Thursday, 10 December 2015

On Baseball, The Unsolvable Game

"In baseball, you don't know nothing," the inimitable Yogi Berra once said. And, like many of his famous malapropisms, that strikes at the very core of this game we love. Indeed, baseball is the ultimate conundrum wrapped in an enigma. We never know what's about to happen; we can't predict its future with any degree of certainty. It's somewhat unattainable, like a famous work of art. It's designed to frustrate and confound, beguile and mystify. It's the unsolvable game, the kryptonite of millions from innumerable generations. Baseball will never be totally mastered, which makes it an ideal font of escapism.

On the diamond, there are a set number of outcomes to every play. A batter can reach base or be retired in various ways. But, within that framework, chaos reigns, like a luxurious lottery, a crapshoot for elite athletes.

For instance, there is something satisfactorily grand and pleasingly anachronistic about a mammoth 162-game season being required to distinguish great from good, good from mediocre, mediocre from bad, and bad from terrible. In baseball, the margins between victory and defeat are so fine, the sheer unpredictability of outcomes so large, that teams are forced to play almost every single day from April to October for a worthy champion to be determined. On any single day, and in any individual week, a great team can struggle or a woeful team can succeed. Only after such an interminable campaign can the residue of luck be sufficiently subdued. 

Somewhat amazingly, fans buy tickets months in advance, when there is almost no way of telling what will happen. Sure, we know broadly which teams figure to be more competitive than others, and the various ballpark experiences are well documented, but when anybody wakes up and drives to the stadium, a world of unknown entertainment awaits. You could witness history as a no-hitter or perfect game is thrown. You could see the hometown nine walk-off in exciting style. You could experience a mesmeric pitching duel for the ages. Yet, conversely, you could also see a messy loss, or even have the entire game rained out. There is no way of knowing, because, to a large extent, the fate of any isolated baseball game lies in the hands of Lady Luck, with only slight influence and suggestion from the talent of those players involved. 

As the great Ted Williams once explained, "baseball is the only field of endeavour where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." Indeed, Williams came closer than any player in history to solving the unsolvable game; his .482 career on-base percentage the greatest of all-time. Thus, in 2,292 Major League games, even Teddy Ballgame, the finest hitter who ever lived, had a 52% fail rate, which exemplifies the dominion of luck over ability in baseball. Even the immortals had, at best, a tenuous grasp of the game, a capricious ability to master its nuances. 

When success 48% of the time constitutes genius, it's clear that the task at hand is marvellously bewitching. When the absolute best fail six times in every ten, there's something humbling and unspoiled about the subject matter. When the same riddle has perplexed millions of people for hundreds of years without being decoded, interest is piqued, minds are engaged, hearts are opened. Baseball quickly becomes an obsession, a lifelong quest for answers and understanding.

I'm totally besotted by this disparity between success and failure. In baseball, the dividing line may be thinner than in any other sport. The brightest superstars are able to engineer only a fraction of daylight between the two extremes, to wrestle a semblance of autonomy away from fickle fortune. 

Accordingly, Joe DiMaggio's remarkable 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in athletic history. In a game that induces chronic failure with ease, Joe managed to succeed for fifty-six consecutive days, a tremendous fest of skill and determination. A research paper by Don Chance of Harvard University once found that DiMaggio's streak was a 1-in-3,394 occurrence. Moreover, Chance concludes that the probability of a 56-game hitting streak coming from any of the top one hundred hitters of all-time was 1-in-22, and that, on average, the top fifty hitters ever had just a 1-in-124,341 chance of hitting safely in fifty-six straight games at any juncture of their career. 

Thus, it's easy to see how DiMaggio's record transcends baseball and reaches far beyond sport. What he did was more than collect a base hit every day for almost two months. More accurately, he upset the balance between success and failure more profoundly than any ballplayer before or since. In a game where opportunity is perpetually killed, Joe DiMaggio ripped a hole in the luck-time continuum. For fifty-six days, he hacked the system, seized control of sporting fate, and presided over the machinations of baseball like an omnipotent, omniscient being. People often call Joe DiMaggio a God, and in the wonderful summer of '41, that's exactly what he was, juggling the balls of baseball probability in his cool, commanding hands. For that, he deserves our eternal fascination.

