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 is the Carabao Cup?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is the Carabao Cup? And should I care about it?

Thanks,
Milan

— — —

Dear Milan,

The Carabao Cup is the new name for the English Football League (EFL) Cup. It is an in-season league cup open to all 92 of the teams in Great Britain’s top four men’s soccer leagues, the Premiere League, Championship, League One, and League two. It is played mid-week from mid-August to late February. Carabao is a Thai energy drink named after a water buffalo that purchased the naming rights to the tournament. 

It is (mostly) a single elimination tournament with many of the teams receiving byes for one or more rounds. The first round is made up of teams from the bottom three leagues — 70 in 2018-2019. The second round is made up of the winners of those games plus the teams from the top league that aren’t in a European continental competition. The third round is the winners from the second round plus the rest of the top league’s teams. If matches are tied after 90 minutes, the game goes directly to a shoot out without overtime. The one exception to the single elimination is the semifinals which are played as a two game cup tie.

The most intriguing part of the Carabao Cup is the fact that not all the teams in the tournament are particularly interested in winning it. Of the three major trophies available to British soccer teams, the Carabao Cup is the least prestigious and the least valuable. The winner of the Carabao Cup gets only 100,000 pounds. The winner also gets an automatic qualification to play in next year’s Europa League, but that itself is the sort of consolation prize of European soccer. If the winner of the Carabao Cup is one of the top four teams in the Premiere League (the top league) as it usually but not always is, that invitation won’t even be used. In this case, the qualification reverts not to the second place team in the Carabao Cup but to the next team down the list in the Premiere League. Given that the incentives are not so high, many of the best teams use Carabao Cups to get young players experience and to reward other hard-working bench warmers with game time. Fans and ownership would be justifiably annoyed if a star player got injured in a Carabao Cup match.

A tournament in which many of the teams are not trying their hardest may not sound all that intriguing. If that’s your impression, let me suggest a few points of interest:

  • Giant clubs with less than optimal lineups are vulnerable to getting beaten by smaller clubs in lower leagues who are playing their hardest. These upsets are still really fun to root for and watch, even if you know in the back of your mind that they would be less likely to happen if the giant club was trying its hardest.
  • If you root for one of the giant clubs, you might be really excited to see some of the young up-and-coming players in the Carabao Cup today who might star in the Premier League soon.
  • It leads to endless opportunities for second guessing. Lose and the manager should have played just one or two more experienced players. Win a Carabao Cup match but then lose the next league match? The manager should have played fewer starters to save their legs. And, of course, if anyone should get injured, that’s sports radio fodder for weeks.

There’s also something curious, from the perspective of an American sports fan, about a tournament that not everyone tries to win. It simply doesn’t have a parallel in major sports in the United States. As opposed to Herm Edward’s “You play to win the game,” the Carabao Cup seems to say, “everyone has different priorities.”

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 NFL players kneel during the National Anthem?

Dear Sports Fan,

Please tell us why NFL players want to kneel during the National Anthem. And explain what, if anything, this has to do with respect or disrespect for the U.S. military.

Thanks,
RKR

— — —

Dear RKR,

The experience of seeing NFL football players kneeling during the National Anthem before a game has become a common one of the past couple of years as has the experience of having their act become a subject of political controversy. As the players’ acts of protest have become more controversial, their intent has become increasingly hidden by claims from outside observers. This makes developing an opinion about whether to support the protests and relatedly, whether the protests are disrespectful toward the American Flag much more tricky. Explanations for the reasoning behind the protest are all over the place. For example, here is the start of the Wikipedia entry on the U.S. National Anthem Protests:

Since August 2016, some U.S. athletes have silently protested against “systematic oppression”,[2] “equality and social injustice”,[3] “racism and injustice in our criminal system”,[4] “oppression of people of color in the United States”,[5] and to not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”[6] during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.[7] Many players since 2017 have started to protest against the policies of President Donald Trump.[8]*

*It’s worth noting that the sources for those claims are, in order: [2] Sporting News, [3] USA Today, [4] Fox News, [5] SB Nation, [6] NFL.com, [7] Fox News, [8] Fox News. 

As someone who follows sports news and political news quite actively, I am sure that I carry my own share of bias into this answer, so I’m going to do my best to answer your question without editorializing.

The first NFL player to protest during the National Anthem was Colin Kaepernick. On August 14, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers — the NFL team that employed Kaepernick at the time — played the Houston Texans in a preseason game. Kaepernick sat on a team bench during the playing of the National Anthem. He did the same thing the following week during the 49ers preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He did the same thing once more in the 49ers next preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016. This time, a few reporters noticed and asked him questions about it after the game.

This got the story going but it didn’t truly explode until three days later, on August 29, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked about it in a KIRO radio interview by Dori Monson and responded by saying, “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” From that moment on, the story of the protests have become increasingly calcified as an “us vs. them” fight with, generally speaking, protesting NFL players and liberals on one side and the NFL commissioner, (most) NFL owners, President Trump, and conservatives on the other. In order to get the clearest possible picture of why, let’s go back to that brief period between August 26 and 29, 2016 after the protest had been noticed but before they had become a controversy.

The day after that August 26 preseason game, the New York Times and NFL.com each ran stories about Kaepernick’s protest. With the benefit of hindsight, they are noticeably balanced in their portrayal. According to Christine Hauser of the New York Times, Kaepernick’s protest was “a statement against racial oppression.” The NFL.com’s article on the same day by Steve Wyche attributed Kaepernick’s protest to, “what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.” Both stories carried a quote from Kaepernick’s post-game interview: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Both the New York Times and NFL.com seem to have done a fair job of summarizing Kaepernick’s intent, although neither of them provide the specific context of police violence against people of color that is so obvviously present in Kaepernick’s last sentence. The following week, in the final preseason game the 49ers played that year, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by teammate Eric Reid. This time, both players knelt during the National Anthem instead of sitting. A year after this, Reid wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his reasoning for joining Kaepernick. Reid wrote, “In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police… A few weeks later, during preseason, my teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality.”

In terms of why they switched from sitting to kneeling, here’s what Reid wrote, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

It seems clear that the protest was generally about the oppression of people of color in the United States and specifically about police brutality. Whether you believe it is disrespectful is a more complicated question. I am reminded of a long rambling car-ride conversation on the subject of disrespect I had with a childhood friend who is now a philosophy professor. We were debating whether an act is disrespectful because of the intent of the person doing it or based on how the person on the receiving end perceives it. If you believe it’s based on the intent of the actor, then you may have enough information now to make up your own mind. If, however, (and this was my side of the argument,) you believe that whether something is disrespectful is based on how the other person perceived it, then… well… the question you’re left with is this: who gets to decide whether the National Anthem or the United States Flag feels disrespected? Who speaks for the country? And isn’t that the underlying political question of our time?

It’s not going to be solved here but thanks for reading anyway,
Ezra Fischer

Why does the UK have 4 national football (soccer) teams?

Dear Sports Fan,

Currently there is the UEFA European Championship in football (soccer) taking place and the UK has 3 teams participating: England, Wales and North Ireland. It could have been 4 if Scotland qualified. It is the same for FIFA World Cups, the UK always sends four teams to the qualifications.

The UK seems to be the only country in the world which has 4 football teams even though it is considered as one country almost everywhere.

Why does the UK / why is the UK allowed to send more than one team to international football tournaments? Is it actually the same for other sports?

Thanks,
Rob

— — —

Dear Rob,

The United Kingdom (UK) is not alone. There are more than 20 members of FIFA (the primary organization that runs international soccer) that are not independent countries as recognized by the United Nations. For example, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands compete separately from the United States even though they are U.S. territories. Hong Kong and Macau have their own teams despite being special autonomous regions of China. In addition to the four you mentioned, the United Kingdom has several more teams that fall within its large historical umbrella: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks & Caicos Islands, and Gibraltar.

When I began looking into this question, my assumption was that FIFA liked maintaining a separate sense of what constitutes a “country” than the U.N. because it likes to imagine it is an international organization with power and influence on the level of the U.N. (And maybe this is true to some extent) Then I read Luke Bradshaw’s story of Paul Watson’s quest to bring the tiny island of Pohnpei into FIFA. I discovered that “As a non-governmental organization, FIFA is legally obliged to accept membership applications for states that want to join.” FIFA is allowed to create application requirements and they leverage those to stall applications they don’t like.

Of course, FIFA is not the only organization the runs international competitions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is another. Unlike in FIFA, the UK sends a single team to the Olympics, not four constituent teams. However, they (almost) never send any soccer teams at all. That’s because they are worried that if they played soccer as the UK in the Olympics, FIFA might rescind their ability to play soccer as individual nations in the World Cup. One exception to this was during the 2012 Olympics which were in London — the UK took the calculated risk of playing soccer as the host and it worked out just fine.

