Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Baseball Post

So, Conor Friedersdorf had a big-think piece this week about how he'd like to reform major sports for the twitter age. His argument (for better or worse) is that between shorter attention spans and DVRs and whatever, the major team sports need some perking up. I don't really agree, but it's an excuse to actually blog about my opinion about basketball as a spectator sport, so: hey, I'll play.

I'll start with the NFL, which Friedersdorf oddly believes is fast-paced. This is some sort of oddball fantasy world that some football fans live is, of course, fast-paced only in very, very short bursts, which are surrounded by everyone sitting around waiting. However, as it turns out DVRs were made for football, because you can get behind and then forward through the huddle (or, if you're lucky, you have one of those "move ahead" buttons that you can hit as plays end. At least, that's how I watch football these days. Doesn't everyone? The only problem is that I used to read the Sunday paper during NFL games, and now I actually focus on the game (but get through it very quickly).

Baseball? As with the NFL, baseball is wildly popular. It doesn't need significant changes (the big changes MLB needs have to do with season/postseason structure, but I'll save those for another time). Friedersdorf has a goofy, gimicky idea about swapping about it if you want, but I'm not impressed. I do wonder whether casual fans watch baseball the way I watch the future, we'll all have a programmable button to shift ahead a few seconds, and people will use that; my own system's button misses a pitch if I use it (which I guess means, in case you're not paying attention carefully, that there appears to be more down time in football than baseball).

Ah, but then we get to the NBA, and the actual excuse for this post. Friedersdorf is on the right track here: he wants to save up all free throws, and then only award the excess ones to the team entitled to more. Good idea; free throws are, in fact, horribly boring.

But not good enough. Look, the problem with organized basketball, at all levels, is that it just isn't as good a game as pickup basketball. The clock stinks, free throws stink, the whole thing is wrong.

Here's what they should do: they should play to a number, just like pickup games are played. No foul shots; if you're fouled, you get the ball back. You do, however, keep personal fouls, so a guy can still foul out over the course of a night (and if that's not enough, perhaps you award two personals on a flagrant foul, or whatever).

As for the structure of the game -- I'm pretty flexible on that. My guess would be something like this: at the professional level, over the course of one "game" night the teams would play, say, five games to 21 (win by two!), with each of those games counting as a point in the standings, and another point to the team that won the most games. Again, I don't know the exact formula, but the idea is to get rid of clock management and just play ball. I'm assuming that you wouldn't need a shot clock; if it turned out that you did (if, say, teams were waiting too long to get the absolutely perfect shot), the go ahead and add one.

Now, obviously, this is very high in the category of things we'll never see. But I'm really convinced I'm right about it.

OK, that's it. Feel free to beat up on me, NBA fans.


  1. I am not really a sports fan of any kind, so I am not really your target audience. I will mainly say that your opinions on the sports seem to be very influenced by which sports are your current favorites.

    As a non-fan in general I will watch football, although I agree that there is too much downtime between plays. When the plays are actually happening though, football is consistently interesting.

    Basketball is one of the few sports I actually regularly attended during college and I don't really think the downtime is that big of a factor. Free throws are boring, but moving them all to the end would turn the game into soccer. Rather than the excitement of the game turning around at the buzzer, you would defer the end of the game to the free throw section, because that is often where the game would be won or lost. That makes the problem even worse because now you have moved all the excitement into the worst part of the game.

    Baseball is the only popular team sport that makes me want to take a nap. I find the whole process interminable. Unlike the other sports, it is even worse in person. Baseball has long periods of nothing happening that as a non-fan I can't even understand the reason for. I understand the need in football to obsess over the chains, the penalties, the huddle and timeouts. I understand free throws in basketball. I don't understand the standing around between batters and at the start of the innings and the just whipping the ball around.

    The last minor league game I attended lasted over three hours, probably close to four, and was exciting as these things go in that it was decided in the ninth inning. It also featured no more than one hour of play in those close to four hours. It was maddening. If you want to pick a game to switch styles closer to how pick up games are played, pick baseball.

    In general, TV is the culprit for most of the boring nonsense that happens in team sports. The need for commercial breaks warps all the sports. The baseball game I described above was not televised though, so TV can not be blamed. It is something to do with the way the game is played at high levels.

  2. Frierersdorf is way off here. To see why, go to your local TGIF's that has NTN and play QB1 sometime. Its an interactive football game that allows you to predict the next play (run v. pass, deep v. short, left v. right) and compete against others around the world. Really entertaining. They have a baseball version that is somewhat less entertaining, and to my knowledge, there never were basketball, hockey or soccer variants.

    The American fan likes sports as follows: football>baseball>>basketball>>>soccer/hockey, or in direct relation to those sports' suitability to NTN. In other words, we like sports in direct proportion to how the evolving strategy is understandable to an armchair coach.

    When the Colts are deep in their territory and trailing the Saints by a touchdown in the 4th quarter of SB 43, you know Manning has a complex pass offense with a tendency to throw lots of picks. Should he go downfield? Try a run? A crossing pattern to Reggie Wayne that might be a championship-losing pick six? They could have a ten minute commercial break at that point for all the fan has to ponder there.

    By contrast, when ManU is down a goal late in a key soccer game, what is their strategy? Run faster? Try harder? What does a fan think about during down time in soccer? How they should run more? That may work for Europeans, but for American fans used to the complex intrigue of football or baseball, (European) football is far too simple to catch our interest.

    Back to Frieresdorf, if he thinks the sine qua non of organized sports is simply the "action", as opposed to the evolving strategy, he ought to come out and visit sometime. We have a bunch of horse farms around here where the horses just run around randomly all day long. No commercial breaks, either.

  3. Soccer fans agonize quite a bit over personnel and formations, just from my limited exposure, so I imagine there's more strategic depth than you give it credit for. Still, the point about the strategic intensity of downtime in football and baseball is well made. We Americans love our turn-based sports.

  4. For the same reasons CSH lays out, I think the incredible strategic / tactical depth of football keeps its interruptions from being a problem.

    One of the problems with a final point number for basketball is that people usually like the high-scoring games with lots of offensive success better than the low-scoring ones. So the good games would be over quick, and the bad games would drag on forever.

  5. A major problem with basketball (in my eyes) is that a team chasing a four point deficit late in the game (say with one minute left) knows that it's legitimate to foul opponents quickly, gambling that the opponents will miss one or more free throws.

    I can't think of any other sport where fouling an opponent yields such an advantage. In soccer, so-called professional fouls (to stop an opponent who has a clear shot on goal) are now often punished with a sending off.

    I'd prefer to see some change to the rules, so that the chasing team is penalized for fouling in the final minute (for example, free throws plus the fouled team regains posession at the sideline). But you could also speed up the shot clock, say to 15 seconds, so that the side with the lead can't just run out the clock.

  6. Yeah, there's plenty of strategic implications in soccer (the last few minutes, for example, are when you actually make substitutions). I don't know how widely they've been explored yet (Americans seem more interested in quantifying and strategizing their sports than others), but they're their if someone's thinking about it.

    Disagree with JB about basketball. Clock management is actually an entertaining part of the game- though yes, the automatic fouls from the chasing team are geting pretty obnoxious. I'd actually like to see some numbers run on all of these late-game "traditions"- fouls, pulling the home goailie, etc. We've seen some numbers on pinch-hitters and going for it on fourh down, but we can look at a lot more.

    Which brings me to another question- doesn't it seem like football and baseball have gotten more statistical analysis?

  7. Pat makes a good point about turn-based sports, but I suspect it is only true to the extent that they both a) allow space to ponder implications, and b) have implications that are easily observable to the average fan.

    At the extreme, playoff baseball is the most entertaining sporting event because there can be several hundred easily-observable moments of pivotal strategic shift within a single game. When Lincecum and Halladay faced off in Game 5 of last year's NLCS, with the series on the line, every pitch mattered because every baserunner mattered, and each pitch changes the probability of that hitter becoming a coveted baserunner. To Colby's question above about why baseball has the most statistical analysis, I believe it has to do with baseball having the most easily-ponderable pivotal shifts, which just begs for nerds to drill into the implications.

    Basketball (and arguably hockey and soccer) are "turn-based" sports, but they lack the depth or frequency of these strategic shifts. Two examples from basketball: during the second half of this year's NCAA final, with UConn killing Butler on the inside, Brad Stevens switched from his patented aggressive man defense to a sagging zone. A reasonable strategy when your opponent is killing you on the inside, but announcer Steve Kerr was apopletic, making the argument that all hoops fans know so well: "THAT'S NOT WHO BUTLER IS!!!"

    Also, if you've ever watched Selection Sunday, you've heard this cliche many times: seeds are important, but much more important are your matchups, you need a path to the Final Four with opponents that are suitable for you to beat. These two anecdotes suggest that basketball, more than football or baseball, lacks strategic complexity, as "getting a poor matchup" in the NCAA tournament is ostensibly fatal, before your team even had the chance to take the floor and adjust to their circumstances.

    Finally, while soccer no doubt has strategic adjustments in response to developments in the game, it strains credulity to believe they are anywhere near as intriguing as those in baseball or football. After all, unless its halftime, a player is injured or the ball is kicked far out of bounds, the action NEVER STOPS in soccer, so its hard to figure where the fan has time to ponder the implications of the constant motion in front of him.

    And finally, its not just the turn-based sports. On this day in particular, we should recall a very popular US sport that is not turn-based but nevertheless strategically intriguing, in particular we should recall this shot from one year ago. I count myself among legions of middle-aged, overweight guys who have been in that straw at a local muni, with a view framed by those trees, pondering what to do as Mickelson did, and of course never succeeding as Mickelson did. For we fans, both the shot, and the tension-filled several minutes that led up to it, were easily one of the top five most entertaining of the sports year 2010.

  8. Neil,

    I suppose that's true, but, OK. I can definitely imagine people being frustrated by a game like the NCAA final if it took tons of time to get to the number. But then again, everyone hated that game anyway.

    One of the best things about a play-to-a-number system, of course, is that the whole thing about the first half (or first three quarters) not mattering would be completely completely gone. Seems to me that that's a good trade for the occasional fiasco with a game that seems to go on forever with no one scoring.


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