I could spend an entire year reading Bill James's old books, some of them now more than 30 years old, and just riffing on those. I could easily do that. Of course I've read every word already. But that's a lot of words, and I've forgotten most of them. For example, I completely forgot an essay in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001) titled "Baseball 2015" in which he offered predictions for that far-off year.
Well, it's damn near 2015, and Beyond the Box Score's Scott Lindholm has been checking Bill's predictions:
- That baseball will eventually solve or contain the problem of economics corroding competitive balance.
- That baseball will eventually gain control of the problem of the ever-lengthening games.
- That the hundred-year trend of using more and more pitchers will end, and complete games (for the first time ever) will soon become more common, rather than less.
- That the trend toward more strikeouts and more homers from the top of the order to the bottom will also end soon.
Last week, Lindholm demonstrated that Baseball has at least contained the competitive-balance problem. It's hard to say if Baseball actually did much in the pursuit of this worthy goal. Revenue-sharing and the luxury tax have undoubtedly played a role. But so have standard television deals, along with intelligent people running the lower-revenue franchises. But over the last decade or so, a number of teams have proved you don't have to outspend your opponents to win. And Baseball fares quite well on this score, relative to the other big sports. And before you think it was inevitable, I promise that it's exceedingly non-difficult to find columns in the late '90s predicting the demise of small-market franchises, and the rise of SUPER LEAGUES consisting of just the New Yorks and Chicagos and Southern Californias of the world. Which, thankfully, did not happen and won't anytime soon.
Lindholm's latest considers Bill's next two predictions, and there Bill doesn't fare so well.
In 2000, major-league games averaged more than three hours for the first time ever. That seems to have triggered some real action -- i.e. Sandy Alderson got involved -- and the average fell to around 2:50 for a few seasons. Then it stabilized at around 2:55 for a few years ... but now we've been above three hours for the last few years.
Bill suggested limiting pitching changes, or at least mid-inning changes. But that obviously hasn't happened, and the increase in pitching changes has contributed to the increase in game times.
Another suggestion James made with even less chance of adoption is to reduce the time between innings to 90 seconds from 2 minutes. Before you start laughing uncontrollably, consider the ramifications -- this could decrease game times by around 9 minutes for a typical 9-inning game. This sounds like a lot of missed advertising potential, but the problem every professional sport that isn't football faces is excess inventory -- too many games, too much ad time, and not enough demand. If you don't believe me, compare the caliber of advertiser during a typical NFL game (sold nationally) vs. a baseball game (typically sold locally). It's possible reducing ad time inventory could increase its value and make such a move revenue-neutral--that's how scarcity works in the real world.
FanGraphs added Pace to show how quickly pitchers work and in 2013 it ranged from R.A. Dickey (17.9 seconds) to David Price (25.8 seconds) between pitches among qualifying starters--about a 50% variance. If baseball were to enforce a strict 20-second maximum between pitches and shaved the time between innings by 30 seconds, the average game could be played in around 2 hours, assuming 300 total pitches per game. In fact, if the 20-second clock was adopted, they could even keep the extra 30 seconds of advertising and still be right at the 2-hour mark. In the short term it might impact ancillary revenues like concessions and souvenirs, but as fans adapted to the quicker game these things would correct themselves in short order.
There are a lot of really, really smart people working at Major League Baseball. They've thought of just about everything. But just like everywhere else, inertia's an immensely strong force. There are two minutes between half-innings because there have been two minutes between half-innings (and also, quite possibly, because that really is the most profitable format). Umpires aren't allowed to enforce the 20-second rule between pitches because they haven't already enforced it; they don't want to do it, and the pitchers don't want them to do it. So it's not done.
Which doesn't mean it won't be done. We're going to see ever more pitching changes, and something will be done to balance that time. Oh, and the new video-review system is going to add significant time to the average game, which will also need to be balanced. I don't know if we'll ever get below three hours again; that would almost certainly require shorter commercial breaks. But don't be surprised if other significant measures are taken to shorten the games and speed up the action (which is at least as important).
It looks like Bill was just wrong about complete games becoming more common. Granted, he was talking about 2015 (and beyond, I suppose). The trend-line on this one seems inexorable, and it's difficult to see anything changing. In fact, I would love to know why Bill thought this would happen. Let me grab the book and see if he explained ... Well, sort of:
The hundred-year trend toward more and more pitchers in a game will eventually run its course. In fact, it may already have run its course, because it doesn't make any sense. In order to gain a small, almost miniscule, platoon advantage, managers are using so many pitchers that they are creating an artificial shortage of pitching. Eventually it will occur to them that this doesn't work.
Maybe. We haven't seen any signs of this, though.
For one thing, sometimes it does work. It works often enough that if rosters went 26 deep instead of 25, managers would just use that extra spot on an eighth (or ninth!) relief pitcher. In fact, they're essentially already doing that. Thanks to liberalized roster rules, most teams essentially have nine- or ten-man bullpens, with a couple of the relievers parked in the minors, ready to hop on a plane and meet the big club when duty calls.
But often it doesn't work. Bill was (and is) right: Often, the tiny platoon advantage isn't worth the roster spot. And here's My Single Semi-Original Thought of the Day ... The problem isn't that teams carry seven relief pitchers. The problem is that every team carries seven relief pitchers. Wouldn't it make more sense to carry seven if you've got seven good ones ... but to carry six if you've got only six good ones? Or to carry six if you need to platoon at two positions?
It seems to me that teams are letting strategy drive the roster, when it would make a lot more sense for the roster to drive the strategy.
Or maybe not. I suppose it's highly unlikely that I'm smarter than all those bright men who run the baseball teams.
Anyway, there's one more prediction -- fewer strikeouts and homers from the top of the order -- that Lindholm's not yet explored. I've got my own ideas about that one. But I'll wait for Lindholm's pretty graphs.