Tom Verducci, as he often does, has captured the state of the game in his latest column for Sports Illustrated titled Baseball’s pressing question: What happens to a sport when nothing happens? In it he explores the ever-quickening death of the extended rally, which is creeping toward extinction thanks to the increasing all-or-nothingness of the sports.
What may seem like a small thing is actually a gigantic warning sign and, unfortunately, the symptom of a larger problem with no clear remedy. At no time has it been more important for baseball to be an attractive, exciting game for the next generation of fans. And at no time — at least in recent history — has such an unattractive, staid and mindless brand of ball been played.
It’s my personal belief this shift’s origins can be found in the sabermetric revolution, although decrying it as a wholly negative development is not intellectually honest. An increased emphasis on reaching via a walk and decreased punitive view of strikeouts is an enlightened way to to view the offensive side of the game. As a result, however, the amount of action (strikeout, walk or home run) has ground to historic lows year after year.
The obvious problem with decreased action is that it’s boring. Verducci also drills down on some underappreciated implications.
The chesslike quality of the game has tilted toward checkers. One-third of all turns at bat now end without the ball in play, an all-time high: either a strikeout (at a record rate for a 10th straight year), a walk (the highest in eight years) or a home run (an all-time high), the so-called three true outcomes promulgated by the sabermetric community.
“It used to be that managing a game, you would think about what pitching matchups you wanted based on maybe who could get you a ground ball or a double play if you needed one,” says Reds manager Bryan Price. “Now what you find yourself doing is defending the home run. Who can get the swing and miss?”
As strikeouts and home runs increase, so does the time players take to gear up for these max-effort battles. Each pitch brings a slow diligence as if scrubbing for surgery or calibrating the splitting of an atom. The quaint interludes between balls regularly put in play have become yawning gaps of nothingness. Major League Baseball is concerned how the trends of more velocity, more relief pitchers and more all-or-nothing hitters are slowing the game. While the game prospers economically, baseball officials worry about where the sport is headed. They fret over internal polls that show they risk losing the next generation of fans as the pace of action slows in a technology-driven world that offers more diversions at a faster pace.
Baseball is a business and wins are important. What’s happening in the sport is not dissimilar to phenomenons occurring in other sports. NBA teams rest stars during the regular season. Poor foul shooters are intentionally hacked in late-game situations. Both of these occurrences are bad for the fan but good for the team.
In football a ball-control offense and conservative fourth-down calls are made to preserve leads. Kickoffs are sent out of the back of the end zone. Good strategy is not always sound entertainment.
Let’s be perfectly clear here. Managers and general managers should serve the purpose of winning more than serving the purpose of creating an exciting game. The Old Guard, the proudly unsophisticated crowd, is wrong to suggest otherwise. A more thorough understanding of what wins ballgames should always be sought and implemented. The players aren’t out there for their health and the money is too significant to sacrifice even the slightest of competitive edges.
At the same time, Major League Baseball is responsible for folding the new reality of all-or-nothing ball into an compelling in-game product. And those who worship at the altar of stats need to take a critical look at their own relationship with the sport and what piqued their interest in the first place.
In my three decades of fandom, baseball has moved more toward science than art. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a yearning nostalgia for the ways of yesterday. There’s a certain beauty that’s been lost through the years in the interest of winning.
Base-stealing and bunting has been marginalized. Choking up with two strikes has become a quaint allusion to the past. The two-hour, 20-minute game is an albatross. The analytic part of my brain understands why this has happened. The poetic part mourns. It’s tough to quantify the beauty of nine defensive players springing into motion, the quick thrill of a hit-and-run. It’s tough to explain the mental stimulation that comes from thinking along with a manager in a chess-piece waltz.
Many who love baseball love it for that abstract beauty. The time spent waiting for the burst of fury is better spent when one’s assured it will eventually happen. Holistically, it feels as though the yin and yang of nothingness and everything is growing more and more out of whack.
Verducci does yeoman’s work by pointing out the negative quantitative data the stats shift has had on the other main obstacle facing baseball: pace of play.
Players are taking 1.1 seconds more between pitches this year than last year, an unprecedented one-year jump in the 11 seasons such records are available. In just one year they have added five minutes, 28 seconds of dead time between pitches to an average game.
Baseball always ebbs and flows. Just three years ago we were talking about the bottom of an offensive trough in which runs per game sank to a 36-year full-season low. Waiting for baseball to self-correct, however, becomes riskier in what is now a $10 billion industry in the most competitive environment ever for entertainment time and dollars. The risk is that less action over a longer period of time may continue to increase.
Prolonged delays between pitches can be fairly attributed in part to the increased stakes riding on each of them. Baseball’s moving more toward a binary approach to at bats. Strikeout’s a 0. A home run is 1. The math of the game is not being played among the fractions.
I’ve written before about MLB’s earnest but misguided attempts to shorten games. In short, they’ll stay long until the culture of the at-bat, this all-or-nothingness, changes. The pitch clocks and mound visit restrictions are Band-Aids when a yard of gauze is required.
And it’s a very tough ask, imploring teams and players to go against their best interests. But Verducci adds some empirical heft to an emotional plea.
Baseball, the once beautiful game, is still very attractive. Admitting its looking a bit worse for wear doesn’t mean you love it any less. Caring about something means wanting the best for it.
It’s just difficult to know what that is — or as often the case — chasing down an idealized and romanticized version of something will prove fruitless.