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Valdez in Wonderland
Nineteen innings, ten years later
It was the kind of game the old-timers talk about. The kind that even though it only happened last night, they’ve already been talking about for a hundred years. The kind that creates old-timers who talk about games like it. That’s the kind of game it was.
Was. That’s the imperative word here. Was. Today, it’s the kind of game only old-timers can talk about. Because in the 10 years since, baseball has changed in ways that make it all but impossible for what happened that night in Philadelphia to ever happen again.
Magnificent, Interminable, Excruciating
There was no reason to suspect when Phillies ace Roy Halladay delivered the first pitch to Cincinnati Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs at 7:08 p.m. on Wednesday, May 25, 2011, that the game would be more than a routine, humdrum affair. The Reds’s visit to the City of Brotherly Love was the teams’ first meeting since the Phils had swept the Ohioans from the playoffs the previous October. Slim pickings for hype, but it would have to do. Otherwise, the penultimate game of a long homestand was to all appearances going to be a typical late-May contest in a typical late-May regular-season series.
Only when you check the box score do you get the first hints of why anyone might want to write about the Phillies’s 49th game of the 2011 season a decade after the fact. Then you see lines like 2-for-9, 1-for-7, 2-for-8, and the dreaded 1-for-8, which dubious distinction Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco and left fielder Raul Ibanez both attained. Reds third baseman Scott Rolen had the worst night of all, going 0-for-7.
Most starters get four, maybe five turns at the plate in a baseball game. Yet this night multiple Reds and Phillies had twice that many. There are two possible explanations. One is that both teams put up so much offense players kept getting chances to hit. A final score of 5-4 Phillies rules that theory out. The other explanation is that players kept batting because the game kept going. And going. And going.
So long did it go on, in fact, that by the time it ended, the series finale, a getaway game scheduled for Thursday afternoon, was less than 12 hours away. But perhaps the best way to convey what the game was like is not by word but by image.
Your eyes don’t deceive you. The Reds and Phillies played nine innings, then played a 10th inning which extended rather than broke their deadlock, then played another entire baseball game! The zeroes keep pilling up as did the double-digit inning numbers: 11, 12, 13 … all the way to 19, when the Phillies’s run total switched from 0 to 1 and the ordeal mercifully came to an end—at 1:19 a.m., six hours and 11 minutes after it began.
Ernie Banks would no doubt have appreciated the teams’ valiant effort to bring to life his mantra, “Let’s play two!” But what makes this game noteworthy isn’t that it took 19 innings and six hours, although that is hardly a usual occurrence. What makes it memorable, what even makes its 10th anniversary an occasion to mark at all, is how it ended.
The winning pitcher, the box score informs us, was Wilson Valdez, whose season record improved to 1-0 with the victory. A pitcher getting his first win of the year in relief isn’t so unusual, either. What is just a bit out of the ordinary is that there was no pitcher named “Wilson Valdez” on the Phillies’s 2011 roster. There was, however, a utility infielder by that name, who the box score tells us on this night went 3-for-6 while manning second base.
Field players being tapped for mop-up duty in blowouts to spare the pitching staff is not a common occurrence, but it’s not a rare one either. This, though, was no blowout. After reliever Danys Báez (the unsung hero that night) gave the Phillies five scoreless innings, manager Charlie Manuel summoned Valdez from second to pitch with the game still on the line, in the hope that he could somehow fend off the heart of the Reds’s order and provide the Phillies’s offense one last chance to put everyone out of their misery.
Which, amazingly, is just how it worked out: Valdez set down the Reds in the top of the 19th, and Raul Ibanez’s bases-loaded sac fly in the bottom of the inning drove in Jimmy Rollins for the winning run. At long last—long after even the West Coast games had ended—this magnificent, interminable, excruciating spectacle was no more.
The magnificent, interminable, excruciating spectacle was no more. Which is just how baseball’s powers that be want it.
Who’s on Second
Since last year, every inning past the ninth begins with a runner at second base. This rule, which was introduced in the minor leagues several years ago, was adopted by the majors for 2020’s pandemic-shortened season. Then, it made a certain amount of sense; the compressed schedule necessitated keeping games as short as possible to reduce wear and tear on players and minimize their exposure to each other.
This year there’s no such need. Yet the rule persists, just like seven-inning doubleheaders, another Covid innovation. Given that players, managers, and Commissioner Rob Manfred seem to like it, there’s a decent chance it’s here to stay. Which would be unfortunate. There are plenty of reasons to dislike the rule. It doesn’t shorten games timewise. Nor does it solve other problems, such as the lack of offense, which is sending the most games to overtime in five decades.
But the principal reason to object to the “ghost runner” is that it isn’t baseball. It’s the opposite of baseball, a violation of its spirit and nature. As Jay Jaffe of the baseball website Fan Graphs states, the runner on second represents a “jarring break from one of the game’s most basic tenets,” namely, that “every inning starts with a clean slate of no baserunners.”
In a recent game, the first batter of the 10th inning hit a home run. Which, thanks to the ghost runner, was a two-run homer. A lead-off two-run home run. By definition that should be impossible. Yet it not only happened, it won the game because it did so in the bottom of the 10th. The first batter of the inning hit a home run and it counted for two runs since in addition to himself he drove in a runner who never reached base yet was already on second before he even stepped into the batter’s box. If after reading that sentence a few times it still doesn’t make sense, don’t blame yourself; it makes no sense because there’s no sense to make of it.
The ghost runner violates another, even more fundamental principle of the game: that you play until it is over. As the baseball writer Joe Sheehan observed, the runner on second is a way to get an ending. But “for 150 years, baseball played baseball to a conclusion.” The ghost runner “just gets the game over with.” You play to win the game. But in baseball, unlike football, hockey, basketball, or soccer, you also play until you win the game. The ghost runner turns that principle inside out, and with it, the game itself.
The ghost runner may be a contrivance, but it is a necessary one, to hear proponents like the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham tell it, because it injects a dose of action into a sport increasingly lacking in it. Abraham has a point. Baseball has been starved of action.
But starting extra innings with runners on base is at best a palliative. At worst it’s a placebo incapable of solving the numerous structural issues now plaguing it and which have its advocates touting such a risible gimmick to generate excitement. Baseball may lack action, but that is due to fundamental changes to the sport which no cosmetic fix can mitigate.
Three False Idols
The ghost runner is an artifice, but it is intended to cure a real malady: games are longer than ever, yet the longer they’ve gotten, the less, paradoxically, that happens in them. Exactly two balls, for instance, were put in play over the final 26 minutes of Game 6 of last year’s World Series. Over its 208-minute duration, only 32 balls were put in play, “or one every 6-and-a-half minutes.” There were more pitchers (12) than hits (10). Viewers “saw 27 batters strike out, or 42 percent of all plate appearances. That is, if they saw anything at all.” Considering it was the lowest rated World Series of all time, they probably didn’t. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, who compiled these dismal numbers, grimly concludes: “Baseball has slow-played itself into an existential crisis.” As is so often the case, the crisis is one of the victim’s own making.
Nowadays even casual fans are aware of the statistical revolution that has remade baseball. To the delight of some and the dismay of others, categories like OPS, WAR, WHIP, UZR, BABIP, WOBA, WRC, and FIP have gone from internet chat rooms to ESPN. But the primary culprit for baseball’s testudinal travails is one which isn’t as prominent in the new lexicon. That would be TTO, for the so-called three true outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and homers.
The true outcomes, ideally, reduce baseball to its essence—pitcher vs. hitter—while eliminating adventitious factors such as defense and the randomness of batted balls. As with the ghost runner, there are valid grounds for preferring a true outcome to a “false” one. You’d rather a batter strike out than ground into a double play. A three-run home run is superior to scratching out a run via bunt or sacrifice fly (both of which, because they require surrendering outs, actually decrease the odds of scoring).
The problem is that a batter is more likely to swing and miss on strike three than slam an Earl Weaver special. The strikeout is the most common true outcome, and it has proliferated so much in the last half decade that there are now more of them than hits. There have been since 2018, when it happened for the first time, to the consternation of fans and writers alike. The rate of home runs has gone up as well, the flip side of the boom-and-bust approach batters now deploy.
In 2019, the last full season, a record 36 percent of plate appearances culminated in a true outcome. The K rate hit its own record of 23 percent. This season began with teams whiffing at an extraordinary clip of 27.65 percent. According to calculations by Bill Felder of the website Call to the Pen, the TTO rate for 2021 will reach 40 percent, while in 2027 an eye-watering half of all plate appearances will end in a strikeout, walk, or home run. But mostly strikeouts, which will be over 36 percent by then. As Felder notes, the increase in the strikeout rate is far outstripping the rise in walks and home runs. In 2017, over 42 percent of all runs were scored via the homer. By 2027, that might be the only way any runs are scored at all.
There are numerous reasons for the TTOs’ expanding hegemony, but they all add up to one overwhelming consequence for the sport itself: a precipitous decrease in balls in play. The point of baseball is to put balls in play. It’s how you score runs. But over the last decade, according to Verducci, the percentage of pitches put into play dropped from 18.3 to 15.8 percent. Pitchers aren’t blameless. Seeking to avoid contact, they’re throwing more pitches than ever.
More pitches. Less contact. More dead time. It adds up to 259 pitches per game without the ball in play, up from 239 just 10 years ago and 213 from 1988, when pitch data began. In 2011 fans waited on average three minutes and 18 seconds to see a ball put in play. Last year the wait was four minutes.
The deleterious effects on the presentation and experience of the game are obvious. Even the mechanics of baseball have been re-oriented around the three true outcomes as pitchers and hitters are trained to maximize their spin rate and launch angle, respectively. The higher a pitcher’s spin rate, the more his pitches move. The more they move, the harder they are to hit. (Too hard, in the eyes of baseball, which is about to crack down on the artificial means they use to boost spin rates.) The higher a hitter’s launch angle, the likelier he is to hit one out. And the less likely either is able to do anything else.
Launch angles? Spin rates? That’s engineering or ballistics, not baseball. Guardian columnist David Lengel’s lament of a few years ago still resonates: “Baseball is not merely a company, in which reaching maximum efficiency in every department is God. It is also entertainment, and fans want to see athletes make athletic plays. That doesn’t happen when strikeouts, walks, or home runs become one of the most common outcomes in an at bat.” Or as Arizona sports radio host David Bickley declared a few weeks ago, baseball was better the ’60s and ’70s for back then “it was sport and not math, and math will never be America’s pastime.” Not that baseball is these days, either.
The more analytics has reshaped the sport the more it has resorted to expedients to hold onto its shrinking footprint in the popular imagination. Besides the ghost runner, MLB in recent years has adopted seven-inning doubleheaders, limited mound visits, required relief pitchers to face at least three batters, and begun awarding first base on intentional walks automatically instead of having the pitcher throw four balls. In the works are automated strike zones, outlawing defensive shifts, the universal designated hitter (tried in last year’s pandemic season), perhaps even moving the mound back (last done, and for the same reason, in 1893). The DH was implemented in the American League in 1973 and the mound was lowered in 1969, both in order to boost offense. Baseball’s latest attempts to increase scoring are nothing new. But now the powers that be have begun tinkering with the basic product, which will only adulterate it further.
There is, moreover, nothing anyone can do about the reality that a relief pitcher facing a batter for the first time stands a much better chance of retiring him than a starter seeing him for the third; or that a lefthanded pitcher is likelier to get out a lefthanded batter and vice versa. So managers will continue bringing in relievers, which prolongs the game. Just as batters seeing more pitches as they walk or strikeout while waiting for the best one to launch over the fences prolongs the game. And fans will wonder why they should pay hundreds of dollars to see nothing happen in person when they can see that at home for free. Millions have already answered, they shouldn’t.
Nor do the aforementioned procedures to speed up games do anything to reduce one of the chief causes of their elongation: the enormous time-wasting that occurs between pitches when hitters step out of the batter’s box and pitchers walk off the mound. This “has added 13 minutes, 17 seconds of pure dead time to a game” since 2011. Little wonder that Verducci dismisses remedial measures like curtailing mound visits as treating a “ravaging illness” with “lip service and Band-Aids.”
A little knowledge, the proverb holds, is a dangerous thing. But sometimes so is a lot. So determined a writer named Steven Goldleaf, who in a 2017 post entitled “How Sabermetrics Has Ruined Baseball” argued that baseball’s surfeit of knowledge was imperiling it by driving the twain of “mak[ing] winning more likely” and “making the game more enjoyable to watch” further and further apart.
Analytics makes winning more likely by increasing awareness of strategies that help win games. But those strategies slow games down and make them longer. The most radical consequence of this is that for the first time, “winning games and enjoying games” have become potentially divergent aspirations. Teams want to win. So do fans, but they want to enjoy the game, too. As sabermetrics becomes more sophisticated and entrenched, it is likely to produce strategies that, in the name of winning, slow the game down even more. Hence, proposed Goldleaf, not all knowledge is good that aids the pursuit of victory, and “where aesthetics and enjoyment are concerned,” it’s even possible to have too much.
You play to win the game. But how you play to win matters, too. Because of the ascent of analytics, baseball is being played in a way, warned Goldleaf, that if continued could “easily lead to the ruination of the game itself.” Or as another skeptic of the rationalizing mindset expressed it: “Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?”
Rule and Line
It’s hard sometimes to tell which is the national pastime, baseball or bemoaning the state of baseball. Something about the sport lends itself to the dissatisfaction of nostalgia. Baseball is one of those things—like the Republic and the Republican Party—which seems always to be in decline and therefore better in the past.
Like those other entities, baseball has been in decline for a long time. Do a web search for terms such as “baseball is boring” or “what’s wrong with baseball?” and you’ll get hundreds of hits going back years. Like a 2019 article in The Nation about “Why No One Watches Baseball Anymore.” The year before, writers for the Chicago Tribune pondered “What’s wrong with baseball—and 18 ways to fix it.” Ben McGrath mourned “The Twilight of Baseball” in The New Yorker in 2014. And ESPN’s Rob Neyer was worrying that baseball “seems determined to reduce itself to one player throwing and another player occasionally swinging a long stick, and occasionally making contact” in 2010, well before anyone outside Usenet had heard of the three true outcomes.
Even this year’s spate of no-hitters has aroused discontent, with some fans seeing it as emblematic of what ails the game today.
A no-hitter is usually considered one of the sport’s grandest achievements. Yet the burst of so many in such a short span seemed rather to deprecate it, a testament not to pitchers’ mastery of their craft but hitters’ regression in theirs.
Complaining about the state of baseball is a thing people do. It’s like a merit badge for American male middle-age-hood. Fans still repine about the DH, and it’s been around as long as I have. Some of the recent innovations, moreover, have been good. The erosion of the so-called unwritten rules, for example. But on the whole the critics are right. Baseball has changed, and for the worse.
The changes extend to the arenas themselves. Modern stadiums seem almost to cater more to non-fans than fans. Attend a game and you’ll encounter clubs and climbing walls, pool halls and playgrounds. It’s as though owners are embarrassed by their product and want to divert attention from it. Buy a ticket and you, too, can sit at a bar in right or left field and watch the game on TV. Or, better yet, multiple games. That way you might even see a hit. There has to be one out there, somewhere.
The weird, the bizarre, the unpredictable—those are the essence of baseball. It thrives on them, needs them to survive in a way the rest don’t. Baseball is the sport of infield fly rules and bloop singles. Other sports have stats, history, record books, and John Facenda. Baseball has lore. Lore like Wilson Valdez becoming the first player to start a game in the field and then win it as pitcher of record since Babe Ruth 90 years before.
At least for now it does. Until its mysteries are conquered “by rule and line,” and it is reduced to “the dull catalogue of common things.” Launch angles, spin rates, and the three true outcomes may have produced a more efficient, a more rational game. But it is a game from which all charms are flying.
A sport in which Wilson Valdez can take over pitching duties in the 19th inning is better than one in which he can’t. What is more baseball than a career utility infielder ascending the mound well past midnight to the ecstatic cheers of the remaining fans and shaking off his catcher to the delighted looks of his teammates? That is baseball, in all its glorious absurdity. Or, rather, was. You can have ghost runners or you can have Wilson Valdez. I’ll take the latter 162 games a year.
“To live,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often.” Baseball, especially of late, has changed. Whether it lives is a matter of dispute. But very early one May morning in Philadelphia 10 years ago, it was perfect.