It can be argued that, of all the people on a baseball field, only one really has true control over what happens: the pitcher. According to the old adage, great pitching always beats great hitting, and most occurrences of hitting success can be attributed to a hurler missing his location. However, if an ace put every pitch exactly where he wanted, with the movement and velocity he desired, the game would die. Averages would tumble and scoring would plummet, as pitchers painted the corners to perpetual success. That obviously isn't the case, nor has it ever been in the history of baseball, which endures largely because humans make mistakes. As Curt Schilling once said, "I was always in control of everything until I let the ball go." Without natural mistakes, there would be no Shot Heard Round the World, no Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson, no Tim Wakefield and Aaron Boone. There would be no baseball.

We're mesmerised by those rare occasions when a pitcher is flawless, when a perfect game is mixed into the frenetic chaos of baseball history. In June 2012, Andrew Mooney wrote a piece for Boston.com exploring the phenomenon, and he discovered that, at the start of any one big league game, an average pitcher facing a lineup of average hitters has a .000983 percent chance of throwing a perfect game, based on historical OBPs and averages. That roughly translates to one perfect game every 34 seasons.

Additionally, Mooney found the likelihood of four perfect games occurring in a four-year period to be 1.77-in-100,000. Thus, the general probability of perfect games is 1-in-56,497. Working with those numbers, Wendy Thurm of SB Nation subsequently calculated that an amateur golfer has more chance of striking a hole-in-one than a professional Major League pitcher does of hurling a perfect game. Therefore, is there any wonder why we're so engrossed by this whole baseball thing? The nuance is endless.

There's something deeply humanising about baseball, something sweetly debasing. For a slugger, who is a millionaire, but who fails routinely before 40,000 pairs of eyes. For an umpire, who misses a solitary strike and is admonished from the stands. And for the fan, who regularly sees his or her predictions, tethered to no solid fact, backfire spectacularly. 

As a human race, we're drawn to things that may never be completed or solved. Mystery and intrigue are the great refreshers of our daily experience. Baseball offers those elusive qualities, nourishing the soul. We can never have a complete understanding of the game, or how to succeed at it. Nonetheless, we still endeavour to find out more, to discover new paradigms and unearth new theories. In this regard, baseball fandom is fairly analogous with religion; the pursuit of an unseen, intangible dimension of understanding giving us meaning, occupation and identity.

Without doubt, people have tried to solve the equation and crack the code for over a hundred years. There have been thousands of attempts by equally as many people to build a winning ballclub, and we still don't know the formula, we're still not precisely sure what it takes. The old maxim that 'good pitching beats good hitting' is generally true, and has been a basic guide for owners and executives since 1900. However, in the modern era, postseason baseball is a crapshoot, and even the best pitching doesn't always succeed, as recently proved by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thus, we're still searching for answers to the largely unanswerable.

In many respects, Branch Rickey can be considered the godfather of this quest. A trailblazing executive, he ushered in a new era by inventing and honing the farm system in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Under his guidance, the Cardinals owned as many as forty minor league teams at one time, which gave them a huge pipeline of talent, protected by the reserve clause, which bound players to one team for their entire career, barring trade or release. Therefore, Rickey was also able to indoctrinate a certain style of play, The Cardinal Way, and create a culture that yielded nine pennants and six World Series titles between 1926 and 1946.

In 1965, Major League Baseball took a first step to regulating the minor leagues and restoring competitive balance by instituting the first-year player draft, which became a controlled chute into the professional game. The draft order was based on the won-loss record, with the weakest teams picking first. This eradicated attempts to monopolise the best young talent, and once again restored a certain nuance to the art of building winning rosters.

The demolition of the aforementioned reserve clause catalysed another chapter in the odyssey to snatch control away from the Gods. Prior to 1975, rosters were largely stocked with homegrown talent, plus rough gems spotted while barnstorming and guys acquired by occasional trades. Yet, with the dawn of free agency, that changed almost over night, to a situation where teams could suddenly spend their way to glory and tilt the balance of power like never before. Of course, George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees dominated this domain, signing superstars like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, cramming as much talent as possible onto the books and forging a critical mass that inevitable erupted into championships. Free agency gave teams greater freedom, and the richest organisations suddenly had a larger crumple zone in their increasingly audacious attempts at conquering the sport.

