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Game Theory

As a new baseball season gets underway, six of the game's most cockamamie pieces of "conventional wisdom" are thrown out at the plate.

Author Adam K. Raymond Illustration John Cuneo


BASEBALL TENDS TO grab people early in life, before its absurdities have a chance to reveal themselves. To a young fan, the game is about hitting a ball with a big stick, throwing that ball as far as possible and diving in the grass to catch it.

But as we get pulled deeper into the vortex of fandom, toward the all-consuming fantasy leagues and $115 tickets, the simplicity fades. We learn the intricacies of the game, such as how a cut fastball is different from a slider and why old-timers refer to lazy pop flies as cans o’ corn. We learn strategy, such as the proper time to double steal and where to position the left-fielder when Albert Pujols comes to the plate (in the bleachers). This is only scratching the surface; the mysteries of salary arbitration and oversize polyurethane foam fingers take many more years and a relationship-threatening level of obsession to grasp. But there is one important lesson that most fans never learn, something the people running teams picked up (or at least should have) while they were clubhouse interns: Everything they think they know about baseball is wrong. In the service of ending this mass miseducation, let us dispel six of baseball’s most widely held myths.

MYTH: THE BEST PITCHERS WIN THE MOST GAMES.

REALITY: This myth has the benefit of making perfect sense. Baseball is about winning games, so a pitcher’s wins column should be the ultimate judge of greatness, right? Not exactly. The rules for notching a win make less sense than Yogi Berra does. All a pitcher has to do is leave the game with his team in the lead and he is eligible for the win. That means a pitcher who throws a baseball the way a baby flings peas can give up 10 runs and still come out the winner, as long as his team has scored 11 by the time he’s dragged off the mound. That’s what happened to former Met Steve Trachsel for the entire 2006 season. The soft-tossing righty had 15 wins that year despite giving up almost five runs a game, which is usually bad enough to earn a bus ticket to Buffalo. Instead, he was rewarded with a new contract that paid him $3 million for another year’s work.

At the other extreme, a dominant pitcher can toss a two-hitter and still get stuck with the loss if his team puts up a goose egg. The win is clearly a team statistic that unfairly rewards or punishes the pitcher. Not that Trachsel minds.

MYTH: THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN THE STRIKEOUT IS THE PLAGUE.

REALITY: Strikeout haters tend to write off players who frequently swing and miss. Bad move! Some of the game’s best sluggers (Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard) are also its most strikeout prone (and, coincidentally, its biggest). Studies show that a high strikeout rate is correlated with an ability to hit for power and get on base. That isn’t to say strikeouts make a player better, but they certainly don’t make him worse.

Still, there’s no quicker way for a young player to make enemies than with strikeouts. Coaches hate them, fans hate them, peanut vendors hate them. The strikeout is widely considered the worst way for a batter to fail and the easiest way to disappoint a small town (remember Casey?). But the strikeout is really no different from any other out. Some will argue that a groundout is better because it could move a runner to the next base or result in an error. But the potential benefit of a grounder is canceled out by the increased chance of the only thing that elicits louder groans than a strikeout: a double play. Strikeouts also require pitchers to throw at least three pitches, and the more pitches thrown by the starting pitcher, the sooner his manager will have to rely on middle relievers, those schlubs masquerading as major leaguers.

MYTH: THE BEST SLUGGERS HAVE THE MOST RUNS BATTED IN (RBIS).

REALITY: Uh-uh. Skepticism of the RBI dates back to the moment the stat was introduced by a Buffalo, New York, newspaper in 1879. In recent years, more baseball insiders have begun to see the uselessness of the RBI, but the majority still loves its “ribeye steaks” (really, people call them that).

Truth is, measuring a hitter by his RBIs is like measuring your health by the size of your spare tire. Sure, it will give you a decent idea of where you stand, but there are far more advanced metrics. The problem with RBIs is that they are almost completely dependent on a batter’s place in the lineup and the players who hit before him. Just look at Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter’s 1997 season. He recorded 102 RBIs despite hitting like a JV shortstop. Compare that to Barry Bonds’ 2003 season on an abysmal Giants team, which saw him record only 90 RBIs even though he hit 45 home runs and won the National League MVP. Sure, it’s hard to feel sympathetic for someone mired in such a dark cloud of steroid allegations, but 90 RBIs with the numbers Bonds put up is punishment no one deserves.

MYTH: SOMETIMES BUNTING IS A GOOD MOVE.

REALITY: Along with the knuckleball and Bob Uecker, the bunt is one of the most misunderstood phenomena in baseball. Typically, when a batter bunts, his goal is to move the runner to the next base while conceding the out at first. It’s a trade-off. A sacrifice. An out for a base. The idea is that if a runner advances a base it will increase the team’s chance of scoring. The idea is wrong. Statistical analysis shows that the out lost is more valuable than the base gained. Even the Washington Nationals are more likely to score when the batter goes for the hit, and those guys sometimes forget to use bats altogeher.

But what if a player is more teddy bear than Teddy Ballgame? He would probably help the team more by bunting than aimlessly flailing away, right? Well, maybe. But instead of having these inept batters lay down a bunt, perhaps someone should lock them inside a batting cage until they’re able to do what tens of thousands of high school kids across the country can do—hit a baseball.

MYTH: MANAGERS LOOK FANTASTIC IN BASEBALL UNIFORMS.

REALITY: Some managers look like swollen jelly beans in baseball uniforms. But don’t blame them. They have no choice. Major League Baseball strictly enforces the managers-must-wear-uniforms rule, going as far as sending officials into the dugout to make sure they’re in compliance.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1920s and 1930s gentlemen such as Connie Mack wore suits in the dugout. But by the late ’40s all managers had traded in slacks and fedoras for stretchy pants and baseball caps, and—70 years later—the style persists. A few incorrigable sorts, most notably Boston’s Terry Francona, have pushed the boundaries by wearing windbreakers rather than a uniform top. This qualifies as rebellion.

Coaches in other sports have gone further. In 2005 former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan petitioned the NFL to bend the rules so he could wear a suit, rather than the Reebok-branded garb required. His request was granted.

Baseball needs a Mike Nolan—a trailblazing manager who demands the right to look like an adult. This would make the game see that forcing 60-year-old men who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to wear pajamas to work is both cruel and unusual.

MYTH: CRACKER JACKS ARE BETTER THAN PEANUTS.

REALITY: Never trust a snack that doesn’t come in a shell.

Like a baseball manager, senior editor ADAM K. RAYMOND wears stretchy pants to work.

ON STRIKE

Even the greats swing and miss.

Those still convinced that strikeouts are a scourge may not have met a gentleman named Reggie Jackson. He sure struck out a lot, but he also found time to do some positive things at the plate.

2,597
STRIKEOUTS (MOST ALL TIME)

563
HOME RUNS

5
WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIPS

2
WORLD SERIES MVP’S

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