The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Is Baseball Broken?

by | published Wednesday, October 18, 2017

There is a strange relationship between sports and games. At the end of the day, they both fall into the same recreational category, but some board gamers are not sports fans and vice versa. For his second DWP article, Jason H. examines baseball in the context of a board game. It’s the start of a series that may make both gamers and jocks look a little differently at each other’s hobby.

Baseball is a dexterity game for exactly 18 players. Or, if you are looking at it from the manager’s point-of-view, it’s a two-player worker-placement game with a subtle press-your-luck mechanic. Although it doesn’t really qualify as a tabletop game (because the board is too big) we can still look at baseball with a board gamer’s eye and ask, Is baseball broken?

If you’ve actually played baseball, you might have noticed there is a lot of downtime. You spend the offense phase of each round waiting for your turn to bat. During the defense phase, you stand in the field just in case someone hits a ball to you. This is an obvious game-design flaw, but the players don’t seem to mind too much. In slow-pitch softball, this downtime is actually considered a feature.

So let’s agree that the downtime issue is just a matter of taste and focus instead on situations where the game rules have unintended negative consequences. As an example, consider the intentional walk.

Normally, you don’t want your opponent to place a worker on any of the bases. But in certain circumstances, it may be advantageous to allow a worker to reach first base, especially if the next worker is likely to hit into a double play. This isn’t the broken part. The broken part is how the worker reaches first base.

Baseball offers two ways to put an opposing worker on first base. The pitcher can throw four pitches out of the strike zone, or the pitcher can throw one pitch that strikes the worker’s body. Pitching makes the pitcher’s arm tired, so the optimal tactic is to just throw one pitch at the batter’s center of mass.

This is broken, but only in theory. In practice, pitchers don’t like to hit batters – at least, not since the time when hit batsmen began pointing out that they did not like being hit, and also that they happened to be large men holding bats.

But you shouldn’t have to metagame your way around the rules like that. The actual rules fix did not come until the 2017 edition, when Major League Baseball decided that managers could send an opposing worker to first base without making the pitchers throw any pitches at all. Zero pitches is strictly better than one pitch, so this aspect of baseball is no longer even theoretically broken.

When games have been around a long time, a lot of the broken mechanics get fixed. For example, consider the infield fly rule, which states …

No, actually, we’re not going to quote the infield fly rule here. People like to quote the infield fly rule when they want the rules of baseball to seem complicated and arcane. I translated the rulebook for Dungeon Lords. Baseball is simple.

And so is the infield fly rule, really. It’s about nerfing double plays. The double play is a powerful defensive play where you get two outs on one pitch. Ideally, the power of a play should be offset by its degree of difficulty. And on a ground-ball double play, this is the case.

But on a pop fly, there are certain situations where an infielder can intentionally drop the ball and get two outs instead of one. The baserunners’ only defense against this is to run for the next base while the ball is in the air, but in this case, the fielder can catch the ball and still get an easy double play. This is broken.

This catch-22 (or intentional-drop-22) can only occur when runners are on first and second with fewer than two outs, which is precisely when the infield fly rule applies. The batter is ruled out, but the defense does not get an easy double play.

So the infield fly rule is actually about fixing an unintended consequence of other rules. It’s not broken. It’s a fix for the thing that used to be broken.

Baseball has been around so long that there are not many broken rules left to fix. But this is not true for all spectator sports. I’ll be looking at basketball next.


One thought on “Is Baseball Broken?

  1. Caffeine Hedgehog says:

    The unofficial “Steroids” expansion that are illegally applied on the workers breaks the game.

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