Once free agent spending spiralled out of control, and a great chasm developed between the big, medium and small-market teams, MLB conceived the luxury tax, designed to penalise front offices that spent too much. For instance, if the Yankees blew through the pre-determined salary ceiling, they would then be punished at 50% for every additional dollar spent. This made for a much more structured and disciplined environment, which naturally increased the difficulty of simply buying a championship ring.

Nonetheless, there was still a great disparity between the minnows and the giants, between the Athletics and the Yankees. For Billy Beane in Oakland, baseball wasn't only a highly unpredictable game, it was a grossly unfair one, played within the arena of luck, yet also on an uneven field skewed towards the elite. Faced with the daunting proposition of competing against New York and Boston with a fraction of their budget, Beane famously turned to Bill James' Sabrmetrics, the study and use of advacned analytics to find hidden value and market efficiencies. In essence, Beane's Moneyball philosophy was an attempt to decipher under-appreciated skill at a reasonable price, but also the most serious assault on the baseball vault we've seen in modern times. With the use of statistics and by looking at the problem from an entirely different angle, Beane came agonisingly close to cracking the code, before everybody caught up, imitated his vision, and restored the timeless equilibrium. 

Now, baseball is defined by the unending quest to find the next market inefficiency. Just as Beane prized on-base percentage while everybody else valued counting stats such as home runs and RBI, teams are now devoted to the idea of unearthing the next great difference-maker in the overall pursuit of baseball domination. The Pirates excavated pitch-framing, while many teams are currently working on a clearer understanding of injury prevention. These initiatives, these journeys into uncharted territory, are a major part of the overall tapestry to corral baseball and its slippery elusiveness.

Even now, what one team covets, another team may disregard, a concept present throughout the game's history. For instance, the 1990s Atlanta Braves were built around the tremendous pitching of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but only managed to win one World Series title in that era. Similarly, the Seattle Mariners were built around incredible lineups boasting, at different times, Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez, but they too failed to make an impression in October.

The great dynasties of baseball history, those teams that were able to upset the odds for consecutive years at a time, all seem to have one implacable, untouchable, ineffable quality that can't be measured or simply bought: team chemistry and cogent organisational culture. Think about the Red Sox teams of the 1910s; the Yankee teams from 1930-50; the 1940s Cardinals; the 1970s Reds and A's; and the millennium Yankees. In each case, there was a sense of brotherhood between twenty-five men who spent more time together than with their own families. There was a mutual sense of expectation, a guideline of style and effort laid down by the forebears in that tradition. Gehrig learnt from Ruth; Mantle watched DiMaggio. They explained how to comport oneself when representing that team. They set the precedent.

You see, beneath the numbers and money, the stats and contracts, baseball is a human game played by real men on a genuine field. It, just like all of us, is prone to whim and inconsistency. That's why we can never accurately know what will happen, just as we can't in everyday life.

Largely, Major League managers are tasked with putting out fires before they are lit. Throughout baseball history, field generals have tried to create their own style of play, but it can be argued that, at best, each only moved the needle three or four percent. Indeed, as the great Casey Stengel once said, "Most ballgames are lost, not won," which conjures images of Grady Little, who had the ability to lose his team the game by leaving Pedro Martinez in, but whose plan to help the Red Sox win extended little beyond sitting tight and hoping for a break.

Of course, managerial methods and playbooks have changed down the years, subtly in places, dramatically in others. In the early-20th century, when a ball was used until it was dark and soggy, strategy was absolutely crucial. In low-scoring games, the essence of baseball was different. Teams attempted to bunt, move runners, sacrifice, suicide squeeze, steal bases, and execute hit-and-run plays in an attempt to push runs across the board. Altruism, not egotism, was key, as Ty Cobb reigned with terror, contact hitting and ferocious speed. 

