The most boring moment in all of baseball

The unexamined essence of a slow sport. What makes baseball boring?

(Jason Wise/MLB Photo via Getty Images)
By Tom Scocca
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2009
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The question is largely ignored among lovers of the sport. People will complain about excessive pitching changes or hitters who spend too much time adjusting themselves, but these are sidebars or distractions.

When it comes to the game itself, fans prefer to focus on the exciting moments. Take Jacoby Ellsbury sprinting down the third-base line against the Yankees, for a straight steal of home: a rare and unexpected play, with fast-moving action and a dramatic conclusion. Thrilling! Game-ending home runs are nice, too, at least if you're cheering for the team that hits one.

Mostly, however, not much happens in baseball. I say this as someone who has loved baseball since I was a toddler. I have been in the ballpark for a game-winning, pinch-hit grand slam and for an inside-the-park home run (both, oddly enough, by Phil Bradley). But I don't go to the game expecting to see either one, let alone a steal of home. If you're looking for truths about the essence of the game, it's better to look into the everyday moments, when the game is at a low simmer, or even cooler.

The unexamined essence of the game, then, would be an event that completely lacks both action and tension. Nobody swings the bat, nobody runs; neither team gains any real advantage. And you see it happen all the time. The most boring moment in baseball, the mud flat exposed at its lowest ebb, is ball two.

Ball two stands alone, above any of the other dull business on the diamond. The intentional walk at least adds a base runner to the game. The halfhearted throw to first to check the runner is a sign that the pitcher is feeling tension. But ball two signifies almost nothing.

If your attention, like mine, starts to drift whenever ball two is called, the statistics say that's a rational response. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski, of Sports Illustrated and the Kansas City Star, recently did a study of all major-league plate appearances from 2000 to 2008, examining the shifting dynamics of the battle between hitter and pitcher in more than a million matchups. He was looking for the critical points in the average at-bat: strike two makes hitters stop swinging for power (with two strikes, the average hitter has a Kevin Cash-like slugging percentage of .293); a 1-1 count strongly favors the pitcher.

But the numbers also show the points where nothing happens. Batters who fell behind 1-2 batted .190. If they got ball two, their average crept up to only .205. "[T]here is nothing really even about a 2-2 count," Posnanski wrote. "The pitcher is still firmly in control."

Something similar holds with zero strikes or with one. Ball two raises the hitter's batting average and slugging percentage a bit, but nowhere near as much as a strike would have hurt him. It does nicely increase the chance that the hitter will eventually walk - but not, by definition, for at least two more pitches.

Other research has shown that umpires enlarge or shrink the strike zone from pitch to pitch as the balance shifts between the pitcher and batter - with ball two, the zone barely budges. Consciously or unconsciously, everybody knows it's no big deal.

This is contrary to cherished wisdom about baseball - the belief, as expressed by John Rawls, that the sport is singularly beautiful because "the rules of the game are in equilibrium." If the rules didn't produce some sort of equilibrium, people wouldn't bother playing at all. This is also true of football and curling.

Ball two is where the supposedly perfect tuning of baseball goes flat. As long as four is greater than three, there will be a slack moment at the heart of the game, when the hitter and pitcher are both content to put off the final reckoning.

Every bit of procrastination does have its costs. The modern strategic game, from Earl Weaver by way of "Moneyball" into Theo Epstein's office, is a war of attrition, with hitters biding their time while pitchers throw more and more pitches. Extra pitches lead to tired arms, which lead to calls to the bullpen, which lead to calls down to the minor leagues for more live bodies for the pitching staff.

This is not exciting action. But it's the slow-moving glacier that shapes the landscape. The thrilling parts are widely scattered and fleeting. Stealing home? It's over almost as soon as it begins. The walk-off home run? As soon as you see one - and by definition, you've already waited at least eight innings for it - you're on your way to the parking lot.

If there's a moment that's the anti-ball two, the sport's natural dramatic pinnacle, it's probably the triple. In a triple, the rules and dimensions and layout of the game come together in thrilling harmony: the ball driven to the farthest reaches of the park, then fired back to the infield, while the runner runs almost as far as a runner can. But only almost - the play ends on a hanging plot point, the runner not quite yet home, the pitcher still deep in a jam. Hank Aaron, though he was the home-run king himself, declared the triple "the most exciting play in baseball."

Last year, the Red Sox had that thrill only 33 times, with 16 fewer triples than the league-leading Minnesota Twins. The Twins missed the playoffs; the last five teams to lead the league in triples have all missed the playoffs. The Red Sox, idling their way through a lot of dull ball twos, led the league in walks for the fourth straight year and made the playoffs for the third time out of those four. There are worse things than being bored.

Tom Scocca is working on a new book, "Beijing Welcomes You," from Riverhead Books.