Behind the Scoreboard July 28, 2009
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.

What If?

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.

Advantages of a 2-1 Full Count

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.

Blasphemy!

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.

Cricket has three varieties; the 5-day (test) format, the one-day (50 over) format and the new (20 over) format. The 20-over, done-in-2-hours game has invigorated the sport.

You have to wonder whether a 5/6-inning 3-balls 2-strikes shortened version of this game would do the same. Speed up the game even more by only allowing one pitching change.

I'd much rather see three balls to a walk than two strikes to a strikeout. Hitting a pitch is more difficult than throwing a strike so we should be helping the batter not making it more difficult. Also lowering the number of balls to a walk would increase the number of balls in play and reduce the number of strikeouts. I would wager that this is something that fans, both causal and serious, would appreciate. While a batter getting blown away by a high heater can be quite exciting, baseball doesn't tend to have a ton of movement and getting more balls hit in the air, with a quick gasp by the crowd, before they realize the ball's not leaving the yard can only help baseball's enjoyment. Having more Dunns, Reynolds, Howards and Custs in baseball can only lead to more whining about modern batters inability to hit and less overall action in the game.

"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."

I think that there are actually lots of people who complain about the increase in striekouts. Mostly by older people who don't understand the trade off between KOs for BBs and HRs, but nonetheless there are a lot of people who complain about modern hitters' inability to avoid the KO. For example here's a recent article (make sure to look at the comments for a lot of "players back in my day always pt the ball in play...").

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=4290105

YES! Then pitchers could easily throw 7+ innings in all-star games. LOL

Toffer,
Having 3 balls to a walk without a corresponding reduction in strikes would lead to a major change in the game. The walk rate would nearly double to over 15%. OBP would jump to nearly .400, and players would slug .460. If you reduce the number of balls, you also have to reduce the # of strikes.

You make a point with #2, it's true some do complain about that, but usually it's in regards to the fact that THEIR guys are stinking, not the fact that the game is less aesthetically pleasing because of more strikeouts.

The problem, as noted at the end of the article, that "three strikes and you're out" is too ingrained in our culture. If you change this, you might as well go to three bases or something.

At the most you might be able to get away with a rule saying all batters start out with one strike and one ball. And then the pitcher can waive this and start the count at 0-0 instead of 1-1. Pitchers almost never will do this, so you get your 2 strikes and 3 balls while still keeping the pretence that there are actually 3 strikes.

Interesting. I was just thinking last week what the impacts would be if the games were cut to only last 6 innings instead of 9. This is a similar idea. I think I like the shorter count better as it would also accomplish a good goal of shortening the game and reducing the number of pitchers that need to be used in a game.

Every softball league I have played in has used this rule; they also call all fouls a strike, so a foul ball on the second strike is an out. I will note this is slow-pitch, so maybe the foul rule was to hold scores down a bit.

I don't know if MLB would adopt this, but I could see a new league using it. Another change to help balance things for the offense might simply be Bill James' limit on throws to hold runners on: you get two per inning, and then (if you don't get the runner) it is a ball.

A brisker game with less reliance on middle relief would be a pleasure. To be fair, I have been thinking about this change without running the numbers, so I am biased in its favor.

This is very similar to what Charlie Finely proposed when he owned the A's.

Charlie Finley actually got it implemented in spring training, and I believe it actually resulted in more walks and longer games. Still, love the idea.

I like everything about the idea but the reduction in offense. I'd split the difference and favor a three-ball, three-strike count. Attendance figures show that, historically, fans like offense. Also, since you're hearing so few complaints about increased strikeouts, I'll go on record as saying they're boring and as Crash Davis says, "fascist". (I once saw a 31-strikeout game, good lord, loads of fun to watch 31 "hitters" walking to the plate, whiffing, and dragging their bats back to the dugout!)

It is true that this drastic a rules change would never be implemented, but your analysis is nowhere near why such a change has no chance. It's simple: by shortening games (let's say a half hour), all of the concessions would be subject to a substantial reduction in revenue.

Ain't gonna' happen. Baseball often shoots itself in the foot, but never in the wallet!

This is a pretty stupid idea.

1) A batter that is at a 1-1 count has already seen two pitches from the pitcher. Sometimes both fastballs, others a fast and a curve/slider. Having seen two pitches already, the batter has a better idea of how the pitches are coming in as opposed to when he just started the at bat. So to say that it's the same thing is false.

2) There would have to be a new baseball record book if this were to ever (God forbid) take place. "the average game would take just 109 pitches, meaning that pitchers could once again consistently throw a complete game." This virtually eliminates the closer role. There won't be a need to a Rivera or a Nathan to be on a team. This also eliminates the accolades a pitcher gets for shutting down a team for 9 innings because their managers will toss them out there for 9 innings for almost every start. CGs will be a thing of the norm. You then would have to award wins for pitchers after the 6th or 7th inning.

3a) The number of pitches in game is not the real reason why games drag on forever. Something I would like to see minimized (or eliminated) are the warm-up throws from a reliever after he's out of the bullpen. He just threw a ton before being brought out, and now he needs to throw another 10? This alone can save anywhere from 15-30 min a game (just off the top of my head guess).

3b) Every pitcher should get a video of Roy Halladay's games. I don't know the actual numbers but games are shorter when he is on the mound. He gets his sign and delivers. Guys like Pettite and take forever to pitch once the sign is given. I do agree with the pick-off rule that was mentioned before.

4) What is wrong with more strikeouts? Fans enjoy when their pitcher is mowing down batter after batter. Tommy, so you're saying that you would rather see a starting pitcher induce or 13 routine ground balls than him striking out 10 in 6 innings? And those fans that like offense are generally those who don't give a shit about the sport. Real fans understand the game and most (like me) would rather see a 4-2 final score than one that ends 13-10. You can't get a shorter game if a ton of runs are scored. That just leads to more mound visits and therefore more relievers are used.

Sky, this is a well written article and I respect all the work and analysis you put in. But if this is your biggest argument to reduce the length of games, you really need to watch more baseball and pay attention to what really drags the game on.

Bubbles, you aren't in touch with reality regarding your comment on relievers warming up.

I suggest using a stopwatch some time.

Someone took the time to pick apart your entire analysis and I thought I would forward that along.

http://www.neutralsource.org/content/blog/detail/1208/