Battlepanda: Everything I need to know, I learnt from baseball


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Everything I need to know, I learnt from baseball

Actually, I lie. That was just an attention-grabbing headline meant to get you looking. Actually, when you think about the hours I squander watching/listening to baseball, the insights I derived from the exercise is remarkably scant. To wit...

1) If you're really good at what you do, you can chew tabacco, spit the juice all over the place and scratch your crotch in front of millions of people whenever you like.

2) Don't chase those high fastballs!

And um, that was about it until yesterday, when I had a minor epiphany as I watched the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Now, those two teams have this vendetta going where their pitchers are just bopping hitters with wild pitches all over the place. Now, getting hit with a Major League fastball is no laughing matter. People have been put into comas by wild pitches hitting them in the head. So naturally, pitchers are generally very careful, even if it means diminishing their ability to pitch to the inside. Yet in just this three-game series, 4 Devil Rays and 3 Red Sox were hit by pitches, and this is not counting some very hairy near-misses, including one that almost struck David Ortiz in the head yesterday. Benches were emptied as players stormed the mound and formed that weird melee that baseball players do when they rumble. Players and managers were ejected. How the heck did a long-running and dangerous embarrassment like this get started? Which bring us to the real title of this post...

Pitcher's Dilemma

Now, we all know about how the Prisoner's Dilemma goes. If you only have one interaction in which mutual co-operation produces the best overall outcome but betraying your fellow prisoner reduces your sentence, the logical thing to do will always be to sell out your fellow prisoner. Now in Pitcher's Dilemma, we are talking about Major League Baseball pitchers, starting from a condition of continual and beneficial mutual co-operation. I work hard not to hit your pitchers, and you in return try not to hit mine. Yet as we shall see, this co-operation is a delicate truce, capable of being broken even if everybody is initially acting on good faith.

1) Every interaction is a potential fuse
Every pitcher making the effort not to hit a pitcher gives up a certain amount of effectiveness because he cannot pitch as close to the hitter as he would like. Yet even if the pitcher is trying his best to clear the hitter, once in a while, a hitter will get hit because the pitcher's control is not perfect.

2) The rules only gets you so far
Yes, there is a penalty for hitting the pitcher. But it is a small (a walk to first base) and unlikely to affect the ultimate outcome of the game. It is enough to keep a pitcher who is already careful even more on his toes, but once the mutual trust is broken, the small penalty is not enough to stop the pitchers from the temptation of pitching aggressively on the inside.

Upping the penalty is not really an option because nobody is able to say for certain whether a hitter is hit with a pitch because of a bad luck or because the pitcher pitched too far to the inside. If the umpire is convinced that a pitcher has been too careless, he might eject the pitcher from the game. But that is the nuclear option, so to speak.

3) At this point, rationality will no longer save us
Once the trust is broken, it is no longer logical to be the first to revert to good behavior. After all, the outcome of every game is fiercely contested and affect the team's overall standing. If you have reason to believe that the other team has been gaining an unfair advantage by not respecting the hitter's personal space, why should you go out of your way to protect their hitters?
"If they are going to hit our batters, we're certainly going to do the same thing," Piniella said. "In that case the ball might have gotten away from (Carter). Look, we walked nine batters. It wasn't like we had impeccable control.
4) Human nature dictates escalation
Even as a Red Sox fan, it has become obvious to me that pitchers on both sides have crossed the line from merely ignoring the welfare of the hitter in the pursuit of a perfect pitch to actively hitting the hitters on purpose to send a message: don't mess with us, or we'll mess with you. Note the identical rhetoric of righteous defense coming from both teams:
"We're a family in here," said Millar [Red Sox], who was hit twice in three days by Tampa Bay pitchers. "You protect your family. It's been going on for a hundred years."

"We're not going to be intimidated whether you are a championship ballclub or not. I don't know what their intentions were and I'm not going to put words in anybody's mouth. I know we are going to protect our hitters." -- Pinella [Devil Ray]
"Protecting our hitters" -- sounds like a code word for letting the other side have it. Or else storming the mound en masse and making an ass of yourselves. And when both sides indulge, what we have here is blind escalation. A perfect little ridiculous greek tragedy writ small. At least until somebody gets seriously hurt again.