I’ve burned with a passion for baseball my entire life, and I don’t see it waning anytime soon. When I speak of a dire need to tweak what I (and many others) see as highly alarming trends in the sport, it’s out of a sense of love, not disdain.
It so happened that the commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, was in Seattle on Tuesday, making the rounds and meeting with Mariners chairman John Stanton. And it just so happens that Stanton is the new chairman of the competition committee, which will be studying many of the on-field changes that could prod the game out of its malaise.
I won’t say that baseball is in a state of crisis – but you can see it from here. Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on:
- More inaction than ever before. Home runs, strikeouts and walks – – the three true outcomes, in sabermetric terminology – are all skyrocketing at record paces. The result is that actual balls in play, which lead to the baserunning excitement, the fielding gems, and the strategy that made us love baseball in the first place, are at an all-time low. To steal a stat from Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, the average game includes 252 pitches when the ball is not put in play, up from 238 in 2015 and 211 in 1989.
- Nevertheless, it’s taking longer to accomplish less, as plate appearance are lengthened by the number of walks and strikeouts, while pitchers and hitters ponder each pitch with the gravity of open-heart surgery.
- When balls ARE put in play, the analytical expertise that’s manifested in laser-sharp shifting on defense makes it harder than ever to get a hit. Before 2017, there had never been more strikeouts than hits in a single month. Now it’s pretty much standard. The quaint single is an endangered species. The MLB batting average – admittedly a flawed stat, but still telling – is .248, same as last year, which was the lowest since 1972.
- An unseemly number of teams – including the Mariners — are abandoning contention to pursue teardowns they believe will set them up for a more prosperous future. True or not, it has contributed to an alarming win-loss disparity. In the American League, nine out of 15 teams are already double-digits out of first place. Seven teams are on pace to lose 95 or more games – four in triple digits.
- Attendance continues to be in a steady decline, with a 26,854 average through the first two months of the season. That’s down 1.4 percent from a similar point last year, when MLB finished below 30,000 in average attendance for the first time since 2003.
To Manfred’s credit, I believe he fully recognizes the predicament, both from an artistic and business standpoint. And he’s been bold, even downright revolutionary, in some of his potential solutions, from banning the shift to moving the pitching rubber back two feet (both of which are being tested this season in the independent Atlantic League).
“We believe we have the greatest game in the world,’’ Manfred said during a Q and A with the media. “But like every great institution, the game has changed. It’s changed in response to innovation by individual clubs in an effort to win more games. I think it’s our job at the league level to manage that change in a way we produce the best possible entertainment product for our fans. That’s going to be an ongoing process.
“I don’t think it detracts from the fact that people love our game. They love it in its various iterations. That’s not inconsistent with the idea we should continue to try to manage it to make it better.”
The issue, though, is not entirely the people who already love baseball. We’ll moan and groan and keep watching. It’s the would-be young fan or borderline sports consumer who isn’t being engaged by the action – or inaction.
Manfred is also fighting two disparate forces – a strong union that wants a say in any rule changes, and will resist many of them, and a lack of unanimity among fans about what exactly is the best way to proceed.
Take shifting as just one example. I happen to fall into the camp that disdains shifts. I don’t like the fact that the ground ball between first and second that was a base hit for 100-plus years is suddenly gobbled up by the shortstop playing on the other side of second base. Yet I know many people who love the analytical nature of shifting, and the challenge it presents to hitters to combat it.
In general, I think much of the soul is being sucked out of baseball. I hope Stanton’s committee tilts toward the radical, and I hope the union is open-minded enough to realize that their earning power is at stake, too.
I think it’s beyond time for a pitch clock. Players will whine and scream – and adjust very quickly.
With the dominance of pitchers throwing harder and spinning it more adroitly than ever before, I think it’s time to think hard about the mound – either lowering it (as MLB did after the pitching-dominated 1968 season), or, gulp, moving the rubber back.
Let’s strongly consider three-batter minimums for pitchers, as well as radar-assisted strike zones (which Manfred said has been a success in the Atlantic League). And I’d support attempts to minimize the shift by requiring two infielders on each side of second base.
So-called purists will moan, of course, but you’d have to be blind – and stubborn – to not see the need for some major changes. It’s time for an honest, bold discussion, with everything on the table.
All in the name of love.