second base

The strange case of second base

In the immortal words of David Bowie: “Ch-ch-ch-ch changes, turn and face the strange. Ch-ch changes.”

Somewhere in some plush New York office, Major League Baseball has someone sitting all alone with plenty of time to think. Out of these thoughts, MLB expects to get some ideas. So, in order to justify their salary, this person finds things of varying importance for baseball to deal with. Somewhere between tweaking and “this isn’t your father’s game,” comes moving second base.

Baseball is a flawed game. One of the biggest, but untalked about flaws – at least until now – is that second base is positioned wrongly. It’s out of alignment with first and third base. Abner Doubleday put the bases originally in a perfect diamond formation, but what he didn’t think about was the plight of umpires. He had the first and third base lines dissecting the first and third base bags. That made it difficult to tell whether a ball was fair or foul. In 1887, baseball fixed the problem and created a new one. They tucked first and third base into the corners of the diamond so that if the ball hit the bag, it was fair and if it went to the outside of the bag, it was foul. Much better. Problem is that they didn’t move second base.

Here’s where math, or more specifically, geometry comes in and where I wish that I would have paid attention in geometry class. It really is true that somewhere along the line you might use this stuff.

The movement of the bases meant not just that they were out of alignment, but that the natural 90-foot distance between bases was disrupted from first to second and from second to third. With the imaginary line of the diamond now going from the back of first and third base to the middle of second base, the distance actually became 88-feet, 1 1/2 inches. Interesting.

Now, that person in the plush office has decided to fix the flaw. In the second half of the season, second base at all minor league levels, will be tucked into that imaginary corner of the diamond, just like first and third base are in their corners, making everything nice and neat. Oh, and that person had one more idea. Make the bases bigger. Minor League Baseball will also change the size of their bases from 15-inches to 18-inches. Why? Again, someone has too much time on their hands.

Combine the two changes and suddenly, the distance from first to second and second to third goes from 88-feet, 1 1/2 inches down to 87-feet. Just over one foot closer than it is now. Now if you run like I do, the shorter distance won’t make much difference in time. If you consider how close some of the plays at second base are on stolen base attempts, it could make a difference. Those bang-bang plays are now successful stolen base attempts.

Will it make a difference? Has the person in that special office justified his salary? Well, last season, baseball – with no fanfare – incorporated the changes into the Triple-A West during the second half of the season. It was a vast conspiracy of epic proportions. There were no press releases and it wasn’t written in the rules It brings about images of baseball officials sneaking into ballparks in the middle of the night, moving the bases in and replacing the bases with larger ones. Basically, nobody – even the players – noticed. But the statisticians did find something. While the rate of stolen base attempts didn’t move much, the success rate of stolen bases went from 74.8-percent to 77-percent.

So, what’s the big deal. Offense. While wanting to speed up the game, MLB also wants to increase offense. Never mind the fact that these things are contrary to each other. One way to increase offense might be to make stealing bases cool again. Back in the ’70s, stolen base leaders swiped around 70 bags a year. In the ’80s, Rickey Henderson made stealing bases into an art form and was using thievery to grab about 100 bases per season and Vince Coleman kept the trend going. In the ’90s, the number went back down to the ’70s with guys like Kenny Lofton. In the early 2000s, it was down in the 60s and Luis Castillo actually won the stolen base crown with 48 stolen bases in 2002. In the last five full 162-game seasons, the MLB leader in stolen bases averaged 52 steals.

With the added interest in stolen bases, the interest in simply doing little things like drawing walks and slapping the ball through the infield just to get to first might become a little more prevalent. I can still hear my little league coach telling me “a walk is as good as a hit.” Of course, that might have been because I wasn’t much of a hitter and if I reached base in any way, it was a plus.

With all that baseball is doing, us traditionalists can only hope that maybe the pendulum is going to swing back the other way – as it often does – and the old-school style of play might become a little more in vogue. Maybe speed will be cool again and find its way into the highlights along with the long home runs. We can only hope that some sanity comes out of that plush office and the lonely person spending his time putting his geometry knowledge into use.

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