Rare footage of Edwin Jackson throwing a pitch. - Dilip Vishwanat
This year's MLB rule changes will turn broadcasters' least-favorite pitcher move into a balk. What baseball strategy most offends your aesthetic sensibilities?
Major League Baseball has finally given broadcasters something new to say about the fake-to-third-throw-to-first play: That it no longer exists. The move, which is ostensibly a pick-off play but has somehow morphed—as Craig Calcaterra notes—into the one useless baseball tic that inexplicably offends every announcer, will be made a balk in 2013, pending the approval of the players' union. This is going to make no difference to anybody outside the 90th baseball-watching percentile, but it's a nice, easy sop to us. And it feels like a good precedent: Baseball has targeted an unconscious, ugly thing pitchers and managers do, and eliminated it from the proceedings.
So long as this doesn't precipitate an unexpected increase in the times in which I have to stammeringly explain the balk to someone who thinks I know a lot about baseball, it's a good thing.
It's a good thing for the way baseball looks, which is what I'd like to talk about today. Ultimately, baseball is something we watch because it entertains us. The most effective way for the St. Louis Cardinals to entertain us is to win a lot of baseball games, but winning in a way that appeals to us aesthetically or philosophically or some-other-abverbly is what separates a 90-win team from a 90-win team we fall in love with. It's why Brendan Ryan had so much more slack here than Ryan Theriot. (Or undead Cesar Izturis, newly of the Cincinnati Jockettys.)
I think this is the subtext of a lot of arguments against the ill-defined idea of Moneyball: Guys who hit .240/.380/.500 and strike out 200 times are boring much more frequently than guys who hit .350/.380/.500, even if a strikeout is less damaging to run expectations than a ground-ball out. It's a completely reasonable thing to complain about—if you actually commit to knowing and caring about those run expectations in the first place.
So assuming we're all either in some general agreement about evaluating players' effectiveness or willing to ignore our differences for an afternoon—what are baseball's biggest aesthetic sins? What do you hate watching, whether it's effective or not?
Time-out from the batter's box
If Skip Schumaker and Nomar Garciaparra were found with giant Sam's Club boxes of steroids tomorrow (and I cared about that sort of thing) it would still only be the second-most egregious sin they'd committed against baseball and its long-suffering fans. Because I don't have to watch them take steroids.
Constant, compulsive batting glove adjustments, though? I have to see all of them. And every time it happens, the rest of the stadium is sprung into unnecessary action. The guys in the truck have to shift camera angles and look for fans doing goofy things; the fans have to do goofy things; Dan'n'Al have to use up their finite supply of dry patter, maybe even exhausting their monthly why-the-fake-to-third? allowance. It's baseball's built-in illustration of the glazier's fallacy.
This is the most obvious answer, so I apologize for taking it, but it's obvious for a reason: It accomplishes nothing and it makes baseball slower, baggier than it needs to be. If your kid were constantly adjusting and re-adjusting his batting gloves, you'd probably tape them closed or buy him some gawky elastic ones. If your dog were so devoted to a particular nervous gesture, your vet would probably recommend one of those giant head-cones.
If Skip Schumaker does it, we laugh uncomfortably and try to act like it's charming. Given baseball's recent TV-deal successes, I'm surprised this hasn't come up. Because it's hard to think of anything else that would so rapidly and simply make baseball more fun to watch.
The sacrifice bunt
I'm not going to give the internet another half-finished argument about how ineffective the sacrifice bunt is as a piece of baseball strategy—I'm talking here strictly about how it looks, because even if it were a useful way to score runs it would still be unwatchable.
Picture an uncomfortable hitter at home plate with a runner on first. The pitcher gets set, and here's our every-Mendoza's first aesthetic sin: He immediately prepares to bunt. Baseball's most suspenseful moment has now been collapsed into three outcomes: The ball misses his bat, the slow-rolling grounder he hits moves the runner over, or the slow-rolling grounder he hits doesn't move the runner over.
Unfortunately, the ball sometimes misses his bat. He steps out of the box to adjust his batting gloves, and we watch all of it again. He could strike out—thereby infuriating sabermetric and traditional fans in one flourish—or he could finally tap the ball into the dirt and begin jogging.
Here's what the viewers at home, who've probably been told just how important this moment is by their nearest dirty-uniformed-acquaintance, see: A player half-heartedly trying to reach first base, and a catcher making sure his footwork is right before throwing to first. The cameras don't even bother showing us the baserunner, and if everything goes right—if it's a perfect bunt—he'll be making the same jog to second anyway.
I'm not sure there's any rule change that can mitigate this one. As frustrating as the sacrifice is to me on a strategic level, I think I'm more interested in its extinction as someone who watches hundreds of hours of baseball every year.
Throw the baseball! Throw it already! The basebal! Just—you're going to pick the fastball anyway, with the, and—
Okay. A 3-2 count is workable. Runners on the corners. Just take the baseball, and—okay, like that, and now—