The Deadball Era was a product of its environment. Pitchers spat on the ball, scuffed it with sandpaper and long nails. Prior to 1901 in the National League and '03 in the American, every foul ball was a strike against the batter, making life immeasurably more difficult. And the stadiums! Boy, the stadiums were huge, like gaping canyons in the desert.

On thirteen occasions between 1900 and 1920, the league leader had fewer than ten home runs. Yet, by 1921, such profligacy ended almost as abruptly as it began. Scoring increased 40% and home runs soared by 400% as a livelier ball was introduced and certain pitches were outlawed following the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman. But the greatest contributing factor to baseball's changing landscape was the Colossus of Clout, the King of Crash, the Great Bambino: George Herman Ruth.

With his gluttonous swing for the fences and unprecedented strength, Babe Ruth changed the way baseball was played forever. After moving to the Yankees from Boston, Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, breaking his own record of 29 set the previous year. No American League team hit more during the entire season, and only the Phillies managed ten more in the Senior Circuit.

When Lou Gehrig came along, crashing balls into the deepest bowels of the new, palatial Yankee Stadium, a new ethos of baseball management was born: playing for the long ball. Naturally, the Bronx Bombers' style drew criticism from traditionalists, who thought Ruth was cheapening the strategic war of attrition that was pre-war baseball. There was Cobb and Wagner and Shoeless Joe sliding hard, moving runners, taking outrageous gambles just to painstakingly help their team one play at a time. Then, there was Ruth, rocking up to the plate, overweight and loquacious, pounding one five hundred feet into the distance. Many thought the home run surge invalidated the game's minutiae, so long cherished, and amounted to a thumbing of the nose towards the establishment.

Nonetheless, sluggers became an integral part of the game, and little advancement was made until the 1940s and 50s. Since then, a race has ensued to find efficiencies and, to a certain extent, reinvent the wheel, in an attempt to solve baseball. The Oriole Way stressed fundamentals; The Big Red Machine hustled to glory; and Charlie Finley's Swinging A's did just that, hitting balls out of parks around the league.

In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, such was the dominance of pitchers. It was clear that, somehow, moundsmen had titled the balance of control beyond a comfortable limit, so officials lowered the mound, perhaps artificially resorting balance to baseball's chaotic universe. 

The 1980s saw a huge increase in the specialisation of relief pitching, with the number of saves outstripping the number of complete games for the first time, as managers spied a new advantage. Tony La Russa led the way, introducing the one-inning save and, in some cases, the one-out lefty specialist. Again, this altered the distribution of dominance beyond the natural spread, until everybody else caught up and bullpen specialisation blended into the ever-unfurling portrait of a befuddling pastime.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the thirst for baseball autonomy and subsequent glory drove men to illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. Once more, baseball's organic order was artificially distorted, only for rigorous testing to be introduced, nixing yet another method by which cheaters sought a head-start.

All of these attempts to change the way baseball was played had fleeting success, but a definitive equation for guaranteeing World Series titles was never discovered, and likely will never be. At best, a player, manager of executive can create something new, which will be unique for a year or two if they're incredibly lucky. Baseball is a copy-cat industry, and others will adopt vogue concepts if they see their rivals enjoying success.

Of course, due to the game's wild unpredictability, glory is often capricious and unexpected. In 1991, for instance, the Minnesota Twins went from last place to winning the World Series. The Red Sox went from worst-to-first-to-worst between 2012 and 2014, sandwiching a championship between 93 and 91-loss seasons. Of course, a decade earlier, Boston authored the most shocking comeback in sports history, coming back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees, who were one win away from winning their seventh pennant in nine years.

The examples of inexplicable success are endless. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays not only went from cellar dwellers to pennant winners; they went from losing 90 or more games every season in club history to fighting for a World Series crown. To that point in their existence, the Rays had lost 97 games and finished 34 out of first place, on average, every year. Their best ever season produced just 70 wins, while the closest they ever came to first place was 18 games back. Thus, for Joe Maddon to coax a division flag from his $43 million, amid competition from the $209 million Yankees and $133 million Red Sox, was nothing short of miraculous.

