We’ll miss the London Series, which gave us the weirdest MLB game of 2019
America’s second attempt at exporting its national pastime to England was called off this week. Regardless of when Major League Baseball begins play again, the 2020 season will not include a London Series.
As with so many coronavirus-related cancellations, this one is unsurprising, for the best and sad. The first attempt at Baseball Goes To London produced games so absurd and outlandish the sport seemed to morph into a new species over there. Indeed, the two-game series between the Red Sox and Yankees last June brought to mind a comment that White Sox broadcaster Jason Benetti had made earlier in the season.
Benetti, speaking in the ninth inning of a 12-11 game that had featured a pivotal homer-turned-single, said:
“Just an outlandish night at the ballpark. One of those nights where if you’re at your first game and somebody’s trying to explain the game of baseball to you, it’s very difficult on them, because they have a lot of questions and they’re all valid questions: Why did he pass him on the home run? I don’t know … “
Which, for us, raised this question: Which 2019 game would be the most misleading for a first-time baseball viewer?
When I was a young baseball fan, one of the fun facts that lodged in my mind was that the most common score in Major League Baseball’s decades of history was 5-3. If you wanted to show a fan what baseball at the highest level looks like, you might plausibly start your search with a 5-3 game. You wouldn’t start with a 12-11 game.
On the other hand, there are more than 200 12-11 games in baseball history, so if you were to show a fan what baseball at the highest level doesn’t look like, you wouldn’t start there, either. In fact, I don’t know where you’d start. Would you start with a score that has never happened — what SB Nation’s Jon Bois calls a Scorigami — like a 23-11 game? Still probably not. There have been 23-10 and 23-12 and 22-11 and 24-11 games. Nothing about that one extra run (or one missing run) is that significant to what baseball is. (Anyway, there were no Scorigami games last year. Best we can do is 21-1, of which there had already been five.)
Rather, you’d probably start by identifying what characteristics are intrinsic to major league baseball, and look for games that violated them. Those violations make the games not just odd, but nudge them toward something else entirely that isn’t major league baseball at all.
The list of things that are intrinsic to baseball might be 1,000 bullet points long, but we’ll just skip the first 994 or so and get to the biggies. In ascending order of importance, these are the things that are, or have been, close to imperative in order for modern major league baseball to be modern major league baseball:
1. There is a division of labor and a resulting gap in skill between hitters and pitchers.
It is not basketball, in other words, or golf, or tennis, or even hockey and soccer, where (excepting the goalkeepers) everybody has to be pretty good at everything. In baseball, pitchers often don’t have to hit and never have to field anything except comebackers and bunts. Hitters essentially never have to pitch. And, because they aren’t selected to do the other’s job, they’re almost all terrible at the other’s job. We went 100 years between Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani for a reason.
So we might be tempted to pick one of the many games in which a position player pitched, but those are easy enough to explain (as resource management in a blowout, like resting the regulars in any other sport). We might pick a game where a position player pitched in high leverage (like when Stevie Wilkerson got a save, or Roman Quinn took a loss), but those came in extreme extra innings, when it’s easy to explain that all the other players had been used.
A better exception would be Michael Lorenzen jogging out to play center field (one of the most demanding positions on the field!) after pitching two high-quality innings. The best violation of this baseball truth might be Noah Syndergaard’s True Win, when he threw a complete game shutout and homered in a 1-0 game. A first-time observer would quite possibly conclude from that game that, in baseball, the pitcher is also usually the best hitter, like in Little League. (This conclusion might be reinforced, or complicated, by pitcher Lorenzen coming into the game as a pinch runner and stealing the only base of the game.) That observer might also conclude that for some reason this best hitter bats last in the lineup instead of first, and wonder about it. They might also assume baseball games take about as long as a movie: Two hours and 10 minutes, which was the third-quickest nine-inning game this season.
2. Baseball is hard — or, better phrased, it is relatively evenly matched.
Baseball competition has its hierarchies, and because Hall of Famers are rarely allowed to face middle schoolers, there is always a basic parity between the sides. It is never too easy. There have been roughly a million games in which a batter got at least five plate appearances, for instance, and nobody has ever homered five times in a game. It’s a hard game!
