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Friday, August 31, 2018
A Radical Pitch to Save Baseball
A Radical Pitch to Save Baseball
A pair of academics offer a dramatic rule to increase competitiveness—and cut almost a half-hour from a nine-inning game
Two academics created a rule change they believe will make baseball a more exciting sport—and cut almost a half-hour out of a nine-inning game. Photo: winslow townson/Reuters
Aug. 29, 2018 1:09 p.m. ET
This has been the summer of throwing rocks at baseball.
Baseball is too long. It’s too slow. There are too many noncompetitive teams. The Baltimore Orioles are going to lose 2,000 games.
Baseball’s trying. It’s tinkering with breaks between innings and rules on intentional walks and pitcher’s mound visits, but it doesn’t feel like enough. It’s like waiting for your great-great-grandpa to put on his socks, shoes and suspenders.
In the meantime, fears are growing that the game is losing relevance.
Is it time for a radical proposal? Two academics—one a game theorist affiliated with New York University, the other a computer scientist—think so. They created a rule change they believe will make baseball a more exciting sport—and cut almost a half-hour out of a nine-inning game.
It’s called the Catch-Up Rule, and it’s the work of NYU game theorist and professor Steven J. Brams and computer scientist Aaron Isaksen. It’s pretty wild stuff, and I need you to keep an open mind. Let’s really think about it. No croaking at me like you’re a frog on a lily pad.
Here’s the deal. The Catch-Up Rule is actually fairly simple. When
the game is 0-0 or tied, baseball is played exactly as it is today—three outs per side. But when the at-bat club has or takes a lead, it gets two outs instead of three.
For example: Your team is in a scoreless contest. Then your slugger hits a home run to go up 1-0. Now your inning ends at two outs. Not three. As long as you keep a lead, your at-bat innings are two outs.
That’s it. Tie game, three outs a side. Get the lead, play with two outs. If you take the lead with two outs, the lead stays, but the inning ends.
I know: it’s simple, but jarring. I don’t expect the old school types to like it. Baseball isn’t a sport accustomed to big changes. People still fight about the designated hitter, and that rule was introduced in the Middle Ages.
But the Catch-Up Rule offers everything baseball is asking for in 2018. Pace of play and competitive balance are the two biggest crises for the sport. Here’s a single, oddly basic innovation that addresses both.
This isn’t simply speculation. Isaksen, who now works in the private sector, took the Catch-Up Rule and applied it to more than 100,000 games over the last 50 years of baseball, both regular season and postseason games.
The results were eye-popping. Average margin of victory dropped from 3.21 runs to 2.15 runs—i.e., games got considerably more competitive. The Baseball Haves were not so advantaged over the Have-Nots.
Meanwhile, there was a dramatic reduction in the length of game. Because fewer outs are necessary, outs-per-nine-innings dropped from 52.5 to 45.9—a drop that Brams and Isaksen believe shaves 24 minutes off a nine-inning baseball game.
Twenty-four minutes! That’s, like, an entire episode of “Seinfeld.”
“We think this would be good for the league,” Brams said in a telephone interview the other day.
Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Billy McKinney, left, and third baseman Aledmys Diaz come up short as they try to catch a foul pop-up during a game against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. The Orioles won 12-5. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
This is what Brams does. The NYU Department of Politics professor is known for his work applying game theory to subjects like voting reform and fair division. With Alan Taylor, he came up with the “Brams-Taylor Procedure” of “envy-free” cake cutting—i.e., the fairest way to divide a cake without humans mauling each other. The New Hampshire native has also turned his eye to numerous sports, from soccer to tennis to basketball.
With baseball and the Catch-Up Rule, Brams and Isaksen were hoping to improve in-game competitiveness. “We’re really talking about inhibiting blowout games,” Brams said.
The time cut, Brams said, was a happy side effect. They believe the Catch-Up Rule would accelerate the game more aggressively than anything baseball’s proposed—pitch clocks and so on. Ideas like seven-inning games can cut time, he said, but without the benefit of improving competitiveness.
I wondered: isn’t part of baseball’s pacing problem all the micromanaging, with relief pitcher changes and so on? Brams allowed that would likely continue, but “we think the micromanaging has gone about as far as it can these days…I don’t think it would have a major effect” on a game played under the Catch-Up Rule.
There could be other alterations to game strategy—a team with an advantage will want to quickly increase its advantage, since it’s playing with two outs. You will likely see fewer sacrifice bunts. (Journal baseball writer Jared Diamond predicts a team in a tied game may opt to walk in a runner with the bases loaded and two outs, rather than risk a bases-clearing hit.) But Brams and Isaksen maintain “the basic features of baseball are likely to stay the same.”
Brams knows he’s got an uphill battle to convince baseball’s gatekeepers. The aging pastime tends to be a stubborn enterprise.
“We’ve got a difficult task in convincing minds,” he said. “I’m not sure that we will be successful, but I think it should be discussed.”
The Catch-Up Rule would offer less reason to take a nap during a baseball game. Photo: Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Could the Catch-Up Rule be interpreted as un-American? Are people going to be OK with penalizing a team for taking a lead? Powerhouse clubs are probably not going to like this. We’re not a country accustomed to tapping the brakes on those with an advantage.
“Winning will still matter,” Brams said. “Competition matters, too.”
So what about it, baseball? No one’s expecting you to implement the Catch -Up Rule for the 2018 World Series. But what about in winter league play? Experiment a bit? Just to see if it works?
On Tuesday, the Orioles defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 12-5 before 11,762 people at Camden Yards.
Come on, baseball. Everything should be on the table.
More by Jason Gay
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com
Appeared in the August 30, 2018, print edition.