Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You've Got to Understand the Rules

So, the justification for steroids in baseball- not that it was ever officially defended, but still, we have a good idea as to why the people who did it did it- was monster hits and home runs don't just help the team, they're also tremendously popular with fans. Individual fame and fortune awaited those who could mash 'dem balls the best, and if people were packing into the stands to watch home run chases (as in 1998), then the sport was better for it, as well. Similar justifications are used to excuse violent hits in football and even fighting in hockey (and yes, I understand that that's an icky comparison, but people are just going to have to accept that steroids have that in common with such repugnant practices).

Now, of course, the steroid witchhunt hit fever pitch in 2005-06, and Baseball instituted some new testing rules. From '08 on, we've seen a steady drop in offense across Major League Baseball. A lot of people looked at these two facts and said, "Eh, correlation, causation, close enough." But David Golebiewski at baseballanalytics.org actually crunched the numbers and found a more plausible culprit: umpires.

Of COURSE! It had to be the umpires, right?

Anyway, the umpires have actually started calling a more accurate strike zone in the last few years. Pitches that batters used to get away with taking- often down by the knees- were now called for strikes, as they should be. The reason this is happening isn't completely known, though it's likely that since umpires now have access to things like PitchFX, they can actually learn from their own mistakes. Anyway, the results ARE clear: batters are getting less free pitches, so their numbers are going down.

There's a lot I love about this story. First of all, it's awesome that PitchFX and similar programs are bringing some accountability and evolution to the umpires. It's still pretty hard to "impeach" an ump, and I'm deathly afraid of anyone "overturning" their decisions, but at least they now have to study their own work and hopefully improve on it.

Second, this just goes to show you how much technology enhances the sport. Not only is PitchFX making the umpires better, but at the fan level, guys like Dave Golebiweski now have the means to investigate any claim about the game and share their findings with other fans. In some ways, we've always had this; Baseball's always kept meticulous records, after all. But you had to have a certain extra layer of crazy to really hunt them all down, and if you wanted to publish your findings, you basically had to go the Bill James self-published route, with no guarantee of the success James eventually had. Now, all the information is online, and you can publish to the same place. You still have to be kinda crazy to want to do it, but after that, the entry fees are low.

Finally, this shows me that rules made for the sports to bow to socio-political pressure and concerns about player safety are probably NOT the major factor in whether or not the games are exciting. If umpires calling a better strike zone is the critical factor here instead of the steroid ban, then it shows me that referees in football or hockey could keep those games plenty exciting without the violence with just a few tweaks to how they call the game. Listen, I'm as big an advocate for robot umps and refs as anyone, but we're a long way from that. Until then, calling the game is still as much an art as it is a silence. For all of our desire for clearly defined, bright line rules for the game- and for all the progress we have made and will make in establishing those- human judgment is still going to play a big role.

Which is all just a long way of saying that we really can draft sports rules that are less barbaric, and trust the professionals on the field to keep the game exciting.

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