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August 22, 2016

Prospectus Feature

Something Not Worth Forfeiting

by Henry Druschel

The first season of the Toronto Blue Jays’ existence was 1977. It didn’t go particularly well, as is true of most first seasons, and they began play on September 15 with a 48–96 record. Baltimore was their opponent that evening, owners of an 87–58 record, second-best in the American League. The Orioles had won seven straight games and 15 of their previous 18, and were looking to narrow the gap between themselves and New York in the pennant race and leave Canada with a four-game sweep of the Blue Jays behind them.

By the third inning of that night’s game, a steady drizzle had begun to fall over Exhibition Stadium. The temperature that day was in the 50s, so drizzle probably wasn’t the end of the world, but Exhibition was not a pleasant place to play. Originally built for football, the Blue Jays would spend their first 12 years in the park as it became renowned for dismal seating, bad weather, and seagulls. On this day, however, Exhibition’s important feature was its on-field bullpens, squeezed tightly into the sparse foul territory of the oddly shaped stadium’s outfield.

As the rain continued, the grounds crew placed tarps over the bullpen mounds, and weighed them down with bricks. Presumably, this had happened before, but perhaps never against the Orioles, and more importantly, never against Earl Weaver. The famously combative Hall of Famer was in the 10th year of his hugely successful tenure as manager of the Orioles, and he protested the deployment of the tarps vociferously, citing the risk of slipping and injury to his players. Crew chief Marty Springstead ordered the removal of the bricks, but wouldn’t order the tarps removed or declare them out of play, as Weaver wanted. In response, the Baltimore manager removed his players from the field, and refused to have them return while the tarps remained.[1] As a result, midway through the fifth inning, with the Blue Jays leading 4–0, Weaver’s Orioles performed the first, last, and, to date, only voluntary forfeit since integration.[2]

* * *

Forfeits of any kind are very rare—only twelve have taken place since 1920—and nearly all of the modern examples fall under Rule 4.07(b), which states:

The home team shall provide police protection sufficient to preserve order. If a person, or persons, enter the playing field during a game and interfere in any way with the play, the visiting team may refuse to play until the field is cleared.

PENALTY: If the field is not cleared in a reasonable length of time, which shall in no case be less than 15 minutes after the visiting team’s refusal to play, the umpire-in-chief may forfeit the game to the visiting team.

This is the rule that led to the famous Disco Demolition Night forfeit in Chicago, and to MLB’s most recent forfeit, imposed on the Dodgers on August 10, 1995, when fans showered the field with souvenir baseballs after Tommy Lasorda was ejected.

Rule 7.03, on the other hand, governs forfeits caused by a team’s inability or refusal to take the field, and is invoked much less often. Weaver’s forfeit is the only example of an intentional forfeit in the modern era, and even that appears to have been motivated primarily by Weaver’s confrontational nature. Despite the presence of a rule providing a framework for their existence, MLB’s past and present are entirely bereft of any strategic concessions.

This is remarkable. Teams are almost certainly harming their long-term win rates in a meaningful way by playing until every out of every game has been recorded. For example, the Red Sox encountered a grueling quirk of the schedule on Wednesday night, when they were scheduled to play the Orioles at 7:05 p.m. before traveling to Detroit and playing the Tigers at 1:10 p.m. the next day. When it began to pour in Baltimore at roughly 9:00 p.m., the Red Sox were leading 8-1 after six innings, but imagine if the situation was reversed, and Boston was instead trailing 8-1 with three innings to go. Their odds of coming back to win such a game would be something like 0.5 percent. In such a scenario, they could either wait in the clubhouse until the game was either resumed or officially cancelled, or they could forfeit as soon as the rain began, and head for the airport and Detroit right away. In the non-hypothetical game, the rain delay lasted about 80 minutes before the game was officially called; it seems obvious that an extra hour and a half of rest before the next game would add more to a trailing Boston’s total expected wins than remaining in Baltimore and hoping for a miracle would.

