The Co-Evolution of Baseball the Sport and Baseball the Game

The Rays were just one of the teams experimenting with unconventional starting pitching in 2018. (via Keith Allison)

When Craig Counsell pulled Wade Miley after one batter in Game Five of the NLCS, like a trickster who had lured out the Dodgers lefty-facing lineup before saying, “I said I’d start him, but I didn’t say for how long,” he reached a level of chicanery rarely seen in a sport that is rife with deception.

Though novel for modern times, the move isn’t entirely new—the Washington Senators pulled a similar switch nearly a century ago in the highest stakes game of all—Game Seven of the World Series. In an attempt to force New York Giants righty-masher Bill Terry out of the lineup, Senators manager John McGraw started righty Curly Ogden, but pulled him after two batters to bring in a lefty to face Terry. The Senators went on to win in extra innings.

Back to 2018: The Brewers lost, and the only likely benefit of the maneuver was to keep Yasiel Puig out of the lineup in favor of Enrique Hernandez for the first two times through the order, but the move still reverberates, even after the Brewers were eliminated and the season ended. The Brewers broke convention to gain an advantage, and while the advantage gained has come and gone, the convention itself is a little shakier than it was when the playoffs began.

The Brewers’ pitcher swap didn’t change baseball the sport, but it represented a small if still significant moment in baseball the game. Games are defined by tactics and strategies, sports by the physical abilities of athletes. And yes, the terms are often used interchangeably, but for this article they will not be. Chess and any other board or card game are one hundred percent game; they involve no physical abilities beyond mental stamina. Sports that—to my eyes anyway—appear to have minimal tactical elements include bowling and some of the individual Olympic feats, such as javelin throwing and high jump. Any sport with opponents on the field at the same time pitted against each other is almost inevitably both sport and game, and baseball is quite well developed as both.

Though both the sport and the game evolve, they do so at different rates and in different ways. Baseball the sport advances when players find new physical capabilities, which is less rare than one might think, but is generally incremental. The game, however, can change in a moment, when teams break norms and standards that aren’t explicitly stated in the rules. The Brewers’ starting pitcher fake-out is a perfect example of this, because the trick worked only due to the existing norms around starting pitchers facing multiple batters and pitching multiple innings.

If there was no expectation of Miley staying in the game for long, the Dodgers presumably wouldn’t have  started a lineup tailored to face a lefty. If we had no norm around announcing the starting pitcher ahead of time, Counsell’s move wouldn’t have changed anything. The Brewers took advantage of a near-universal expectation around starting pitcher announcements. Now that they have done so, we will see if that expectation still holds for all teams and all games. For a run-of-the-mill game in June, one assumes a team wouldn’t bother with that sort of trick, but when divisions or seasons are on the line, there is now modern precedent for a different, shifty approach.

The game element of baseball evolves when a team focuses on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit with which it was intended. Rules create incentive structures, and the pressure of competition inspires teams to leverage everything within the legal limit of the sport.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the early days of strikes and balls. As baseball was taking shape in the 19th century, the called strike came into existence before the called ball. With no punishment for throwing the ball in hard-to-reach places, pitchers and batters often engaged in a battle of patience. Pitchers repeatedly threw balls away from the plate, hoping the batter would get bored and swing, and batters often let scores of wide pitches float by. This could result in events that are virtually impossible today, such as a game in 1860 between two Brooklyn teams, the Atlantics and the Excelsiors, that saw 665 pitches in the first three innings. Baseball put a stop to that nonsense by introducing the nine-pitch walk three years later.

The biggest strategic gains to be made by teams looking to separate themselves are when the sport and the game interact to produce a unique approach. Bullpen games, for instance, work best when a team has assembled a collection of impressive relievers. Roster depth has been increasingly valuable across the major leagues in recent years, but the Dodgers realized they could couple their pitching depth with the new 10-day disabled list designation to effectively create a much larger pitching staff than other teams (having a top payroll doesn’t hurt in pulling off this strategy). While a different team could pull Milwaukee’s trick on Opening Day next year, it takes years to replicate the Dodgers’ abundance of pitchers.

Any time a team evolves the game of baseball, it gains a first-mover advantage. The Brewers’ move was a surprise, and the advantage they gained over the rest of baseball may be limited to a single game. That’s not to say that the move itself has already outlived its usefulness—rather its utility is now shared among all teams willing to do the same thing.

The evolutions that require a specific roster, such as the Dodgers’ use of the 10-day disabled list, or the Rays’ bullpen-heavy approach, can adopted eventually by any team that sees the strategy as worthwhile. What starts as a unique concept becomes an organizational philosophy shared by other teams. When everyone adopts an idea, it ventures into the territory of conventional wisdom, as defensive shifts have over the last few years.

Sometimes new capabilities in the sport, which is to say, baseball players finding new things that they are physically capable of, lead to progress in game strategy. The bullpen game phenomenon, along with limiting starters’ times through the order, is buoyed by the increasing prevalence of relievers who can hit the zone in the high 90s and mix in an effective bendy pitch. If we see more two-way players like Shohei Ohtani, Michael Lorenzen, and prospect Brendan McKay, we will inevitably see new strategies to utilize their powers. (My prediction: a lefty and a righty swapping between left field and the mound as Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell did for the Mets in an epic game in 1986.)

