Thursday, August 2, 2007


Here at work, in my living room, I had the Yankees game on while I was waiting for first pitch in Milwaukee. Haha, the hated Yankees, down eight in the top of the second! And they were bringing on ex- and sub-[M]ariner Mike Myers for one batter! And then they tied it up in the bottom of the second! What!

As the inning came to a close, one of the announcers confirmed that coming back in the second inning after trailing 8-0 was unprecedented in MLB history. Andrew and I were talking about this on Sunday while debating the relative merits of baseball and soccer. Even as I made the argument that something extremely rare or even unprecedented happened in the course of almost every baseball game—and hence, baseball is interesting—I realized that, while true, it was sort of a foolish point.

Baseball is a game of discrete events: there's no timer, you always bat or pitch from the same place, and run from one of three places. This is fundamentally unlike basketball, soccer, or football, which are mostly games of continuous times and distances. Great quarterbacks complete lots of yards of passes, whereas great batters bat in lots of runs. I think this is one aspect of baseball that makes it so uniquely ripe for statistical summary and analysis (another is the sheer amount of gameplay in a season, which provides such a great sample size for statistical measurement).

This essential discreteness is also the reason for the number of unusual events in the game. Or rather, the reason said events are recognized when they happen. To use the sport of the original discussion in an example, a certain sequence of passes in a soccer game, with the participating players in certain places and striking the ball in certain ways, may be highly unusual, or even unprecedented, but spectators are unlikely to identify it as such because there is no system for recording that kind of sequence in an abstract way for later reference.

There is no analogue in most sports for the baseball scoresheet, a succinct account of every important thing that happened in the game. You can report the number of goals scored, the time spent by each team in possession of the ball, and the substitutions made and cards given, but this doesn't convey a complete picture of the game as it was played. Baseball box scores don't either, of course, not completely, but they come a damn sight closer. A detailed pitch-by-pitch scorecard portrays a baseball game nearly as well as a move-by-move written record does a chess match.

The key events of a baseball game can be abstracted, which means they can be recorded, which means they can be remembered. In the end, I don't think it's an unqualified strength of the sport: "chesslike" is not an objectively desirable quality in an athletic competition. But it does distinguish baseball from anything else, and I for one do take pleasure in seeing the unusual happen in nearly every game.

Update: Easley just hit a two-run inside-the-parker. Don't see that every day.

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