Baseball confrontations per hour

Posted: Jun 12, 2003 12:00 AM

MIAMI -- Many potential fans (particularly younger ones) complain that baseball is too slow. That's commonly phrased as "games last too long" -- yet football games last longer. Baseball's real problem is what I'd call a decline in Confrontations per Hour (CPH).

I came up with my CPH theory while watching three Florida Marlins-Anaheim Angels games here last weekend. At the June 6 game, the Angels scored their first run on a line drive single (which the Marlins centerfielder dove for and almost grabbed), a stolen base, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly (on which the runner barely scored).

Count the confrontations: pitcher vs. batter, hitter vs. centerfielder, pitcher vs. runner (trying to hold him at first), runner vs. catcher, runner vs. outfielder.

Then the Marlins tied the game on a homerun. Only one quickly ended confrontation: batter-pitcher. The scoreboard showed one run for each side, but the difference in sustained interest was immense.

The crowd on June 6 cheered for a few seconds when another home run put the Marlins ahead. But a sustained buzz came only when the Angels opened their comeback attempt in the ninth inning with a single. The Marlins closer then successfully challenged the three top Angels hitters as the crowd roared.

The June 7 game also had a home run as the key blow, but the June 8 game was a clinic in how baseball should be played. In the bottom of the first inning, speedy Luis Castillo won his confrontation with the pitcher by working a walk, and then won his confrontation with the center fielder by scoring all the way from first on a subsequent double.

The Angels struck back with a single, a double and an exciting triple, and held a one-run lead going into the eighth. They then scored two runs on daring base-running -- three stolen bases, including an exceptionally rare steal of home -- and won the game going away.

Major league baseball, with its McGwire-Sosa-Barry Bonds trinity, has become homer-happy. New, smaller ballparks, muscled-up (and sometimes drugged-up) hitters, pitchers throwing cautiously because the least mistake can be hit out of the park, and managers induced to sit back and wait for three-run homers rather than start runners have all contributed to fewer confrontations per hour in baseball. Meanwhile, super-confrontational football has ascended in popularity.

What can be done? Place plexiglass barriers above outfield walls so that towering smashes are still home runs but line drives turn into outfielder vs. runner confrontational doubles. Reduce the amount of foul territory: A foul pop-up that is usually an easy catch for an infielder or catcher is one of baseball's non-confrontational plays. Study traditional baseball adjustments -- mound height, strike zone, liveliness of balls -- to see how CPH could be increased without altering basic pitcher-hitter match-ups.

I would experiment in spring training with one major alteration, based on the need to cut down on intentional walks that zap confrontation at the point where intensity would otherwise be highest. One possibility: Force pitchers to challenge baseball's best hitters by making a walk when runners are in scoring position and first base is open worth two bases rather than one.

What are intentional walks now costing us? Last month, I watched a game in Atlanta where scared pitchers walked San Francisco star Barry Bonds three times. But in the ninth inning, with the Braves holding a 6-3 lead and Bonds coming up with one man on base, there was no possible advantage in walking him, so Braves closer John Smoltz went mano a mano against the hitter with the crowd roaring as loudly as I've ever heard at a ballpark -- and erupting when Bonds hit a weak ground ball to second.

I'd like to see confrontations like that throughout the game. A rise in CPH would also lead to an increase in the number of fans.