There’s a clear downside to playing separately. Two of the best soccer players in the world over the past decade have never played in the World Cup because of it. Kim Little and Gareth Bale have been superstars in club soccer but haven’t ever been able to shine on the biggest stage of all because they were born in Scotland and Wales respectively and even their skills have not been enough to drag these smaller nations into the World Cup. That will change next year for Kim Little whose Scottish team just qualified last night for the 2019 World Cup in France with a 2-1 win over Albania!

The underlying “why” question remains. Why not play as the United Kingdom? The desire to play for Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland or England instead of a consolidated United Kingdom must be rooted in national pride and history. It’s maintained by negotiated agreement. The Home Nations agreement between the four regions sets out who is eligible to play for which of them and is much stricter than the general FIFA rules that allow quite liberally for (often Brazilians) to play for all sorts of national teams around the world.

As for other sports, that’s got to be a question for another day!

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

Why does the NFL have preseason games?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why does the NFL have preseson games? What’s the point? As far as I can tell, no one watches them and they don’t count for anything!

Thanks,
Guillermo

— — —

Dear Guillermo,

Before I go off on a long, embroidered explanation about who is interested in the NFL preseason and why, I do want to say that I am a big fan of NFL football and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a full preseason game. So far this year, I’ve glanced at one in a bar while having dinner and that’s it. Lots of people — NFL football fans or not — fall somewhere on the scale from ignoring to despising the preseason. There are three categories of people I can think of who find the preseason to be very important: coaches and some players, gamblers/fantasy football experts, and super-fans.

Why NFL coaches (and some players) care about the NFL preseason

For NFL coaches, the preseason is a chance to see players in an environment as close to real NFL games as possible. Of course, preseason games don’t look, from a fan’s perspective, very much like regular season NFL games. The play is scattered, the drama is missing, and the players are not the ones we’re used to; at least not for very long. Starters tend to play for less than a quarter in most preseason games.

During most of each preseason game, the players on the field whose names you may not recognize are playing for jobs. This is because the number of players an NFL team is allowed to “carry” or have on their team shrinks dramatically at the end of the preseason. During the preseason, teams are allowed to carry 90 players. At the start of the regular season, this number drops to 53. Although there are still some ways for teams to hold on to players and for players to hold on to jobs beyond the 53 during the season, making the 53-player roster is a big deal.

Preseason games are the highest stakes moment in a very high stakes tryout for players who are right on the edge of making it or not in the NFL. Make it, and you and your family stands to gain a lot financially (as long as you stay healthy and productive). Miss it and your path to a career as a professional football player takes a major hit. If you’re interested in what that is like, Charles Siebert wrote an amazing article in the New York Times about a linebacker trying to make the Atlanta Falcons.

While their players are concerned with making the team, coaches are equally focused on choosing the right 53 players to start the season with. While a decision about whether to hire one backup right guard or another may not seem like a big deal to outside observers, NFL coaches famously focused on details. They have to be because there are a very limited number of jobs available for head coaches (32) and it’s a lot easier for teams to fire a coach when things aren’t going well than it is to trade star players.

Preseason games also seem like a good time for coaches to try out new tactics to see if they are going to work in the regular season. While I’m sure that coaches do this a bit on the margins, on the whole they tend not to. They are aware of how closely examined everything they do will be by their competitors and they don’t want to reveal any truly new innovations.

What sports could be shortened?

Dear Sports Fan,

My wife is a sports fan. I love sitcoms. My hobby takes 30 minutes to watch. Hers takes three hours, whether it’s football, basketball, hockey, baseball, or soccer. How is this fair? What sports could be shortened without making them less fun for sports fans?

Thanks,
Sam


Dear Sam,

You have a point – sports games are much longer on average than other forms of entertainment. As a sports fan, I find it hard to commit to watching a two hour movie, but I think nothing of sitting down to watch a three hour football game… or more than one! On its face, this behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why commit to three or six hours when you won’t commit to two? Do I really like sports that much more than movies? Probably not – instead, the difference can be explained by the intermittent nature of sports. The average football game famously only has eleven minutes of action spread out over those three hours. This is an exaggeration, but there are lots of times during a three hour game when a sports fan can safely leave the couch to get a snack or a beer or check their email or… I’ve even been known to read a book while watching a game! That said, you may be on to something. Sports games are long. Can any sports be shortened without losing the essence of their appeal? Would any actually become more exciting by being shortened? Let’s play out the hypothetical of cutting each of the five most popular sports in half and see what happens.

