Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Baseball Overwhelmed by Numbers

Baseball today is overwhelmed by player statistics and regulations. Baseball owners and managers should simply let the players play ball.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We have some news now from the world of Major League Baseball - news that someone thought worth tracking.

First, the New York Yankees scored ten runs in a single inning on Monday, their biggest road inning in three years. The Florida Marlins became the first team in Major League history to climb above .500 after being 20 games under. And the Milwaukee Brewers broke a 10-game losing streak, ending a slump four games shy of their worst losing streak, a record set back in 1994.

If all this leaves you scratching your head, commentator Frank Deford says it's no wonder.

FRANK DEFORD: Baseball has always been heavy laden with statistics to the point where well deservedly it is mocked and satirized. That's the most ground balls to the second baseman hit by a left-handed batter in a night game in the last 36 years. Hardy-har-har. The sport's an easy target.

But for all that, statistics are very much both the substance and the charm of baseball. No sport can be so easily quantified. No team sport can be so perfectly broken down to measure individual accomplishment. But I have this uneasy feeling that one relatively new statistic is a monster threatening to harm the game it's supposed to be tabulating. The numbers are running the show.

In this I'm reminded of Robert Coover's novel of several years ago, The Universal Baseball Association, wherein the main character invents a baseball game that he plays with dice. Only one time he rolls the dice and it comes up that his favorite star player is killed by a bean-ball. No, no! He must deny his numbers - his carefully constructed universe - to save the player. But then, by doing so, he's lost the very game he created.

And somewhat like that, this dreaded statistic, the pitch-count, which professes to save pitchers' arms, may be in the process damaging the whole greater game.

It all started innocently enough. Teams began to pay attention to the number of pitches a pitcher threw to make sure he did not overextend himself. But what began as a guide has now become a mantra. He's thrown 100 pitches. Take him out, that fragile vessel on the mound, even though he seems to be breezing along. God forbid that we should hear from the pitcher's agent that we have abused the poor dear by allowing him to throw one curve ball too many.

But even worse is the law of unintended consequence. Once the pitch-count mattered so much, teams began to concentrate on making the pitcher pitch more pitches. And suddenly, actually hitting pitches is subsidiary to simply staying at the plate as long as possible. All you hear about now is something called a great at-bat.

Did the guy who was great at bat get a hit? No, he just stayed up there at the plate waiting the pitcher out, working the count - that other odious new expression - fouling-off pitches.

Next time you watch a baseball game, take note of how many foul balls there are. Really! This is one statistic somebody should start paying attention to. It's easier to foul off pitches now because the new parks don't have much extra territory where foul pops can be caught and because hitters are stronger with whippier bats, so they can get around on pitches at the last instant and bang it foul. Foul balls are fouling up the game. As you will recall from Hamlet, it's Foul's most murder.

Please, baseball, stop paying so much attention to pitch-counts, and instead count the minutes that drag on and on. Play ball! Pitch the ball! Swing at the ball! Hit the ball!

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford