? Use it to injure an offensive pitcher? Is it a brand he didn’t normally use? Is he someone who rarely ever signed bats? Again, rarity converts to value when it comes to signed items.

The Professional Sports Authenticator’s website has a handy chart showing the estimated value of “normal” signed items from a large number of professional baseball players, including Brooks Robinson. It suggests that your bat, if authentic and authenticated and in good condition, would be worth $100. If only you had something from the next Robinson on the list… Jackie Robinson! That estimate seems about right, if a little high, based on a search of sold Ebay signed Brooks Robinson bats that ranged from around $25 to $150.

You could sell it and probably make a little money. Although, since brand new baseball bats on Amazon are going for between $20 and $60 themselves, you’re almost better off just keeping it and using it as a baseball bat!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is a force play in baseball or softball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a force play in baseball or softball? I’m new to watching and it seems like force is an important concept but I’ve yet to here a good explanation. Can you help?

Thanks,
Caroline


Dear Caroline,

The force play is one of the most integral concepts in baseball and softball. Without an understanding of it, not much in the game will make sense. Unfortunately, because most baseball broadcasts assume that all of their viewers grew up playing or watching baseball or softball, there aren’t commonly explanations of what a force play is or what its implications are. A force play is a kind of short-hand; a convenience that the defense or fielding team gets to use against the team that’s trying to score.  In some situations, instead of having to tag the opposing player with the ball to make an out, a defensive player with the ball can step on a base and immediately create an out. The reason for this convenience is predicated on a single concept – two base runners can never occupy the same base at the same time.

How do we make the leap from two players not being able to be on the same base at the same time to being able to get someone out just by stepping on a base? Let’s run through a scenario where there is no force play available to the defense. Imagine that there is a base runner on second base but not first or third. When the player that is batting hits the ball into the field, he has to run to first. The player on second can either stay on second base or run to third. He starts running and then sees that the opposing team has a chance to throw the ball to third before he can get there. If he keeps running, he’s likely to get tagged by the player with the ball before he can make it safely to third. So, he turns around and runs back to second base. If he can make it back there without being tagged, he’s safe. He has options – second or third base. Either one is a safe haven. There is no possible force out.

Now we’ll take a similar scenario but add in a force play. Imagine everything were the same except that instead of having only a runner on second base, there was also a runner on first base when the batter hit the ball. The batter still has to run to first base. But wait! There’s a runner already there. If he stays put, there will be two runners on first base — and we know that’s not allowed. So, the runner on first base has to run to second. Now our runner on second base faces the same dilemma. He has to run to third or else he and his teammate who started the play on first base will both be occupying the same base. So, he starts running to third. The fielding team makes the same play and throws the ball to the defender on third base. The guy running from second to third sees that he’s in trouble but unlike in our first scenario, he can’t turn around and run back to second base. He has teammates already on first and second base, so he can’t run backwards. He has to run forward.

In an imaginary baseball world without the force play rule, the defender standing on third base with the baseball would wait for the runner to get to him and then step forward to tag him with the ball. This would work close to 100% of the time because the runner has no options other than to run straight into the defender. In effect, the outcome of the play is set by the time the defender gets the ball on third base. The out is fait accompli. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, baseball created the force out rule. If a runner has no option but to run forward to a base, and a defender can get to that base with the ball before the runner does, it’s immediately an out.

This seemingly small convenience has widespread tactical consequences. The double-play, one of the most exciting plays in baseball, when the defense records two outs on a single hit, would be drastically less possible without the force out. The most common double play, one where there is a runner on first when the batter hits the ball and the defense is able to get the ball to second base, step on it, and then throw the ball to first base before the guy who hit the ball can get there, relies entirely on force plays or outs. If the defense had to wait for the runner on first to get to second before being able to get him out, they’d never have enough time to throw the ball to first before the batter got there.

Here are the two scenarios we described above:

Scenario 1: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Scenario 2: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Can you figure out where the force plays are in these other scenarios?

