How to fix the World Cup, and how to fix soccer

I study international politics for a living, so of course I love the World Cup. It’s a civilized substitute for war and a welcome break from Great Power rivalry and domination. Who could not delight in tiny Wales playing the mighty United States to a draw — and neither China nor Russia even showing up?

But the World Cup has problems, and so does the game itself. What to do, what to do…

Let me deal with the easy one first. The way to fix the World Cup is to disband FIFA, throw everyone associated with it in jail, and ask the Dalai Lama to pick the host countries.

The second problem is that modern soccer is dull. Watching a match is, as Aaron Copland once said of listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 5th Symphony, “like watching a cow eat grass.” It is also fluky. The better team does not win anywhere near reliably enough. One might as well just flip coins and save all the trouble of playing the dull games.

These two issues are intimately related and boil down to one simple fact: soccer is too low scoring. In any sport, the occasional point can occur by fluke. But if points are plentiful, the laws of probability will restrict the number of fluky wins. When was the last time you heard someone say that Serena Williams didn’t deserve to win a tennis tournament, or that the Toronto Maple Leafs were really the best team in hockey in [insert here any given year since Lester Pearson was prime minister]?

So, the way to fix soccer is to make it higher scoring. The question is how. Fortunately, I have the answer. Just make three little adjustments.

First, do away with the offside rule. No, really. It’s gimmicky, pointless, hard to enforce accurately, and slows down the match. Soccer is a game of blissful simplicity where flow and momentum matter, so why gum it up by preventing talented, overpaid players from making the most of their expensive offensive skills? Open up the field. Dare the defence to let attackers outflank them. Incentivize the always-exciting long pass. Keep the whistle out of the referee’s mouth.

Second, make the goal larger. In the 1860s, the English Football Association established a standard goal size of eight yards wide by eight feet tall. This remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the average human has gained almost four inches in height and proportionately more in reach. Throw in the fact that a modern professional goalkeeper works out half the day, has a designer diet, and probably mainlines Red Bull, and the result is, effectively, a much smaller target for the offence.

Third, don’t let goalkeepers grasp the ball outside the crease  (a.k.a. the “goal area”). In the penalty area, let them slap it, whack it, or punch it; but why let them range freely over a zone larger than the average Toronto residential lot immune to the threat of an attacker stealing the ball and burying it behind them in the (now much larger) net?

Together, these three changes would reverse the downward trend in average goals per game that we have seen over the course of World Cup history. Gone are the glory days of 1954 when Austria topped host Switzerland in a 7–5 thriller and in which the average game saw more than five goals. If the current trend continues, in 2094 the average number of goals per World Cup game will hit precisely zero.

And while we are at it, let’s outlaw heading the ball. Not that the header isn’t fun and exciting, mind you, but brains need protecting. God knows the players will need them to remember the new rules.

Should Jays Fans Worry about R.A. Dickey?

September is fretting season for Toronto Blue Jays’ fans. If the team is doing badly, the hand-wringing is all about whether the front office will make the off-season moves needed to field a competitor next year. If the team is doing well, it’s all about whether they will choke down the stretch, and who is holding them back.

This September the Jays-fans’-angst gaze has fallen heavily on R.A. Dickey, who was a big part of last year’s pennant run, and who is clearly having one of his rockier seasons, winning only 9 of his 28 starts with an ERA of 4.60. When Dickey is on, he is unhittable. When he is off, he might as well be tossing BP (*batting practice). So far, he has mostly been off.

What makes Dickey unhittable when he is good is his knuckleball, a pitch few use because few can throw it. Under the right circumstances, a knuckleball has a highly unpredictable flight path, which means that when the pitcher releases the ball hitters (as well as catchers!) cannot anticipate where it will cross the plate. A knuckleball literally wobbles en route, bobbing and weaving in a seemingly random manner. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, Dickey’s knuckleball can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. You can see this very clearly in this slow-motion .gif.

But what makes knuckleballers unhittable in one context makes them mortal in another. Compared to hard-throwing pitchers with the standard fastball/sinker/changeup repertoire, knuckleballers don’t have anywhere near as much control over where their pitches go. Inconsistency is inherent to the knuckleball-throwing enterprise. This is because the knuckleball is the perfect chaotic system.

