Baseball certainly can appeal to a younger generation, and improving its on-field product, promoting its younger stars and losing some dead time would be a start.
MLB reaches the All-Star break in a weird place – and I don’t (necessarily) mean Miami.
In many respects, the game is thriving. The influx of young superstars like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger this season to go with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa (all 25 or under) and many others is invigorating. Home runs are being hit like never before – at a rate exceeding even the so-called steroids era. The playoff races are wide open. For the most part, attendance is booming, local ratings are holding steady, and revenues are flowing like never before.
But here’s the weird part. Despite all that, there’s a strong perception that the game is in a major bind, with big-time trouble brewing just around the corner. Its most avid fans are too old. Its showcase event, the World Series, is waning in national appeal. Most important, the game itself is simply too slow, too disjointed and too lacking in consistent action for the video-game generation. Or so the thinking goes.
I disagree with many of those assessments, but guess what? I’m in the dreaded 50-and-over demographic that baseball has become too reliant on. They’ve won me over, for life. But can they win over my children, and their friends?
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Sure they can. But it’s going to take some work, and some change, for baseball to be as relevant culturally as it is financially. Let’s face it – most of the sports buzz these past two weeks has been about NBA free agency. Even the Summer League performances of Lonzo Ball have been a hotter topic than major-league pennant races. The Home Run Derby continues to garner positive attention (for one day), but when NFL training camps open in two weeks, it will dominate the sports-media landscape. Ask anyone involved in sports-talk radio, and they’ll tell you that nothing grinds conversation to a halt like bringing up a baseball topic.
I could point to survey after survey showing baseball has failed to develop a “Face of the Sport” despite having so many dynamic players. And therein lies the first solution: MLB must find a way to market its appealing young players so that they can approach the national appeal of athletes like LeBron James, Steph Curry and Tom Brady.
This is an old lament. Ken Griffey Jr. – perhaps the last breakout baseball persona – used to complain all the time that baseball did a lousy job of marketing its sport. It doesn’t help that Trout, the greatest player of this generation, has no desire whatsoever to be out front selling the sport. Judge and Harper have the personality to do so, but MLB must get over its ingrained reluctance to showcase its leading players.
And within the game, they need to get over the hidebound, old-school resistance to letting players display true, heartfelt emotion, particularly after moments of personal triumph. It’s not “showing up your opponent” or “disrespecting the game.” It’s telling the world that you care, and that the players have charisma and panache. Youthful viewers are seeing (and reveling in) emotional displays after dunks, sacks and goals, but a ballplayer is expected to trot quietly around the bases after a big home run. That thinking needs to change.
But the biggest tweaks need to come in the on-field product itself. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated did a beautiful job recently of detailing the shocking decline of real action in modern baseball. As what sabermetricians call the “three true outcomes” – home runs, strikeouts and walks, none of which are reliant on defense – increase in prominence to record numbers, there has never in the history of the sport been fewer balls put in play.
One-third of all at-bats, specifically, end in one of those three outcomes, which means that the truly exciting elements of baseball – the extended rally, the batter flying around the bases for a triple, the circus catch – are dwindling.
Couple that with ever-increasing down time as batters take longer and longer to get into the box and pitchers to get on the rubber, and you have a game that is losing the elements that made it magical.
Verducci points out that batters’ contact rate is down for the sixth straight year, pitchers’ velocity is going steadily up, up, up (including a barrage of flame-throwing relievers in the final four innings), and baseballs, for whatever reason – smaller seams, tighter stitching, increasing awareness of launch angles and exit velocity – are flying out of the park at a rate that’s 46 percent higher than just three years ago.
Commissioner Rob Manfred seems determined to address the pace-of-game issues with or without the compliance of the Players Association. That could mean a pitch clock (bring it on), limitations on pitching changes, and an altered strike zone, if not more radical solutions that have been kicked around.
Eliminating the dead time would certainly help. Changing the way the game is played to decrease the prevalence of the three true outcomes is far trickier, but it’s something that baseball must look at. Those of us who have always loved baseball will forgive its excesses (and insufficiencies), but prospective young fans won’t be so tolerant – not with a video game to play or a (perceived) cooler sport to watch instead.
I’m not predicting baseball’s demise, mind you. I’m old enough to have lived through quite a few of these “What’s wrong with baseball?” crises – during the offensive malaise of the 1960s, after the strike of 1994, and after the steroids scandal, for example.
It has always bounced back before, and it will this time, too. The game itself is simply too rich and too inherently fun not to. It just needs periodic adjustments, and that will happen, either organically or with some prodding. Despite all its problems, the one true outcome is that baseball will prevail.