Baseball is as Boring as Watching Paint Dry?

March 16, 2011

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I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times over the years, in a variety of ways.  More than being merely a Rockies fan, I’m a proponent of the game itself.  I personally feel that people who only catch glimpses of the game every once and a while aren’t really getting the big picture.  For one thing, there are are between 250 and 300 plays in a baseball game.  Traditionally, we call these plays “pitches”.  Most of the pitches end innocently enough – with a foul ball, a called strike, or a weak ground ball to the second baseman.  But the game can also turn very quickly at any point.  A team’s down 1-0 in the seventh inning, bases are loaded, two outs.  If the batter makes an out, the opponent clings to a tentative lead.  If he hits a grand slam, his team has a pretty decisive lead.

There are also many games within the game itself.  Watch how a pitcher works a hitter to exploit weaknesses.  Will the manager pull the pitcher to take advantage of a better matchup (righty/lefty) or leave his ace in the game?  There’s a runner on first in the late innings of a tight game.  Do you bunt the guy over to second or let the hitter swing away?

Baseball is also a game that gives a team every opportunity to come back.  There is no clock – you’re allowed to make three outs in each innings, regardless of how long it takes.  You can rally from a 15-0 deficit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth – you simply need to keep getting hits.  The odds are stacked against you, but you still have a chance.  Let’s say you’re likewise getting clobbered in a football game – down 56-0 (roughly equivalent to a 15-0 baseball game) with a minute to go (roughly equivalent to 1/54 of a baseball game remaining).  Can you rally and win?  No.  You’d need to recover several onside kicks and then run an offensive play to score each time.  Each play eats up time, and there’s simply not enough time remaining.

An additional charm of baseball is the fact that there are still a lot of unknowns in baseball’s metrics.  Variations of the game date back as far as the mid 1700s, with the first game with a formal set of rules being played in 1846 (by comparison, James Naismith invented basketball in 1891).  Yet, 165 years after that 1846 game, much is unsettled.  Every few years, new theories abound on the best ways to measure performance.  For a while, OPS was the definitive offensive stat.  Now, wOBA is gaining steam.  And what about win shares?  How much control does a pitcher have over his ERA?  Defense is probably the biggest debate of all, with various methods to judge defensive effectiveness.

Heck, there is even a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) – a group of volunteers who pay for the privilege of doing research.

The, of course, is a daily aspect of the game.  162 games, spanning from late March through early October, with a post-season stretching into November.  There are no teams that get into the playoffs because of a few lucky bounces.  There may be teams that are fortunate to be in a relatively weak division, but they still prove their superiority over their divisional foes by facing them repeatedly throughout the season.  There are only a handful of off days for a team during the season – and they are staggered so that there are always at least a few games taking place on any given day.  For someone who loves a sport, what could be better than games every single day?

My only complaint is that the season is too short …

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

As we approach the 70th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio’s magical 56 game hitting streak in 1941, some have asked whether this record will ever be broken.  I’m confident in saying no.  Let’s run the numbers.

Let’s take your average run of the mill .400 hitter.  Nobody has hit .400 for a season since Ted Williams in that same year of 1941, but let’s set that aside for a moment.  Let’s also assume that the hitter gets 5 at bats in every game (that’s unreasonably high – only a few hitters approach 4.5, with most in the low 4s).  What are the odds of him getting a 56 game streak through random chance?

Well, the odds of getting at least one hit in any particular game is (1-(.6^5))  – more than 92%.  But raise that probably (.92224) to the power of 56 and we get just .01.  In an absolute best case scenario, there’s a 1% chance of this happening to that particular player in any random 56 game stretch.  Drop the at bats to 4 per game, and there’s 1 chance in 2375.  Make the batting average a more realistic .300 and the chances are 1 in 28863 with 5 at bats per game and 1 in 4,760,352 with 4.

Then, of course, you must realize that the opposing pitcher has some control.  Let’s say a guy has a 50 game hitting streak, and he’s facing the Yankees (DiMaggio’s own team).  The pitchers can’t simply walk him every time up.  That wouldn’t break the streak, as by rule a player must have an official at bat (walks are plate appearances, but not at bats) for a streak to be broken.  However, the pitchers COULD walk him after he had recorded an out in his first at bat (even a .400 hitter will make out out 60% of the time).

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Evan
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 14:30:32

    I’m a lover of baseball, but I can see how it would be boring to someone who doesn’t appreciate the intricacies. That being said, even a non-fan can get sucked in by playoff baseball. The 2008 playoffs is what made my wife a fan.

    I’d love to see a hitting streak. I remember Pete Rose’s streak growing up. As it got further in, there was a number in the banner of the local paper every morning. Ah, the memories.


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