On March 17, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci published a long, reported story on what he termed baseball’s “pace of play crisis.” There is no disputing the problem that baseball faces both in the length of games and how little happens in them—with so few balls in play, the game threatens to become a museum piece: Still Life with Designated Hitter. Major League Baseball has become a confused restauranteur who thinks he can overcome bad food by serving it in larger portions. Even things that seem eternal run their course and fade from view and perhaps baseball was always fated to suffer a relative decline in popularity, but (as Verducci observes) in an era in which the Internet has taught us all to be dopamine junkies by jumping from site to site, in search of a fleeting hit, the game’s stultification seems designed to hurry it towards irrelevance.
None of the foregoing should be controversial, and the good news is that the Commissioner and some segment of the owners are aware that the product needs to be streamlined. The dicey part is how they go about trying to meet that goal: Part of their approach, apparent from the subtext of Verducci’s article, is “First kill all the analysts.” This is fundamentally misguided: We may want to reduce inaction in baseball games, but we can’t unlearn what we know.
“We have to get rid of the idea that it’s about probabilities, because that was never about the fan,” Scott Boras tells Verducci. In earlier years, says an unnamed source, baseball was more fluid. “Each pitch is as natural as taking a breath, not the synthesis of information.” “One club president” said, “One thing I hope the commissioner does is look hard at the rules and not allow the general managers to dictate the direction of the game.”
The grumbling isn’t productive; it doesn’t propose solutions but attempts to fix blame for a game that has evolved into a play in which the pitcher, batter, and catcher are the main characters; the other seven men on the field have been reduced to supporting actors in cameo roles. “Whoosh!” The batter swings and misses. The center fielder, one of the fastest men alive, doesn’t even flinch. “Crack!” The batter hits the ball 420 feet to dead center. The center fielder doesn’t even flinch. Not-flinching is the antithesis of athletic display. It’s bad show for sport, which is premised on action. Resultantly, a whole suite of skills that used to be central to the game are now tertiary. Imagine one of today’s general managers traded and signed his way to this starting lineup:
In the abstract, this team would be tremendous fun to watch. In reality, it would be the same as any other team because mostly these Gold Glovers would stand around and watch the opposition strike out or homer. That happened, on average, roughly 1700 times over 162 games. Our hypothetical GM would have been better off to clone Nelson Cruz seven times and invest in a catcher with good pitch-framing skills. If BASEBALL: THE SNYDER CUT is your thing then oh boy are you in luck. As for the rest of us, if we wanted to stare at static images for hours we’d go to an art museum or take up chess. It’s far more tempting to use the same amount of time to stream four episodes of something starring Idris Elba. The Idris Alternative is an existential threat to Major League Constipated Baseball.
If the hostility to analytics in Verducci’s piece is any evidence, Idris is going to win the race going away because like the British at Singapore MLB’s guns are pointed in the wrong direction. The lessons derived first by the sabermetric community and latterly by 29 analytics departments (we never count the Rockies) was not that baseball had to be boring, but that it should be smart. The advent of technologies that allow us to track heretofore difficult-to-pin-down aspects of the game like spin rate and sprint speed helped us understand the way things work in the same way that the visualization of the helical structure of DNA helped clarify heredity. It was no more inevitable that this awakening would lead to boring baseball than it was that Watson, Crick, and Franklin’s discovery would make procreation tedious. In both cases, it’s not what you know, but how you do it.
Increased understanding of how the game works prompted changes in the way it’s played. Some of it is not new—despite periodic revivals, the arrival of consistent home-run power in 1920 doomed the stolen base as a foundational weapon. This is truer than ever today; when the average team hits nearly as many home runs as the 1961 Yankees there’s no point in risking an out to pick up one base. The same goes for the sacrifice bunt, which is, except in rare circumstances, counterproductive. (In 2019, a runner on first with no outs had an expected run value of 0.9. A runner on second with one out had a run value of .7—the team’s chances of scoring had gone down). There comes a time to put away childish things, and the decline of one-run strategies was an act of maturation decades in the making.
Those developments were inevitable given the lively ball. Others are merely lapidary: Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to have a special hatred for the shift, but he’s chasing a chimera: Batting average on balls in play was .300 in 2000 and it was .298 in 2019. Last year’s partial season did see a troubling decline to .292, but its worth noting that BABIP generally dwelt in the low-to-mid .280s throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, reaching its present state only in 1994. No one complained baseball was like watching mold form back then, perhaps because the strikeout rate was 12-15 percent, not 20. The lower BABIP meant the tradeoff for the higher contact rate was a few extra 4-3 grounders.
