When Dr. James Naismith nailed his peach basket to a railing that happened to be ten feet above the floor, he was nailing down the height of the basketball hoop for all time — at least until now.
Each sport has generally accepted parameters — magic numbers that seem written in stone. But where do they come from?
Sixty feet, six inches (the distance from the pitcher’s rubber to home plate); 15 pounds (give or take) — the pressure in a football; six ounces (the weight of a hockey puck); 28 inches (the circumference of a soccer ball) – these are all current parameters in popular sports.
There are many more parameters of major sports — some well-defined, some less so; some well thought out, some less so. Decoded Sports will think them through now, and make specific suggestions.
The Parameters Of Baseball
A baseball field is the least regulated playing area of any major sport, with regard to dimensions. The old Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants played, had fences that ranged from 250 to 450 feet from home plate. That was extreme, but variation in the distance of the fence from home plate still has a wide range from one field to another and from one place on a field to another. In addition, the amount of space in foul territory varies widely.
Decoded Sports’s recommendation: Standardize playing fields with all fences in fair territory at least 375 feet from home plate.
The parameters of all games have interrelationships, but none moreso than baseball. The kind of turf, the hardness of the ball, the type of wood in the bat — even the height of the stitching on the ball above the smooth surface — are critical to the game at a professional level. The trend is for runners to be faster, which changes the positioning and play of infielders; pitchers throw the ball faster, and some are now so overpowering that they strike out nearly two out of every three batters
Decoded Sports’s recommendation: Move the pitcher’s rubber back a couple of feet. Increase the distance between bases a couple of feet.
In basketball, this is the name given to intentionally fouling a lousy free throw shooter — it began with Shaquille O’Neal, one of the most prolific scorers but poorest foul shooters in the history of the game. In 2015-16, the practice increased five-fold compared to the frequency of the previous year.
A serious analysis of the problem reveals that the situation has arisen not so much because of bad foul-shooting, though that’s certainly part of it. But the main cause is an increase in the points scored per possession — in other words, better shooting from the field, particularly from the three-point line.
Remedies so far discussed all center on rules that would prohibit the deliberate fouls. That’s the wrong approach. The parameters of the game should be changed to reflect the improvement in scoring.
Decoded Sports’s Recommendation: Raise the basket; make the hoop smaller. This will lower the scoring percentage. You will argue that the foul-shooting percentage will go down too and there’ll be no gain. Ah, but we have thought this through.
Move the foul line closer to the basket — to a distance at which free throw shooting percentages stay the same as they are now.
During the playoffs a couple of years ago, some combination of New England Patriots personnel contrived to lower the pressure of game balls because the quarterback (Tom Brady) preferred a softer ball. A soft ball is easier to throw and to catch, and the incident earned the name ‘Deflategate.’ Now that Brady has served a four game suspension, the matter of irregular pressure in professional footballs is closed, and the league has changed its procedures so that tampering with balls is impossible.
Strangely, the NFL requires that only special K-balls be used for kicking plays. Some kickers complain that K-balls are hard to control, but kickers are now sending the ball soaring about 20% farther than they did a couple of decades ago. This changes the relationship between offense and defense slightly, and Decoded Science would prefer that kicking balls be designed to go only a one-third of the distance that they currently travel. There is something unsatisfying in watching a team move the ball 20 yards and then kick a 50 yard field goal.
In most sports at a casual level of play, with nothing but bragging rights to the winners, the standards are loose and the balls, fields, and other accoutrements are vague approximations of those in a professional game. Basketball is often played ‘half-court.’ A football field end zone is wherever somebody drops a shirt or hat for a marker. A baseball game may be played with a ball that’s scuffed and bruised.
One sport is played only at the sandlot level, and so there are no parameters to approximate: stickball. For this game, the players need only some sort of stick, often a baseball bat, and a soft ball, often a tennis ball. The rules will be whatever the players agree upon. Ah, if only the rest of life were so easy.
This article is dedicated to American stickball champion (self-proclaimed) Stephen L. Plotkin.