Presumably you’re reading this article because you love the game of baseball. It’s certainly why I’m writing here. Over the last three decades the game has changed substantially, if not subtly year-after-year, but the history, the numbers, the game itself remains largely the same over the years.
MLB has inevitably evolved over the course of the last decades, the introduction of an ‘experimental’ designated hitter, the post-1994 strike changes to a playoff format adding a wild card in each league, and of course, changes in the way the game is played.
Unfortunately, the game is at a crossroads, where the most exciting plays fans come to the ballpark to watch are becoming increasingly rare (except he no hitter apparently).
This past January MLB hired former Red Sox and Cubs executive Theo Epstein as a consultant in charge of ‘on field matters’. This basically is a catch-all phrase to mean Epstein has been tasked with identifying issues in the game that make it less interesting and less engaging to fans, and coming up with creative solutions to hopefully solve these challenges.
Former Grantland founder and rabid Red Sox fan Bill Simmons hosted Epstein for a brief 23-minute conversation about how the game has changed (for the worse) over the last decade, and how Epstein thinks they can turn things around to bring fans a better, more aesthetically pleasing, and exciting game.
Today’s game includes more downtime than ever before, more strikeouts than ever before, and fewer balls in play than ever before. The current MLB strikeout rate, which is hovering at the 25 percent range, is so high it’s turned the league average pitcher into Nolan Ryan (career K rate of 25.3 percent) or Sandy Koufax (career strikeout rate of 25.2 percent). Strikeouts are exciting, but they’re a lot less exciting when they’re expected.
A perfect anecdotal example was a Red Sox ninth inning rally the other day, where down one run in the ninth inning they had first-and-second with one out. And that was the end of seeing any contact! Two strikeouts later the game ended and everyone went home a little less satisfied they would have been 15 years ago. This isn’t to say that ground ball or fly ball outs are overly-exciting, but entertaining things can happen when the ball is put into play.
The pace-of-play in the game today is perhaps the most frustrating. Nearly every team has a pitcher who can accurately be described as a ‘human rain delay’. In his interview with Theo Simmons recalls a pitcher on the Orioles who took a full minute between pitches. It’s the perfect way to turn an exciting moment into a total snooze-fest.
Batters stepping out of the box, pitchers coming off the rubber, catchers coming out to change signs are all symptoms of a game that today, has a full four minutes (in real time) between seeing a ball in play.
We’re currently undergoing a youth resurgence in baseball. Today’s players are younger, more athletic (Shohei Ohtani, anyone?), and more challenging and fun (Trevor Bauer and Fernando Tatis Jr., for example) than nearly any time in the game’s history. We also have the Angels telling Mike Trout not to steal bases because frankly, him being healthy is far more valuable than him taking an extra base (and even so, he was injured on the base paths and is currently sidelined until July).
Based on the data, most fans agree a game with more doubles, more triples, more outfield assists, and an environment that displays the athleticism of the best pure-athletes the game has ever seen can only be a positive thing for the popularity and aesthetics of the game we love.
Epstein points out that last year MLB had the lowest incidence of triples in MLB history, the lowest rate of doubles since 1992, and in 2019, the lowest stolen base attempts since the 1960s. That’s fewer athletic plays at a time when the game includes some of the of the most dynamic and athletic players to ever don a uniform.
It’s great that MLB is acknowledging these problems, and experimenting in various leagues to see what the externalities of these changes are when implemented.
There’s precedent in the game for dramatic changes such as changing the height of the mound, radically adjusting the strike zone, and adding a designated hitter. A look at a pitch clock, using wearables to get rid of mound conferences to change signs, or requiring a certain number of fielders on each side of second base are all worth looking into, even if some turn out to not be helpful in alleviating the issues identified.
It’s highly likely that in three to five years the game will be dramatically different than it has been the last half-decade. If not, at least we raise the odds of seeing a no hitter, though if it’s happening every week, should we even care all that much?