10 Degrees: The Mensa member's idea that can solve almost all of baseball's problems

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Every year, Nick Elam looks forward to October baseball, even plans his schedule around its marquee games. He was giddy at the prospect of a winner-takes-all Game 5 in the division series last year between the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals. By the end of the night, he said, as the game slogged along through a dozen pitching changes and clocked in at 4 hours, 37 minutes, his enthusiasm hadn’t just waned. It vanished altogether.

“Can this just be over?” he remembers himself thinking. “I don’t even care anymore.”

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When you lose the Nick Elams of the world, there is a problem. Elam is a professor at Ball State, a Ph.D. who specialized in educational leadership, a former high school baseball coach, a part-time groundskeeper for the Cincinnati Reds, a Mensa member and, most relevant to the conversation, an innovator in the sports world who created what many believe to be a reasonable alternative to the boring, time-consuming, intentional-foul-laden end of basketball games.

The Elam Ending, as it’s been deemed, would stop the clock at the first whistle with less than three minutes left in an NBA game. However many points the team in the lead has, add seven, and that would be the target score to end the game. So if there’s a foul with 2:55 remaining and the Warriors lead the Cavs 106-101, the rules are simple: The clock vanishes and the first to score 113 wins. The incentive for Cleveland to foul would be far smaller. The advantage for Golden State would fit the lead they carried. It was so inventive, The Basketball Tournament – a 5-on-5 contest with a $2 million prize – used it during play-in games last year.

For how well-received the Elam Ending was by TBT and those who saw it, Elam called baseball “the sport nearest and dearest to my heart.” With commissioner Rob Manfred saying he’s open to changes that address some of the sport’s issues and brainstorming in front offices and beyond rampant, Yahoo Sports reached out to Elam to pick his brain. Nearly 3,000 typed words later, it was clear Elam, 35, does not lack for ideas.

None of them, he wants to note, are nearly as fully fleshed out as his basketball plan. He sees pace of play and game length, the disproportionate amount of home runs, strikeouts and walks, and while he believes there’s a solution to the nexus where they’ve conspired to change the game, he has not yet manufactured that particular silver bullet. He’s not all that concerned with marketing of baseball’s stars. (“If you only care about Mike Trout,” he said, “there’s a decent chance you’ll see him go 0 for 4 and make no memorable defensive plays in a game.”) He doesn’t want to eliminate defensive shifts or even universalize the designated hitter. But he sees the stunning drop in attendance that has MLB on pace to bleed 4 million-plus fans this year drop under 70 million total for the first time since 2003, and he understands the sport is more open to new thoughts than it might be otherwise.

Elam’s ideas straddle the line between radical and pragmatic. And while the most fascinating of all is also the most drastic, the plan behind his …

Nick Elam’s concept for the strike zone is to encourage batters to put the ball in play early in the count by expanding the size of the strike zone as a plate appearance continues. (AP)
Nick Elam’s concept for the strike zone is to encourage batters to put the ball in play early in the count by expanding the size of the strike zone as a plate appearance continues. (AP)

1. Dynamic Strike Zone is awfully compelling. Now, first off, a caveat, and a very important one: This idea depends on an automatic strike zone called by a computerized system, and higher-ups at Major League Baseball still do not believe the league’s technology, for its large leap forward, is consistent enough to take balls and strikes from umpires and hand them to machines. That said, it is only a matter of time until it is, and when that tipping point comes, Elam’s idea could integrate it in a way that addresses a number of baseball’s problems at once.

The concept is simple: Encourage batters to put the ball in play early in the count by expanding the size of the strike zone as a plate appearance continues. In Elam’s words: “For years, batters have sought to work deep counts – and rightly so for a number of reasons. All the while, the length of games has increased and the percentage of balls in play has decreased (due to the associated increase in strikeouts and walks). By introducing the concept of an expanding strike zone – where the strike zone starts small for every at-bat, then expands slightly after Strike 1, then expands slightly again after Strike 2 – batters would change their approach, knowing that the best pitch to hit is likely to come early in the at-bat.”

Now, the size of the zone is negotiable. With no strikes, Elam suggests from the belt to the top of the knees, with at least half the ball over the plate. One strike: belly button to top of knees, with any part of the ball over the plate. Two strikes: letters to the hollow of the knees, with any part of the ball over the plate. Each batter’s zone would differ, of course, though it’s perfectly reasonable to think the technology will exist – or may already – to set an adjustable zone for each player depending on the number of strikes.

