Save Baseball, Change Rules
WASHINGTON — Even if you belong in the basket of deplorables — Americans uninterested in baseball — you should be intrigued by the sport’s current problems. At the All-Star break, Major League Baseball’s 2021 season is demonstrating, redundantly, that the quality of the game as entertainment is declining. Paradoxically, the problems arise from reasonable behavior based on abundant accurate information. Improved technology generates data about pitches’ spin rates, the launch angles of batters’ swings, particular batters’ tendencies on particular pitches and much more. Improved kinesiology increases pitching velocity. The results include a slower pace of play, diminished action, fewer balls in play and more of them handled by radically repositioned infielders.
Five seasons ago, there were 3,294 more hits than strikeouts. Three seasons ago, strikeouts edged past hits. Writer Jayson Stark notes that until 2018 there had never been a month with more strikeouts than hits. This April there were almost 1,100 more strikeouts than hits, and writer Tyler Kepner says this season is on a pace for approximately 5,000 more strikeouts than hits. Twenty-four percent of plate appearances end in strikeouts (they are increasing for the 16th consecutive season), partly because today’s average fastball’s velocity is 93.8 mph, 2.7 mph more than 14 years ago. As of mid-June, the .238 collective major league batting average was 15 points below 2019. In 2015, teams shifted infielders on 9.6% of all pitches.
This season, teams are shifting on 32% (usually an infielder in shallow right field), which will erase perhaps 600 hits. With pitchers dawdling to recover between high-exertion, high-velocity pitches and with 36% of at-bats ending with home runs, strikeouts or walks, around four minutes pass, on average, between balls put in play. Players spend much more time with leather on their hands than with wood in their hands, but have fewer and fewer opportunities to display their athleticism as fielders. Home runs predominate because scoring by hitting a ball far over defensive shifts is more likely than hitting three singles, through shifts, off someone throwing 98 mph fastballs and 90 mph secondary pitches. This means fewer baserunners. In 2021, there probably will be 1,000 fewer stolen bases than 10 years ago. Writer Tom Verducci notes that in the last 26 minutes of 2020’s most-watched game, the final World Series game, just two balls were put in play. In this game, the ball was put in play every 6.5 minutes, and half the outs were strikeouts. More pitches and less contact. Longer games (13 minutes 17 seconds longer than a decade ago) and less action.
No wonder fans who have been neurologically rewired by their digital devices’ speeds are seeking other entertainments. Major league attendance has fallen 14% from its 2007 peak. Last season, MLB made an action-creating change — a runner is placed on second base to begin each extra half-inning. And MLB is experimenting with other changes in various minor leagues. Because pitching velocity is suffocating offense, MLB could move the pitcher’s mound back a foot (from today’s 60 feet, 6 inches) to give batters more reaction time. The changed physiology of pitchers has, in effect, moved the mound closer to home plate: In the 1950s, the Yankees’ 5-foot 10-inch Whitey Ford had a Hall of Fame career. Today, 6-foot 4-inch pitchers, with long arms and long strides, release the ball significantly closer to the plate than Ford did.
Requiring four infielders to be on the infield dirt — or, even bolder, requiring two infielders to be on the dirt on each side of second base — as the pitch is thrown, would reduce reliance on home runs, which are four seconds of action, followed by a leisurely 360-foot trot. A 20-second pitch clock might reduce velocity by reducing pitchers’ between-pitches recovery time. And by quickening baseball’s tempo, the clock might prevent batters from wandering away from the batter’s box and ruminating between pitches. Stolen bases might increase if pitchers had to step off the rubber before throwing to first base. After a walk and then a steal, one single would produce a score. Baseball fans, a temperamentally conservative tribe, viscerally oppose de jure changes to their game. They must, however, acknowledge the damage done to it by this century’s cumulatively momentous de facto changes in the way it is played. What Edmund Burke said of states is pertinent: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation."
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