A Letter to Frank Deford: Baseball's Length is Its Gift
Dear Mr. Deford,
Last week, you wrote an article for SI.com lamenting what you described as the "stultifying sluggishness" that is presently plaguing Major League Baseball. The article bemoaned the "dreadful strategy" of hitters allowing themselves to see as many pitches as possible in order to tire out the pitcher.
You seem to see this as one tactic among many from which teams can choose, a gameplan just like using the hit-and-run or a zone blitz. However, this "virus" that is pushing the game to average lengths nearing three hours is not as quite as simple as a belt-high fastball or a pop-fly to the pitcher.
To be clear, baseball has never been about time. There is nothing in major professional American team sports that rivals the inning, a yardstick that measures the progress of the game by action rather than duration. It's not like the game has undergone a radical rule change like the introduction of the three-point shot or the forward pass.
Working the count, rather, is the logical progression of human thinking that has been years in the making. In the days of Franklin P. Adams, who is mentioned in your article, starting pitchers regularly threw over 300 innings in a season, meaning that complete games were far more common than they are today.
For batters, it made sense to swing more often at that time, particularly later in the game, because pitchers who were still pitching after six innings would be at a huge disadvantage.
Having already faced a team's lineup twice, hurlers would be physically tired, thereby making them more likely to throw pitches that missed the strike zone. If batters wanted to get on base, they had to swing at a fastball that was too far inside or outside to be called a strike, or they could wait for a breaking ball that (lucky for them) saw way too much of the plate.
Or, heaven forbid, they could wait for a good pitch and stay still if one never came. Most of the time, they swung because, as Bob Klapisch points out , they had to: if they didn't, the game would extend beyond the regular nine innings and (presumably) they would not be able to finish before it was too dark to see the ball.
In the last 30 years, the only pitchers to even approach the 300-inning mark (for one season each, mind you) were Bert Blyleven (1985) and Jack Morris (1983) . The reason for that, whether you agree with it or not, is the medical concern that overworking pitchers would cause them to wear out more quickly, and signing new arms every few years would be substantially more expensive than retaining one arm for the long haul.
Enter the pitch count, sworn enemy of young pitchers' mental development and aggressive hitters everywhere. Armed with the idea that throwing their aces for too long would be detrimental to their performance, managers at every level have begun yanking their pitchers after a certain number of pitches thrown, often with little regard for the game situation in which the move is made.
For disciplined batters, knowing that the man on the hill is on a pitch count is a tantalizing prospect: they realize that if they can force the starter to throw a lot of pitches in a short time, there is a better chance that they will have more at-bats against a relief pitcher who is not as skilled at getting them out.
So, they watch, and they judge, and they swing if forced by the count or if lured into doing so by a floating meatball. But the ultimate goal is to wear down the opposition, just like a football team pounding run after up-the-middle run to keep the defense on the field.
The difference between the two is that batters have no game clock and can therefore hold out for as long as they are able. With many games now played under artificial lighting, they can mark time all day and all night if that's what it takes to win. A good bullpen, then, becomes the great equalizer for managers whose pitchers are lacking in stamina, having an off night, or limited by the pitch count.
To attack the practice of working the count ignores the evolution of baseball itself. The Klapisch article mentions that the Yankees saw more pitches than any other team in the American League last season, and sticking to that strategy earned them some valuable dividends, namely a world championship.
If you want to fault the Yankees and Red Sox for lollygagging in the batter's box, that's alright, because according to The Hardball Times, they do .
However, it should be said that the growing length of a baseball game is not a deal-breaker in terms of whether or not a baseball fan will watch a game, especially a die-hard Boston or New York fan who will fawn over their team and soak in all the ridiculous instances in which their favorite players take obscene license with the time allowed by the umpires.
Admonishing the umpires and MLB officials to enforce time limits between pitches, in warm-ups and within at-bats is one thing, but blaming teams for using a strategy that has proven itself to be successful is wrong.
You're right in saying that baseball enjoys a sense of intellectual suspense that just isn't possible with timed sporting events. Your irritation, however, is misdirected—rather than wag a finger at teams for taking too long because of their strategy, be upset with players who dawdle in their at-bats. In this case, it's OK to hate the player rather than the game.
Sincerely and respectfully,
This article was first posted to Springs on Sports . If you enjoyed what you read, feel free to check out the link to see more of the same.
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