Soccer

Soccer is 90 minutes of running around without much happening. It seems ripe for disruption through abbreviation. The problem is, because there is so little scoring, shortening the game would pose a serious problem. Think there are too many ties now in soccer? Wait until games are only 45 minutes. It’s not just the length. Many soccer games don’t really “open up” until the 60 to 70 minute mark. This is when players start getting tired enough to make mistakes that allow the other team to get some legitimate scoring opportunities. If we are going to shorten soccer, we would at least have to require players to tire themselves out before they begin; say, run a 10k before the game starts.

Verdict: Not a good candidate. Soccer requires a long time for one team to win as it is.

Ice Hockey

Ice hockey doesn’t have soccer’s issue with excitement. Hockey is so exhausting to play that players don’t stay on the ice for more than 45 seconds to a minute at a time anyway. While they are on, they go like gang-busters! A 30 minute hockey game would be just as exciting as a 60 minute one. There are two issues with cutting hockey in half. First, the necessity of rotating players makes hockey a uniquely team-oriented sport. Cut the time in half, and you would definitely be able to get away with having only 3/4 or even 1/2 the number of players, which would harm this aspect of the game. Second, and more conclusively, hockey is one of the most random sports because goals are scored in such a chaotic way. A lot of the time, even watching in slow motion on a high definition television doesn’t help the viewer figure out how the puck went into the goal. The average game in 2016 had 5.45 goals scored. Just enough for the weirdness of the game to even out and the better teams to win most of the time. Cut the game in half, and the better team might not win most of the time. The weirdness could easily overpower the statistical significance of the sport.

Verdict: Ice hockey is just too random to be any shorter than it already is and still have the better team win most of the time.

Baseball

Baseball seems like a great candidate for cutting in half. At its heart, it is a series of one on one interactions anyway. Pitcher faces batter, repeat. Because of this, baseball is the sporting culture obsessed most with statistics. Any change to the game which affects the ability to compare contemporary players to players in the past is fiercely resisted. If that could be overcome, the next obstacle to consider would be the endurance of starting pitchers. A lot of baseball games are decided only when one team’s starting pitcher gets tired enough to make a mistake and the other team is able to start hitting their pitches. Over the past decade, baseball teams have adjusted to patch this vulnerability by substituting relief pitchers in for their starting pitcher earlier and earlier – before he even gets tired. So, in a way, cutting the game in half might create a throw-back to an earlier era, when starting pitchers were expected to pitch complete games. Hmm!

Verdict: It would never happen because of the rabid baseball traditionalists, but if it did, they might find themselves oddly pleased.

Football

Why not football? Football is facing a looming crisis anyway. The brutality of the sport and our new understanding of traumatic brain injuries has already forced a number of changes and promises to force many more, or perhaps end the sport entirely. I’ve thought and written a lot about this issue and my conclusion was that NFL football rosters should be reduced from 53 to 20. This would reduce the specialization of football players that allows for 350+ pound men and 180 pound men who run 20+ miles an hour to coexist on the same field. It would also make it impossible for players to “give 110%” on every play. Slow everyone down, encourage everyone to have bodies optimized for endurance over speed and strength, and maybe players will have the split second they need to avoid calamitous collisions. Cutting the game in half is exactly the opposite of this! It would make every play more important and encourage everyone to play even harder on every play. No way!

Verdict: Not a good idea for players’ long term or short term health.

Basketball

Like football, basketball is played harder than ever these days. If you look at film from the 1980s and compare it to now, it’s radically different. Players in the 1980s were not expected to cover nearly as much ground as they do today. The dominance of the three point shot today means that players need to play high intensity defense in parts of the court that they used to simply allow an opponent to dribble in without being contested. This difference showed up in the playoffs last year, when teams built around a single great player, like James Harden on the Houston Rockets or Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, fell apart in the fourth quarter when their star got too tired to play effectively. This could be an argument against shortening the game — teams should have to be built in a more balanced way, not around a single player. Basketball is already the sport that is affected most by a single player. One player out of five on the court is more impactful than one out of eleven in soccer, eleven (plus eleven, plus special teamers in football), or one out of nine in baseball. (Hockey has only six on the ice at a time, but because they can only play for a minute or so before they need a rest, the impact of a single player is proportionally smaller.) Basketball is the most star-oriented sport but its length, combined with the way it’s now played is getting in the way of the best players being able to play their best when it matters the most.