That might seem like a corner case, and truthfully, it is; I bring it up to note that no one would even consider a forfeit in such a scenario, despite the strategic logic of the move. This isn’t limited to corner cases, however; every time a position player enters a baseball game as a pitcher in a blowout, teams are harming their long-term expected win totals by not forfeiting instead. A position player taking the mound indicates the manager is trying to maximize future wins by saving his real pitchers, at the cost of giving up on the slim, slim chance of a comeback in the present game. But by not going all the way and forfeiting, they are risking injury, to all of their players and particularly to the poor sap who is taking the mound. This isn’t just a hypothetical concern, either; this year, Ryan Goins was placed on the 15-day DL with a strained forearm the day after he made the first pitching appearance of his career. If the manager has already given up on winning the game at hand, forfeiting and eliminating any risk of injury is clearly the choice that leads to the most wins in the future.

I’m sure you can think of other examples. My point is not to document every situation in which a forfeit might make sense, but just to show that they exist. By always finishing games and never walking away, managers are almost certainly costing their team wins, in the long run.

* * *

I am not bringing this up to advocate for increased use of Rule 7.03. I like baseball, even when the score is lopsided or the hour is late, and I like when position players pitch. I’m glad that managers never forfeit, and I suspect that most or nearly all baseball fans agree. I’m bringing this up to showcase an example of teams voluntarily choosing not to maximize their expected wins.

If you listen to certain people, that shouldn’t be possible. Consider service time manipulation, when a team keeps its young players in the minor leagues for a few months longer than necessary at the beginning of their first season, ensuring they control that player for 6.7 seasons instead of 6.0 and delaying the onset of free agency by a year. Nearly every team engages in this, to varying degrees, and I don’t like it. I think it’s unfair to the player, who is talented enough to play at the major-league level but being kept in the minors, and I think it’s unfair to the fans, who deserve the best possible on-field product but are getting something less than that instead, and I think it’s boring and un-fun.

A common response to such criticism is that, by keeping its young players in the minor leagues for the first few months of the season, the team in question is ensuring future control over those players and thus increasing its expected wins in the long term. That’s undeniably true; where I depart from this response is whether or not that trumps my concerns. Personally, I don’t think the only expectation of a team should be that they win as much as possible, but to many, that is the exclusive purpose of a franchise: wins, in the short and long terms. In that framework, any attempt to convince them to behave contrary to that competitive interest (and their obvious financial interests, though the two are intertwined) is futile. Once the strategy with the most expected future wins has been found, the debate around what the team should do is over.

Given that forfeitures would be win-maximizing in certain cases, and given that teams choose never to strategically forfeit regardless, there are two possible conclusions. One: Teams are behaving irrationally. Given the immense value even a single win can have to a franchise, I feel confident stating that this is not the case. That leaves the second conclusion: There is something the team values more than winning as much as possible. There is a societal norm that places something—a competitive ideal, maybe, or just completion—over winning, a norm that would be violated by a strategic forfeit, and a norm that teams invariably follow.

As someone who values other things over winning, this excites me. The existence of and acquiescence to this norm means that major-league franchises do not exclusively value competitive success, despite its presence at the very core of their being as a sports team. And while it’s not clear how or when this norm developed, I’d posit that it also means that my values might someday be the values of major-league baseball. It means that repeated voicing of my displeasure and dissatisfaction with the current system is not fruitless, because such repetition is how the individual preferences of myself and others may someday be transformed into a norm that will constrain the actions of teams in a way I find desirable.

At this moment in time, the list of things that teams value over winning appears to be short. Indeed, it seems more often than not, I’m disappointed to learn about some new thing I find important that teams nonetheless elevate winning over, rather than the other way around. The logic of forfeitures, however, and their persistent and complete absence from major-league baseball, shows that the list at least exists, and if it exists, I think it can grow. That is exciting.

[1] https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19770915&id=-QpPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=YAIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6893,3342243&hl=en

[2] http://www.retrosheet.org/forfeits.htm

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