The clearest challenge with new rules is trying to anticipate the consequences – and presage the unintended ones. Pitchers, Elam believes, would see the rule as a wash. While the smaller strike zone could offer hitters a chance to look for a dead-red pitch early in the count, the advantage would swing decidedly in their advantage if they could get past that first strike. As for hitters, Elam said, “This is where it gets really fun, because this might have such a cool effect on hitters’ approaches at the plate.”

Would hitters cut down on their swings to prey on the pre-strike one advantage the rule would imbue? Would walks, such an enormous part of the game today, become something of an anachronism? Or might all of this backfire, with hitters understanding the smaller zone is tougher to hit, laying off pitches and then getting themselves into 2-0 or 3-0 counts and hunting balls in the relative postage stamp that would be the early-count strike zone.

It’s a delightful idea to tease out, and it’s one that has an Elam-inspired alternative: a secondary mound. The pitcher starts on a mound a few feet behind the typical one, then gets to move to 60 feet, 6 inches once he gets a strike. That sounds like trouble – forcing pitchers to throw from two distances – so maybe baseball should just …

2. Move the Pitching Rubber to the True Center of the Diamond, as Elam suggests. Bet you didn’t know that it isn’t there already, did you? It’s true: With 90-foot bases, the length between home and second base is 127 feet, 3 3/8 inches. The middle of that is 63.64 inches – more than 3 feet behind the current rubber. It has been 60 feet, 6 inches since 1893, so the prospect of it moving back would inspire all kinds of consternation.

It’s not like 60 feet, 6 inches is some sacrosanct number. It’s just 5 feet behind the previous edge of the pitcher’s box … which was arbitrary, too. The extra distance would give hitters a greater opportunity to see pitches and increase offense. And perhaps, Elam suggested, to compensate for the lost horizontal distance, the mound could be raised slightly.

Elam isn’t the only one toying with distances. Earlier this week, Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts suggested shortening the distance between bases to 88 feet or whatever number might encourage hitters to prioritize contact skills, speed and other parts of the game growing extinct. It also might add to dinky infield singles or cause infields to play in more, adding to dinky bloop singles.

Point is, it’s an idea, and that’s the purpose of Elam’s baseball vision quest. When he says MLB should …

3. Institute a Three-Batter Minimum for Relief Pitchers, he’s simply offering his perspective on the topic that generates more ideas than any: the deluge of relief pitchers and how the league can address all of the pitching changes.

Keeping relievers in for at multiple batters is an idea supported by a number of powerful executives, and Elam calls it “the best of many worlds – boosting offense, shortening length of game, and introducing interesting new strategical decisions/debates.” In his version, the minimum is waived if a reliever finishes an inning. Should he depart because of injury before those three batters, Elam said, the team at-bat would have the option to accept intentional walks until the minimum number of hitters has come to the plate.

Keeping relievers in for at multiple batters is an idea supported by a number of powerful executives. (AP)
Keeping relievers in for at multiple batters is an idea supported by a number of powerful executives. (AP)

It’s in the same vein as Buster Olney’s four-pitchers-a-game proposal this week or Jim Kaat’s suggestion to Ken Rosenthal earlier this year that games move from nine to seven innings. All spring from the same premise: that something with baseball today is broken to the point that profound, active, limiting change is necessary. A limit on how short outings can be. A limit on how many pitchers can go. A limit on innings.

It’s what makes the Dynamic Strike Zone so enthralling: In a game where the strike zone has been ever shifting for decades already, it would organically encourage a faster-paced game and offer consequences distributed on both sides of the game. Limitation rules are easier. The zone is a lot like the Elam Ending, in that it theoretically corrects a problem without outlawing or penalizing.

Elam’s other ideas are more universal in nature, and his plan to …

4. Embrace Regionality in a Way No Other Sport Ever Has actually echoes something I wrote nearly a decade ago about how baseball needs “unalignment” – essentially two 15-team leagues in which the best teams, not the division winners, make the playoffs.

Here is Elam’s version: “The contrast between MLB national TV ratings and local TV ratings speaks to its disproportionately regional appeal. MLB could embrace this phenomenon by eliminating leagues/divisions and adopting a 90-wins-and-into-the-playoffs format. It would temper big-market-vs.-small-market complaints, would guarantee that the most deserving teams qualify for the playoffs, guarantee exciting celebrations by requiring teams to clinch a playoff berth by winning a game, would add a freshness to the playoffs by having a different number of qualifiers year-to-year, and would bring about many other benefits.”

