Putting the “I” in “Team”
Someone remarked to me a while back that “baseball isn’t like hockey or basketball or football or soccer, which are all team sports.” Baseball, the claim went, “is an individual sport because pitchers pitch individually, players take at-bats individually, and all of them make a lot of the plays in the field individually.”
And somehow, after hearing that, I was shook.
I felt the need to deconstruct that statement – because while baseball isn’t like hockey or basketball or soccer, in which there’s an awful lot of passing a puck or a ball between players in order to create any kind of offensive game at all, it’s still not an individual game in the sense that golf or tennis are.
In golf, you might play on a team; but it’s not inherent in the rules or manner of playing the game that you play on a team. In fact, team golf is a bit of an artificial construct, in which a group of golfers are teamed up to oppose another such group – but they’re each still playing their own individual game of golf. For all 18 holes.
In tennis, you can play doubles – which is something like playing on a team. But that’s about the only game situation in which team play isn’t an artificial construct like it is in golf. Olympic tennis teams consist of teams of players all representing the same nationality – but apart from doubles or mixed doubles tennis, they each play the game individually, even if they’re all representing one country.
Football’s an interesting case – is it truly a team sport, or is it more of an individual sport? As in baseball, you can’t win a game unless the entire lineup is playing. No football game was ever won by a quarterback throwing passes into the end zone to one individual receiver for four quarters straight, although there have been games in which that’s amounted to the only actual scoring. Nor has there ever been a football defense that had each individual doing his own thing defensively, without trying to coordinate with the rest of the defensive line or the secondary.
But baseball, on the other hand… seems to be more of a blend.
Chris Young #25 of the Oakland Athletics is tagged out at home plate home as Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski #12 applies the tag and home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi makes the call during the game at O.co Coliseum on Monday, September 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Obviously, many of the plays in the field do not involve only one defender. How often do you see an unassisted double play? Rarely, and certainly not in every game. How often do you see an unassisted triple play? Almost never.
Even in a case in which a runner is thrown out at home from the outfield, there’s usually a cutoff player involved. Most pitcher defense involves throwing the ball to a base where there’s a defensive player positioned. Much of third base and shortstop defense involves throwing the ball to the player at first base. And so on.
And yet, I’ve come around to thinking the individual player aspect of baseball is more unique than it is in most other team sports.
Plate appearances for hitters are taken alone, and yet account for all the runs scored. If a player’s on base, he can score via another player’s hit – but there’s very little he can do to impact whether or not that hit occurs. He can also score via a wild pitch or passed ball, for example; but then again, there’s nothing much he can do to cause either of those to happen. Sure, he might do something to distract either the pitcher or catcher and the result might be a wild pitch or passed ball, but that’s more an effect of correlation than causation.
Stolen bases are individual activities, even if getting caught often is not.
Pitchers pitch alone on the mound, even though they receive signs from the catcher.
And now, with the new MLB rules coming in 2023, if the pitcher violates the pitch clock, he’s automatically thrown a ball (and not a strike) to the hitter. That’s right. The ball-strike count changes immediately. Does that impact the rest of his team? No doubt. But none of the other players caused it to happen. Or if they did, something went really wrong.
Alternatively, starting in 2023, if the hitter steps out of the box for too long between pitches, he’s automatically been thrown a strike. It’s the responsibility of the individual player to keep track of the pitch clock, even though you can already imagine the shouting that’ll come from the dugout when a violation is about to occur.
Pitcher Drew Anderson #40 of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs gets set to pitch as a pitch clock counts down during the second inning of a AAA minor league baseball game against the Syracuse Mets on April 30, 2019 at Coca Cola Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
The pitch clock is not unlike the shot clock in basketball, which generally only expires if one player possesses the ball for too long without shooting. But confusion in the passing game in basketball is often what leads to shot clock violations; and that’s simply not the case in baseball.
But back to making plays in baseball.
Catching fly balls in the outfield is an individual play (and you actually run into trouble when it’s not).
Errors are extremely rarely assigned to more than one player. Generally, if a bad throw is made from third to first – say, bounced in the dirt so the first baseman can’t pick it cleanly – the error goes to the third baseman; even if it’s fairly obvious the pick was one the first baseman should have made.
Think about the run-down in baseball. A runner is caught between bases and has to reach a base safely – without being tagged by an opposing player holding the ball – in order to not record an out. The run-down is a great example of a team play in baseball, because the opposing team has to throw the ball back and forth between players till one of them can successfully tag the runner. But the runner? He’s on his own.
C.J. Cron #25 of the Colorado Rockies attempts to tag Miguel Rojas #11 of the Miami Marlins during a run down in the fifth inning of the game at loanDepot park on June 21, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Every sport tallies and tracks individual player statistics, including all the team sports. But what you have in hockey, for example, that you do not have in baseball is the equivalent number of individual points assigned for assists as for goals. Because in hockey, it’s understood that the pass to the goal scorer is how he/she got the puck in the first place. That’s burnishing the team aspect of the sport right into how player points are scored.
I can’t really imagine a similar way of assigning an RBI to more than one player when a hitter in baseball gets the hit that scores a run. Sure, everyone who scores was assigned a hit if that’s how they reached base; but they do not get an RBI for driving in a run unless they had the hit that drove it in. RBIs are individual statistics.
So then, with all of this in mind, is baseball really a team sport? Of course it is. But it’s more of a hybrid (team plus individual) sport than I had ever really thought about before. And if I got you to think about that a little bit more, too – that’s an RBI for me.