Two Strikes, You're Out? Could Baseball Improve the Game By Altering One of Its Fundamental Rules?
Last week I wrote an article analyzing how batters and pitchers work the count. I led off the piece by talking about how the rules codifying four balls for a walk and three strikes for an out were fundamental foundations of the game. While it's hard to imagine otherwise, there's no real rhyme or reason why these numbers were chosen - they simply worked well and over time they became tradition.
The rules weren't always the same. In 1879, the rules were originally nine balls for a walk. The number of balls for a walk were gradually reduced to four balls to a walk by 1889. The number of strikes for an out was also temporarily changed in 1887 from three strikes to four. For the last 120 years however, the rules have been the same.
Of course, today nine balls to a walk sounds ludicrous - pitchers would simply dally and work around the strike zone trying to get a batter to chase a pitch outside, leading to interminable at-bats and increasingly long games. Clearly, reducing the number of balls required for a walk was a wise move and the same goes for reducing the number of strikes from four to three. But did the founders of the game go far enough?
The Long Count
One thing I noticed last week when I looked at how pitchers and hitters work the count, is how most of the action happens deep into the count. The ball is rarely hit into play on the first pitch. Why this occurs is understandable. With plenty more opportunities, the batter wants to swing only at pitches he thinks he can drive. Meanwhile the pitcher, with four balls to work with, is not going to give in and throw a get-me-over pitch on the first pitch. Hence, the pitcher nibbles and the batter takes the pitch a large majority of the time. The result is while 46% of all pitches are swung at, batters swing at only 28% of first pitches. Meanwhile, while 19.7% of all pitches are put into play, this is reduced to only 12.6% on the first pitch. A table of the percentage of pitch outcomes in each count is reproduced from last week's article below.
This is fine from a player's standpoint, but from the stands, this is an unappealing outcome - it's simply not exciting to watch a batter take a pitch - it prolongs the at-bat and doesn't add a lot to the game. As you can see, the counts involving no balls or no strikes have lower in-play rates than deeper counts. This is especially true when the count is 3-0 - the batter swings just 3% of the time - not exactly action packed excitement. From the fans point of view, if these types of actionless counts could be eliminated, it might be a good thing.
So, what if the founders had continued reducing the number of pitches required for a walk or a strikeout? Would the game look basically the same, except with the number of pitches reduced, or would the game be radically altered?
What would happen if it only took three balls for a walk and two strikes for an out? We can get a fair approximation of what that would look like by taking a look at how hitters fared once the count had already reached 1-1. At that point, it takes three balls for a walk and two strikes for an out - exactly the rule change we are considering. Now, things of course might be slightly different with the batter essentially starting from a 1-1 count rather than working to a 1-1 count, but I think the parallel is a fair one.
Taking a look at the above chart (for 2007 data), I'm struck by how similar the data for 1-1 counts are to the overall data. Granted, the overall production is slightly less - instead of a .268 BAV, players would hit just .250, with similar reductions in OBP and SLG, but the change is hardly drastic. Additionally, the doubles, triples, and homers would be very similar to what they are now.
What is most surprising perhaps, is how constant the walk and strikeout rates are. With the rules set at three balls and two strikes, one would think there would be vastly more walks and strikeouts than currently exist - and if this were true, it would likely be an aesthetic drawback. But surprisingly, the walk rate with a 1-1 count is nearly exactly the same as the walk rate with an 0-0 count! Despite the fact that pitchers only have three balls to work with, they are able to limit base-on-balls to the same levels as when they have four balls to work with. There would be slightly more strikeouts with a 3 ball, 2 strike rule, but the number is not vastly different - an increase from 17% to 21%.
Comparing these numbers to those from other eras in baseball history, we see that the game under this proposed rule change fits right in with other periods of baseball history. The chart above shows the rates of hitter outcomes under the new rule change, and rates of outcomes during various eras of baseball history. As we can see, many other fluctuations in the game's history were much stronger than what we would likely see if the game adopted the three ball, two strike rule. In fact, the game, in terms of run scoring, would look very similar to the game in 1985, with very similar BAV/OBP/SLG splits. The only real difference would be that a higher proportion of the outs would be strikeouts.
While one can debate the aesthetic merits of the strikeout, the number of strikeouts has steadily increased throughout baseball history and nobody has seemed to mind all that much. The proposed rule change would increase the number of strikeouts by about 25% over its current level. That may sound like a lot, until you consider that baseball has increased the number of strikeouts by about that same percentage during the last 25 years and nobody has really seemed to complain or notice much at all.
The advantages of the reduction in the number of balls and strikes required for a walk or a strikeout respectively is obvious. Less downtime and more action. The rule change would force pitchers and batters to get down to business sooner. The pitch data indicates that the batter and pitcher are nibbling and being selective early in the count (with good reason), and the fact that the hitter outcomes are basically the same with a 1-1 count indicates that there is no fundamental reason for such a long count.
With three balls to a walk and two strikes to an out, a fair amount of the fat would be cut out of the game. Currently, there are 3.77 pitches per plate appearance. With the reduced count, this number would decrease to just 2.81 pitches per plate appearance. This would cause a 25% reduction in pitches, meaning that the games would be much shorter and pitchers would be able to go much deeper into games. Instead of the average game taking 146 pitches to complete, the average game would take just 109 pitches, meaning that pitchers could once again consistently throw a complete game - another aesthetic plus (from my point of view). Of course, since the best pitchers could now pitch longer, this would likely reduce scoring even a bit more than the table above, but it's not clear by just how much. Game lengths, if they were reduced by the same percentage, would be cut from 2 hours 47 minutes down to 2 hours 6 minutes - all while keeping basically the same amount of action and excitement in the game.
If the rule were truly adopted, it might be wise to couple it with an advantage for the hitter, such as a lowering of the mound, to limit the increase in the strikeouts and keep run scoring more similar to the current levels. Still, even if no such rules were adopted, the run scoring environment would likely be similar to that of many other eras in baseball history.
Of course, such a change in practicality is unimaginable. Baseball simply doesn't change 100 year old rules and purist fans simply would never have it. The public outcry would be huge. The association of three strikes to an out is so strong that it has permeated not only the consciousness of every baseball fan, but has worked its way into many other parts of American society. To many, it just wouldn't be right to be called out on only two strikes. Of course, tradition alone does not make something right.
While I propose this rule change in half-jest, I do believe that had the founders reduced the number of balls and strikes in the 19th century, we might have a better and more enjoyable game today - one that at its core is essentially unchanged, with the same outcomes and action we are used to, without a lot of the downtime which many fans find unappealing about the game.