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Five Questions to Answer for New Baseball Fans

What five questions would you answer for new baseball fans to understand the game quickly?  As the world re-opens from COVID many people may be looking for new experiences and activities.  It would be great if some of them became new baseball fans!  How would you explain the game to someone for whom it was a new experience? 

Baseball player with mask

A newcomer may not even know what questions to ask, so I’ve listed five questions which you could ask (and answer) for the new fan to help accelerate the learning process.  These provide insight into not only the basic rules but also some of the strategy employed by teams.

Question 1 – What is the Object of the Game? 

The team with the most runners safely rounding the bases and touching home plate (in nine innings worth of opportunities) wins the game.  One of the interesting facets of the game is that a team can have a lot more runners on base but end up losing because it is unable to advance them to score.  In that respect, baseball is like other sports.  Base runners in baseball could be analogous to shots on goal in hockey or first downs in football.  Other times, a team will have few runners on base but wins the game because it is efficient at getting them to score.  That’s why it’s a common defensive strategy to utilize intentional walks to avoid stronger batters and put more runners reach base if that makes it easier or more likely to get three outs before any runs score.

Here’s a fun Youtube video describing the basics of the game.  The explanations aren’t perfect, especially relating to some of the finer points of the rules.  For that reason, it might be most useful as entertainment for experienced fans and a source of perspective, helping generate ideas and insights for explaining the game on both an intuitive and deeper level.

For sheer efficiency in bringing a newcomer to basic understanding, this might make great reading the night before attending a ballgame for the first time.

Question 2 – Who is the Most Important Batter to Watch?

The answer to this question for new fans depends on the situation, both in terms of the pitcher and batter matchup and the portion of the game in which the teams are playing.  Some batters are skilled at hitting home runs so any time they come to the plate the chance of scoring is reasonably good.  Some batters do not possess much raw power but are skilled at putting shorter hits into play.  That hitter will have important opportunities when there are runners on base.  Runners who are on second or third base are running AWAY from the fielders as they try to reach home plate which provides a definite advantage.  It takes just seven seconds for a fast player to advance from second base to score.

Question 3 – What Makes a Batted Ball Fair or Foul?

On the infield, wherever the ball stops rolling or is first touched by a fielder determines whether it is fair or foul.  For this reason, a weakly hit ball or bunt may be allow to roll – even until it stops — if the fielders judge that it will go foul.  On the other hand, if the fielder can easily get the runner out he will quickly pick up that weakly hit ball and make the play.

A hit to the outfield is judged fair or foul based on where it first hits the ground.  It can LAND in fair territory and bounce INTO foul ground but it’s still a fair ball.  That makes for some interesting results!  It’s good to call attention to the dimensions and unique architecture of the outfield walls to get new fans thinking about what can happen as balls roll and bounce where fielders can’t reach them.  One consideration will be the special rules for balls that bounce into the stands or are touched by fans reaching over the wall.  It is definitely going to make fan interference much less likely while the first few rows of seats are kept empty during the pandemic.

Question 4- How do Teams Decide on Defensive Strategy?

Often the defensive team will strategize based on an assessment of how many runs will be needed to win the game.  If one team has a really good starting pitcher, the other team may take every risk to stop the other team from scoring more than one or two runs.  If the opposing pitcher is less daunting a team may be more patient in the field and will focus on preventing a large rally, taking the sure out at first base rather than risking a larger rally to try and stop every single runner from scoring.  When a runner is on third base with less than two outs, it can be a good teaching moment to point out how the fielders are aligned and what that says about the defensive strategy.

Another source of strategy comes into play for each individual batter. Analytics have provided a profile of each batter’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Many teams will pitch to the batter and align their defense according to the statistical analysis in order to maximize the chance of retiring the batter (getting him out).

Question 5 – Why are the Hardest Hits Not Always the Most Valuable?

No matter how hard a ball is hit, the fielders may still be able to catch it.  Remember that the object of the game is to get runners to advance safely around the bases to touch home plate.  Whenever the ball is hit on the ground they have opportunity to advance while for balls in the air they must wait at least until it is caught.  The fielders are talented enough to get to most balls quickly, but a slowly hit ball on the infield can be surprisingly troublesome.  While the fielders are racing to get the ball, the swift runners can cover a lot of ground. 

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