Baseball: An Introduction
Major League Baseball (MLB) is the oldest of the four major sports leagues in the United States. The National League has been around since 1876 and the American League since 1901. Baseball is a slower-paced game than football or basketball, and teams require both gamesmanship and strategy to succeed.
Baseball has a great deal in common with the game of Cricket. Both games involve batters hitting a ball pitched or bowled to them. Similarly, both games have defenders waiting to field that ball. Each team gets a turn to bat and score runs. Whilst one team is batting, the other plays defense, and tries to limit the number of runs scored by their opponents.
The field consists of an infield, outfield, pitcher's mound, and foul territory. There is a third baseline that extends to the foul pole in left field and an equal foul line going down the first baseline to the right field foul pole. Those foul poles determine if home runs are hit in fair territory out of play or are considered foul balls.
Each base is 90 feet apart. Runners can also steal bases at any point while they are on base except after a foul ball. The pitcher must start his motion toward home plate for a runner to steal a base after a foul ball, because a foul ball is considered a "dead ball.”
The team that scores the most runs after nine innings of play wins the baseball game. If the home team is winning after the top half of the ninth inning, the bottom of the ninth is unnecessary and is not played. The home team would then be declared the winner after 8 1/2 innings of play.
Teams score runs by touching all three bases as well as home plate. A team can score runs in a multitude of ways. The easiest way for a team to score a run is to hit a home run. A home run is when a batted ball clears the homerun fence/wall in the outfield in fair territory.
Runners run the bases on batted balls and go from first base to second base to third base to home plate in a counterclockwise fashion. There is an unlimited amount of runs an offense can score in an inning or a game, though traditionally, baseball games are relatively low scoring as neither team gets in double digits all that often.
An 'out' is called when a batted ball is caught in the air. Or when a batter/runner is thrown out on the basepaths. A defender can throw to first base when the ball is batted on the ground. If the ball beats the runner there, the batter/runner is considered out.
Most teams carry two catchers and a maximum of three. Generally, that third catcher is versatile and can play other positions as well. They will carry 5-6 infielders who are non-catchers, so first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops.
They also carry 4-5 outfielders. Players who play in the grass beyond the infield. These players are generally very good at catching fly balls and have strong arms, while infielders field more ground balls and have better accuracy with their throwing than outfielders.
The 12-14 pitchers each team carries are also broken down into starters and relievers. Starters start the game and go as long as they can until they become fatigued, or the manager deems it strategically beneficial to use a relief pitcher in a specific situation.
Starting pitchers pitch every fifth day. Sometimes they can go on "short rest" or less than four days rest, but it's not typical. Relievers can pitch nearly every day as they only pitch for an inning or so. Some are specialty pitchers who only pitch to one batter and then they are done for the game.
The catcher is the only player that can legally start the play in foul territory. The catcher squats behind home plate and receives the pitch from the pitcher who throws it from a mound. The mound of dirt allows for the pitcher to get leverage over the batter and throw harder on a downhill plane.
The first baseman stands near first base and is ready to field the ball on the ground, in the air, or from another defender to secure an out at first base. The second basemen stands in between first base and second base and fields the ball from that position. The shortstop stands between second base and third base. The third basemen stands near first base.
The three outfielders spread out in a left field, center field, and right field formation. They are allowed to move around and position themselves strategically wherever they want on the field. The only thing that is required of the defense is that only one player, the catcher, can start in foul territory. All of the other eight can position themselves wherever they choose on the field in fair territory.
Baseball Strategy and Tactics
Baseball is a game of strategy, and that strategy has changed through the decades. What once was a popular strategy has been deemed suboptimal. New strategies have therefore been developed and evolved over time.
We currently live in an era where the home run is king. Teams that hit a lot of home runs have success offensively in today's game. If you take the 1970's and 1980's for example, teams used speed and contact to churn out runs in a much different era of baseball than what we see today.
That is what makes baseball so special. It is ever-changing, but the core values and rules never change. The structure of the sport is virtually no different from playing the game than it was over 100 years ago.