Verdict: Let’s do it!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why be part of a breakaway in the Tour de France?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do cyclists in the Tour de France bother going out on breakaways? They always get caught!! What is the point?

Thanks,
Lester


Dear Lester,

It’s one of the most common and most heartbreaking sights of the Tour de France — a small group of riders, or even a single rider, have led the race for fifty miles or more, over mountains and through valleys, across bridges and through forests. Then, with the finish line metaphorically or sometimes even literally in sight, they are caught by the big pack of riders called the peloton. How does the peloton always seem to catch them at just the right time? Why can they go faster than the breakaway? And, as you put it, why bother going out on breakaways if you’re always going to get caught?

First they physics of it —  the peloton is always able to go faster than a single rider or small group of riders because they have more riders to rotate through the painful position of being at the head of the pack. The person in front “breaks the wind” for all the riders behind them. This is an exhausting position, and even the superhuman (implication intended) athletes of the Tour de France can only do it at full effort for so long. In a solo breakaway, a rider must always fight the wind, in a small breakaway, even when the riders cooperate, each person’s share of the effort is bigger than in the peloton. Race radios, allowing team coaches to communicate with the riders on the course, help the peloton time its effort so that it catches the breakaway at just the right moment.

Luckily for viewers of the Tour, there are still a bunch of legitimate reasons for cyclists to go out on breakaways. A tour with nothing but a single pack of riders would make for boring viewing!

Like in many European sports, there is more than just one prize to shoot for in the Tour. Aside from the yellow jersey, which goes to the rider that completes the stage and eventually the race in the least amount of time, there are two other cumulative jerseys to race for. The green jersey goes to the best sprinter in the race and the red polka-dot jersey on a white background goes to the King of the Mountains. In order to win either of these jerseys (and the money that comes along with the prestige) you have to accrue the largest number of mountain or sprint points during the tour. Although many of the biggest sprints (and a few of the biggest mountain summits) are at the end of stages, most of them are intermediate or during the race. A rider in a breakaway has a good shot at winning an intermediate sprint or being the first over a summit. This helps if they are in contention for the green jersey or the King of the Mountain competition or it can help a teammate of theirs if it denies someone on another team those points. And, these intermediate sprints and summits come with cash prizes.

A third, less visible secondary prize may even be more directly affected by participating in a valiant but eventually unsuccessful breakaway — the Combativity Award. Unlike all the other competitions we’ve discussed before, this award is subjective. A panel of judges watches and votes on the rider for each stage and for the tour as a whole (the one for the tour as a whole is called the “super-combativity award… I’m guessing there may be some slight transliteration issues here…) who is most aggressive. Although this award does not come with a jersey, it does come with cash and some amount of notice in the cycling world.

If you’ve been watching the Tour, you no doubt noticed that each rider wears a jersey with their team’s sponsor emblazoned all over it. The brand name of the sponsor IS the team name. It’s not the “Amazon Bowstrings,” it’s just “Amazon.” Although this may feel foreign to American sports fans who quiver just at the thought of putting an advertisement on their favorite team’s jersey, it’s an integral part of cycling. A rider who can make it into a small group at the head of the race and stay there for three or four hours has successfully captured free advertising for their sponsor for the same amount of time on television. And that rider knows the team sponsor will notice it and remember when the time comes to renew contracts.

So far we’ve been describing only rationales for taking part in a breakaway that don’t have to do with winning the race, either that day or the whole tour. Well, here’s a tactical reason that does have to do with winning. A team that has a rider in contention for winning the whole race (called general classification or GC) may sometimes want to hide one or two of that rider’s teammates in a doomed breakaway. That way, if the GC rider feels like they have an edge on some of their GC competitors and is able to break away from the peleton, they will have teammates ahead of them who can fall back and help their GC teammate extend his lead over the other GC riders.

If all of these reasons are still not good enough, there is this: sometimes it does work. Sometimes the peloton, even with the advantage of physics and race radios, mis-times their charge and can’t catch up in time. Or, sometimes the team tacticians may decide it’s simply not worth expending the energy to catch the breakaway. Cycling is a relatively predictable sport after the first five to ten riders. If no one in the breakaway group is in the top ten, they probably pose no threat to the GC riders who feel they have a chance at winning the whole race. So, those GC riders and their teams may decide it’s more important to save their energy or try to make a late move on another GC rider than to organize the peloton for a long chase.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer