Evaluating This Season’s Rule Changes From a Game Design Perspective

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This is Kiri’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. She lives in the Pacific Northwest while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent five years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations.

By this point, you’ve undoubtedly consumed considerable content regarding the rule changes arriving in the majors for the upcoming season. You know all about the pitch clock dictating when hitters must ready themselves in the box and when pitchers must start their deliveries, as well as the wrinkle this introduces to pickoff attempts. You’ve also heard about the bigger bases and the limits on defensive shifting. Analysts have projected which players stand to be impacted most by the changes, while players who feel the changes make their jobs more difficult have voiced their concerns, and early spring training action has showcased the growing pains of adoption. With much of the existing commentary zooming in on the micro effects for particular players and game situations, let’s take some time to zoom out and ponder the macro effect on the game as a whole. More specifically, let’s ruminate on what makes a game or sport objectively appealing and how the rules — and subsequent changes to them — influence the appeal of a game.

At the most basic level, games are defined by rules dictating play. For those of us who struggle with authority, rules often feel restrictive. It’s no wonder, since rules come across as real haters, with all their “Don’t do this,” and “Don’t do that,” and “You can do this, but no, no, not like that.” That said, we needn’t have such an adversarial relationship with rules. In his book exploring the game of basketball, Nick Greene notes, “Games are peculiar. They are the only pursuit in which rules are used to facilitate fun.” To better understand the dynamic between rules and fun, Greene interviews a game design professor, Eric Zimmerman, who explains, “One of the paradoxes of game design is that the creativity of play is made possible by play’s opposite, which are rules. Rules are in essence constraints, but games don’t feel that way. […] When the rules are activated, what follows is fluid, unpredictable magic.” The rules of any game are finite, but the universe is infinite, implying that infinitely many possibilities exist in the space not covered by the defined rules. The fun in any game lies in the creativity used to explore the infinite space outside the boundaries set forth by the rules.

Consider Johnny Cueto. To the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing in the rules of baseball specifically encouraging the pitcher to mimic the dance moves of a truant teen working the crowd on a parade float prior to delivering the ball to home plate. And yet…

The rules permit Cueto an ounce of artistry. Artistry in turn elicits emotional responses, such as what we saw from Pirates fans during the 2013 NL Wild Card game. At this point, Cueto had yet to incorporate the shimmy, but he was fully doing The Twist.

Ideally, rules spark creativity, dynamic strategies, and even artistic expression. Mandating that every pitcher perform a pre-pitch pas de bourée smacks of banality, but leaving space to pirouette around the rules? Yahtzee.

Relatedly, MLB has noted it intends to more rigidly enforce existing rules defining balks and illegal pitches, which will sap some creativity from the likes of Kevin Gausman and Luis Garcia, in the name of clearly designating when a pitcher has begun his motion. Fortunately, Cueto’s delivery and those of several others who buck convention will remain legal so long as those pitchers clearly come set and only take one step backward before striding toward the plate. In an availability with the media during spring training, Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said, “We just encourage funky pitchers to be funky within the rules.”

Some rules do a better job of encouraging creativity and funkiness than others. In an essay revered by game designers, Dave Hickey establishes a metric for evaluating their quality in the form of a simple binary classification: Does the rule liberate or govern? Rules that liberate grant the players room to create, while rules that govern limit the ability of players to act in the unpredictably magical ways we desire. Rules might liberate or govern in a gaggle of different ways, but a few core tenets populate the philosophies of game design.

Rules seeking to liberate tend to do the following: reward fun, increase the need for preparation, skill, talent, etc., or promote balance between competitors. Game designer Raph Koster literally wrote the book on rewarding fun. In Koster’s view, games function as puzzles, and humans solve puzzles via our natural inclination toward pattern recognition and mastery. If the pattern is too simple, the puzzle becomes predictable and less compelling. “Fun exists in the tension between learning how to identify new patterns and mastering them to the point of boredom.” Problems posed within a game (presented as a function of rules) liberate players when they lack a single, programmatic solution, and instead encompass broad, complex systems with the potential for many solutions.

In turn, the complexity of the system, combined with the variety of solutions available, check the box on the second type of liberation: increased preparation, skill, and/or talent. In such a system, individual players are granted the freedom to forge a path for themselves by studying the system, perfecting specific techniques, employing their raw abilities, or some combination of all three. Finally, the system must inherently provide a balanced challenge for both sides, based on Koster’s definition of fun. If the puzzle becomes too easy for one side, it’s no longer fun.

