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What if MLB’s season were only 16 games?

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So, a couple of friends suggested to me that instead of making this a series of rule changes I would like to see (and will never happen), I should instead come up with “Five things that might make you think differently about baseball.” That does seem to make a bit more sense. My first rule change to cut out the soul-killing intentional walk in baseball. The second was not a rule change at all but a plea to make the minor leagues more autonomous and, in that way, bring real baseball to places all over America.

This rule change is not a rule change or a plea. It’s … well, I’m not sure what it is. I hope it’s interesting.

The other day, I was thinking about something that maybe you’ve thought about too: What would baseball be like if there were only 16 games in a season? I’ve often toyed around with that thought. I sometimes write columns when the baseball season is 16 games old. But I must admit I had never REALLY thought about how this would affect baseball. This time I did.

And I came to believe this: If a baseball season was just 16 games and structured like the NFL season — Major League Baseball would look A LOT like the NFL.

Here are six ways that MLB at 16 games would look like the NFL:

1. You would have one starting pitcher. He would be the focus of the team, not unlike the quarterback.

I’m not sure if any of these things are true, of course. They’re guesses. It is possible that if there were only 16 baseball games — one a week — that managers would not have starting pitchers as we know them now. They might have several pitchers with different roles. They might have three pitchers designed to go three innings.

But I can’t help but think, no, they would have one starter — maybe, on rare occasions, two starters — who would pitch every single week. This just makes the most sense to me. The quarterback comparison is too strong. I would say there are fewer than 30 GREAT pitchers in baseball right now, just like there are fewer than 30 GREAT quarterbacks in the NFL. There are teams who would have Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright and Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez. They are Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and so on. Then there’s a tier of very good pitchers (Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish representing Joe Flacco and Cam Newton and so on) and you have your phenoms (Matt Harvey = RGIII; Stephen Strasburg as Andrew Luck). You would have your game managers. You would have your lousy starters too.

I think teams would take on the personality of their pitcher the way NFL teams take on the personality of their quarterback. You would have announcers saying that you can’t win without a great starter the way they say you can’t win without a great quarterback.

As far as the rest of the pitching staff goes, I envision a staff of five pitchers. You’d have a starter, his backup (and people would shout for the backup — another way it would be like the quarterback position) and then three others. One would probably be an emergency starter/reliever. The other two would specialists of some kind.

I’m sure there are some of you who would disagree and say that teams would carry more pitchers — three or four lefty specialists, three or four late inning specialists, but I think not. Here’s why. There’s only so much you can do with pitching. That is to say, you can’t hold a team to LESS than zero runs. With one or two excellent starting pitchers and a couple of relievers, you have enough pitching I think.
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2. You would see much more managerial strategy in baseball than is used now.

Let’s assume that teams would keep five pitchers. That would accomplish two things. One, it would mean the quality of pitching would go way, way up because you would essentially be dropping more than 50% of the pitchers used in baseball right now.

But, more significantly, assuming rosters stay at 25, it would mean that managers would leave 20 everyday players to use. Think about that. TWENTY. With that many players, a manager would have room on his roster for players of many different talents. You want a designated pinch runner. Heck, you can carry two. Go to the Olympics, get Usain Bolt. You want a designated bunter? Heck, call David Eckstein, get him out of retirement, he’s yours. You have room for defensive wizards and power-hitting slugs. You have room for pretty much any kind of ballplayer you would want.

And then, because every game would be so important and every run would be so precious, you would have managers trying all sorts of crazy things to score runs. I’m confident they would come up with strategies that no one has dreamed of in the 140-plus year history of the game. Why? Because they would HAVE to come up with new ways to score runs. There wouldn’t be a choice.

The strategies would be wild, I’d bet. You know the shifting defenses that are beginning to play a big role in the game. Managers and coaches would supersize them. They would play a different kind of shifting defense every game. There would be 20 different kinds of hit and run. Base stealing would become a much bigger part of the game. And I think there would be all sorts of innovations that my mind can’t reach now. Baseball would get its own Bill Walsh or Sid Gillman who would revolutionize offense. Baseball would get its own Buddy Ryan or Tom Landry who would revolutionize defense.

There’s a commonly held believe — I hold it — that football is a game more designed for strategy than baseball. Every play has its own special design. Coaches are placed all over the field to make adjustments. Teams huddle up before every play to talk about what they will do next. But maybe a big reason is football coaches simply have MORE TIME to design the game. If baseball was played only once a week, you better believe that managers and coaches would use every second of it to come up with ways to win.

Which leads to this:

3. There would be a lot more film watching in baseball.

I’ve spoken to many former baseball players who see no value at all in the video work that teams do. They say that breaking down the swing too much can mess with your mindset. They say that breaking down the pitcher fills the mind with too many thoughts. Hitting is a natural act. “See the ball, hit the ball,” Tony Perez always said.

I’m not sure how much of that is true but I do believe this: If they played baseball just once a week, managers and coaches and players would SCOUR over video just like in football. They would not only break down pitchers to the nth power, they would break down each individual hitter. They would break down each individual fielder. They would break down the other coach’s tendencies. They would gameplan each game differently.

The managers would do more of these things NOW except there’s no time. There’s another game tomorrow. And another game the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that. There are too many pitchers to study intently, too many hitters to build a thorough portfolio on, too many fielders to worry about. There’s more gameplanning in baseball now than even three years ago. Specialty defenses. Expanded hitter breakdowns. Deeper scouting reports on pitchers — those old ballplayers say they used to get information like “Steve Carlton: Watch out for his slider.”

But if the game was once a week, there would be an information explosion. Like the NFL.