Scenario 3: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 4: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 5: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [•]

If you answered – first base for scenario three, third base for scenario four, and first, second, and third base and home plate for scenario five, you’re well on your way to being a baseball and softball force play expert! Here are two bonus facts you might also have picked up on. First base is always a force out. It’s not intuitive because there are no runners moving behind the batter, but nonetheless, once he hits the ball, he has to move to first base. He cannot simply stay at home plate and try again next time. The other bonus fact is a pretty advanced tactical one. In terms of force outs, it’s sometimes better defensively to have more players on base. Referring again to our first two scenarios, the defense may not have been able to get anyone out in the first one, but definitely would have been able to in the second. This goes against what seems to be the normal logic of playing defense in baseball — you want fewer people on base not more. In some situations, teams will intentionally walk a batter to get more runners on base so that they create more force play opportunities during the next at bat.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why is 50% written .500 and said "five hundred" in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I don’t get about sports. Why is 50% called “500” in sports? Is this some kind of metric system thing? Or is it for a purpose?

Thanks,
Emily


Dear Emily,

There are a variety of numbers in sports that are expressed as a number between zero and 1,000 when they more naturally might be thought of as a percentage. For example, a team that has won half its games and lost half its games is often said to be a “500 team” or playing “500 ball.” What this means is that they have won 50% of the games they’ve played. Likewise, a basketball player who scores on 38.9% of the three point shots she attempts may be said to be “shooting 389 from downtown.”

There’s nothing magical about these numbers, they’re just like percentages — a way of expressing the result from one number being divided by another. In the case of percentages, we take one number, divide it by another number, and then multiply the result by 100 and smack a percentage sign next to it. Thus one divided by two, which is .5 becomes 50%. The difference between a percentage and a sports number is that instead of multiplying by 100, sports numbers get multiplied by 1,000. At least when spoken out loud. A lot of times when you see a sports number like this written out, it will actually be written as “.500” even though no one would ever read it as “five tenths” instead of “five hundred” in a sports context.

If you always want to express a ratio to the hundredths place, it kind of makes sense to multiply by 1,000 instead of 100. It’s certainly easier to refer to something that happens three times every eight times it’s attempted as “three seventy five” than “point three seventy five” or even “thirty seven point five percent.” It’s not surprising that sports people feel that their numbers need this level of accuracy. People who live in and around sports often seem to be obsessed with accuracy to the point of over-precision. For example, players eligibly to be picked in the NBA draft tonight have their height measured down to the quarter inch with and without shoes! Commentators in many sports will often argue about whether it looks like something a player did took .25 seconds or .28 seconds. As if the commentators can actually judge a hundredth of a second difference from their perch at the top of the stadium! Because the difference between winning and losing in sports can sometimes be as slim as a fraction of an inch or a hundredth of a second it’s tempting to believe that all metrics in sports need to have that level of detail.

 

In defense of the sports way of expressing percentages, its historic source is a number that reasonably should be expressed to the tenth of a percent: batting average in baseball. Batting average is a player or team’s number of hits divided by their number of at bats. It’s not the best metric in baseball, in fact it’s a reasonably misleading one, but it does have a very long history. For many years, it was considered a key statistic in measuring how good a player was doing against to his current competition and for making historical comparisons. Baseball is obsessed with statistics because it creates them so nicely. Its long, 162 game season virtually guarantees that any measure one can imagine will have a statistically significant sample over the course of a year. With 30 teams and well over a dozen position players on each team, not even to mention the 120+ history of professional baseball, if you really want to know how a player’s batting average compares to his peers, you do need to take that number to the third decimal point. It would be far less interesting to say that Manny Machado and Adrian Gonzalez have the same batting average of 30% than to say that Machado is 18th in the league, with a .304 (pronounced “three oh four”) batting average and Gonzalez is 30th with a .296. Eight tenths of a percent may not seem like much, but over the course of a season (162 games times roughly 3.5 at bats per game) that’s a difference of four or five hits.

 

Of course, the source of the habit doesn’t matter so much if it is misapplied. Team records are the clearest form of misapplication. The problem with using this kind of number to express a team’s record is that aside from the most obvious numbers like .333, .666, and any of .000, .100, .200, and so on, these figures are very hard for us to translate into numbers in our heads. Quick — tell me how many wins and losses a team whose record is .527 has. According to the current MLB baseball standings, the answer is 39 wins and 35 losses, like the Toronto Blue Jays have. Although these numbers are convenient for creating a standings table (because they allow an easy comparison of teams who have played different numbers of games) they probably should not be displayed. In terms of figuring out how well your team is doing, the order of the teams in the standings and the games back metric are far, far better.

