How Gambling Could Improve Baseball

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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:

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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Patrick Dubuque writes for NotGraphs and The Hardball Times, and he served as former Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration at Pitchers & Poets. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.


42 Responses to “How Gambling Could Improve Baseball”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    A fun one: all defensive players shift up 1 position. The pitcher catches, the catcher plays 1B, the 1B plays 2B, the 2B plays 3B, the 3B plays SS, the SS plays LF, the LF plays CF, the CF plays RF, and the RF pitches.

    How many wins/losses would that bet be worth?

    +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • tz says:

      Heck, I’d love to see that put into the regular rules – have everybody rotate one position between at-bats, like volleyball.

      At least try this in the NL, since there’s no DH.

      +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • MacGumaraid says:

      I think this is actually a great idea for an independent league or something…”Iron Man Baseball”?

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  2. Ryne Sandberg says:

    If you lose the game, it still counts on your record as a win, but you keep Ryan Howard.

    +26 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    Some more:

    The 3Bman-SS-2Bman swap positions with the LFer-CFer-RFer.
    Every time the leadoff spot comes up, it’s an automatic out.
    Two strikes and you’re out.
    The opposing manager gets to make up your lineup card using anyone from your 25-man roster.
    The Julian Tavarez rule: all relay throws must be rolled on the ground. No one can throw the ball in the air except the pitcher to the batter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beLT6tY9cFw

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Player makes an error, he has to immediately leave the game for a defensive substitute.
      No mitts allowed (maybe the catcher).
      Every hit only counts as a single, and runners aren’t allowed to advance more than 1 base at a time.
      Manny Ramirez plays SS.
      Everyone has to run the bases backwards. Not as in 3B->2B->1B. As in you actually have to run backwards.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Bobby Ayala says:

    Everyone plays in the sausage or president suits. The Mariner Moose gets to drive around in the golf cart and crash into people.

    +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Dock Ellis says:

    Your starting pitcher has to snort 9 lines of coke before he first takes the mound.

    +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Bill Buckner says:

    I play first base for your club.

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  7. John Havok says:

    On each base is a keg of beer and before any baserunner can advance, they must chug a beer. (we’ll call that one the slo-pitch rule)

    Steroids are not just allowed, they are required. If you don’t do steroids and “pass” a drug test, you’re suspended for 50 games for your first infraction, lifetime ban for the second “pass.”

    Defensive positions AND batting order drawn from a hat by the ump before each half inning during the commercial break, meaning some players will bat more… or less, perhaps not at all, or possibly in every inning, every game.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Eric F says:

    Your team has to replace 1 member of the starting lineup with a fan chosen by random seat, row, section number, and he has to play the entire game (and can’t DH).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. KJ says:

    First and third base coaches actually play the position.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. mario mendoza says:

    Fill the outfield with the kids from the HR Derby.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • mario mendoza says:

      …as in, you keep your 3 OFs, but they have to navigate a mob of kids all trying to get a souvinir. Not that you replace your OFs with a mob of those kids. They can’t catch anything.

      +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Yirmiyahu says:

    Foul balls aren’t a thing. A foul ball is in play like a normal hit. Hell, even balls hit into the stands (HR or foul, makes no difference) are still in play.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. a eskpert says:

    The one problem I see with this idea, is that it seems to benefit the probable loser more than the winner. Say the Dodgers are playing the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers will normally win 80% of the time. I believe the resulting expected value is 0.6 wins (as a loss counts negatively). Now say Mattingly and Gibson make a deal. Juan Uribe will play centrefield (Canada!). Matt Kemp will play third base. The Dodgers will normally win 50% of the time now. In exchange for reducing the probability of winning, their wins count triple. Their expected value is now 1. If losses are also counted thrice, the Dodgers now expect to garner a value of 0 wins. Do the Diamondbacks have their losses counted three times in exchange for the increased probability of winning? The only way both teams should find it acceptable to change the odds is if they both thought they were improving their expected value (assuming that they are not risk averse), which is impossible unless the Diamondback’s losses, in exchange for an increase in probability of winning, are worth more. I think that’s right. All the projections are bullshit though.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      My reading of Patrick’s proposal is that, under the bet, wins/ losses would count triple (or double or 10x or whatever) for both teams.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Thanks for analyzing this. I did mean to infer that the number of losses would match the number of wins.