4. Baseball would become dramatically more violent.

I’m not 100% certain of this, of course. But I am probably 75% certain. Right now, we don’t tend to think of baseball as a contact sport. There IS contact — plays at the plate, double-play meetings at second base, the occasional hit-by pitch and ensuing bench-clear — but it’s mostly tangential to the game. Football, meanwhile, is violent at its core. Or anyway, that’s what we think now.

Except — baseball was extremely violent in its early days. And I think that if the game was played just once a week, if you faced each team only once or twice a season, if every game was critical, there would be a lot more violence in baseball. Collisions at the plate would be intensified. Nobody would concede the double play without really taking out the fielder. Pitchers would be much more likely to send message pitches. And I think you would probably find violence where there is none right now.

Here, think about it another way: What would happen to football if there were 162 games in a season. It’s unimaginable the way football is played now. Players could not survive. But if there was a 162-game football season, football WOULD NOT be played like it is now. Not even close. I think the violence would drop to almost nothing. It would become a glorified game of two-hand touch. Big hits would almost never happen — maybe in the playoffs. There would be less coaching. There would be less intensity. Football would HAVE to evolve that way for survival.

5. Baseball would get much better TV ratings and much bigger crowds.

Again, there’s a deep belief that football is a better television game than baseball. Again, I believe it. But part of the reason is the scarcity of pro football on television. Baseball is everywhere, all the time. The baseball game of the week is wonderfully done by ESPN with the fantastic Dan Shulman doing the games (and the equally fantastic Boog Sciambi backing him up). But it’s not the event that Sunday Night Football has become because you can watch those baseball teams play any night you want all summer long.

If each baseball team played just 16 baseball games, all the numbers numbers would jump. Ratings would jump. You would see 80,000 people at baseball games even though the ticket prices would go way up. Interest in each game would skyrocket.

Would that be good for baseball? No, not scaling all the way back to 16 games. There’s no way to make up for all the lost revenue — even if you did get 80,000 per game for eight baseball games, that’s still only 640,000 people, which is way less than half of what they drew in Tampa Bay this year. You could double or triple the ticket prices and never make up the lost revenue. And while the national television revenues might go up, the regional numbers would go down.

BUT there are many people who think, for the long-term health of the game, they absolutely SHOULD cut the schedule back fairly dramatically, create a bit more scarcity, make itself more of a national television product. I don’t sense people in baseball will go in that direction. They simply would not give up the gate.

6. Baseball statistics would mean a lot less.

People do follow football statistics, largely because of fantasy football. But everyone knows that baseball is the numbers game. This again is at least partially a function of the 162-game schedule. It isn’t necessarily that the baseball statistics are BETTER than the football statistics. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But baseball has so many games, the only way you can really keep up with the game is through the numbers. We need them to make sense of a very long season with millions of events. If baseball was only 16 games, we wouldn’t need those numbers in the same way.

And, obviously, with the much smaller sample size, they wouldn’t mean as much either.

Obviously baseball is not going to a 16-game schedule. Baseball won’t even shave a few games off its schedule. But, I do think it’s interesting to think about how much of baseball’s character is the game itself is locked up in the length of the season. I do think it’s interesting to realize that the baseball we watch is not the only way to play baseball.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

Braves Spring baseball
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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

2011 World Series Game 4 -Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals
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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.

Corey Seager tops Keith Law’s top-100 prospect list

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
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Yesterday it was the top farm systems, today it’s the top-100 prospects from ESPN’s Keith Law.

As Law notes, there’s a HUGE amount of turnover on the list from last year, given how many top prospects were promoted to the bigs in 2015. Kris Bryant seems like a grizzled old veteran now. Carlos Correa too. Eleven of the top 20 from last year’s list have graduated into the bigs. Are we sure it’s only been a year?

So, obviously, there’s a new number one. It’s Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ infielder. Not that everything has changed. Byron Buxton is still number two. This will obviously be his last year on the list. If you want to see and read about the other 98, go check out Keith’s excellent work.

And yes, like yesterday’s farm system rankings, it’s Insider subscription only. There were comments about how much you all hate that and I am sure there will be many more of them today. I get that. No one likes to pay for content. I was somewhat amused, however, by comments that said things like “hey, maybe if we don’t click it, they’ll have to give it to us for free!” Maybe! Or, more likely, the content simply will cease to exist!

It’s good stuff, folks. There aren’t many paid sites I say that about.

Ozzie Guillen to manage again. In Venezuela

Ozzie Guillen Getty
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With Dusty Baker getting back into action with the Nationals and with there being at least some moderate sense that, maybe, inexperienced dudes might not be the best choice to manage big league clubs, I sorta hoped that someone would give Ozzie Guillen another look. Nah. Not happening.

Not that I’m shocked or anything. I can imagine that, under the best of circumstances, a guy like Guillen is hard to have around. He tends to find controversy pretty easily and, unlike some other old hands, Guillen never claimed to be any kind of master tactician. He famously said that he was bored during games until the sixth or seventh inning when he had to start thinking about pitching changes. Refreshing honesty, yes, but maybe not the sort of dude you bring on to, say, be a bench coach or to mentor your younger coaches or to show your hand-picked manager the ropes. Nope, it seemed like Guillen was destined to stay in broadcasting with ESPN Deportes or someone and that his days in uniform were over.

But they’re not over! Guillen was hired yesterday to manage the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan Winter League next offseason. It’s not the bigs, but it is is first on-field gig since he was canned by the Marlins in 2012.

 

Guillen managed the White Sox from 2004-11 and was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2005, when Chicago won the World Series. He may be a bit of a throwback now, but he knows what he’s doing. While I can’t really say that a major league team would be wise to hire the guy — I get it, I really do — a selfish part of me really wants him back in the bigs. He was fun.