The rules of baseball continue to change almost every year, but the game was vastly different in the century the sport was invented compared to the one that followed. Indeed, before the turn of the 20th century, the core rules of the game had not yet settled into place, which often forces us to cut ties with anything that happened before the “modern era.” But that’s a shame. The 19th century was full of ridiculous, unrepeatable accomplishments and unusual rules, and they’re plenty of fun to recall.
For example, Cut4 writer Chris Landers assembled some of the most bizarre rules in baseball history, most of which didn’t live to see the 20th century. And you’ll absolutely want to check it out:
— Cincy (@Cincy_Steve) May 22, 2015
Among the more well-known oddities is the TWO DECADE LONG ability for batters to request a low or high pitch (1867-1887), a rule so laughably unbalanced in the hitters favor, all offensive statistics before its abolishment are effectively moot. Another rule that fundamentally changed the nature of the game allowed fly balls to be caught on a bounce for an out until 1864 (foul balls could be caught on a bounce for an out for nearly another 20 years).
Some rules forced pitchers to throw underhand, others allowed umpires to be chosen at random from the crowd, but the rule that stuck with me the most was the *one* year walks were scored as hits (1887).
Here’s what Landers had to say about that particularly short-lived idea:
A staggering 11 players hit .400 that season, nine of whom wouldn’t have had walks not counted as an at-bat. The statistics were even rewritten in 1968 by the Special Baseball Records Committee, with drastic consequences: Cap Anson, who hit .421 to lead the league in 1887, had 60 hits taken away, which stripped him of not only the batting title but the honor of first-ever member of the 3,000-hit club.
Don’t worry, in 2001, MLB reversed the Committee’s decision, and Cap now sits proudly in the Hall of Fame with over 3,400 hits.
But just think about the implications of that rule change. No, in retrospect the actual outcome of these games probably wouldn’t be affected – walks are still walks and the guy would be on 1B regardless of how it was scored in the books – but the statistical implications are pretty funny to consider.
Take 2019, for example. Last season, just 19 batters finished with a batting average above .300. Here’s how the top-10 shook out:
1. Tim Anderson: .335
2. Christian Yelich: .329
3. Ketel Marte: .329
4. DJ LeMahieu: .327
5. Anthony Rendon: .319
6. Jeff McNeil: .318
7. Yoan Moncada: .315
8. Nolan Arenado: .315
9. Charlie Blackmon: .314
10. Bryan Reynolds: .314
But if you were to fold walks into the equation (and keep it simple, by just including all plate appearances as the denominator), all but 18 hitters would’ve hit over .300 and four would’ve hit over .400.
Here’s the top-10 in 2019 “batting average,” by 1887 rules:
1. Christian Yelich: .416
2. Mike Trout: .412
3. Alex Bregman: .410
4. Cody Bellinger: .402
5. Juan Soto: .396
6. Anthony Rendon: .393
7. Carlos Santana: .392
8. Mookie Betts: .387
9. Ketel Marte: .382
10. Xander Bogaerts: .381
Only three players (Yelich, Rendon, Marte) from the original list made it into the top-10 by 1887 standards, which again … wouldn’t actually change much, but just goes to show how different batting average could have been perceived. It certainly would have tracked much closer to OBP, which, as we know today, is probably a better (albeit still imperfect) overall indicator of true offensive success. So … I guess the folks back in 1887 were just ahead of their time by about 120 years? Good for them.