Baseball is pretty great. It’s a particularly great, from the spectator’s standpoint, because its ridiculous amount of luck allows even the most putrid of teams to win around a third of the time. And, because of those fixed outs every team must accrue, a loss never becomes a mathematical certainty, as those obnoxious people who keep retweeting the Indians’ 2001 comeback against the Mariners like to keep reminding me.
Still, there are certainly times, particularly when you’re cursed with an affiliation with the Padres, when a particular two-run deficit may seem insurmountable. And there are those late inning game states where the losing team would love nothing more than to run out the clock, but are bound by individual fiscal incentive to keep hurling themselves off the proverbial cliff. It’s grisly, like an ant that’s been stepped on but keeps crawling around.
How do we kindle the competitive flame in these expanses of tundra? I was struck with an idea when Friend of the Site and champion dramaturge Michael Clair threw this cry out into the void:
What if baseball was handicapped? So two runs off of Kershaw counted as like 15? That would be fun.
— Michael Clair (@clairbearattack) August 6, 2014
I’ve felt for a long time that an artificial element of suspense could easily be added to any game. The simplest idea, seen in Cribbage, is the skunk line: that any team to lose by, say, eight runs or more would be skunked, and have their loss (and the other team’s win) count double. Suddenly a seven-run game becomes a one-run game, with all the resulting pageantry.
But why stop there? Here is my laughable proposal:
Before the game, when both managers submit their lineups, they meet at home plate. After reviewing their opponent’s card, each manager (in turn, beginning with the visiting team) proposes a wager.
The wager could consist of any one of a number of restrictions placed on either ballclub. Perhaps he could propose a reduction or increase in the number of defensive players (within reason); with Kershaw pitching, would he really need three outfielders? Or he could promise to forgo some element of strategy, by refusing to bunt, or steal, or make multiple pitching changes in an inning. Perhaps a confident Ryne Sandberg could promise to play Ryan Howard for three innings at shortstop. Or perhaps he can be traditional and simply offer up a certain number of free outs to begin the game.
In exchange for these handicaps, that team would be compensated with the opportunity to double or even triple the value of the resulting victory. In essence, if all victories were counted by point values rather than binary wins or losses, the effect would be that the superior team would attempt to entice, by whatever means, the weaker side into making the game more valuable.
One would have to choose their offer carefully, however, because if the other leader declines, the game would be played for normal stakes. They each get one shot. This risk evaluation, based on his assessment of his own team and his rival’s, would have the benefit of giving the manager at least one important task over the course of a ballgame.
Essentially, all we’re doing with this rule is allowing the two teams to seek an equilibrium that creates the highest probability of a close game, while at the same time maximizing the impact of its result. Because it is a very dumb idea, there are, of course, some drawbacks. We assume that all managers would be wise gamblers, and perhaps they would eventually master it, but at first there’d be some colossal and crippling mistakes. We can also safely assume that an increase in high-leverage innings would culminate in all pitchers dying. Toying with the fabric of the game would make statistical record-keeping and analysis so complicated as to become pointless… actually, that might not be such a terrible thing.
Lastly, it would allow a third team to play kingmaker, and help one team reach the playoffs at the expense of a distant frontrunner through a bad bet. This is a legitimate concern, but given that baseball is moving to expand the playoffs, with its lottery-based seven game series and Wild Card Champions, the sport is already comfortable taking control out of the hands of its franchises. Drawing a team that can’t bet in the last series of the season is just another factor of luck.
So it’s a dumb idea, and it’ll never happen. But just imagine a sweaty Ned Yost marching lifelessly out to home plate, never turning to see the glittering eyes of Dayton Moore in the shadows of the dugout. The Royals are three back in the Wild Card with a month to go. He meets Bob Melvin, shakes hands, becomes fascinated with the dirt, and whispers something, lost beneath the idle chatter of the crowd.
“What?” Bob asks.
“We think…” Ned licks his lips. “We think we can put this Wild Card race away for good,” he intones, as if reciting. “Let’s make this game worth ten. If you say yes, all our batters will hit wrong-handed.”
It would be beautiful.
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