So you might have a little trouble explaining Josh Hader‘s immaculate inning — all fastballs, seven swinging strikes, with a heater that wasn’t all that much harder (or funnier looking) than any other pitcher in that game’s fastball. Or Justin Verlander‘s no-hitter, in which he struck out half his batters and walked only one. But both of those are just fun achievements, not paradigm-shifting ones. And, anyway, the rule of baseball’s hierarchies (if you’re too good, you move up) doesn’t technically apply at the highest level, so at that level there is no rule that it has to be hard or evenly matched. It has just always worked out that way.
3. Each “Play” has two stages.
The first stage takes place between the pitcher and the batter. The second stage takes place between the defense and the batter, who upon contact becomes the baserunner. The first stage sets up the second stage (by producing the particular ball in play) and sometimes preempts it entirely, in the case of a walk or strikeout. In the middle is the home run, which has one foot in each category. The existence of both stages is absolutely crucial to baseball being baseball. Without the first stage, it’s tee-ball. Without the second, it’s the two-player baseball kids play in their backyards, with no fielding. And without either, it’s home run derby.
If there was a game in which literally every plate appearance ended in a walk or strikeout, then, the first-time observer would have no way of knowing that the seven fielders behind the pitcher are fielders at all. They might assume those seven were just moral support, such as the guy who skanked on stage at Mighty Mighty Bosstones concerts.
Of course, there was no such game last year. But the ratio of the different types of plays can vary greatly, and a first-time observer would have very different understandings of the sport depending on which type of game it was.
So the least representative game might well be one of these three:
On Aug. 15, the A’s and Astros played a 7-6 game, typical in most ways except that there were 10 homers hit in just 68 combined plate appearances. That was the highest home run rate of any game last season. If a superstar hitter could match that rate for a full season of 650 plate appearances, he’d hit 96 homers. Keep in mind, this was not a poorly pitched game; there were only 15 total hits, and only four walks on top. It just so happened that every fifth ball put in play, and every third ball hit in the air, was a home run. Our hypothetical fan would think that home runs were extremely easy.
On April 20, the Orioles and the Twins played a 16-7 game. This game didn’t have one freakish irregularity, but a freakish misallocation of all outcomes: The strikeout rate in the game (there were only seven) was the third lowest of any game all season; the walk rate (there was only one) was the seventh lowest of any game all season; the home run rate (there were 11) was the fourth highest of any game all season. So an observer would conclude that nearly every hitter in baseball puts a ball in play, that the battle over the strike zone is a relatively small part of the game, and that the defense is largely powerless against constant home runs. This game was the closest thing to an actual home run derby: The pitcher appeared to be grooving pitches, and success appeared to come down to whether the ball landed over the wall.
On Aug. 10, the Astros beat the Orioles 23-2, featuring another Stevie Wilkerson pitching appearance. (It was the seventh 23-2 game in history; this was the second-rarest score that occurred in the 2019 season.) When Wilkerson pitched, he didn’t attempt to throw hard-to-hit pitches at all. His pitches, when their velocities registered at all, were in the low 50s, and to the extent Wilkerson could put them in the center of the strike zone, he did. (Wilkerson, an outfielder, ended the season with the highest strike rate of any pitcher.) The Astros teed off, scoring three runs against him. For a little more than an inning, this was probably as unlike baseball as baseball looked in 2019: The pitcher conspiring with the batter to produce action, instead of trying to thwart him in any way. Explaining this to your new baseball fan would take more than one sentence to explain. On the other hand, it would probably take at most four sentences.
4. It’s played until nine innings are complete, and it’s played until there is a winner.
There is, in other words, no mechanism for ending a baseball game except by recording 27 outs. This brings rain-shortened games into our discussion, like the White Sox’s win on May 18, declared complete after exactly half of nine innings had been played. And it brings in extremely long games, like the Diamondbacks’ 19-inning win over the Cardinals on Sept. 24. But I don’t think either of these is hard to explain to a newcomer: Everybody understands bad weather forcing us all inside. And everybody understands the concept of overtime to declare a game’s winner. A non-nine-inning game would be hard to explain only if it went shorter or longer than nine innings by the participants’ choice — e.g. agreeing to a tie, or just getting tired and stopping whenever — and we don’t have any of those.
