Fixing Baseball Not That Hard

by John Furgele (The Greatest 228)

Baseball has been called the national pastime for generations, but in reality, it is more of a regional pastime.  In Boston and New York, callers will take to the airwaves and talk about who should be the fifth starter, the set-up guy and the backup catcher.  In Pittsburgh, the callers will talk about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s eventual replacement.

Baseball is doing fine, revenues continue to go up, crowds at the games are solid and regional TV ratings are also very good.  But, baseball will keep fighting in the hopes of getting back to its perch as the true national pastime.  On national sports talk radio, it doesn’t get as much run as it should.  For some reason, all the sports talkies think the NBA is more compelling and because of the individual superstar nature of the game, perhaps that’s correct.  LeBron James can have the ball in his hands most of a game and can score 45 points if he wishes.  Jordan did that, so too, did Bird, Magic and guys like Dominque Wilkins.  We know that baseball is not like that.  When Barry Bonds was at his best, he only batted four times per game and he was often walked all four times.  You can’t take ball away from James, but you could take the bat away from Bonds.

Baseball has gotten away from its real roots.  Nobody wants to read “the game was better back in my day,” so I will refrain from that.  But, baseball has changed and that is why Commissioner Rob Manfred is looking for ways to speed up the game.  We have heard the commissioner talk about using pitch clocks, making sure batters stay in the batter’s box and recently, eliminating having to throw four balls for an intentional walk.  These aren’t bad ideas, but they really don’t address the fundamental problems of what is wrong with the game.

The main concern here is how to speed up the game.  An average baseball games takes about three hours to play.  Is that really too long?  Football games take at least that long.  There was a time when Sunday NFL games started at 1 pm and 4 pm; now they begin at 1 pm and 4:25 pm during the regular season?  Why?  Because three hours is not enough time.  But, for some reason, the three hour baseball game has become a sort of persona non grata in the sports world.  There are many who say that there isn’t enough action for a baseball game to take three hours, but in reality, there isn’t much more action in football games.  Think about it.   A draw play that gains three yards versus a routine grounder to the shortstop—is there really that much difference?

Baseball’s biggest problem is the abundance of strikeouts during games. Don Mattingly said that much this week.  Baseball players are trying to hit home runs all the time and as a result, they are striking out at alarming rates.  Last year, Chris Carter, now a Yankee, batted .222 with 41 home runs and 94 RBI.  He struck out 206 times.  There was a time where no big leaguer had ever struck out 200 times in a season.  Even players like Dave Kingman and Rob Deer never did.  And, the game’s all-time strikeout leader Reggie Jackson never did either.  He struck out 2,507 times, but never more than 171 in one season.

There are just too many Chris Carters in the game right now.  He is a one-dimensional player.  He either hits it 550 feet or supplies a game’s worth of air conditioning to the fans.  In the 1980s, watching guys like Rob Deer and Dave Kingman were fun because you just didn’t know what they would do at the plate.  They could hit three home runs in a game or strike out three times.  Most teams had one Rob Deer or Dave Kingman on their teams, but today, there are often three or more per team.  The Miami Marlins have six of seven whiffers on their team and when guys can’t make contact, they see more pitches and the more pitches seen means more bullpen usage, less action and of course, time added to the games.

Baseball is trying to counter this by ignoring this.  Instead of teams trying to teach more contact, they are talking about making the strike zone smaller.  Because the players can’t make contact with an already small strike zone, the higher-ups believe that making it smaller will help create more contact hitting during a game.  All this will do is make the game longer.

The 1974 World Champion Oakland A’s struck out 876 times in their 162 games, an average of 5.4 per game.  In 6,048 plate appearances, that is 14 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games, had 550 at-bats (walks excluded), this would equate to 77 strikeouts for the season.

The 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs struck out 1339 times in their 161 games, an average of 8.3 times per game;  an astonishing 463 more times than the 1974 A’s.  For their 6335 plate appearances, that represents 21 percent of the time.  If a player played 155 games and batted 550 times, a 21 percent strikeout rate would be 115, or 38 more than the player on the 1974 A’s.

Baseball needs to keep being proactive.  They need to get a younger fan base and they need to find ways to keep people off their smartphones and more engaged in the baseball product.  Reducing catcher’s trips to the mound can help, but putting the ball in play would help more.  Today, the Bucky Dent’s of the baseball world think they can hit 25 homers per year, and, in doing so, they strike out 133 times per season.  Reality would have that player hit 8 homers per year and strike out 67 times.

When the ball is in play, more can happen.  Scoring is down because strikeouts are up, yet baseball thinks they can increase scoring by shrinking the strike zone and speed up the game by installing pitch clocks.

It is always good to tinker with your product and try to improve it, but in the end, the game is the game.  Baseball is baseball and you can’t make radical changes.  Baseball will never have constant action like hockey and that’s fine. But, baseball is more constant than the other sports.  There are bad football games; games where the score is 3-3 deep into the fourth quarter.  Baseball, because of its innate nature usually avoids this.  It’s one of the reasons why the baseball All-Star Game resembles a regular game because you really can’t go half-speed in baseball.  In football, hockey and basketball, that happens and those games are more than snoozefests.

Baseball can do a better job of assembling its parts/teams.  When I was in high school (1982-1986), if you struck out too much, you usually sat on the bench with a ski hat on during games because you weren’t playing.  Now, that’s no longer the case because teams want that home run more than they want three singles to score that run.

I refer to the movie Major League when manager Lou Brown told Willie Mays Hayes to stop hitting balls in the air.  He told Hayes, “With your speed, you should be hitting the ball on the ground and legging’em out.”  If baseball can get back to that, the product will move faster and be of better quality.

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