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The Perfect Score

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In which the author tries to decide what the best kind of baseball is.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, ladies and jellyspoons of VEB land. It is I, your newly-minted twice-a-week brainy baseball back door man, here to tickle your fancies with various and sundry bombs of knowledge. So sit back, grab a drink, relax. And let Aaron just work his magic.

Okay, properly creeped out yet? You should be. Would it help if I told you I'm not wearing pants as I write this? 'Cause I'm totally not. Just hanging out on a lazy Sunday morning, being at one with nature.

Actually, none of that is true. I have pants on; or, rather, I have on gym shorts I haven't yet changed out of after getting home from the gym, and I'm sort of using a shower and dry clothes as a bit of extra motivation for myself to get this column finished relatively on time. So I am a little gross at the moment, but clothed and definitely not leering at you from the bushes outside your window as you read this.

I'm also in a hurry this morning to try and finish this, and unfortunately am going to have to apologise ahead of time for the rushed and somewhat short post. I had planned on a big blowout sort of article for my first regular Sunday engagement, and actually had two separate topics I had considered using for the occasion. One of them is a huge research endeavour I've been working on for a couple months now on and off; it's just not done yet. The other topic is something I fairly recently started thinking about, but as of yet have not set pen to paper to put those thoughts into concrete form. I was planning on doing so yesterday, but ran into other obligations and simply didn't get the time.

So, long story short, I have a completely different topic this morning than what I had planned, and one that I basically just made up while writing the first couple sentences of this column. And for the record, yes, this is exactly how disorganised my efforts on this website almost always are.

I was listening to the Effectively Wild podcast yesterday afternoon, hosted by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller; it was the Friday edition of said podcast, and the topic was offense. Or, more specifically, the lack thereof in the game currently. The impetus for said discussion was the fact that offense is, through the very brief sampling of games we have to go on so far this year, down again, even compared to the positively anemic offensive numbers of last year. The further discussion was largely a question of, a) whether or not the topic of, "hey, have you seen how there are, like, no runs being scored?" is a worthwhile discussion, to which the answer was determined to be affirmative, for various reasons, and b) whether the decided lack of offense in the game is a real issue, and if more offense would be a good thing. Again, the answers were ultimately affirmative, though with the caveat that the current version of baseball is still baseball, and still better than the alternative, which is pretty much everything that isn't baseball.

What caught my attention most, though, was the question of the optimal level of offense. Both Sam and Ben agreed that the ideal would probably fall somewhere in between the offensive excess of the early aughts and today's run-starved pitcher's paradise, with Lindbergh going so far as to say, in reference to the fact offense has actually been declining since 2006 (which is much earlier than I realised, honestly), that, "At some point in the past ten years, baseball was perfect, and we probably didn't even notice it."

Which got me to thinking: exactly how many runs is the perfect number? Now, I wish I could say I have some sort of algorithm that takes into account optimal excitement levels, pacing, lead changes, and maybe spacing between scoring events that optimizes bathroom break efficiency and could make an objective argument, but I can't. But I have been thinking about the question since listening to the podcast, and I'm curious to know what this community thinks.

I had never really considered the problem from a runs-per-game angle before. However, I have long believed the Platonic ideal of a victory in baseball to be a 6-2 win. Why 6-2? Let me explain.

To me, a 6-2 victory is the absolute perfect version of a well-played, but repeatable, margin of victory. To beat an opponent 6-2, the team had to have played well on both sides of the ball, but not in an unsustainable way. Scoring six runs requires a team to hit the ball well, but it doesn't require a barrage of fifteen hits or multiple home runs. Likewise, holding an opponent to just two runs likely indicates the starter pitched into the seventh, completing the seventh inning a decent amount of the time. He gave up one or two runs. The relief work was solid, holding the opposition to one run, maybe none. You don't need a pitcher to have an historically great day to win 6-2, though; don't get me wrong, shutouts are exciting and tense and watching a pitcher twirl a gem at that level of mastery is a beautiful thing in baseball. Shutouts are rare, though. (Though less rare now than they used to be certainly.) You can't expect a pitcher to toss a shutout every time out; the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson, only shut his opponents out one out of every six times he took the mound. Allowing two or fewer runs over seven innings, though, is just a really good, solid day's work for a major league pitching staff. Sure, it doesn't happen every time out, but the kind of good day you can be completely unsurprised by looks something like two runs allowed.

Now, let me specify I'm not saying 6-2 games are the most exciting; close, tense games with multiple lead changes are probably the most exciting. But I'm talking about an ideal type of game here; there's nothing historic about a 6-2 win. It requires only a good performance in outplaying the opposition, but is a clear margin of victory all the same.

However, as to the original question, that of the ideal number of runs per game, I'm not sure if eight is the correct answer or not. It feels right -- or at least close to right -- but I can't be sure. Honestly, I feel like the ideal number is a little higher. Not much, but a little.

So, I'm thinking nine runs per game. Or maybe 8.5. As an average, of course; for the mean I might have to go nine. In a nine-run game, each side is likely to score somewhere between three and six runs, and all the scores in that range feel like good games, even the losses. Those 7-2 and 8-1 games are not going to be exciting or satisfying unless you're on the winning side, and even then you're losing some drama. But 6-3 and 5-4 games feel like something approaching the exact kind of baseball I want the most of. If nine runs were the most common outcome, I think I could be happy with that.

That distribution also means the average runs per game for teams would likely be in the neighbourhood of 4-5 runs per game, and that feels okay to me as well. Actually, that might feel a tiny bit low; perhaps the average should be closer to nine and a half. Hmm. I don't know. If the majority of teams are between four and five runs per game, that would put everyone in the 640-800 run range for a season. That cap of 800 feels a little restrictive.

Then again, the Angels led all of baseball last year with 4.77 runs per game, good for 773 total, and they felt like a very potent offense. But, they didn't feel like a really great offense, if that makes sense. So yeah, I think I'll have to go a little higher than 800 as a cap. Maybe 850. That would be just a little less than half a run more than the Angels managed last season, and that feels pretty good to me. In fact, that would put us right around 2010-2011 levels of offense, and I can't say I hate that.

I'm having a tough time coming up with a perfect number, obviously. Maybe I'll stick with the nine I posited earlier, particularly in terms of a mean outcome, if not an average. For reference, the average runs per game in the National League so far this season is a paltry 3.6; that puts us at a total runs per game of barely over seven. It's a bit higher in the AL, of course, with teams averaging 4.2 runs per game, which gets us pretty close to my personal ideal, though not quite there. One run more per contest, between both teams, that what we're seeing in the American League this year? Yes. I think that's where I want it.

Nine total runs per game, maybe a fraction more. I think that's my final answer for the ideal score. The ideal win will still always be 6-2, but if I'm trying to lay out what I want baseball to be in the macro, nine runs per game feels pretty good.

So what about you, good reader? More runs or less? Do you prefer the current run-starved environment and live for pitcher's duels? Or do you long for a return to baseball at the dawn of the millenium, when the teams at the top of the league regularly pushed over 900 runs (insert Dragonball joke here), and occasionally approached 1000?

I'll stop here; this has gone on far longer than I intended it to, and there's an early game today. In fact, today is a Carlos Day! So be happy.