Two Up, Two Down


It’s a quiet evening around the Nerds on Sports offices. Most of us have gone home for the holiday season. The Dolphins’ climb out of the winless basement goes unheralded. SportsCenter plays to an empty break room. Even Tom Gorzelanny can pass through the halls unmocked.

In lieu of original content, I link you to two interesting sports-related posts I read from sources I don’t expect sports from.

First, re: the Patriots’ streak, here’s Jim Henley of Unqualified Offerings:

Idiot sports radio personalities – and I apologize for the redundancy – constantly ring variations on The Patriots realize that the real prize isn’t going undefeated, it’s winning the Super Bowl. Nonsense. Somebody wins the Super Bowl every year. The NFL has had 41 of the things and they don’t look like they’re going to stop staging them any time soon. There are plenty of Super Bowl champions. There’s only one post-merger, undefeated champion. Why pass up a chance to make history?

What I suspect and hope is that the Patriot organization thinks the same way. The core members – Kraft; Belichick; Brady; Vrabel et al – have already won a bunch of Super Bowls. They haven’t matched the most annoying achievement in modern NFL history. (In fact, by going 19-0 they’d exceed it.) Don Shula ran his mouth worse than Steeler safety Anthony Smith – you have to figure a vindictive bastard like Belichick will want to rub his nose in it.

An interesting thought. Which would you like more – a fourth Super Bowl ring or to have your name mentioned every time someone brings up the word “undefeated season”?

I think winning the Super Bowl says more about a team’s ability to perform – as it’s the best of the AFC against the best of the NFC – but going 16-0 says more about your endurance. Sure, you can’t win the Super Bowl by beating the Jets twice, Buffalo twice and (going out on a limb here) Miami twice, but sixteen games should be a sufficient sample size for any statistician.

Next, from the desk of Brad Hicks, we get some talk about steroids:

Let’s say we manage to make the game of baseball squeaky clean. Will anybody still watch it?

Right before the steroids era, I think it was around 1980, some comedian described baseball as two guys playing catch, one guy with a stick trying to stop them, and seven guys standing around in a big open field with nothing to do but scratch their testicles. He wasn’t far off. Advances in pitching technology and training had turned baseball into something that baseball jargon and statistics still treat it as; the term is “a pitchers’ duel.” And if you’re a baseball nerd, especially a baseball statistics nerd, there is nothing more exciting to you than that rare “perfect game,” a no-hit shut-out. A game where one side fields exactly 27 batters, not one of which ever connects with the ball. The thing is, careful frame-by-frame analysis of baseball pitching and other advances in training got it to the point where that was happening almost regularly, where a pitcher’s career was suddenly in danger if more than a couple of runs were scored, between the two sides, in the entire course of a 9 inning game. Baseball scores were starting to resemble hockey and soccer scores. And half or more of the fans, myself included, were bored to death. If pitchers get that much better than batters, it’s even worse for baseball than when 8% (estimated) of the batters turn themselves into heavily juiced semi-cyborgs and don’t really bother to hide it, because slow-motion pitchers’ duels are boring.

That’s why everybody in a position of authority looked the other way when juiced up baseball players grew to the size of small tool sheds and bulked up to the point they could no longer turn their heads or raise their arms above their shoulders. There was, among insiders and not a few professional sportswriters, a sense that the juice was all that was saving baseball from terminal ennui. Nor is it a coincidence that the players’ union and the owners and the commissioner’s office waited to even start talking about curbing steroid use until the mid to late 1990s. Why, because of negative publicity over steroids? Maybe a little; during the 1998 McGwire/Sosa home-run race, the fact that McGwire was no longer recognizably human did attract some negative publicity. But 1998, and to a lesser extent 1993 before it, changed baseball in another way that made discussion of curbing illegal enhancement of batters discussable at last: the addition of 4 more teams to major league baseball diluted the pool of available top-quality pitchers. There were no longer enough guys in America who were capable of learning to pitch at the very top level to provide each team with enough such pitchers to have one on the mound at all times in all games, and suddenly even non-juiced players were able to hit the ball occasionally again, too.

But population keeps going up, and players are recruited from many countries, and the technology of pitcher training keeps improving in ways that don’t qualify as cheating in baseball. (And yes, admittedly, occasionally in ways that do.) So major league baseball faces a question that seems fascinating to me: if we take away the hitters’ human growth hormone and steroids and it turns out that ordinary well-trained human athletes can no longer reliably hit the ball, what are we going to do about it? For what it’s worth, I think it may be time for yet another rules change. It’s not unthinkable, you know. The pitchers’ mound used to be a lot closer to the plate than it is now; maybe it’s time to move it farther back yet again to give batters more time to see the ball coming. Or maybe lower the mound or eliminate it altogether, making the players arc their pitches more to cover the distance. Strike zones have theoretically not changed ever, but we know that umpires vary widely over time in which way their errors bias, against the pitcher or for him. Maybe it’s time to change the bats themselves to improve hitting, or change the design of the balls to make them easier to hit. And if minor tweaks don’t keep the game lively, remember that other sports have rewritten their rules in even more aggressive ways before, like imposition of the shot clock in basketball after players determined to run out the clock boringly got too good at keeping the other team from stealing the ball. So, yeah: If honest baseball turns boring again, like it was when I was a kid, will they go back to turning a blind eye to cheating by batters, will they let baseball wither on the vine for a few years, or will they change the game itself to make it more active and more interesting? That’s the question that’s most interesting to me.

I don’t know if the situation’s as dire as he describes. Many of baseball’s most dynamic hitters today went unscathed by the revelations of the Mitchell Report, so clearly artificial aid isn’t required to be competitive. At the same time he’s on to something – baseball is a deadly boring sport. And it used to be worse.

Presuming that it gets as bad as he says it could, what would you suggest as rules changes to make the battle between pitcher and batter a little more even?