Fixing Baseball

As I thought about this topic, it occurred to me that no 2 people will exactly agree on what a game should be. We might agree to play by the rules, and to accept the way it currently is played, with reservations, but consensus about what the game should be like or how it should play out is always going to be difficult, and may wander over time.

Having said that, I’ve been a baseball fan all my life, and I feel compelled to say, with some conviction, that it’s not the game it used to be, and by that I don’t mean just that it’s changed, but that it’s diminished, it doesn’t exude the charm that it once did. Allowing for the eventual disillusionment that comes with age, I think a strong case can be made that the powers that be have let the game devolve into something that is neither romantic in perception or captivating in scope and that with out maybe intending to, have allowed baseball to become a caricature of what it once was, and a dreary caricature at that.

Baseball, at it’s best has had the intrigue that comes from different styles of play— Pitching heavy teams like the White Sox Or Dodgers of the 60’s, or Slugging teams like the Yankees of the 20’s and 30’s, or the Big Red Machine from the 70’s. Teams that used speed as a weapon offensively while hitting few home runs, and teams that played for the long ball like many of Earl Weaver’s Baltimore teams in the 70’s. Teams would craft their style of play to fit their roster and even their park, and rosters were dotted with all manner of players: Maury Wills, Rickey Henderson, and Lou Brock were stars along side of sluggers like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Willie McCovey. Because baseball had not yet evolved into a Home Run hitting contest, players such as Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn, and Wade Boggs were big stars without hitting home runs with any great frequency. Because Singles and doubles played a big role in a team’s offense, strategies to string together baserunners to produce a single run or more were a significant part of a manager’s arsenal. Because fewer hitters were aiming for the fences literally every at bat, the games had a balanced rhythm that the current game lacks.

If you’ve noticed I’ve packed the last paragraph with players from a bygone age, I would say with no apology, that I’m trying to make a point, and the point is that the game is now dominated by one dimensional players– oh sure there are players that for a season or 2, have a multi-arsenal game, such as Mookie Betts last year, or Jose Altuve the year before. Or Mike Trout most every year. But the league is deluged with players who are satisfied to strike out 30% of the time, for a chance to hit 30 or 40 home runs over the course of the year. If you think that I’m exaggerating- consider Joey Gallo of the Rangers in 2018. In 577 plate appearances for the season, he hit 40 home runs, walked 74 times, and struck out a whopping 207 times. If you add in his 3 hit by pitches, the numbers crunch this way: 56% of the time he was up, there was no ball in play! I’m not even arguing that he wasn’t valuable in some way– obviously the Rangers thought he was– he played in 148 out of 162 games. What I am arguing is, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Baseball was supposed to be a game with strategy and moments of anticipation, punctuated by flurries of activity. It WASN’T supposed to put us to sleep!

And then there is the effect that all this has had on Pitchers– in order to combat the all or nothing approach–hurlers now look to strike out as many hitters as possible, for fear that many batters are strong enough to hit home runs even when they don’t get perfect contact with the ball.

And hitters– to maximize their home run totals, work counts to excessive extremes– many hitters having developed a knack for hitting a foul ball when they don’t get a pitch on which they can square up their bat. The result is that more at bats are ending in either a strikeout, a walk or a home run. Even prized players like Bryce Harper, are often hitting for a low average, with high walks and strike outs, but with enough Home Runs to justify their continued approach (patience bordering on tedium). Long stretches of the game will sometimes pass without a playable fair ball being hit. In fact the average interval between fair balls in play has never been so great. With pitch counts higher than ever and the feeling by many pitchers that they dare not let up on any hitter, complete games are rarer than ever, and rosters that used to get by with 9 or 10 pitchers now frequently number 12 or 13. The number of pitchers necessary to get a team thru the 1458 innings that are your average season is now frequently 20 or more. Because pitchers often are removed after 5 innings or even less, and relief pitchers are frequently limited to a single inning or less (so that they’ll be available again for the next game!), the parade of pitchers per game seems almost interminable.

The situation with pitching has degenerated to the degree that some teams have even experimented with using a pitcher as “an opener”, letting a pitcher who would classically be a relief pitcher now “start” the game, with the main purpose of getting thru 1 or 2 innnings, and then turning the ball over to the pitcher who would have been the starter, but now is asked to get the game to the latter stages (throwing 4 or 5 innings) before turning the game over to the back end of the bullpen. This is such a distortion of the history of the game, that you would think that the so called “baseball purists” would be alarmed by it. Instead, they spend their time myopically focusing on bandaid solutions to shorten the game, without understanding that the way the game is played is the reason the games are so long.

No one would state move vocally than me that the games are too long, but if you focus only on that, you’re missing the point. The main problem with the game is: The rate at which events take place is tragically slow. Even those who love the battle between batter and pitcher would have to admit that it has escalated to the point of ad nauseum. There was a player for the Cleveland Indians back in the 80’s who used to have lengthy at bats, partly because he stepped out and adjusted all of his equipment between each pitch, and because he would work pitchers deep into the count. His name was Toby Harrah, but his nickname was “The Human Rain Delay” and sadly he foreshadowed the game in the decades to come, as now it seems like every line-up has 3, 4 or more “human rain delays” in it. Add to that disturbing trend the fact that umpires, for reasons known only to them, seem reluctant to ever tell a player “no” when he asks for time. You’d think there would be a limit, but Chris Webber would never have had a “time-out tragedy” if he’d played major league baseball, as there is, seemingly, no limit to the number of times you can call time during a baseball game.

So, lots of pitching changes, lots of batters and pitchers calling time, or stepping off the rubber, or throwing over to first base, or having consultation w/ managers, coaches, infielders, long counts, lots of foul balls, and lots of strikeouts- these type of circumstances now permeate the game.

I just would like to know who thinks the game is better than ever, because if you think the above litany is exciting, you must enjoy watching grass grow, or paint dry.

The shameful thing about it is, with enough pace, baseball seems to be the perfect blend of action and anticipation– the right sport of summer days– taking up just enough time to feel like a great diversion without feeling like a time waste or interminable torment.

Well I didn’t know I’d go on to this length– sometimes, when you write you scarcely know what will come out, but that is enough for today. I titled this blog post “Fixing Baseball” and I have some ideas for that, and I’ll lay those out on my next post.

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