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Let’s change the rules

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Fun baseball strategies should also be the smart strategies, so let’s play with the rules until they overlap.

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Teams bunt too much. Bunting is, very often, a poor strategy; the player at the plate sacrifices their chance for an extra-base hit, and in exchange gets a slight chance of a single, a better chance of advancing a baserunner but getting out in the process, and a significance chance of total failure. The math just tends not to work out.

And yet we see a lot of bunts, even in situations where the math definitely doesn’t work out. In this modern era of smart front offices and coaches, people still bunt when it doesn’t make sense. There are a lot of possible explanations, but I’m here to proffer just one: it’s fun.

Bunting is fun! Fun to watch, probably fun to do, and also probably fun to field on the other side. It’s definitely fun as a non-professional – the little league teams that I was on spent a lot of time practicing bunting, and I have trouble believing that had any positive impact on our competitive abilities (which weren’t great to begin with) – and that probably carries over to the major leagues too.

Bunting is really, really fun. It’s a break from the normal rhythm of the game, with the batter sprinting for first and fielders out of position, and it has a high probability of errors and shenanigans. Maybe teams don’t overuse the bunt because they’re bad at strategy; maybe bunting is just too fun for them not to use.

In fact, I think the old-timers who talk about baseball being better back in the day have a real point. I love modern baseball, and I don’t think it’s in danger of dying, but I think there are more strikeouts than is ideal, and not enough shenanigans (a category which includes bunts, stolen bases, trick plays, and the like).

One of the best parts of the playoffs was watching Rajai Davis, and watching opposing teams watch Rajai Davis, knowing full well that he was running but being nearly powerless to stop it. That should happen more often.

This article is not about strategy, or at least not at the team level; I’m not saying that every team should try to develop a Rajai Davis, or that they should be bunting more often. This article is about making baseball more fun, by making the set of fun things to do and the set of smart things to do overlap more.

Aggressive baserunning is fun, and there’s less than there used to be. The fundamental calculus underlying baseball strategy – the rate at which certain actions yield certain results – has shifted, slowly but substantially, over the century or so that the modern game has existed. It’s only natural that, at some point during that century, baseball was at its peak entertainment and enjoyment levels, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t seek to return to that calculus, and bring baseball back to that point.

Let’s shorten the basepaths.

Currently, the distance from home to first is 90 feet, and from home to second, 127 feet and 3-3/8 inches. If we cut the distance between to 85 feet, the distance from home to second falls to 120 feet and 3 inches, a 5.6 percent decrease for both. The distance from home to the plate should stay the same, at 60 feet and 6 inches; this change would bring it closer to the actual center of the diamond.

Stealing bases and bunting become much more likely to succeed. We can express an attempted stolen base as an inequality: if (runner’s time to second) < (pitcher’s time to home + catcher’s pop time + catcher’s throw to second), the steal is successful. With 85-foot basepaths, the entire runner’s side of the equation falls by 5.6 percent, while only one aspect of the defense’s side of the equation (the catcher’s throw to second) falls. The same is basically true for bunting, and generally any kind of contact-oriented approach at the plate. Those fun moments I identified above have suddenly become a lot smarter as well. We’ve changed the calculus, and the game will change with it.

Of course, it’s possible this breaks baseball utterly; that the 90’/60’6” combination is the bat-and-ball equivalent of the golden ratio, and that any departure from it changes baseball so fundamentally that it can’t survive the shift, but there’s no reason to think that’s the case, as 90’ basepaths date back to 1857, when baseball wasn’t really baseball. The calculus was different then, and the competitive balancing different.

Still, this is not a change we should debut at the major league level. We have numerous minor and independent leagues that could surely try a few games this way. I’ve written in the past about how I love testing changes to the game at the lower levels (in that case, pitch clocks), and generally, taking a critical approach to what baseball is today. There are a lot of fun parts to baseball, and there are a good number of not-fun parts as well. Teams should be incentivized to do the former; that’s just good game design. Let’s shorten the basepaths for a few rookie-ball games, and if that doesn’t work, let’s try something else, and keep tinkering until baseball is better.

. . .

Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.