On the other side of the coin, rules that govern tend to mandate one solution, whether explicitly or implicitly, and do even worse when the single, best solution is to do nothing. While these types of rules can be evaluated based entirely on the way they impact game play, further evidence shines through in the motivation behind the rule. Popular games, such as professional sports, run the risk of ruling bodies governing from a business perspective, seeking ways to best increase revenue, which may or may not align with the goal of designing a better game. Similarly, a less official governing body might seek to create (unwritten) rules born of various cultural standards. This discussion will stick to the actual impact of the rule changes, but the underlying motives do merit consideration more generally.

Furthermore, rules require constant re-evaluation for “the liberating rule that civilized us yesterday will, almost inevitably, seek to govern us tomorrow.” For a sport to remain a high quality game, it must proactively evolve.

Speaking of evolution, remember Harambe? Over the last several years, infield defensive strategy has evolved at the pace of internet trends, and thus, defensive alignments from the Harambe era are about as recognizable as a meme from seven years ago. To that end, recall this leaping grab by Jose Altuve during the 2017 ALCS:

The screaming grounder emanated off the bat of Didi Gregorius, who in 2017 faced the shift in 2.5% of his plate appearances, but in 2019 squared off with the shift in 60.8% of his trips to the plate, per Baseball Savant. As it happened in 2017, Altuve needed to range back toward second base and launch his body fully horizontal to make the stop. If the same ball were hit in 2019, Altuve would have likely been positioned not far from where he eventually fielded the ball, allowing him to stay on his feet and make a ho-hum play thanks to the presence of another infielder shifting over from the left side to split the difference between first and second.

In the early days of creative defensive positioning, shifting offered infielders freedom from the bonds of their traditional patch of dirt. They found themselves liberated to roam either side of the second base bag and even touch grass. Free from positional chains, teams initially entered the experimentation phase — full shifts, partial shifts, just against lefties, but oh wait, maybe righties too. Now, after several years of exploration, we’ve reached the final frontier. Many teams algorithmically position their fielders, using models trained on batted ball data. The results are not entirely monolithic, but what was once a blend of art and science is now a poem generated by ChatGPT. Positioning has been programmatically backed into a corner, where a few optimal solutions are the only real options available and anything more creative simply creates a disadvantage. What once liberated now governs, and a return to creativity requires a return to defensive athletic prowess, a return to the height of the web gem era. Where recent team strategy has shifted toward hiding bad defense with good positioning, they’ll now have to find a more creative solution.

Just as teams devised a one-size-fits-most solution to defensive positioning, stolen bases suffered a similar fate. Break-even calculations revealed that the payoff for stealing a base did not align with the risk of making an out for anyone other than top-tier basestealers. The rules of the game governed baserunners into a situation with one clear-cut, calculated solution: do nothing. Except for that one time in the 2014 AL Wild Game where the Royals stole seven bases against the Athletics based on a scouting report that I can only assume read in all caps, bold, underlined, size 72 font, “THIS TEAM CANNOT CONTROL THE RUNNING GAME! LIKE, AT ALL.” No tables, no pop times, no times to the plate. Jon Lester had not attempted a pickoff at first base all season, leading to speculation that he suffered from the yips. Herein we find an example of what happens with a severely restricted ability to throw over to first. Stolen bases sit bolt upright in their casket, like the Undertaker at WrestleMania, to resume a place of prominence in a sport that had largely moved on from them decades prior.

Among Koster’s other teachings on the topic of game design, he notes that all games are composed of smaller minigames and that each minigame should be evaluated independently against the principles of game design. Baseball’s minigames include the plate appearance between a pitcher and a hitter (which itself can be broken down to several pitch-level minigames), a batted ball minigame between a hitter and the defense, a baserunning minigame between the pitcher, the catcher, and the runners on base, and probably dozens more depending on how granular you want to get. Now that we’re armed with a few guiding principles of game design and the liberation versus governance framework, let’s decide whether the new rules liberate or govern their respective minigames.

The change impacting the face off at the plate is the pitch clock and its subsequent restrictions on the pitcher disengaging from the mound and the hitter calling timeout. Under the old rules, players settled into a familiar rhythm. Between pitches, a hitter might step out of the box with one foot, rest his bat against his athletic supporter, adjust his batting gloves, spit, and then when all aspects of his person were just so, pull that lead foot back into the box and raise his bat over his back shoulder. Meanwhile, the pitcher would pace around the back of the mound, clean his cleats on that cleat-cleaner thing, pick up the rosin bag and flip it onto his sunscreen-coated forearm, adjust his hat, lick his fingers, wipe his fingers on his thigh, yank at his belt, then once again toe the rubber. You saw all of that in your mind’s eye because you’ve seen it dozens of times before.