      Perhaps a clearer way of describing the situation is to give each team 2,000 points at the beginning of the season. Each wagerless game would be worth 4, but teams could wager anywhere between 1 and 10. This way no team could ever run out of points.

      The idea of the wager is that both teams will feel, through stupidity or inside knowledge, that they are getting the better bargain. Maybe you know Matt Kemp has a tight hamstring, and you didn’t want him playing center anyway. (I mean anyway anyway.) Moving him to third is actually not as much of a sacrifice as it looks like. There’s also the factor that wins at any given moment might be worth more to one team than the other, as in the case of Dayton Moore’s desperation move.

      Either way, I think the game theory could be interesting, though in reality it would be bungled with almost certainty.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • a eskpert says:

        But if they changed the probability of winning WITHOUT changing the value of the win relative to loss the Better team would forfeit value, unless they thought the odds hadn’t changed much. More directly, If wins are more valuable, aren’t losses more costly? In terms of a best response condition, I think it’s essentially a function like this (for probable winner, loser will be different): Normalwin% -(1-NormalWin%) < (Newwin%)y – (1 – Newwin%) where y is the value of the win(s) relative to the losses.

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  13. Eric F says:

    The umpire becomes the Designated Pitcher, and still calls the strike zone.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. #KeepNotGraphs says:

    The game becomes a bean ball derby with Cistulli as the only batter. Whichever team hits him the most times with the hardest pitches wins. It would be fun to watch him squirm, and I also think the punishment fits his crime.

    #KeepNotGraphs

    +26 Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. Ryne Sandberg says:

    We’ll let Fredi Gonzalez set our lineup. If we win, we trade GMs.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Futbol says:

    The first fielder to make contact with the ball cannot use his hands or arms in any way.

    +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. Kalopsia says:

    Pitchers pitch to their own team’s batters

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Paul G. says:

    Have to play the game with the tarp on the field. The basepaths will be watered down to allow water slide action, though with the very real danger of oversliding the bag and getting a facefull of Troy Tulowitzki shin.

    After scoring a run, the player has to answer a random trivia question correctly, else he’s out. He can buy a vowel but with real money. No winking at Vanna.

    Two Words: Hamster Ball. Oh good luck avoiding the takeout slide…

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. reillocity says:

    Any manager who loses a manager’s challenge must manage the remainder of the game wearing his team’s mascot outfit.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Dennis says:

    some of these made me laugh and laugh
    well done guys

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  21. John Elway says:

    Run the bases on all fours, with a smaller teammate on your back.

    Just neighing.

    #KeepNotGraphs

    +19 Vote -1 Vote +1

  22. SabreActuary says:

    How about a backgammon style approach?

    In between any inning or half inning, allow either manager to double the value of the game. Opposing manager could accept it and the game is doubled (a win counts as two wins, a loss counts as two losses) or immediately concede. Once a double is accepted, the doubling manager cannot double again until the opposing manager has doubled. Upon concession, a new game is begun if total playing time is less than a certain amount. (We wouldn’t want ticket paying fans to feel cheated.)

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • I did think about the backgammon approach, which is why I used the doubling cube as the main picture. The only reason I hesitate is because repeated doubling is so powerful that it gives the kingmaker far, far too much power in September. Imagine having a twenty-game lead on the last day of the season, only to have the Astros give your pennant to another team because they have no reason not to play for a 64-game win. It’d be chaos.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Paul G. says:

        Isn’t chaos the point of this? Or was the point to envision base stealers have to go through “Nitro” from American Gladiators while the catcher has to make the throw while under fire from the tennis ball cannon?

        Actually, I do sense now it was something to do with American Gladiators. My apologies.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

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