It was a good trade for the spectators because (a) even a 4-3 grounder gives you more to watch than a whiff does, and (b) those routine grounders were more than balanced out by other action. A home run is best as an occasional treat, not the main course—there’s a reason that batting practice is a fun diversion, not something we watch every night. Today there are still more doubles and triples in any given ballgame than home runs, but the latter are catching up. From 1960 through 2015, the average season had .5 home runs for every double or triple. Over the last five seasons, homers have relentlessly risen compared to other action. In 2019 there were .73 home runs for each double or triple. In 2020 it edged up still further, to .75.
These alterations too were at least partially produced by organic changes that Manfred and co. couldn’t undo if they tried. Even with PEDs effectively policed (insofar as we know) today’s players are better trained and therefore stronger than most of their forebears. Over the history of the game the American standard of living has risen; there are no bowlegged players with bad teeth and mastoiditis today. Along the way the game lost its aversion to weight-training too; as late as the 1970s the players looked as if they were put together out of pipe cleaners.
This affects the pitching side as well. It used to be that a truly hard thrower was a rare event. Pitchers like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, and Nolan Ryan were considered freaks suitable for enrollment in the Xavier Academy for Gifted Youngsters. Now even the last pitcher on a 14-man staff (until fairly recently teams had a hard time finding 10 pitchers worth carrying) throws 95 mph. The growth in home runs and strikeouts is partially accounted for by both.
A commonsense approach to the game accounts for the rest. A final ingredient—the ball, the truth of which only MLB knows—has seemingly been engineered to produce higher home run totals. Even if analytics departments had never existed, front offices, managers, and players would have ended up taking an approach very similar to the ones they do now: Balls in play lead to positive outcomes for the offense and negative ones for the defense, especially in a home-run era, so best for the latter if matters are resolved at home plate. Simultaneously, teams possess a parade of pitchers who can throw gas for an inning or two at a time. Hitters know that because of this they’re going to get only so many hittable pitches per at-bat, and that chaining up an old-style rally with a sequence of singles and doubles is less likely. Thus one of baseball’s great old adages, “Take two and hit to right,” is no longer advisable. If formulated today it would be more like, “Take perhaps one and then fall out of your shoes trying to blast it over mountains.”
No one told players to do this in the same way that Deadball Era teams didn’t have to be told to bunt and run and after 1920 even the slowest of baseball’s decision-makers eventually understood they should greatly reduce doing so. These are the prevailing conditions and teams have reacted to them in the same way one puts on a coat in the winter. Analytics may have clarified and reinforced some of it, but it would have happened regardless.
It’s telling, then, that MLB’s first cut to changing those conditions does nothing to address them. Commissioner, take responsibility for your own damned ball. Limit pitching changes and the ability of true starting pitchers to pace themselves will again be valued by teams. Cap the number of pitchers who can be rostered on any given day. Clearly delineate a strike zone that curtails absurdly low strike calls. Outlaw the carrying of notes on the field; reading is a valuable thing, but players shouldn’t be doing it in the middle of the game. As in football, let them memorize the playbook. And if all these things don’t work, move the mound back and push the fences out. This last would simultaneously reduce home runs and increase batting average, doubles, and triples, because as Coors Field has demonstrated, there’s only so much acreage three outfielders can cover. (This is yet another reason the focus on the shift is perverse: You can position the infielders however you like but the physical amount of ground to defend remains constant; like a six-foot man trying to cover himself with a five-foot blanket, some part of it is always going to stick out.)
As for the rest of MLB’s minor league experiments, stolen bases aren’t going to happen for reasons outlined above. An automated strike zone will help if the robot calls something fairer to batters. A pitch-clock has been mooted about since the day of sundials and baseball has ever lacked the will to implement and enforce it. Forbidding batters to step out during an at-bat would have at least the same impact since batters are just as guilty of prevarication if not more so.
None of this goes towards getting “rid of the idea that it’s about probabilities” because those probabilities are what make baseball (and all sports) work. One might as well try to get rid of the idea that breathing is about oxygen. What you can do is alter conditions such that the probabilities change and thereby mandate different behaviors. In just the first couple of games this season we’ve seen Jose Altuve score on a popup, Jazz Chisholm steal his way from first to third and then score on a short fly ball, and rookie Yermin Mercedes start the season 8-for-8—no doubt in part because he has yet to strike out. All we need is just a little more of that sort of action. We won’t get it by shouting at GMs and analytics departments; that’s just another form of shouting at clouds, and it will be equally effective. In short, nothing’s going to change. Bring on the Idris.
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