All that time between pitches might suggest freedom, except players don’t use it creatively. They do the same thing every single time, like security footage put on a loop to provide cover while criminals break in and do crimes. The crime here is an utter lack of creativity. Because while there exist plenty of things players could do, they’ve collectively reached the same conclusion: that the best thing to do is effectively nothing. Pitchers buy their arm a few more seconds of recovery, hitters take a beat to figure out what the pitcher might throw next, and it’s all very unappealing to watch. As defined above, rules yielding one, clearly optimal solution, especially one that is passive, fall under the governance heading. The pitch clock, on the other hand, at least provides potential for varied and active strategies. Max Scherzer promised last season to manipulate the clock, and he’s following through so far in spring training.

In addition to pulling the between-pitch-tug-of-war out of the pit of governance, it also pushes players to a higher level of performance, another indicator of liberation. With less time to contemplate the next pitch, both hitters and pitchers will either need to increase their level of preparation to speed up their mental processes, or lean more heavily upon their instincts and ability as they react in the moment. Colleen Macklin, a professor at the Parsons School of Design, asserts to aforementioned author Nick Greene, “What you’re looking for with a game is spontaneity. You want players to do things you didn’t expect. Surprise is fun.” The pitch clock encourages fun by allowing less opportunity for carefully planned approaches. Meanwhile, less time for mental processing means less time for physical recovery, requiring athletic endurance to level up. As players adjust, we may see them settle into new routines that are just as boring as their old routines, requiring the pitch clock to go directly to governance jail without passing Go. But until then, it’s worth drawing a card from the Chance pile in hope of liberation.

In the batted ball minigame between hitters and defenders, we need to examine the impact of the restrictions on the shift. As I alluded to above, shifting once liberated infielders, but it fell to fascist regimes helmed by positioning models, all built independently by teams to tell their players where to stand, but trained using the same data and general concepts to spit out roughly the same solution. Limiting the ability to station a defender exactly where the ball is most likely to go will liberate infielders to make the most of their athletic, playmaking abilities, and in the event they’re unable to do so, hitters will find themselves liberated via extra base hits, improving the competitive balance that constantly skews against them.

The next minigame pits pitchers and catchers against baserunners, a battle where the rule limiting mound disengagements and, to a lesser degree, the bigger bases enter the chat. The changes won’t create a full Lester-2014-Wild-Card-Stolen-Base-Extravaganza, but if baserunners feel freed up to express themselves on the basepaths a bit more, whether because they know the pitcher is less likely to throw over or because they know the next base is a scooch closer, then we may see less of the “do nothing” solution and more of the “Trea Turner doing cool slides” solution.

Last year in the majors, runners logged 2,486 nabbed bags and got caught 811 times. Granted, of that 811, not all of the attempts were close, but given what we know from break-even calculations, there aren’t many runners who still attempt steals without strong success rates. Therefore, if we estimate that half the thwarted thefts from last year were bang-bang plays, where the runner was thrown out by mere inches, the tilting of the scales in the runners’ favor this year likely converts those close outs to safe calls. The resulting jump in stolen bases would be about 15% over last year. Not huge, but not nothing. And yes, this is more back of the envelope math than rigorous projection, but it’s a conservative estimate relative to the uptick in stolen bases we’ve seen thus far in spring training. If the changes do result in runners cutting loose on the bases more frequently, I’d say that feels pretty liberating.

As we all watch spring training games and experience the new rules for the first time, we’ll naturally form our individual preferences and opinions on whether the sport still feels like baseball. Personal takes on the changes coat the baseball internet like sunscreen on a pitcher’s forearm during a game played at night inside a dome. It’s okay to cling to our takes, to treat them as important to our participation in the game. But more important than our individual feelings is whether or not the sport of baseball is an objectively good game, as that provides a stronger predictor of the game’s health and longevity. Macklin’s experiences in game design led her to the conclusion that sports are meant to be fooled with and adapted to current players and strategies, ergo “Games are the democratic art form.” Baseball is not a static sport, but rather a work-in-progress, a group project to which we all contribute.

Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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1 year ago

really good stuff, glad to have you kiri and looking forward to reading more