The Case for Walks: Shame is Good, Incentives Matter, and the Shannons are Always Right, Sometimes

Written by - Posted 2017-06-28 09:48 in News

Guest post by Jim Shannon

DISCLAIMER: I’m a lawyer, not a mathmatician. If you came here expecting more #FakeMath like the nonsense that my genetic counterpart has been spewing, you will be disappointed. This article lays out the case for walks in the Potomac Wiffleball League with good ole’ fashioned persuasion and logical fallacies. Feel free to skip to the bolded part if you don’t want to read 1,500 words of narcissism and self-worship.

To fully understand why the PWL needs walks and why the Shannons are always right, we need to go back to the early to mid 2000s. Around that time, when Silicon Valley was rapidly becoming the petri dish for technological innovation, a similar and equally important phenomenon was occurring in Manassas, Virginia. Twin brothers, shamed (shame is an important theme in this piece) by their parents for spending any time indoors in the summer, found themselves working tirelessly to perfect the game of wiffleball. Their game was rudimentary at first. The field was a literal sand lot; games were played on the sand volleyball court in the Shannons’ backyard. The strike zone was their little sister’s 2 foot tall slide. The two volleyball poles served as first and third base. Second base never really existed, but it was somewhere behind the pitcher. Importantly, games were 6 innings long, pitcher’s hand out, medium speed, with 2 outs per inning (the “Shannon Rules”). Sound familiar? I’m sure it does; the PWL has implemented nearly every one of the Shannon Rules (because, of course, the Shannons are always right).

Eventually, the Shannons created a strike board nearly indistinguishable from the strike boards you see at the Moose Lodge (the Shannons are always right), outlawed any non-official wiffleball bats or balls (the Shannons are always right), built a stadium next with dimensions nearly identical to those in the PWL (the Shannons are always right), and eventually even equipped the stadium with lights for night games (the PWL hasn’t caught up to the Shannons in this regard yet).

This is all largely useless background information, but I think that it’s important that you know it. I need you to understand that because Jack and I were right about a couple things, our authority or ideas can no longer be reasonably questioned when we opine about another thing. Therefore, if I suggest something, it must be right. I’m a hall of famer, after all. Are you really going to question me?

On to the issue at hand: pitching and walks. You may be wondering how “medium speed” was regulated under the Shannon Rules. Well, shame is a very powerful emotion. Under the Shannon Rules, Jack and I simply shamed each other into pitching within the prescribed speeds. If either of us continued to deviate from the maximum allowable speed after being told to slow it down, the other player had the option to simply walk away from the game. This was a very effective method at shaming the other in to pitching at the appropriate speed, because otherwise he simply would have nobody to play against. Walks were allowed under the Shannon Rules, and their inclusion (or exclusion) was never a point of debate. Ghost runners were used, and they advanced as far as their human counterpart did on any given plate appearance. Perhaps because it was a one on one game, meaning we were both one-man lineups, walks were never an issue, because there was no way to pitch around one of us. 

It wasn’t until the rest of the Barnburners began joining in the games that walks became an issue. Because we were the best hitters of the bunch, opposing pitchers had an incentive to pitch around us and attack the relatively weaker hitters.

However, because man is an adaptive and creative beast, this practice of pitching around hitters was immediately nipped in the bud. And I mean immediately. Jack simply refused to take 1st base after drawing 4 balls. Just like that, a new rule was born. Walks were now left to the election of the batter. Either the batter could take the walk or the batter could wipe the count clean. So if Jack had a full 3-2 count on him and Jake pitched ball 4, Jack had the option of taking 1st base or taking a fresh count at no balls and no strikes. 

PWL hitters have long been complaining about pitchers like Gannon and Crawford consistently and unapologetically throwing faster than 27 mph. The thought process of these pitchers is something like this: “I bet that I won’t miss the board 4 straight times, so unless you want to be at the plate all day, you’re going to have to swing.” This practice thrives because so long as these pitchers don’t throw four balls in a row, they are free to throw at whatever speed they want.

Another reason they do this is because the league does not shame this practice enough. In the Shannon backyard, calling the pitcher “Randy Johnson” or “Roger Clemens” (or “asshole”, “dickhead”, “jagoff”, etc) in response to the pitcher throwing too fast was quite effective at getting the point across. For an excellent example on how to shame a pitcher, please see this gif of Kyle Seager shaming Jared Weaver.

I should note that some of the league does shame pitchers. Desorrento, Nitto, and Tomko do their fair share of shaming, but when a pitcher like Gannon, for example, drinks 12 beers on a Sunday afternoon, his proclivity to feel shame is drastically reduced, which is what leads me to the following proposal:

Walks are now at the election of the batter. The count is to remain the same if a pitch hits the board over 27 mph. Thus, if a pitcher cannot hit the board 3 times under 27 mph before he throws 4 balls, the batter, at his election, can take a walk or wipe the count clean so that there are no balls and no balls.

The Shannon backyard did not have radar guns, but if a pitch was deemed too fast, it was treated as if it did not happen. That is a key aspect of this proposal: any pitch that hits the board over 27 mph is to be treated as if it simply wasn’t thrown. Perhaps 4 balls is harsh, and instead you want to make a walk either 5 or 6 balls. That’s fine, I guess. But the rules, as currently constructed, have created perverse incentives that opportunistic pitchers have seized. A pitch should only be a strike if it is 27 mph or under, and a pitcher should never be rewarded for an illegal pitch that is in violation of the speed limit. 

This is not a flawless proposition. Suppose that John Hamlett is at bat in a PWL World Series game with runners on 2nd and 3rd and 1 out. John is by far the best hitter on his team (sorry, Jerks). Couldn’t a pitcher throw endless balls to John if he refuses to take the walk? Yes, in theory. But this is where shame and social norms come in. The pitcher would eventually be shamed in to pitching to John, especially if the pitcher is the “ace” of a staff. The opponent and any bystanders would shame the pitcher in to pitching to John by calling the pitcher any number of colorful names. His first baseman and catcher will likely shame him in to pitching to John too. And hey, perhaps John would just take his walk. After all, in Major League Baseball, walks are mandatory. At least we’re giving John the choice. Standoffs like this were never an issue under the Shannon Rules, and I don’t anticipate them being an issue in the PWL, so long as pitchers and hitters are adequately shamed for deviating from established norms (the Shannons are always right).  
The Barrel Bruisers have suggested moving the mound back and eliminating the speed limit. That’s a fine alternative. We would occasionally move the mound back under the Shannon Rules to allow for full speed pitching, and it worked out fine. At that point, the rules just mirrored those of Major League Baseball, although walks were still at the election of the batter. Fast pitch is harder to control, so I suppose if you want a walk to be 5 or 6 balls instead of 4, that’s fine too. Full speed pitching was never incorporated under the Shannon Rules simply because throwing full speed hurt our arms too much.

The Barrel Bruisers idea is probably the most “fair”, if you believe in the word “fair” has any real meaning. This proposal at least tries to properly align incentives and resolves the issue of the current rules allowing for pitching fast without consequence. Allow walks and allow shame and social norms to govern how and when players choose to talk their walks. Implement the Shannon Rules. After all, the Shannons are always right, sometimes.

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