Less well known is the first 3 minute mile. It happened here, in Los Angeles, on July 24, 1966. Time 2: 59.6 isn’t sacred, mainly because it took four men – Robert Fry, Lee Evans, Tommy Smith, and Tyrone Lewis – to deliver a baton at the time in a race The 1600m relay at the International Games.
We don’t often think of the overlaps between track and baseball, but the rubber band is really like a starting block. The nine-run game makes for a peculiar kind of race, in which participants surrender the baton as frequently or as rarely as they like, at intervals of their choosing. Or they can throw in a whole game – no stick needed.
Those similarities came into sharp focus this week, when Major League Baseball finally put an end to 13 bowlers on active rosters. The rule has been under discussion for more than a year. MLB has fallen behind twice since the start of the regular season. As of Monday, the eight-man bull pens will be no less than the five-man spin. It’s the closest thing baseball should do to limiting the number of people involved in a relay race.
Among fans – even some industry veterans – there is still a degree of resistance to the concept of promoting as a relay race. Full games remain an official statistic, although their usefulness as a description has long since expired. Pitchers simply don’t throw whole toys anymore. (There have been a full 11 games this season as of Tuesday; 21 of the 30 teams have not made a single game.)
And why are they? The disparity between the standard times in a mile relay and a mile for the relay tells us this. Why should a coach post only one runner, if he has the option of using four and shaving one minute of his time?
But how good is that analogy for showing an entire game and splitting nine runs evenly between the main bowler and three of the coolers?
Here’s what we know. The bowler’s effectiveness decreases each time the opposing team turns against him. Beginners allow .694 OPS (on base plus sluggish percentage) the first time you encounter a hitter in a game in 2022. The second time, hitter goes up to .711. The third time during the order, it is 0.770. This effect is well documented. Regularly informs each manager’s in-game decision making.
I think this is interesting when comparing appetizers to lighters. Softeners catch hitters with .686 OPS the first time they meet in a game, and .725 the second time. You can see the traditional effect at work: relief pitchers are a little better than starters the first time through the lineup, and a little worse the second time.
Now compare these divisions with what they were 10 years ago. In 2012, Novice hitters carried .712 OPS the first time by striking order and .743 the second time. For painkillers, it was 0.694 the first time and .780 the second time (which was rare).
There’s a trend line there, and it indicates the breakup of strengths between starters and mitigators. The two groups are more similar now than they were a decade ago. Thinners are a little more comfortable facing the lineup twice. This change was in effect even before the effective eight-man limit, which should only make multi-role painkillers more popular with competing teams.
What’s going on?
The answer involves both in-game strategy and off-season roster building. It is a response to the changing currents behind the art and science of self-promotion.
Shooters have always been encouraged to shoot for shorter and shorter periods—the nine-inning relay approach to it. As a result, they are able to throw more forcefully each time. This led to more injuries, overburdened field staff, and, finally, the MLB setting a minimum crew of three hits and 13 runs.
The net effect of these rules is that it will be difficult to distinguish between starters and attenuators in the future.
“I think by going forward with baseball, the freshmen will shorten, the painkillers will shorten for longer, and that will kind of be what it is,” Dodgers pitching coach Josh Bard told me Saturday. “You get your unicorn appetizer that goes three times through the lineup. These guys are really good but these guys cost $35 million a year. And that’s the truth of it. If this guy breaks – which happens when you’re a starter – teams start to figure it out. Do we want to allocate resources to three men who can cast multiple roles?”
Here’s the problem with these three guys who can cast multiple roles: They might be better suited to the task of completing a baseball game, but they’ll never become household names. Just ask Robert Fry, Lee Evans, Tommy Smith*, and Tyrone Lewis.
(*Smith won gold at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the 200 metres. You know this because when his medal was presented on the podium, he raised his right fist while wearing a black glove. A familiar name, but you hold my pan.)
Roger Bannister equals $35 million a year. It is the family name. Reducing the size of the bulls, in theory, makes a beginner’s skill set more valuable. In practice, he might just encourage a different kind of nine-run relay race: five innings from the start, and four from the savior. Or three and three and three. Or three, two, two, two.
It is an interesting slope facing sports. The show may turn out to be more of a group activity than baseball has ever seen.