In physics, a chaotic system is one that is extremely sensitive to initial conditions and easily perturbed by stochastic (i.e., random) influences. The defining feature of a knuckleball is that it leaves the pitcher’s hand without any rotation whatsoever. As the ball moves toward home plate, ambient turbulence will knock it off course, and perhaps also induce a slow spin in an unpredictable direction. Every other pitch—fastball, forkball, curveball, sinker—leaves the pitcher’s hand with a deliberately-imparted spin that will, as a result of Bernoulli’s principle, decrease air pressure on a specific side of the ball and induce a motion in that direction. Good pitchers can place these pitches very accurately. Good batters can identify them shortly after they leave the pitcher’s hand and anticipate where they will go. With a well-thrown knuckleball under ideal conditions, they have no idea. Throwing a knuckleball is a bit like curling without giving the rock an initial rotation: as it travels down the sheet, it will inevitably pick up a random spin of its own and go somewhere totally unpredictable. In curling, that’s insane. In baseball, it’s brilliant.

The problem is that very minor changes in initial conditions can turn a knuckleball into a big fat grapefruit that screams “Hit me please!” These minor changes can include the roughness of the ball’s surface, the length of the pitcher’s fingernails, the timing of his release, whether the roof of the SkyDome (er, Rogers Centre) is open or closed, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, humidity, and so on.

The fact that a knuckleball is a chaotic system means that, by their very nature, knuckleballs have a relatively high circular error probable, or CEP. Even with perfect initial release (i.e., the pitcher knows exactly where he wants the pitch to cross the plate and releases the ball appropriately), the odds that it will cross the plate at any given distance from the target are significantly greater than with any other pitch, whose tight rotation minimizes mid-flight perturbations. Since knuckleballs are relatively slow pitches, unless circumstances are just right, they will have flight paths that are relatively easy to anticipate and—if their flight path takes them over the plate—relatively easy to hit.

It is no surprise, therefore, that knuckleballers as a group have less impressive records than hard-throwing pitchers. They will be unhittable a smaller proportion of the time. According to the Bleacher Report, the top 10 knuckleballers of all time have net negative win-loss records (49 percent), an average ERA of 3.81, and an average career win total of 180 games. Only one knuckleball pitcher—Phil Niekro—has won more than 300 games. In contrast, the ten best starting pitchers of all time—none of whom threw a knuckleball—won 61 percent of their games, had an average ERA of 2.73, an average career win total of 330, and a dramatically higher total award haul.

Top 10 knuckleballers W% ERA W
1 Phil Niekro 0.535 3.49 318
2 Tim Wakefield 0.527 4.40 200
3 Charlie Hough 0.506 3.77 216
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 0.479 2.67 148
5 Dutch Leonard 0.560 2.99 139
6 Wilbur Wood 0.455 3.60 164
7 Joe Niekro 0.511 3.96 221
8 Tom Candiotti 0.480 3.97 151
9 R.A. Dickey 0.417 5.58 109
10 Bob Purkey 0.451 3.71 129
Top 10 starting pitchers W% ERA W
1 Walter Johnson 0.580 2.35 417
2 Christy Mathewson 0.610 2.37 373
3 Ed Walsh 0.547 2.12 195
4 Mordecai Brown 0.612 2.26 239
5 Grover Alexander 0.605 2.96 373
6 Pedro Martinez 0.649 3.00 219
7 Roger Clemens 0.649 3.22 354
8 Randy Johnson 0.664 3.41 303
9 Cy Young 0.601 2.66 511
10 Tom Seaver 0.595 3.00 311

Why would any manager field a knuckleballer then, you might ask? Because when the knuckleball works, it really, truly, genuinely is unhittable. Even the best power pitcher is hittable when he is throwing his best stuff. The odds are low, but they aren’t negligible. Under the right conditions, the odds of hitting a knuckleball are negligible. And in the average rotation, a good knuckleball pitcher—who will also, of course, have other pitches up his sleeve—is very likely to be one of the top five starters.

All of this is by way of saying that unless Dickey is injured, distracted, or otherwise impaired, there is no reason whatsoever to worry about his having had a bad season thus far. It’s in the nature of the pitch he throws. He could have a stellar October without doing anything different at all.

So, at least, we may reasonably hope. Chaos theory says so.