One of the biggest strategies that has been deployed throughout the history of the game is the bunt. This is where a hitter doesn't swing the bat but sticks the bat out and lets the ball bounce off of it into fair territory. This allows runners to advance on the basepaths while putting pressure on the defense to field the bunt and make a quick out on the bases.
National League teams are notorious for utilizing the bunt strategy as their pitchers are forced to go to the plate to hit due to the lack of a designated hitter in the NL. So, traditionally, pitchers do a lot of bunting if there are runners on base when they come to the plate for their turn.
The American League uses a designated hitter or DH to hit for their pitchers. This is a player who only hits in a game. He never goes to the field to play defense. The pitcher then only worries about pitching in the contest and never comes to the plate to hit.
The addition of the DH in the 1970s has caused American League to have traditionally higher scoring games than their National League counterparts. It also, in turn, makes it more difficult for American League pitchers to navigate a lineup as they have to face nine true hitters and not someone who is coming up to bunt in a key spot.
Another strategy that used to be far more popular than it is in today's game is stealing bases. Players can steal any of the bases except first base during the contest. Typically they take off during a pitcher's windup and try to beat the throw to the base they are heading to by the catcher.
Data analytics have thumbed their nose at this tactic, and it has slowly decreased in usage over the last few decades. It just isn't as valued as it once was from a run-scoring perspective.
Each league legally operated independently from then until 2000 when they merged in Major League Baseball or MLB as a single entity.
For the most part, the rules of the game have not changed much since the National League's inception over 145 years ago. There have been several rule changes throughout the years in an effort to make the game fairer in light of modern technology, equipment, and training mechanisms.
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
The Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York. The Hall of Fame consists of 333 members today. That includes 263 former major-league players, as well as 38 executives, 22 managers, and 10 umpires.
It is an exclusive club that has an incredibly tough bar to be elected. The Baseball Writer's Association of America or BWAA votes annually for elected players deemed eligible by the Hall of Fame. Those players must get at least 75% of the vote to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
It was established in 1936. Even so, only 333 members have been elected thus far. That is essentially 2 a year since the inception of the National League in 1876.
Baseball is filled with a variety of distinctive elements that make it unique from the other major sports.
- Every stadium/arena has its own unique dimensions and customizability, home run fence distance.
- Nine unique positions offensively and defensively based on player capabilities such as arm strength, speed, strength, and other tangible and non-tangible factors.
- Each player has their own set of equipment tailored to their specifications, including their bat, fielding glove, batting gloves, and cleats.
- The MLB also has an incredibly developed “Farm” system called the Minor Leagues where they develop players through various stages of scaling competition.
Statistics and Data Used
Baseball statistics have become more and more complex as the game has developed. What used to be a simple math equation to determine a player's worth has become considerably more involved.
Batting average is the most famous statistic used in baseball. It is the amount of scored hits a player gets divided by his at-bats for that game or season. If a player goes 1-for-3 or has one hit in three at-bats, his batting average for that game is .333. It's that simple. As the season progresses, a player's batting average can fluctuate based on their results.
For pitchers, their ERA is what is most commonly used to determine performance. That is the number of runs given up divided by 27 outs. So, it is based on a full game despite the rarity that is a pitcher going all nine innings. Generally, an ERA under 3.50 is considered good. Anything under 3.00 is considered very good.
The expansion into data analytics has complicated baseball statistics to the point of disinterest for some folks, but it has allowed franchises to get a true player's worth financially as well as projecting what future performance for said player looks like going forward.
Popularity and Cultural Impact
Baseball is a popular game, and the game continues to grow. It is not as popular as the NBA or NFL, but it is still very successful. It has a pop culture following with younger players and fans but still has its traditional roots with managers, players, executives, and fanbases.
Baseball is known as "America's Past Time.” It is the oldest of the four major sports leagues in America, and its history is rich in American culture. Between movies, music, and the history books, baseball runs deep in Americana.
It is a fun, exciting strategy game that roots itself in cricket, so anyone who understands cricket could pick up baseball rather quickly. It is worth learning more about as a space like this can hardly cover everything baseball is and has to offer.