Regardless of how reasonable or unreasonable the sports percentage expression is, it’s deeply engrained in sports culture and seems to be here to stay. It’s easy to wonder though, if this small form of numerical manipulation makes it easier for sports people to mangle numbers in much sillier ways, like the habit of asking players to “give 110%.” That’s a story for another day.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra

How does stealing bases work in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan

How does stealing bases work in baseball? I know that a stolen base is when a player runs from first to second or second to third base without there being a hit but I’m not sure when base runners can steal and what situations they do it in. Can you help?

Thanks,
Andres


Dear Andres,

The steal is one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A player on base tries to run to the next base without the assistance of a teammate’s hit. If he gets there before the opposing team can throw the ball to the base and tag him, he’s safe. If not, he’s out. It’s got speed, deception, timing, and coordination — everything you could want in a sport. A successful stolen base can propel a team to victory. An unsuccessful one can break a team’s momentum and destroy its chance of winning. So how does a steal work?

A player on base — that means they got to first, second, or third base through hitting the ball, being hit with the ball, or being walked — can try to run to the next base basically whenever they want. The only time they are not allowed to run is if a timeout has been called. Timeouts are not as obvious in baseball as they are in other sports, probably because they are unlimited, but they usually happen when a batter steps out of the batting box and holds up his hand or when a catcher wants to speak to his pitcher or visa-versa. If you’re at a game or if you have your television volume way, way up, you might be able to hear the ump screaming, “TIME” when someone gestures for a timeout and “PLAY” when the timeout is over. In some recreational baseball or softball leagues, a timeout is called by default whenever the pitcher has the ball. Not so in a professional setting.

The fact that base runners can try to steal virtually whenever they want doesn’t explain much about when players actually attempt to steal. Professional baseball players throw so accurately and strongly that unless a runner caught them completely off-guard, stealing in the normal course of play would be a miserable and ineffective gambit. No, what makes stealing possible is a rule that forces pitchers to throw the ball to home plate once they’ve committed to the motion of throwing in that direction. A pitcher who is guilty of starting to throw to home plate and changing his or her mind in mid-pitch is guilty of what’s called a “balk” and any players already on base get a free trip to the next base. The impact of this rule is that it allows sharp eyed, speedy players on base to watch the pitcher and start running to the next base as soon as the pitcher commits to a pitching motion.

Once a player decides to steal a base, she begins sprinting to the next base. She only has a few seconds to make it there. In that time, the pitcher will pitch the ball over home plate, the catcher will grab it, rise to his feet, and throw to the player covering the base the runner is trying to get to in one motion. The whole thing – running from one base to the next as well as the pitcher and catcher combining to try to throw that player out – takes right around 3.5 seconds. In a Smithsonian Magazine piece, Brad Balukjian describes an analysis of the process that suggested the most important factor in a successful stolen base is the top speed a runner reaches in his attempt.

By far the most common base players try to steal is second base. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Singles are by far the most common hit. Therefore being on first base is more common than being on any other base. From first, the only place to go is second.
  • While there are more lefties in professional baseball than in the general population, there are still more right-handed pitchers than left-handed ones. When a righty sets up to pitch, his back is turned to first base. This gives the base runner an advantage stealing from first to second but a disadvantage going from second to third.
  • As we covered in out article explaining why there are so few triples any more, there simply isn’t that big of a difference between being on second or third. Runners on either base are expected to be able to score on a ball hit out of the infield and not on one that stays in close. Stealing third isn’t often worth the risk. The difference between being on first or second, on the other hand, is a big deal and worth a greater risk.

While the rules about how and when a player can steal a base are fairly simple the rules about when their act is deemed to be an official steal by scorekeepers is much more complex. While it may not seem important (no matter how it happened, what matters to who is going to win is that the player made it from first to second or second to third) baseball players, managers, and true fans give statistical designations like this a lot of importance. Just one example of these distinctions is that a player who makes it safely to a base because the catcher threw the ball wildly in her attempt to catch the runner stealing is credited with a steal while a player who safely gets to the next base because the opposing player who was trying to catch the ball and tag him out messed it up, he is not credited with a steal. 

Aside from stealing second from first and third from second, there are three other forms of stealing that are much more rare. A player on third base can attempt to steal home. This sounds insane, since to catch the player, the defensive team only needs to do half or one third of the stuff they normally have to do to catch a stealing attempt. Instead of the pitcher throwing it to the catcher who throws it to a player covering second or third base, the pitcher just needs to get the ball to the catcher who can stand there and tag the runner out. Only the fastest and most audacious players ever dream of attempting this. Jackie Robinson did it successfully in the 1955 World Series. A double steal is a play where two runners on different bases both try to steal the base ahead of them simultaneously. This can involve players on first and second running to second on third but it can also be used to disguise an attempt to steal home. The last form of rare stolen base is not allowed any more. In the early days of baseball, when entertainment and high-spirited hijinks were as important drivers of behavior as winning, base runners would sometimes steal backwards. This behavior is now prohibited by MLB rules and somewhat sassily too: if a player “runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why is the MLB baseball season so long?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is the MLB baseball season so long? Baseball teams play like every day for more than six months. That’s SO MUCH BASEBALL! What’s the point?

Thanks,
Ken


Dear Ken,

The Major League Baseball regular season is 162 games. That’s almost twice as long as the NHL ice hockey and NBA basketball schedules. It’s 10 times longer than the 16 game NFL football schedule. It’s harder to compare baseball to soccer leagues whose seasons vary in length from around 30 games to 40 games but whose teams simultaneously compete in a number of other domestic and international competitions and whose players may be called up to play internationally as well. Still, it’s pretty safe to say that baseball seasons involve the most games of any common professional sport.

Baseball has had long seasons for as long as it has been played professionally. In 1876, the first year that professional leagues started mandating the number of games each team should play (before that, they simply gave a minimum but teams could play more games if they wanted) each team played 70 games. By 1901, the first year that the National League and American League both played, the schedule had doubled to 140 games. From there, the number vacillated a bit before moving to 154 in 1920 and then the current 162 in 1961-62. The primary cause for each lengthening of the schedule was team expansion. Up to 1962, the number of games was set by taking the number of possible opponents and multiplying by some number so that each team would play each opposing team 18 or 20 times. Since then, the leagues have sought to retain the same number of games (162) regardless of the number of teams and have done so by changing who teams play and how many times they face each other.

The simplest reason for why baseball seasons are longer than other sports is because they can be. Baseball is not a particularly physically demanding sport. Basketball and hockey’s 82 game seasons engender far more angst about the physical wear and tear on players than baseball’s season which is twice as long. The fact that the most commonly used performance enhancing drug in baseball history has not been steroids, but amphetamines called “greenies” supports the idea that the grind of a long baseball season is more mental than physical. Baseball is mostly a non-contact sport, so its teams can play 162 games in six months and even sometimes twice a day without losing an insupportable percentage of their roster to injury. Bonus fact — I read somewhere that early baseball was more beloved by lower and middle class people and early football by the upper classes because only upper class people had the luxury to risk injury in their recreational activities. Lower and middle class people who worked in more physical occupations couldn’t risk it, so they played baseball.

The other reason for baseball’s long season is that more than any other sport, baseball believes in large sample sizes to determine the best team. At its simplest, baseball is a series of one on one encounters between a pitcher and a hitter. Each game has around 60 to 70 of these contests. The long season provides a greater significance to the statistics produced by each player and each team and baseball is all about statistics! No sport cares more about its records – who is leading in each meaningful statistical category each year and in history. Of course, this is a bit of a chicken or the egg argument. It’s possible that baseball’s reverence for statistics comes from its long seasons and not the other way around.

Baseball’s long schedule gives following the sport a decidedly different feel from being a fan of any other sport. A favorite baseball team is like a friend you can rely on. They’re there almost every night. Baseball fans don’t need to schedule time to spend with their team, they can just use baseball to fill up any down time in their social schedule. Baseball remains one of the few sports that people still listen to on the radio, not just because its action is simple and slow enough to easily imagine but also because the number of games in a season mean that no single game demands full and undivided attention. Going to see a baseball game in person is far easier and more affordable because there are so many games. In so many ways, baseball’s plentiful schedule has molded it into the pastime that so many people enjoy.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

 

Why aren't there more triples in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering – why aren’t there more triples in baseball? I see a lot of doubles and there are always a few home runs, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a triple! What’s up with that?

