Why was Carl Yastrzemski wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes shirt?

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Stephanie


Dear Stephanie,

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

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

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

 

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Lora


Dear Lora,

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

The play is to first base

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

The play is to second base

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

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

The play is to third base

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

The play is to home plate

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

What’s the pattern or general rule?

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

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer and Al Murray

The best sports stories of the week 7.14.15

The themes for this week’s best sports stories are the widespread nature of sports and unintentional consequences. A blue musician grew up in Texas before professional baseball existed there, so he became a New York Yankees fan. Now he travels all around the country and roots for his team from afar… even in Boston. A man from Finland travels to the United States over a hundred years ago. Today, the version of baseball he created in Finland still thrives. A trend in naming soccer teams in America suggests emulating common European club team names but doesn’t take into account the history of those names. An international sporting event comes to a town obsessed more with government ethics than sports. Read all four of these pieces in your leisure time. You won’t be disappointed!

The Tainted History of the ‘Dynamo’ Team Name

by Michael Baumann for Grantland

This is a brilliant look into the history of soccer in Eastern Europe during the Cold War that leaves its readers wanting much more.

After ditching one offensive name, Houston stumbled onto something worse, either not knowing or not caring that “Dynamo” carries with it perhaps the darkest connotations of any team name in modern European soccer.

In a communist dictatorship, sports franchises obviously aren’t for-profit businesses the way they are under capitalism. Instead, the major soccer teams in Eastern Bloc countries were founded as club teams for various state-run entities. You’ll see repeated names throughout former Warsaw Pact countries: CSKA for the army, Lokomotiv for the transportation ministry, and Dynamo for the secret police.

In an Indifferent Toronto, the Pan-Am Games Land With a Thud

by Ian Austen for the New York Times

Did you know the Pan-Am games were happening right now? Did you know they were in Toronto? If you answered “no” to both questions, you’re not alone. Even many people in Toronto don’t know or don’t care.

In a country where even minor misuse of public money can be the stuff of scandal, some observers think the Toronto games never got over the black eye.

“For the general public, there has been an apathy which is being driven by a dissatisfaction with the management of the games,” said Cheri L. Bradish, who teaches sports marketing at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Making matters worse, officials have been issuing early and frequent warnings to adjust travel plans because of the expressway lane closings, resulting in apocalyptic news coverage.

“You can’t do that for weeks and then turn around and say: ‘It’s going to be great,’ ” Ms. Bradish said.

What Finland Can Teach America About Baseball

by Brian Costa for the Wall Street Journal

This article is worth reading for the sheer thrill of learning about a strange version of baseball whose evolution diverged from American baseball more than a hundred years ago. The fact that it’s hysterically written and includes video (video!!) of pesäpallo is a bonus.

And those are only some of the quirks of a game that includes a zigzag base path, a rectangular outfield, trios of designated hitters called jokers and managers whose primary mode of communication resembles the feathers of a peacock.

“If you dropped acid and decided to go make baseball, this is what you would end up with,” said Andy Johnson, a Minnesota Twins scout based in Norway.

Jarring as it might look, pesäpallo is no mere curiosity in Finland. It is considered the national sport, and has been known to elicit uncharacteristic displays of emotion from the famously stoic Finns. Clapping, for instance, and speaking.

Country Legend Steve Earle Talks Breakups, The Blues And Baseball

by Amelia Mason for The Artery

Why include an interview of a blues man from an art-focused part of a Boston-area NPR outlet? Well, for full disclosure, Mason is a friend of mine, but it certainly qualifies as a sports piece thanks to a series of long wandering comments about sports that the subject of the interview, Steve Earle (who you may know from The Wire) makes. 

I’ll never forget, the funniest thing, it was a light moment in a dark era, is I was leaving Boston—I was going through security at Logan [Airport]. My sister lived in Boston for years, she’s married to a guy from there, she lived in Weymouth for a long time. And I don’t remember whether it was business or if it was seeing my sister but it was after 9/11, and not long after 9/11, and they still had a city cop and a state cop and a National Guardsman standing at security at every checkpoint. And I was going through, and I pulled my computer out of the bag and I had a great big top hat Yankees sticker on it. And the sate trooper that was standing there looked at it and goes, “Aw, strip search this one.” And everybody, including me, busts out laughing. And at this point, this was probably in October or November, and one of the planes did leave from Logan, you know, so security was really tough and everybody was really afraid to joke about anything.

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

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Derek Blackman


Dear Derek,

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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

Dear Sports Fan,

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

Thanks,
Sharon

Dear Sharon,

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck and thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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