“Saving” baseball with game theory

The conventional wisdom this summer is that baseball is struggling. Games are boring and long, too many teams are really bad, and so no one is watching. Unsurprisingly, this supposed sorry state of things has prompted people to offer “advice.” 

The worst piece I’ve seen so far is this article from the Wall Street Journal. I’ll save you the read. The author reports on a proposal called the “Catch-Up Rule.” When a team is ahead, they only get two outs per inning instead of the usual three. This makes the games closer and faster, and this is supposed to make them more appealing.

The original proposal appears to come from a game theorist and a computer scientist at NYU. If you needed proof that “game theory” isn’t actually about what we usually think of as games, this is it. 

The proposal is absurd, but it’s worth considering just what is so bad about it. First, the common complaint against baseball these days is that there isn’t enough action. This proposal would reduce the amount of action by reducing the number of outs. Second, the authors propose that the rule would reduce inequality between teams by artificially hindering the ability of the good teams to succeed. I doubt this would happen. Instead, the good teams would assume even less risk, and thereby continue their dominance, just at a faster clip. More generally, a lot of baseball is about random chance–this is why there are 162 games–and reducing the number of baseball events will emphasize the randomness.

But these are minor quibbles compared to the basic mistake the authors make. They seem to think that the purpose of playing a baseball game (and to be fair, they propose similar changes to basketball and football) is to see who wins. Rule changes that reach that end state more efficiently are therefore regarded as desirable.

This way of thinking confuses the goal with the point of the game. But the distinction between the goal and the point of a game is what makes it a game. A game is an activity in which we voluntarily, and for the purposes of playing the game, rule out the most efficient means to the goal. Consider soccer (a game that doesn’t seem friendly to a “catch-up” rule). Two of the most important rules of soccer specifically prevent the most efficient means of scoring: no hands, and no off-sides. People sometimes complain that soccer is too slow, there isn’t enough scoring, the attacks are opaque, etc. How much better would it be if you could just pick the ball up? Well, it wouldn’t be better soccer, because it wouldn’t be soccer. Though a game must have a target or goal of some sort–some action or event that is aimed at–the purpose of playing (or enjoying) the game is the joy of playing itself.

I think most serious baseball fans would object not for the sake of tradition, but because they enjoy the game, and not just the result. Reducing the number of things that happen isn’t desirable, even if it gets to an end faster. But let’s grant that serious fans aren’t bothered by the lethargic pace these days. (I’m not sure that’s true, but let’s grant it for argument.) Will the causal fans be better off? I kind of doubt it. First, to the casual fan, we’d be adding a rule that seems manifestly unfair. I’m not sure that it would be so easy to explain why competitive balance is more desirable than more exhibitions of baseball skill, but this is exactly the proposed tradeoff. Second, the rule would reduce the amount of skill displayed by limiting the opportunities for the better team to hit. Supposedly the problem is that there isn’t enough hitting, but the proposal suggests reducing it even more. And third, I think that a casual fan would likely intuit that something seems off when we have to redesign the game to finish it faster. 

The authors point out that having more people watch a game would be good for baseball revenue. Shorter games would permit more watchers, and so shorter games means more revenue. But baseball isn’t hurting for revenue, and changing the game to make it not just unrecognizable as baseball, but a deficient game seems likely to be counterproductive.

But the proposal as a whole is a perfect illustration of how suck the life out of something by making a theory of it. Baseball fans, like any sports fans, can get nerdy about the details of their passion, but fundamentally that obsession is driven by a love of the game, not a love for the theory of the game. And perhaps there’s a lesson in that for other things too.