Class Warfare Blog

October 30, 2019

WTF? (World Series Version)

Filed under: Sports — Steve Ruis @ 8:42 pm
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I have been listening to, watching, or following in the news the World Series of Major League Baseball (MLB) for about 65 years. Setting aside the misnomer of calling an American national tournament the “World” Series, there are basic views of these contests currently being shredded.

Most obviously, the concept of “home field advantage” is being ridiculed. The so-called home field advantage is that the team playing in their home stadium has an advantage. The advantage is substantial. The “home team” bats last and the team with the most runs after nine innings (five minimally but rain sometimes truncates games) wins. So, no matter what the visiting team does, the home team has “last licks” and a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If the home team is ahead after eight and a half innings, they don’t even have to play the bottom of the ninth inning; they just win.

In addition, the home team is more intimately aware of the quirks of their ball field (all MLB fields are unique and all have quirks for which there are lists of official “ground rules” that only apply at those stadia), players and coaches get to sleep and eat at home. The home team’s locker room is often quite lavish and the visiting team’s room is often a dump. And the home team isn’t jet-lagged from travel or getting kinked up from sleeping on poor beds or eating poor food or. . . .

The home field advantage is so substantial that teams struggle mightily to acquire it through the quality of their record. MLB, to great uproar, thought that giving the league that won the All-Star Game the home team status in that year’s World Series. Purists were outraged, that such a valuable thing, such as home field advantage, would be awarded based upon the outcome of an exhibition game, and not upon the records of the teams playing in the Series. The practice of alternating years between leagues to receive the advantage was considered more fair in assigning home field advantage, than that travesty.

So, explain to me why in this year’s World Series, between the Washington, D.C. Nationals and the Houston Astros, the home team has lost every game of the six played so far. WTF?

I can remember chatter between series announcers discussing what happened to the home field advantage as the series advanced. If the home team lost a game, the advantage switched to the other team as a majority of the remaining games were played on the other team’s field or at least those games were played first. The usual pattern was 2-3-2, although others were tried, with the team with the advantage getting the first two games and the last two games at their field. If the team with the advantage lost either of the first two games, then the other team could win the series (it takes four wins) at their home stadium by winning all of those “home” games. So, the minimal goal for the visiting team was to win one of the first two games and “steal” the home field advantage. If this were to happen the team which had lost the advantage then had a goal of winning at least one of the next games and “stealing” the advantage back. This was a tried and true discussion topic for every World Series I can remember . . . until lately.

So, when the Nationals beat the Astros on their field . . . twice to start the Series, some commenters said “This Series is over.” implying that their advantage was now too great to overcome. Then the Nationals lost all three of their home games. Amazing.

Currently there seems to be no discussion of home field advantage at all. I wonder what has changed. Have modern athletes with modern training and modern diets overcome this basic advantage? I don’t think so, statistics still show the better teams win more games “at home” than they do “on the road.” That is the basic manifestation of the home field advantage. If I had the energy I could do a study to see if home and away records of teams have changed much over the years.

This is one of the joys of baseball, that there are statistics available going back centuries. This is one of the pains of baseball, that there are statistics available going back centuries.

Thus ends my annual baseball post.


June 9, 2019

There Is Just One Way Out

Filed under: Sports — Steve Ruis @ 1:34 pm
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Welcome to the Sunday Baseball Sermon! It is baseball season and I just can’t help myself, but I will hold in my enthusiasm to just one or two posts.

A Crisis in Popularity
You are probably aware that baseball used to be called “America’s Pastime” because it was by far the most popular sport in the land. Not any more. In fact, baseball’s TV ratings have been dropping for a number of years now. A major problem identified by Major League Baseball (MLB) as a cause of this is that games are longer than ever before. I remember games in my youth which involved pitchers who worked fast and pitched the whole game that lasted an hour and a half. An average game back then involved two hours and a bit. Now an average game lasts almost four hours.

