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What America can learn from baseball (yes, baseball)

Baseball fixed itself by changing its rules. The country should pay attention.

Mookie Betts, wearing Dodger grays, waves his helmet to a cheering crowd at a baseball stadium.
Former Boston Red Sox and current Los Angeles Dodger Mookie Betts tips his batting helmet to the crowd in his first game at Fenway Park since being traded.
Barry Chin/Boston Globe via Getty Images
Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

Back in the spring, I wrote a piece about Major League Baseball’s attempt to save itself from the irrelevance wrought by overoptimization. The short version: Through detailed statistical analysis, baseball teams figured out that the most efficient way to win games was to invest in hitters who could hit a lot of home runs and pitchers who threw hard enough to strike those hitters out much of the time. While that strategy was optimal for winning games, it was decidedly suboptimal for the people who were paying to watch them.

Instead of getting baserunners and fielding and on-field action, spectators were treated to excruciating experiences like Game 4 of last year’s World Series, where my beloved Philadelphia Phillies became only the second team ever to be no-hit in the championship round, along the way to setting a record for most team strikeouts in the Fall Classic.

With attendance and TV ratings on a downward spiral and game lengths growing unendurably long, a desperate Major League Baseball made some changes for this season. A pitch clock — which gave pitchers 15 to 20 seconds to throw each pitch — was added to force pitchers and hitters to get on with it. Bases were made slightly larger to encourage more aggressive running. Extreme defensive shifts — where infielders would crowd one side of the diamond to rob hitters on hard-hit balls — were outlawed to encourage more non-home-run offense.

These might not seem all that significant, but for a sport as old and as conservative as baseball, it was practically Vatican II. While there were some bumps along the way — just ask notoriously slow-moving Phillies starter Aaron Nola, who initially reacted to the pitch timer like a sleepy high-school sophomore does to their alarm clock — evidence from the first five months of the season suggests those changes have paid off.

Baseball is ... good?

Let’s start with what has long been recognized as baseball’s single biggest problem: It was just too damn long.

When the Phillies won their first-ever World Series championship in 1980, the average baseball game was concluded in a relatively brisk two hours and 38 minutes. By the time they won their second in 2008, it had ballooned to two hours and 55 minutes. And last year, when they improbably made the World Series on the back of Schwarbombs and strikeouts, the average game took three hours and six minutes. That’s longer than a showing of Oppenheimer, with no guarantee of explosions along the way.

So far this season, thanks largely to the pitch clock, the average length of a game has dropped to just two hours and 41 minutes, shorter than it has been since my childhood idol Mike Schmidt manned third base at Philadelphia’s old Veterans Stadium in the 1980s. And shorter games have led to more spectators in the stands and in TV ratings.

Twenty-three of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs have seen attendance rise from last year. Overall attendance is up 9 percent through early August, the biggest uptick since baseball added two expansion teams in 1998. TV ratings are up significantly as well, even though the Mets and the Yankees, which play in the country’s biggest media market, are both dead last in their respective divisions. (Their collective faceplant isn’t directly attributable to the new rules, but I find it extremely satisfying nonetheless.)

There’s more offense of the non-home-run variety too, with on-base percentage up, along with increases in the rates of doubles, triples, and stolen bases. The percentage of plate appearances that end in strikeouts so far in 2023 is up slightly from 2022, which is too bad — Kevin Costner was right to argue in Bull Durham that punchouts are both boring and fascist. But that’s less a function of the rules than it is of the proliferation of pitchers who can regularly clock triple digits on the radar gun, a feat that used to be reserved for the rare Nolan Ryans of the game.

As the playoff race heats up heading into September, major league baseball has done the impossible: It has rescued itself from irrelevance — not through luck, but by identifying what was wrong about the way it was operating and having the guts to make fundamental changes.

What we can learn from baseball

While all of the above is great news for baseball fans, it also matters for the rest of us. If 147-year-old major league baseball can rewrite its rules to address its existential challenges, then maybe there’s hope that this even older and even more rule-bound country can do the same for issues with far bigger stakes.

From housing to energy to Senate representation to the frankly perverse Electoral College, the US too often finds itself operating under a rule book that is out of date. The Constitution — the political equivalent of the 192-page official rules of major league baseball — hasn’t been amended since 1992, and then only to ensure that laws affecting the compensation of representatives and senators do not take effect until after they’ve faced election. I’m sure that’s important, but a political pitch clock it is not.

This past spring, even as baseball was embarking on its great rule change experiment, the US was facing a crisis of its own making over Republicans’ refusal to increase the debt ceiling. Did it make sense that the only way to avert fiscal apocalypse was for Congress to have to vote to raise the debt ceiling? No. Were there plenty of good if weird ideas to eliminate the debt ceiling altogether and save us from this perennial political struggle? Yes. But it didn’t matter — the rules were the rules, and no one had the ability or will to change them, even if almost everyone could see that the way they were written produced an outcome that no one wanted.

It hasn’t always been this way. America has gone through flurries of intense Constitutional experimentation, from the adoption of the Bill of Rights to the “Second Founding” during the Reconstruction Era to the Progressive Era amendments of the early 20th century. Those amendments haven’t always worked (looking at you, Prohibition), but they reflected an understanding that a country undergoing rapid change needed the ability to change how it governed itself.

Today, everything from climate change to the rise of disruptive technologies like AI demands new regulatory approaches and new ways of government. But too often we’re a 21st-century country operating under 18th-century rules. When baseball — a sport that’s been played since the end of the Civil War — is making you look hidebound, it’s time for a change.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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