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Is 90 feet “a pick from heaven”?

I’ve started watching Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series while I exercise, and this morning I saw something interesting. In the first episode, Charles McDowell says this about the decision to put the bases 90 feet apart:

That’s so interesting that that would come out 90 feet. That somebody sat down, Mr. Cartwright or whoever said, “Hey it ought to be 90 feet — it just sounds like a logical number.” The fact of the matter is, in retrospect, if it was 88 feet the game would be very different. Think of the plays at first base. Think of the double plays that wouldn’t be completed on an 88 feet first base, and second base. If it were 94 feet we’d be throwing people out all over the place. Batting averages would drop remarkably. So if 90 feet was something somebody said, “Hey, that’s a good number,” that was a pick from heaven.

I’m not a mathematician, but I was pretty good at math in high school, and I am a computer programmer, which has some mathematical components. Maybe I know just enough to be dangerous, as they say, but my very first thought on hearing that statement was: “That doesn’t sound right.”

If the bases were only 88 feet apart, then yes, the runners would have two fewer feet to run. But the fielders would be closer together, too, which means shorter throws. On the other hand, it also means balls that they currently dive to catch would sneak through the infield. But back on the first hand, the holes between the fielders would be slightly smaller and therefore harder for hitters to find.

I think it mostly comes down to ratios and percentages — as long as the bases are all the same distance from each other, we’re good. Whether that distance is 88 feet or 94 feet or any other number doesn’t matter a ton, I don’t think. Physical requirements would change, of course — can you imagine David Eckstein or Dee Gordon trying to play shortstop on a field with 110-foot bases? — but statistically speaking, things would all even out.

The distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, though … well, changing that would have a huge impact on the game. And it is telling that THAT distance is the result of trial-and-error, not some “pick from heaven.”

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