MLB is considering a number of innovations to deal with this. One is a pitch clock, with a restrictions on how many seconds a pitcher has to make a pitch. (Damned dawdling pitchers.) One is to require batters to stay in the batters box. (Damned hitters are stepping out after each pitch and fiddle with their batting gloves. ban the damned gloves!) Another involves extra inning games with one suggestion being to have each team be given a runner on second base in each half inning, to act as an icebreaker.

The problem with all of these “innovations” is that they disrupt the basic structure of the game. Baseball is an intellectual spectator sport tat has been around for over a century and there are records (oh, my there are records) that are discussed ad nauseum. I can wax poetic about all of the things going on defensively in any inning. There are nuances galore, like first basemen who chat up base runners in the hope that it will disrupt their concentration, and various forms of trash talk. There is a great deal of things to focus on between pitches, there are just too many damned pitches.

Here is What I Think has Happened
The bloated games we see today are a result of the number of pitches thrown, in effect the length of any game seems directly proportional to the number of pitches thrown. (Technically, if a pitcher through a single pitch to each batter that they hit a feeble popup or ground ball on, they could get the 27 outs need to make an ordinary game in just 27 pitches. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.) Batters are walking and striking out at unprecedented rates and walks and strikeouts require a great many pitches to be thrown. In the old days, pitchers threw the ball over the plate (or close enough) and if the batter didn’t swing at those pitches he would be “grabbing some pine” very quickly (baseball slang for returning to the bench, even though they are no longer made of wood). So, why don’t pitchers throw more strikes?

It all started to come apart with the Steroid Era. Granted the home run title competition between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 saved baseball from a self-imposed perdition (strikes/lockouts/lost seasons aka labor disputes) but we now know that many of these performers were performing under the influence of anabolic steroids, a performance enhance drug not banned by baseball but illegal to self-administer. No pitcher likes to see his pitches crushed out of the ball park, so pitchers got cautious and a number of them started taking steroids themselves. When this issue was eventually sleuthed out and dealt with there was a bit of a power vacuum for a while. Not as many home runs were being hit and not as many pitchers were “unhittable.”

The next phase involved “swing path” changes by the hitters. Seeing a salary premium placed upon power hitting, hitters did a few things. First they changed the angles of their swings to a more upward path. (We were taught in my youth to swing “level.”) The other part was to swing for the fences, no matter the situation. (We were taught to swing away, but when you got two strikes, you were to choke up on the bat and try to put the ball “in play.”) The problem with this approach was that swinging really hard all of the time resulted in more home runs, yes, but more swings and misses, too. So, strikeouts, which used to be problematic (too many of which shamed a batter) became more frequent. Home runs became more frequent, so pitchers became more cautious and walks, aka “bases on balls,” became more frequent, too.

Pitchers didn’t stand pat in the post Steroid Era, however, they actually upped the ante and threw harder. There are more pitchers now capable of throwing 100 mph pitches than ever before. But if you are going to throw that fast, accuracy suffers and walks increase again.

Managers wouldn’t be left out of this, either. Since every damned batter in the lineup was capable of hitting the ball out of the park, starting pitches got pulled earlier and earlier. The constraints are that a pitcher has to complete five innings to qualify as a winning pitcher (and few would want to play for a manager who would not allow them to win games by pulling them earlier in the games) and by about the sixth inning, pitchers will have pitched to each batter at least twice. (At three outs per inning, batters are guaranteed one “at bat” through the first three innings and two at bats through the sixth. But, the effectiveness of most pitchers dips significantly the “third time through the batting order,” so managers are inclined to forestall any problems by bringing in a new pitcher for the seventh inning. We now have specialist pitchers for the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, for Pete’s sake. (The first specialist “relief pitcher” was in 1948 if I remember right. Prior to that point, all pitchers were “starters,” and if one faltered, they were replaced by one of the others, one not scheduled to start for the next three days any way.)