Thanks,
Mona


Dear Mona,

Triples are the rarest type of hit in Major League Baseball by a long shot. Over this season and last, only roughly 2% of all hits have been triples. This wasn’t always the case. Until 1930, there were more triples in baseball than home runs. There are two main reasons for the rarity of triples in today’s game: they are difficult to achieve and not worth that much. We’ll take a quick trip into history to see what changed to make triples so unusual and then fast forward 80 years into today’s baseball to describe why they continue to be infrequent.

When baseball was in its infancy, from the 1860s to the 1910s, most baseball fields had no walls. Baseball was played on a hypothetically infinite field. No matter how far a batter hit the ball, a fielder could theoretically run, pick it up, and throw the ball to a teammate in the infield. As you might imagine with this setup, the frequency of types of hit was in a natural kind of order. Singles were more common than doubles, which were more common than triples, which were more common than home runs. Every home run was what we now call an “in the park home run” because there were no walls beyond which, if a ball was hit, it would be an “out of the park home run.” Even after ballparks were built with walls, so that a ball hit beyond the wall was a home run, triples continued to be more common than home runs. The walls were set so far out (and the balls were so difficult to hit far) that they didn’t really effect how the game was played. According to the SABR Research Journal from 1901 to 1929 “the average distribution was: 76.9 percent for singles, 15.2 percent for doubles, 5.3 percent for triples, and 2.7 percent for homers.” During the 1920s, baseball team owners gradually moved the walls or fences in, to make outside the park home runs more common and also adjusted the way baseballs were produced to make them fly farther. As you can see in this line graph from High Heat Stakes, the frequency of home runs passed that of triples around 1930 and has never looked back.

In today’s game, triples are the rarest type of hit by a wide margin. In 2014, 68% of hits were singles, 20% were doubles, 2% of hits were triples, and 10% were home runs. The most obvious reason for the scarcity of triples is that they are hard to do! Baseball fields may look enormous, but the athletes on them are quite fast and they cover a lot of ground. Almost no matter where the ball is hit, one of the nine fielders should be able to reach it and throw the ball to the infield before the batter can run the 270 feet from home base to first base, around to second and then to third base. The only two plausible reasons for a triple today are some kind of mishap — a funny bounce, a tripping outfielder, an animal running onto the field — or the ball being hit to an area of the field that the defense purposefully left uncovered because they didn’t think the batter would hit the ball there.

Despite how difficult they are, teams could probably get a few more triples than they do if they were really trying for them. On any hit that’s not obviously going to lead the runner safely to third base, teams tend to be conservative and ask the runner to stop at second. It’s rare for someone to try to “stretch” a solid double into a risky triple. The reason for this is that having a runner on third base is not thought of as a big advantage over having a runner on second base. It’s commonly understood that a runner on second base will be able to run home and score on any hit that gets past the infielders. This is almost exactly the same for a runner on third base. Without any real incentive to get to third base, players would rather stop at second than run to third and risk getting thrown out.

How rare is a triple? Around 2% or one in fifty hits are triples. Teams average around eight and a half hits per game. Multiply that by two because there are two teams playing in each game and you get 17 hits per game. 17 times three is 51, which is close enough for me to 50. So, we’d expect to see a triple about once every three games or so. Rare, but not unheard of!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does the men's college baseball World Series work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why doesn’t anyone watch men’s college baseball? I think it’s because the format of their tournament is impossible to understand. I might watch it if I understood how it works. Could you tell me? How does the men’s college baseball World Series work?

Thanks,
Stacy


Dear Stacy,

Men’s college baseball often gets a bad rap. This is partially because professional baseball has an extensive minor league system that snaps up many of the future professional baseball players before they hit college. Losing these players robs college baseball of the air of elite competition that college football and basketball still have. Another factor certainly is persistent slight confusion around how a championship team is determined. The men’s college World Series follows a more complex format than most competitions we’re used to watching, but it’s not beyond our understanding by any means. Here’s how it works.