He delves into those benefits here, and the idea could dovetail rather nicely with the …

5. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Playoff Format he also advocates. This is not radical at all. MLB and the players could bargain it into the next basic agreement, no problem, and it would add a nice bit of tension to the postseason.

The proposal: Allow the top seed in the league to choose its opponent. This could very easily be a season in which the wild-card winner in both leagues is better than a division winner. Why is the best team forced to play a superior one in the first round? Giving the No. 1-seeded team the opportunity to pick which team it will play in the first round not only would make earning that seed even more important, it would imbue the series with the oh-they-wanted-to-play-us bulletin-board material baseball so typically lacks.

This could be done before the wild-card game, if you want to add one more layer of intrigue, or after it to allow for one more mind game. Either way, it takes a relatively tired playoff format and juices it with another subplot. The purpose of change, remember, is to recycle that which is stale, and …

6. Making the All-Star Game Old vs. Young, Not AL vs. NL could do just that. Even the most die-hard baseball purist will acknowledge that the All-Star Game ain’t what it used to be, not with interleague play and national TV exposure and the internet and MLB.tv ensuring fans of AL teams know NL players and vice versa. Even more, there is no league pride. Players don’t go to the All-Star Game to win for their league.

Players don’t go to the All-Star Game to win for their league. A change in format would help spark the excitement again. (REUTERS)
Players don’t go to the All-Star Game to win for their league. A change in format would help spark the excitement again. (REUTERS)

Elam believes they would be far more excited to play with those like them. His proposal suggests that players who debuted fewer than six years earlier comprise the Rising Star team while those with six-plus seasons are on the Superstar team. I’d amend that to cover through the end of a year so someone like Bryce Harper, called up April 28, 2012, would be in his final year of eligibility for the Rising Stars.

Consider what the lineups for this year might look like for both teams:

Rising Stars

Mookie Betts CF
Jose Ramirez 3B
Aaron Judge DH
Manny Machado SS
Bryce Harper RF
Jose Abreu 1B
Andrew Benintendi LF
Willson Contreras C
Scooter Gennett 2B
Gerrit Cole SP

Superstars

Jose Altuve 2B
Freddie Freeman 1B
Mike Trout LF
J.D. Martinez DH
Giancarlo Stanton RF
Buster Posey C
Brandon Crawford SS
Lorenzo Cain CF
Mike Moustakas 3B
Max Scherzer SP

It’s not perfect. Right now, the crop of young first basemen, second basemen and starting pitchers is thin. Same goes for shortstops and third basemen among the older crew. Still, the splitting up of teammates, the jumping of a player like Trout from the young team to the old one as he’d do this year, the camaraderie it fosters among the on-the-come-up stars – it’s all there, and it’s a charming idea. And following it up with …

7. A Full Slate of Day/Night Doubleheaders the First Saturday After the All-Star Break goes right along with it. As Elam puts it: “Thirty games. One million fans. Proceeds could go to Stand Up to Cancer or another charity. It would be known nationwide as MLB Day: The Mother Lode of Baseball.”

OK, so the acronym needs work. Or to be struck from the record entirely. And here’s an amendment: Forget the day-night doubleheader and make it a twi-night. The two-games-for-the-price-of-one ticket is almost dead. Revive it once a year. Make a special day of it. MLB’s season is six months long, and how many days are unique? There’s Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 and … um … uh …

Exactly. There’s nothing. Doubleheader Day could pit classic rivals or cement new ones. It could guarantee in-state teams play one another. And it could be the perfect end to an All-Star break that includes the …

8. MLB Draft live at the All-Star Game. This is not a Nick Elam idea, but it’s interesting enough that it merits a discussion. On his podcast this week, Ben Heisler proposed moving the draft to the All-Star Game, and when I proposed it to people in the game, they seemed keen on the idea.

The benefits are clear: Very few times does baseball have the undivided attention of the sporting world, and the All-Star Game is one of the likeliest candidates on the calendar. If the desire is to draw amateur talent to attend the draft in person and make a production out of it, there are plenty worse ways than offering them a chance to meet Trout and Betts and Altuve and Harper and Machado and the rest of the All-Stars in town.

Interest in prospects only has grown over time, and the possibility of transferring that excitement to the draft through one of the league’s jewel events is real. It’s not going to be the NFL draft or NBA draft, where college has ensured the public knows the best players, but an MLB draft with the game’s biggest stars in attendance, being held right after a moved-to-Monday Futures Game, could give it the sort of gravitas it needs to grow.

On his podcast this week, Ben Heisler proposed moving the draft to the All-Star Game. (AP)
On his podcast this week, Ben Heisler proposed moving the draft to the All-Star Game. (AP)

Of course, teams may well be against this because most of them are on vacation during the All-Star break. And some like dispatching their scouts to watch pro games after the early-June draft, and this would push that back. And what would happen to the short-season leagues that start in early June? Would MLB be willing to adjust their seasons, knowing that even something as tight as a two-week signing period for draft picks would leave them with monthlong seasons – or six weeks, if the minor leagues agree to move back the end of their years by two weeks?

It’s a good idea in principle, and one whose benefits probably outweigh its detriments, but also one with enough drawbacks to table it should it ever reach the desks of the game’s decision makers. That may be the case, too, with a number of Elam’s …

9. Fan-Service Ideas that pander to fans’ desires. Among them:

  • Get rid of the rule that calls a player out when his hand or foot slips off a base and super-slo-mo instant replay catches it: “These instances don’t seem to support the original intent/aims of the replay system. An umpire should be allowed to call a runner out if his hand/foot comes off the base slightly and the umpire is able to see it live, but the action after a runner’s initial entry to a base should not be reviewable. (Obviously, a runner’s initial entry to a base should continue to be reviewable.)”

  • Incorporate public-address announcers more into each game: “This shouldn’t be done in an over-the-top/tacky/distracting/NBA-style way, but simply announce more happenings (enthusiastically, but dignifiedly, announce the score after every run; announce the pitcher’s number of strikeouts in the game after each occurrence; announce the player’s season total after every: home run, triple, double, run scored, RBI, stolen base, outfield assist; announce other career milestones as appropriate; announce when the home team is one strike away from retiring the opposing side in the inning); doing so will induce loud – and authentic – cheers from fans.”

  • Encourage spontaneous celebrations: “MLB should crack down further on retaliatory beanballs, and by doing so encourage batters to celebrate home runs and big hits, pitchers to celebrate strikeouts, etc., as long as it’s not done in a manner meant to mock or provoke one’s opponent.”

There are more, perhaps to be discussed at another time, because as someone who actually created a rule that was used in a game that counted for something, Elam understands that ideas can be overwhelming and he’d rather debate the merits and shortcomings of his better ideas, like how the …

10. Dynamic Strike Zone would play with fans. Elam believes the following would be absolutely true: an increase on balls in play; a much faster game, in terms of length; and a reduction in walks, which is likely but perhaps not by an extreme amount. He also believes there would be fewer home runs and strikeouts. The tactical elements it would introduce, Elam said, might be the best part.

“I think this concept has promise to introduce all sorts of cool strategy, which I think fans would enjoy,” he said. “… The expanding strike-zone concept could add a significant amount of interest in the pitch-by-pitch path that an at-bat takes to reach its outcome, in those instances where an at-bat does happen to go deep into the count. Fans of the batter’s team licking their chops early in the at-bat, and fans of the pitcher’s team breathing a huge sigh of relief if he gets past that first perilous strike, to ultimately seeing fans of the pitcher’s team licking their chops late in the at-bat, and fans of the batter’s team crossing their fingers late in the at-bat – more so than they already do for a very tangible reason.”

Throughout history, the strike zone has been a big mystery, something that already changed from generation to generation. Even still, changing it within a plate appearance may be too much for some; that the first and fourth pitches can be identical with one a ball and another a strike is a big ask. That the definition of a strike expands based on the count is likewise. And yet the effects are clear.

Excited fans. Faster games. Quicker pace. More balls in play. Hitters practically guaranteed a good pitch early in the count. Starting pitchers almost certainly becoming more important, since their pitch counts would stay lower with the earlier swings and the third-time-through-the-order penalty not nearly as acute, provided the number of pitches per plate appearances drops. At the very least, it is an idea that addresses nearly every single so-called problem in baseball today without taking away the creativity of managing a bullpen or using data to align a defense in the optimal fashion.

Nick Elam already has basketball considering the wisdom of his novel idea. Whether the dynamic strike zone or any of the others, baseball ought to consider doing the same.

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