5. It is for the entertainment of others.
If there were no fans, people would still play baseball, and many of the best baseball players would still play each other, but there would be no major league baseball. So the game a few years ago when the Orioles and White Sox played in front of no crowd would be very confusing to the brand new baseball fan — though, also, easily explained as an anomaly. Though it’s been bandied about in sports as a possibility this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was no such game last year.
6. It is competitive between two teams trying to win.
This is the most intrinsic characteristic of professional baseball. Baseball is not a collaborative game, but a competitive one, and playing without competition would turn it into elaborate catch. A game in which one team is actively tanking — trying to lose, rather than win — would be hard to explain to a new fan. But there wasn’t such a game this year. Hasn’t been in a century, that we know of.
I do think that any game with a brawl fits in here, though. The notion that it is competitive means that an observer can assume that each individual act is also done for competitive reasons. The pitcher doesn’t throw over to first base arbitrarily, but because it has some competitive reason — holding a runner on. A catcher and a pitcher don’t congregate on the mound for no reason, but to discuss strategy, give the pitcher a break, motivate the pitcher, etc. There might be exceptions — picking up a piece of grass mindlessly — but they are small and frivolous. A brawl, though, is the rare moment when both teams engage in an extremely visible and intentional act that has nothing to do with gaining a competitive edge in the game. Indeed, brawling will generally hurt a team’s chances to win, by causing some of its players to become ejected. If a new fan is watching baseball with the rational assumption that everything they see is done as part of each team’s push to win a game, then the periodic pauses to punch each other would be very confusing.
Having gone through that process, I’m ready to conclude that the first game in London last year truly was the most confusing, according to Benetti’s formulation. Among the misunderstandings a first-time fan would draw about baseball from those nine innings:
That pitching is so exhausting that it is nearly impossible to go more than three innings. Each team’s starter went less than one inning. Only one pitcher in the whole game went more than two innings, and he went only three.
That teams usually start with their worst pitcher on the mound. New York’s Masahiro Tanaka was knocked out after allowing six runs. Boston’s Rick Porcello allowed six, too. They combined to get three outs.
That the sport is not primarily determined by the starting lineups at all, but by the full roster of starters and reserves. In all, 41 of the 50 rostered players appeared in this game. It wasn’t the bottom of the order getting replaced, either: The Yankees replaced their Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters, and the Red Sox replaced their 2, 3 and 5 hitters, suggesting strongly that the players on the bench might actually be considered better than the best starters, the way an anchor in a relay race is.
Of course, a lifelong baseball fan knows those players were pulled from the game because it was a blowout. But the first-time baseball fan watching this game would conclude that leads are all extremely precarious: A six-run lead in the first inning was wiped out within 20 minutes, and an 11-run lead was later threatened enough to require Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman‘s protection.
That defense is primarily about stopping runners from taking extra bases, rather than actually producing outs. The two teams hit the ball 72 times, and more than half — 37! — went for hits. The average exit velocity on contact was more than 5 mph harder than the typical game’s. It is inconceivable that a pitcher would ever “pitch to contact,” and it’s hard to imagine a batter would attempt to work a walk if he has any chance to put a ball in play.
That games take forever. This one was four hours and 42 minutes, a full 18 minutes longer than the next-longest nine-inning game last year, and 97 minutes longer than the average nine-inning game. The first inning took 58 minutes.
That this all is the ideal style of play, or baseball played at its very highest achievable level, considering it was a matchup between two of the great franchises of the era: The defending World Series champion, against the team with (at the time) the American League’s best record.
The game that would be the hardest to explain to a first-time baseball watcher in 2019 was, almost certainly, the one that was viewed by the most first-time baseball watchers. Perfect.