Specialist relief pitchers have become beasts. Unlike starting pitchers who have to be able to throw pitches for five innings (more is better, of course). These relievers are out there for just one inning, and sometimes just for one batter. This means they can hump up and use all of their energy on just a few pitches. In the old days, pitchers got tired in the later innings and you might be able to “get to them” if you hadn’t before. Pitchers often threw 150-200 pitches in a game, but now when they hit the 100 pitch mark, the manager’s hook comes out and they are soon to exit the game. (Have I mentioned that pitching changes take time?)

So, what to do about this? There have been various “tweaks” made. When the pitchers got the upper hand in the 1960’s, they lowered the pitchers mound. They had “adjusted” the size of the strike zone a number of times, etc. These things worked, somewhat, but obviously not enough.

There is One Way out of this Mess, However

Deaden the ball.

If the ball was just a bit harder to hit far, there would be fewer home runs hit, pitchers would throw over the plate more, etc.

Now some purists will argue that it would change the game, invalidate records, etc. I remind them there is something in MLB called the “Dead Ball Era.” Baseballs were “livened up” considerably, thus changing the game and making Babe Ruth possible. Also, what about all of the records set in the Steroid Era? Are those valid?

I think deadening the baseball . . . just a bit . . . makes more sense than reducing the number of strikes need for a strike out to two (and balls for a walk to three) or having a pitch clock (Baseball is the only major sport with no game clock!), or requiring relief pitchers to throw to at least three batters, or any of the other “innovations” that have been proposed.

And . . . for those you who think I have beaten this subject to death, consider that the upper part of the strike zone had ceased being called for strikes, causing batters to become low ball hitters, which requires an upward swing path and . . . this is now bringing back the high strike. . . .  Oh, and did I mention how modern sports technology is helping batters and pitchers to do these things with video analysis, bat speed indicators, radar guns for pitchers, etc?

August 7, 2016

You’ve Been Waiting for This All Year …

Filed under: Sports,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 3:27 pm
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You know you want it!

All right boys and girls, we are into the second half of the baseball season and it is time for my annual rant regarding baseball. (I can hear the … delete, delete, deletes … and now that we are rid of those not interested, I continue.)

All the rage on TV broadcasts of baseball games are the graphic strike zones which claim to show where the ball was thrown on each pitch. There are a few problems with these graphics and I have already written about one (see “On Baseball from 4/24/2015 … that’s 24/4/2015 for you Euros out there).

Pitch Trax
Here is a screenshot showing the PitchTrax grid and the little balls that represent the places previous pitches passed near home plate.
The ball is about 3˝ in diameter and any part of it that intersects with the strike zone should be deemed a strike.

Here’s a definition of the strike zone:
Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone. The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.

And we must keep up with rule changes, so in 1996 the “Strike Zone” was expanded on the lower end, moving from the top of the knees to the bottom of the knees.

So if a ball is thrown by the pitcher from any angle (as long as he begins to throw with one foot touching the pitching rubber he can end up anywhere he can reach) if any part of the ball passes through the strike zone, it is supposed to be called a “strike.”

Now with regard to the grid in the little graphic, we have a problem. Home plate is 17 inches wide and hence so is the strike zone … for everybody, but the height of the zone varies with how tall the batter is. So, I decided to use my own body for an example. According to the written definition, my strike zone would be 17˝ wide and 30˝ high. This zone has an aspect ratio of 1.76 that is the height is 1.76 times larger than the width. I then took a plastic ruler and measured the little grids on my TV screen and this is what I got”

PitchTrax     1.35 : 1
tbStrike Zone     1.35 : 1

I must have got something wrong so I remeasured my own zone and it came out the same … and then I remembered that umpires don’t call balls and strikes according to the actual rule. The rule they follow is:
De facto Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone. The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is at the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the bottom of the knees.

This practice has made the major leagues a “low ball league.” So I measured myself according to this de facto rule and I came up with an aspect ratio of about 1.32 : 1 which is close enough to the little screen grid.

