Sunday, September 9, 2007

About those home run derbies

Much was made in the press over the IBL's decision to break tie games with a home run derby, rather than baseball's traditional extra innings. (For the rules of the IBL's home run derby, see section 4.10 (b) of the IBL's official rules.) A commenter has asked how many home run derbies were held this season.

The answer, after a quick search of the files, is eight, or about 6.5% of games:

June 26: Modiin (L) @ Raanana (W)
July 2: Petach Tikva (L) @ Bet Shemesh (W)
July 12: Bet Shemesh (W) @ Raanana (L)
July 13: Netanya (L) @ Petach Tikva (W)
July 17: Modiin (W) @ Petach Tikva (L)
July 31: Raanana (W) @ Tel Aviv (L)
August 6: Raanana (L) @ Modiin (W)
August 8: Bet Shemesh (L) @ Modiin (W)

I never attended a game with a derby, so I can't comment on it from a fan's perspective. But from a baseball perspective, it seems daft. I'd actually prefer if they flipped a coin, or just declared the game a tie.

Baseball is an adversarial sport. The central drama focuses on the face-off between the pitcher and the batter, with one trying to outwit the other. No play in baseball is the act of a single player, or a single team. There are no free throws, for example.

In the home run derby, each team plays separately, appointing its own "pitchers" to pitch to its own "batters", whose only objective is to try to hit the ball out of the park. Properly speaking, these aren't even home runs. The pitches aren't really pitches, since they're not thrown in an effort to get the batter out, and the batters aren't really batting, since the only outcome that matters is the long ball. For that matter, no one ever needs to run the bases, let alone run home.

It's a meaningless exercise in raw batting power, and while it may be entertaining, it bears little relationship to playing baseball. You might as well have a baserunning race, or a game of catch. Those are also valuable baseball skills, but no one would suggest they should stand on their own. The same goes for smacking the ball over the fence.

Actually, I wonder how entertaining it is either. The drama of a home run is that you never know when it's coming. You can anticipate it or imagine it, but it's a rare event that only happens when it happens, as a result of the right (or wrong!) pitch to the right batter at the right moment. Where's the drama in the derby? Especially compared with the drama of extra innings, everyone nervously wondering how long it will go on and who will finally break the tie?

Then consider that baseball teams have different skill sets. Some have more power, others more on-base skills, other more pitching or fielding. Why decide the game based on a display of only one skill, which will naturally be concentrated more in some teams than others?

I don't imagine anyone in the IBL is reading this blog, but if you are, please reconsider the home run derby. It's a corruption of the spirit of baseball. No less.

A final comment about statistics: I can't find statistics for home run derbies anywhere on the IBL's website. Neither the box scores nor the game logs even mention which players participated in them, let alone who hit how many home runs in each round. This despite the provision of the rules (4.10 (b)(7)(a)) that "Statistics from the Home Run Derby shall not be included in a player’s regular statistics but shall be included only in the statistics for home runs during a Home Run Derby."

I presume the explanation is that the IBL used off-the-shelf scorekeeping software, which had no provisions for scoring home run derbies. Another reason to drop the practice.

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