‘Every number is good’: Analytics helping speed up baseball
Robot umpires. A strike zone that looks more like a stop sign than a rectangle. Allowing the batter to take off for first base on any pitch, not just a dropped third strike.
With the new pitch clock speeding up the sport, baseball’s brain trust already is trying to figure out what might come next in its efforts to make games more exciting and keep them moving along.
And the people running the sport are using the same kind of number-crunching analytics that caused the problem to solve the problem.
“This is Phase One. There probably is more coming,” Major League Baseball executive vice president Morgan Sword said Friday at the MIT Sloan School Sports Analytics Conference. “But with every single one of these things, we’ve always tried to (ask): ‘Is this a reasonable change that baseball fans are going to support, or are we veering toward something that’s not baseball any more?’
“It’s a very subjective skill,” Sword said. “There’s lots of things that would work that would just irritate people too much to make it worth it.”
The MIT conference began in 2007 as a small gathering of stat nerds who believed they had found a better way to measure everything from free agent signings to when to go for it on fourth down. It’s now a 2,200-person conclave that fills a downtown convention center with powerful people.
Over the years, some of the strategies the statisticians came up with to help a team win also changed the nature of games. In basketball, that meant players attempting 3-pointers at unprecedented rate; in baseball, it led to a game that has gotten longer and more boring.
The average time of a nine-inning game has stretched from 2 hours, 30 minutes in the mid-1950s to 2:46 in 1989 and 3:10 in 2021.
Statistics pioneer Bill James said “it’s past time” for those running the national pastime to fight back. And he praised them for using the nerds’ own numbers to do it.
“In a sense, the game is a war between the front offices, who are trying to figure out a way to make the game slow and boring, and (league officials) who are trying to figure out a way to make it fast and exciting,” he said.
“We have some very intelligent adversaries in that war,” Sword replied.
Sword said the commissioner’s office worked backward from surveys that showed fans want more action and less time waiting for events to happen. MLB tested dozens of possible solutions in the minor leagues during the past two years and some proved impractical.
“Many of them wound up on the cutting room floor,” he said.
Future changes would be designed to increase batting averages and cut down on strikeouts that reached a historic high in 2021: The majors are whiffing at a rate higher than batters facing Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
“We’re rushing to get stuff done that should have been done 30 years ago,” James said on the conference’s baseball rules panel. “And let’s get on with it.”
Moving fences back would increase batting averages, but it would be expensive and in some ballparks impractical. James mentioned that short home runs down the line used to be a double; that one is also unlikely to be brought back. Changes in equipment and playing surfaces have also been discussed.
Sword said he wants the dropped third strike rule extended to all pitches, but conceded: “Nobody likes that except for me.”
James also suggested “adding sides” to the current rectangular strike zone to exclude hard-to-hit pitches at the corners. Most umpires are already adjusting for this, unofficially and perhaps unintentionally.
It would be possible to implement with the automated umpires being used in Triple-A this season. The robo-umps could be in the majors as early as next season, but Sword said “all the strike zones we are testing are rectangular.”
The solutions that did stick came in three categories: Rules to speed up the game, most notably a timer that limits the wait between pitches; restrictions on defensive shifting; and bigger bases, to make it slightly easier to steal bases.
“Maybe I would have stolen six bases instead of five,” said Raúl Ibañez, who actually stole 50 bases in a major league career with five teams that stretched over 19 seasons and is now a baseball VP.
The results after almost a week of spring training: Game times are down about 24 minutes from last year’s Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. Violations in which the umpire awards an automatic ball or strike are being called at a rate of 1.63 per game, compared to 1.7 when it was tested in the minor leagues last year.
Once minor league players adjusted, there was a call about every other game, Sword said. That’s happening at spring training, too.
“Players are adapting right now,” Ibañez said. “We’re already seeing it in the data. At the major league level, these are the best athletes in the world, and they’re the most adaptable.”
New rules always create the possibility of unintended consequences.
That’s where the analytics come in.
Sword said the data from minor league tryouts — including A-B testing where they were used in some games but not others — gives baseball the confidence things won’t go awry.
“We knew with historic precision what was going to happen this spring in a way that we never would have in the old days,” Sword said, adding that batting averages and runs scored per game are also up. “Right now, every number is good.”
When the timer was used in the minor leagues, pitchers worried that rushing would cause more injuries; Sword said injuries were down. Ibañez said players told him they feel less worn down after the shorter games, a bonus that could add up after a 162-game season.
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