The tournament begins, like March Madness, the college basketball tournament does, with 64 teams. In the baseball championship, these teams are split into 16 groups of four teams each. These groups of four teams will play each other until one can be identified as the winner of the group. That team moves on to the next round of the tournament. This round, with 64 teams is called the Regional. The next round, with only 16 teams is called the Super Regional. Although groups of four are reminiscent of the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup in soccer, there are two major differences. Instead of two or three teams advancing from the group of four, as in the World Cup, only one team advances. Also, the format of competition is different. Instead of a round robing, where each team plays the others once, this part of the college baseball championships are played as a double elimination tournament.

The principle of double-elimination is simple. The teams play each other until every team but one has lost twice. As teams accrue their second defeats, they are eliminated from the tournament. Pretty easy, right? The only tricky part is how to decide who plays who. Within each group, the four teams are ranked or seeded from one to four. This allows the succeeding games to be played out formulaically.

  • Game 1: Team 1 plays Team 4
  • Game 2: Team 2 plays Team 3
  • Game 3: The winner of Game 1 plays the winner of Game 2
  • Game 4: The loser of Game 1 plays the loser of Game 2
  • Game 5: The loser of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 4
  • Game 6: The winner of Game 3 plays the winner of Game 5. Note that at this point, the winner of Game 3 is, by definition, undefeated. They won the first game they played — either Game 1 or Game 2 — and then won the matchup between themselves and the winner of the other of the first two games. Their opponent in this game has to have lost a single game before. In order to play in and win Game 5 to qualify for this game, they would have had to either lose Game 1 or 2 (and win Game 4) or lose Game 3. That’s all just a complicated way to say that this game, Game 6 is between a team with one loss and a team with zero losses. If the team that comes into this game with one loss, loses, then the regional is over. Every team will have lost two games. If they win, then both teams involved will only have one loss and another game, Game 7, must be played to decide who advances.
  • Game 7: The same two teams as Game 6, if needed to decide a regional champion.

For bonus confusion, seeing “Game 7, if needed” triggers thoughts in a sports fan’s mind of a best-four-out-of-seven series. This is the most common playoff format, used in professional baseball, hockey, and basketball. In that format, Game 7s may not be needed if one team beats the other four times in the first four, five, or six games. That’s why you’ll also see “Game 5, if needed” or “Game 6, if needed) in those sports. Never in college baseball’s regionals — in the double elimination format within groups of four teams, only the seventh game is dependent on earlier results to be necessary. The first six will always be played.

After the Regional round, the teams advance to the Super Regionals. In the Super Regionals, the 16 remaining teams are grouped into pairings of two teams each. These pairings are pre-set before the tournament, the winner of Group A will play the winner of Group B, no matter who those winners are. Within each pairing, the teams play a best-two-out-of-three series. In a sense, this is still a double elimination format, but it’s not unusual in the way the Regional round format was. Best-two-out-of-three is easily understood. It’s how many people settled sibling or friendly disputes as kids, with rock-paper-scissors or odds and evens.

The Super Regional best-two-out-of-three series get the field from 16 to eight teams. From there, the tournament enters the College World Series. This eight team tournament within a tournament follows the same pattern as the last two rounds, just with fewer teams. First, the eight teams are split into two groups of four. Within those groups, the teams play a double-elimination tournament like they did in the Regional round above. Once this is done, six more teams (three in each group of four) will have been eliminated. The remaining two teams face each other in a best-two-out-of-three game series to crown an overall men’s college World Series champion.

This year, 2015, those two teams are Virginia and Vanderbilt — the same two teams as last year. The series starts tonight, Monday, June 22 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Game 2 will be Tuesday at the same time and channel and Game Three (if needed) will be on Wednesday at the same time and channel. Last year, Vanderbilt won the first game 9-8, lost the second 2-7, but won the third and deciding game, 3-2 to become the 2014 champion. Only time will tell if they can repeat or if Virginia will take their revenge.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Dear Sports Fan joins the real world: Meetup

Watching sports with someone who knows more or less than you can be a frustrating proposition.

If you’re the person who knows less about sports, you probably have a lot of questions. How many can you ask before the sports fan you’re watching with gets annoyed? When is the right time to ask? You don’t want to ruin the game for your companion by asking a simple question right at a suspenseful moment. Talking about simple questions, it can be difficult to learn when it seems like the answers to all your questions contain vocabulary words you’re not completely clear on. Words and concepts that are second nature to a sports fan, like offside, holding, second set, third and seven, or two and two, are not easy sailing if you don’t know what they mean. It often feels like a choice between pestering your companion incessantly or accepting that the sporting event can only be pleasant but indecipherable background noise.

Being the person who knows more about sports can also be tricky. Knowledge often comes from passion, so the person who knows more often wants to focus more on watching and less on talking. It can be legitimately difficult to explain the components of something you may have learned very gradually from an early age or from the altered perspective of being a participant.

It’s difficult to watch sports without understanding them but it’s impossible to learn without watching. It’s a Catch 22 of Hellermanian proportions — at least it was, until now. After four years of explaining sports online, Dear Sports Fan will be making its first foray into the real world. I’ve started a Meetup group called Dear Sports Fan Viewing Parties for people who want to watch sports with explicit permission to ask question and for sports fans who want to help create a supportive setting. Our first Meetup will be this Monday, June 8, at 7 p.m. to watch the U.S. Women’s National soccer team play its first game of the 2015 World Cup against Australia. We’ll be gathering at Orleans bar in Somerville near Davis Square. If you or anyone you know lives in the Boston area and would like to be a part of this experiment, let me know or sign up here.

Raising athletes to win, serve, and live

Sports are at least as big a part of raising children in this country as religion or civics. Kids spend hours every day playing sports and the way they see adults handle the everyday drama of sports helps to each them how to handle the real dramas of growing up. This week we have three stories about raising kids in and around sports. We’re going to hear from a former major league baseball player who has recently begun coaching his children’s t-ball team and from the family and friends of a young athlete who took her own life. We’ll hear about the army’s newfound devotion to women’s lacrosse and why their focused on that sport.

Confessions of a Major League T-Ball Coach

by Doug Glanville for the New York Times

Former baseball player Doug Glanville walks the line in this article. It’s tricky to write comedically about children — if the snark has even a hint of mean-spiritedness in it, the whole article will fall apart at the seams. I don’t sense snark at all, only love and appreciation for the absurd.

Base running is a little more straightforward, even though it can create moments I have never seen or imagined before in my life. The other day, we had three runners on third at the same time. After first trying to sort it out, I thought, “No big deal, let me see what happens when the hitter puts the ball in play.” So he did, and two out of the three ran home. Not bad.

T-ball is subject to a range of delays that have nothing to do with rain. Nor do they come from pitching changes or from challenging a call with Instant Replay. No. Our catcher went off to the Port A Potty; another one of our players was shaken up after being engulfed by his own teammates (eight apparent shortstops trampled him to get a ball hit near the pitcher’s mound); a couple of other players found the joy in knocking each other’s hats off at second base — until they found themselves disoriented in the evil and boring outfield.

Why Does the Army Care so Much About Women’s Lacrosse?

by Jane McManus for ESPNW

The image you might have in your mind of women’s lacrosse is that of a genteel sport played by young ladies. Don’t be tricked by the skirts that the players wear, they are ladies, but they’re the kind of ladies that will shove you to the ground and sprint over you to score a goal. That’s exactly the kind of people the army needs as they continue to open more combat positions to women.

The Army believes there is a crucial relationship between those two things — an athletic background and being a soldier. As the military prepares to allow women on the front lines of combat in 2016, there is an immediate need for strong, tough women from within the Army’s ranks. And, in a philosophy often mentioned on campus and believed by MacArthur himself, the Army believes athletes make better soldiers.

The data seems to support the basic premise held at West Point: that female athletes possess critical tools that would make them ready for the front lines of combat. Lacrosse is the next frontier for pulling good athletes to the academy

Split Image

by Kate Fagan for ESPN

This is a brutal article. It tells the story of Madison Holleran, a successful multi-sport athlete who recently died by suicide. As much as her family and friends would like there to be an answer to why and what we can do as a society to prevent other people from doing the same, there just isn’t. Depression is a nasty disease and it can strike anyone, anywhere. What follows here is some of Fagan’s writing about the impact of social media on young women’s lives. It’s not an explanation for suicide but it is something that we can improve. 

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

Everyone presents an edited version of life on social media. People share moments that reflect an ideal life, an ideal self… With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered… She seemed acutely aware that the life she was curating online was distinctly different from the one she was actually living. Yet she could not apply that same logic when she looked at the projected lives of others.