Nearly all of these ideas, along with many more, were tried at some point by one of baseball’s all-time tinkerers, Tony La Russa, who constantly sought to make his athletes more effective with unique game strategies. The modern closer, was popularized, if not pioneered, by La Russa as manager of the A’s with his deployment of eventual Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. The Rays turned heads this year by making regular use of an “opener” (a reliever who starts the game), but La Russa dabbled with a similar concept—perhaps with a notion toward the times-through-the-order penalty. He experimented with assigning three pitchers three innings per game while still with the A’s in the early ’90s. The idea didn’t catch, but the strategy is seeing something of a revival, with teams like the Rays, A’s and Dodgers playing with openers, bullpen games and tandem starts.

La Russa even pulled a Brewers-esque starting pitcher head fake meant to fool the press rather than the opposing team. Then the manager of the Cardinals, he decided to start young phenom Rick Ankiel in Game One of the 2000 NLDS against the Braves. Worried about that task going to Ankiel’s head, La Russa sent out ace Darryl Kile to talk to the media, who answered questions as the game starter would, without ever mentioning that he would not be the one taking the mound. La Russa was apparently right in sensing Ankiel’s nerves, but his deception didn’t help. Ankiel endured one of baseball’s most famous meltdowns, throwing five wild pitches in the third inning; the Cardinals spotted him six runs in the first inning and won the game anyway.

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Ankiel, as physically gifted as any, never recovered as a pitcher. He pitched 24 innings the following season and walked over a batter per inning. He managed 10 major league innings three years later, and that was it for him as a pitcher, though remarkably he reemerged as a hitter and put up a 120 wRC+ season in 2008. (At age 39, he is also reportedly attempting a comeback in 2019 as a relief pitcher after he recovers from ligament surgery.)

La Russa induced more eye-rolling than perhaps any other manager in his time, not because he was a failure as a strategist, but because he refused to play the game according to expectations. Those who are willing to endure the eye-rolling fans, the incredulous columnists, and the grumbling color commentators are the ones who occasionally hit on something powerful and change the game.

Every sport has its quirks that weren’t in the original design, and wouldn’t appear in more loosely governed pickup games, but are allowed to persist. Fouling at the end of basketball games (bring on the Elam Ending!), offsides traps in soccer, and having a lineman line up as a receiver in football are all examples of this. The intentional walk is normal enough today that a rule change was made in 2017 to streamline it by not requiring pitchers to throw four balls, but a century ago it was considered aberrant behavior (Babe Ruth called it “unfair”) and it was nearly banned in 1920.

These tricks can feel dishonest, or against the spirit of the game, but if they are effective, they tend to be normalized over time. What the Brewers did was surprising or shocking when it happened, depending on how well you know your baseball history, but it will be less so the next time, and eventually it may come to be thought of as one of the normal moves managers have available to them in their work to edge out any advantage they can find. If teams find themselves vulnerable to this strategy, it could lead to an increase in value and playing time for players who don’t have large platoon splits. Time will tell if Brandon Woodruff trotting in from the bullpen to replace Miley was an isolated event or a change that affects playing time and salaries.

New tactics and stratagems happen all the time, but there was something different about the Brewers pulling Miley after one batter. It was such a pure violation of assumptions—the on-field equivalent of telling a lie—that it seemed to signal new possibilities in baseball. There is now recent precedent for both this particular move, and, to a lesser degree, anything equally conniving a team might come up with. As baseball has evolved over time, it has found the edges of its rules, with the spirit with which they were written steadily cleaved away.

The Brewers made it clear that there are still collective blind spots in our expectations of what happens on a baseball field, and that they can be turned into an advantage, however short-lived. Rising launch angles, two-way players and the ongoing climb of pitcher velocity are evidence that the sport continues to evolve, in a years-long exploration of what baseball players are physically capable of doing at the highest level of competition. The game part, however, is mental, not physical, and it can change with a single call to the bullpen.

References and Resources


Owen Poindexter is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Athletic. You can also find his work at Slate, Alternet, Commonwealth, the Huffington Post, Salon, GovTech, Earth Island Journal and the Basic Income Podcast.
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Spa City
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Spa City

Interesting article. It will be interesting to see what a followup would look like a year or 2 from now. My guess – teams will start shifting outfielders for each hitter (e.g. Switching LF and RF based on hitter tendencies), which would let defensively-challenged outfielders stay in the field more often while limiting their defensive chances.

But… You need to edit the “Senators manager John McGraw”. Hall of FMer John McGraw was a lot of things, but Senators manager was not one of them. Fellow Hall of Famer Bucky Harris managed the Senators that year.

DefenseHawk
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DefenseHawk
Nice article. I don’t have a problem with Craig Counsell’s stunt. He correctly guessed that Dave Roberts would do exactly what he expected he would do: start a full right-handed hitting lineup. Between the roster changes and carrying 12 pitchers in the NLCS, Counsell had the flexibility to allow him the luxury of burning a “starter” after one batter. I hate the idea of tinkering with roster limitations, but MLB should certainly considering limiting the number of pitchers permitted on a staff at any one time to 10 or 11. And there’s no reason, except in the case of an… Read more »