But this doesn’t  actually solve my problem. My problem is they use the same grid for a tall player that they do for a short one. Here are the aspect ratios for the strike zone (= height / width) for the tallest and shortest players:

Tallest (roughly 6´8˝)     1.41 : 1
Shortest (roughly 5´7˝)     1.18 : 1

Now those numbers don’t make a very visual difference, so here are the two grids to the same scale graphically:

Strike ZonesThe strike zone on the left would be the one to use for a 5´7˝ player and the one on the right for a 6´8˝ player.
Note they are of quite a difference in height (but same in width as that is determined by the width of home plate, not the batter)
as well as the one for the taller player starts off farther from the ground (estimated).

I do realize that it is perfectly possible to map any of those grids onto the “standard” one they use for every batter, but that doesn’t give an accurate sense of where the ball actually was to most viewers making it easier for them to be disgruntled.

Also, I still wonder about the technology. I was watch Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox pitch the other day and he is a left-hander who often throws side arm. This means the ball is coming from about three feet to the left of a line drawn outward from the center of the plate. The camera is set up in centerfield shooting over the shoulder of the pitcher (so the batter and catcher can be seen) but fairly high up and to the right. (I am guessing it is to the right because most pitchers are right-handed.) So, Mr. Sale throws one of his wicked sliders which curves from left-to-right as well as travels over 90 mph and the “strike tracking software” throws up a ball symbol exactly where the catcher caught the ball, which was just off the grid. The pitch was called a strike, correctly so, for the pitch to land in the catcher’s glove … three feet beyond the plate on the outside edge of the grid it must have traveled through the grid up near home plate. The announcers reacted that the umpire had given the pitcher a gift by calling a pitch that was outside of the strike zone a strike … based upon a glance at the tbStrike Zone. Why the position of the ball symbol on the grid matched the position of the catchers mitt, which was physically impossible for the ball to do unless it started to curve back to the left when it reached the plate is puzzling.

I do not trust the accuracy of these gizmos and for all I know they could have an intern with a light pen watching a TV screen and then touching the grid on a tablet with a light pen, rather than the complicated radar systems they say they have.

I would prefer that they explain their technology better especially why the grid is the same for all players when the rules say each player has his own strike zone.




January 8, 2014

Baseball Sniffery

Filed under: Sports — Steve Ruis @ 10:45 am
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It is Baseball Hall of Fame time and there will be the usual stories, about worthy players who did not get in and unworthy players who did. The reason for this of course, is that there are no definitive standards for entry into the Hall of Fame. Many people do not even know that the Hall of Fame is not a part of Major League Baseball, but a private organization.

It is also an occasion to dust off the “case” of Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose accepted “permanent banishment” from MLB due to a betting scandal. The games that Mr. Rose bet on included even those of his own team, but there is no evidence that he ever bet against his own team (The investigator, Mr. Dowd, claimed “that he believed that Rose may have bet against the Reds while managing them.”) The point being that as the player-manager of the Reds, Mr. Rose would be in position to affect a game he bet on to lose but not in a position to win a game he bet on. Winning games is hard enough, but throwing a game is possible.

So, Mr. Rose has been denied his rightful position (having acquired more hits than any other player in history, etc.) among the pantheon of all-time greats due to his violation of a baseball rule “thou shalt not bet on games.” But his betting activities were discovered after Mr. Rose had retired, so MLB had no avenue to punish Mr. Rose for his peccadillo except to jigger a block to his entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame, with which it is not connected except by subject.

The solution is simple: Mr. Rose was ostensibly the Player-Manager of the Reds at the time of his betting, but his playing days were quite over. So, deny him entrance into the Hall as a manager, but allow him to come up on the ballot as a player. His credentials are as good as anyone who ever entered the Hall, so eventually the voters will do the right thing and allow him in. Actually, I have little faith in the voters because they make up their own rules, one of which is to punish those who violate the sanctity of the game, which surely has to be a joke as baseball’s history is replete with overt racism, murders, guns on the field, umpires being beaten, etc. Sanctity my ass. Baseball has always been a sport rough around the edges, like boxing and football, and if boxers and football players with criminal records can get into their shrines, why not Mr. Rose? At least he deserves a vote.

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