While it may seem almost sacrilegious to suggest what I have in the headline, one must wonder. And this is not just an effort to start a discussion. I really wonder.
Why? Well first of all major league baseball is on a pace to draw fewer than 70-million fans to the ballparks for the first time since 2003. Weather problems early in the year, a significant disparity in success with a higher than expected number of teams, the availability of nearly all games on television and higher ticket prices for fans are all factors certainly. But could the game itself be a problem?
The question is whether following decisions from where to play defenders to how long pitchers should stay in games to how hitters approach their at bats are more and more being defined by what analytics have “proven.”
I put “proven” in quotes because they really haven’t proven anything but have mathematically determined from past occurrences what has happened the most. The analytic concept has crept into the game in even more ways. No longer is striking out shameful as it once was. The object is to hit home runs because they are automatic runs. Simple singles require two or three to score a run. The home run is the three point shot of baseball. Its worth more.
Never mind that like the three point shot in basketball hitting a home run has a much lower percentage of happening than getting a single the result is a whole lot of nothing between the still somewhat rare home run. Toss in watching umpires trudge over to get the word from New York whether a replay shows a call was correct or not and we have more ammunition against seeing the game in the flesh. Even the artificial excitement of a player or manager disagreeing with a call is gone. Everyone knows the replay will show what happened.
Batters all over MLB are striking out at an unprecedented rate. When the season is over there may be more strikeouts recorded than hits. That has never happened before in professional baseball’s 147 year history. And to make it worse those strikeouts are taking too many pitches to achieve. Except for the actual pitches thrown there is too much “nothing going on” in too many MLB games in 2018.
Then when a ball is hit it often heads right into a strongly over shifted defense and even then what once was a sure base hit is a routine ground ball. But you can’t blame the hitters for not bunting or learning to “go the other way” because they are supposed to be hitting home runs. Analytically, it may be sensible to position defenders there or go for home runs, but it is not a good game to view and sell to potential new fans.
The object of all games is to win. Using analytical information is the legal form of throwing spit balls, relaying signs from the scoreboard, swinging a corked bat or using performance enhancing drugs. The problem is that it often makes for a dull game.
The analytics years ago started to prove that pitchers tended to be less effective after they reached the 100 pitch mark. There was a time when hitters swung the bat and pitchers threw strikes and when starting pitchers could throw a complete game in just over 100 pitches and maybe 125 at the most. Then they would start again just four days later. Now we have five starters and the extra rest has not seemed to have any effect. Pitcher’s still rarely go more than 100 pitches. But it usually takes them no more than six or seven innings to reach that number.
Some say that occurs because pitchers from the past knew-how to pace themselves and were more conscious of keeping hitters off balance, but swinging the bat. Now everyone seems to be trying to out-think the opposition as much or more than simply out playing them. Hitters take more pitches and as a result of video and analytic print outs seem to have a great knowledge of what to expect in every at bat. In addition to taking a lot of balls that miss the strike zone they also take a lot of strikes that are seemingly hittable within it.
Now a caution here is that it must be acknowledged there are more pitchers in baseball now who can throw fast balls at 95+ miles and hour and certainly more that can exceed 100 than in any time in the history of the game. A drop off in offense–even without extreme shifting is expected.
Having said that some of the great fireballers of the past like Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan were always bothered more by slap hitting low power players and the hitters that had a so-called “two strike approach” at the plate where they emphasized eye-hand co-ordination to protect the plate, shorten the swing and just try for contact. The big swingers were like today. Hit or miss. Mostly miss.
Is there not room for compromise between analytics and instinct? A hitter as noted as Mike Trout is aware of what the numbers how and how he has done by a particular pitcher but approaches each at bat as a new experience. In a Sports Illustrated interview in 2018 he indicated his approach is to know in what areas of the strike zone he covers the best and only go after pitches headed there. He is always set for a fast ball, but aware of what else the pitcher throws. He keeps it that simple. With two strikes he attempts to make hard contact and nothing more.
As good as Trout is nothing works all the time. He strikes out a lot. But he also hits many home runs without sacrificing a batting average usually well over .300. Analytic information is a source, but not the guiding principle for Trout.
If your favorite team is a winner none of this piece may concern you much. You are happy. But if your team is mired down in the standings and going to a game just doesn’t seem as much fun, you are not alone. MLB attendance figures show that. In total the problem is not that games take too long but rather that they are not just played anymore, but have to do what the analytics tells them to do. It will remain strikeouts, home runs, fewer multi hit rallies and fewer defensive plays required.
Should a team win a pennant and World Series without using many radical shifts and a pitching staff that has great control but not blessed with high strikeout totals and shows how to win with few home runs but a number of hitters with good batting averages who strike out little, perhaps the current trend will back off a bit.
Fans should not expect it to happen soon. Analytic baseball is what is being played right now. How soon it captures the fancy of the average Joe will go a long way toward putting more folks in the seats. Baseball is a game. While winning is the ultimate goal it is still a game that is supposed to be fun to watch win or lose. Let us not lose sight of that.