In baseball, even money no longer guarantees glory. In 2015, the Dodgers spent $314 million on player payroll, a record for North American sports. However, despite spending at least $95 million more than any other team, Los Angeles only managed to reach the NLDS, before bowing out weakly. By comparison, the Mets spent $195 million less and won the pennant, while the Royals spent $189 million less and claimed the World Series. Moreover, in the past three years, the Dodgers have spent over $800 million in player salaries and won just eight playoff games, proving that money has only a slight impact on success in baseball.

One team that knows this too well is the Chicago Cubs, who've been searching for a conducive formula for over a century. As everybody on the planet knows, the Cubbies haven't won a World Series title since 1908. Chicago has lived through Al Capone, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama without snapping the drought, as a succession of executives and players have come up short. The Cubs have tried every trick in the book, experimented with every ingredient in the cupboard, but somehow come up empty every time. That, in an of itself, is emblematic of baseball's puzzling core. You just never know.

The Yankees' eternal success seems to fly in the face of everything we know about the game. The Bronx Bombers have partook in 36% of all World Series ever played, winning 40 pennants and claiming 27 titles. Between 1921-1964, they won 29 of 44 pennants on offer, for a staggering 65%. The Yankees longest ever wait between championships is just 22 years, from the team's inception to its maiden crown in 1923. Such facts are amazing, and speak to that team's thorough domination of baseball history. You could argue that the most predicate thing in the realm of this unpredictable game is that the Yankees will always win, no matter what.

Yet, ultimately, the whole concept of unpredictability in baseball rests on one fact: hitting a baseball is, scientifically, the most difficult thing to do in sports. With a pitcher throwing 95-miles-per-hour from 60 feet 6 inches away, a batter usually has 0.4 seconds in which to compute pitch type, location and speed, then go through the mechanics of a swing. If he gets everything right, the ball will hit the barrel and fly into the distance. But if he is a half-second early or late, the ball will hit a quarter of an inch above or below the sweet spot, resulting in a harmless pop-up or a routine groundout to second base. Thus, human skill and instinct can only take you so far in baseball. Talent can only account for so much. Luck has to play a factor. It just has to, when the margins are so ridiculous, when the mathematics are so incomprehensible.

In order to succeed, players must strike a perfect balance between science and art, calculation and reflex. That's why every home run is a minor miracle within itself. Over 18,000 men have played in a Major League Baseball game, but only 6 since 1900 have ever reached base more times than they made out in a single season. More than any fact or stat, that legitimises their immortal skill, and illustrates the monumental difficulty of their trade. Seriously, what game is harder than baseball?

Another layer of nuance is formed by ordinary players doing extraordinary things, by mortal beings producing moments that live in eternity. Take Bucky Dent, for example. A banjo-hitting shortstop, his average was .243 in 1978 with the New York Yankees, coupled with five home runs. Nevertheless, his pop fly dinger against the Red Sox in the legendary one-game playoff ranks amongst the most legendary swings ever taken. Likewise with Aaron Boone in 2003, when a man who finished with only 126 home runs in a 12-year career won the pennant with a soaring drive into the Yankee Stadium abyss, into indelible history.

Again, we see that, on any given day, any one player can achieve any one feat. That's why we're familiar with Bill Mazeroski, who averaged ten home runs per year through seventeen seasons, but who won the 1960 World Series with a famous blast. That's why we remember Jim Abbot, who no-hit the Indians in 1993 despite only having one hand. And that's why we recall guys like Jose Jimenez and Phil Humber, who tossed their own no-hitters amid chronically awful careers.

We're drawn to these stories, these possibilities, like a moth to light. Baseball, this uncut gem of a sport, has changed subtly through the eras, like anything else. But its propensity to surprise, and unwillingness to be mastered, remains intoxicating to this very day. There's no way of truly knowing the fate of any game or inning, which is a soothing concept in a digital world of omniscience. We love baseball because it frustrates us, because it cannot be controlled. We cherish its unconquerable core and salute its unsolvable spirit. Without baseball, the world would be a far more predictable place, our minds much quieter. You see, this game makes you contemplate, then tricks you at the brink of knowing. And that, dear friends, is why we always go back for more.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Ryan, another wonderful post to help me get thru the dreaded off-season blues! Congrats and thank you for this great read!

    ReplyDelete