Tuesday, May 4, 2010
What's really wrong with baseball
If I were Bud Selig, this would be the most important essay I read all spring ...
One night last month while I watched the Oakland Athletics pitchers walk 10 New York Yankees, an idea occurred to me about what some people find "wrong" with baseball. It's not the time of games, the pace of games, the dilution of pitching because of expansion or the way hitters adjust their batting gloves and cup in between pitches -- the usual complaints that get attention.
Instead, we are missing an essential part of the game's allure and romance: the crack of the bat. You hear it less and less in today's game. Hitting and pitching have evolved in ways that mean the baseball is put into play less frequently than ever before.
In April, 28 percent of all major league plate appearances ended in a walk or a strikeout, continuing what has been virtually an unchecked increase in such non-contact plate appearances since the game was invented. Ten years ago, for instance, the rate of plate appearances without the ball being put into play was 26 percent; 20 years ago it was 24 percent; 30 years ago it was 21 percent . . . all the way back to 15 percent in 1920.
Like a mature industry, baseball continues to grow more specialized. And the increased availability and commodification of information (analysis, instruction, training techniques, etc.) has accelerated the rate at which the game specializes. I'm not sure much can or should be done to alter this evolution. It is interesting, however, that both a traditionalist and the modern marketing guru might actually agree on one change: calling a bigger strike zone, particularly when it comes to that pitch a catcher catches right in front of his mask that is regarded as too "high." Promoting strikes, swings and contact may be a good thing.
Right now baseball is involved in one form of official "self-discovery," in which commissioner Bud Selig has assembled 14 people to serve on an "on-field matters" committee to suggest what might make the game better today and in the years to come. Much of the time has been spent on how the game is packaged: the All-Star Game, postseason format, pace of play, realignment, instant replay, etc.
But maybe it's time to study how the game is actually played. Today baseball includes fewer hits, less contact and more walks and strikeouts. Baseball remains a beautiful, fascinating game that becomes even more interesting the more you know about it. But if you're the kind of fan who simply likes to see the ball put into play, there is less to like.
Tom Verducci isn't the first to make this argument; among others, Bill James and I have written about the pernicious effects of baseball's all-or-nothing culture of walks and strikeouts. That said, I'm not sure if anyone's written as well about these perfidious effects as Verducci.
Or rather, the potentially pernicious effects. Because, this year's attendance drop notwithstanding, it's not clear that today's baseball fans mind all those strikes and walks.
Of course it's hard to prove a negative. There are many millions of passionate baseball fans. Might there be even more if more balls were put into play? There might be. It seems quite likely, to me anyway, that fans would, if given a choice, prefer to see players running -- batters and baserunners running, fielders running after batted balls -- than players walking to first base or walking back to the dugout after a strikeout.
Spectator sports, the popular ones anyway, are all about movement. During a football play, 22 players are moving. Basketball is at its best when all 10 players are moving. I don't know anything about hockey or football or mixed martial arts, but I'm guessing they, too, are at their best when they're at their most dynamic.
And then there's baseball, which seems determined to reduce itself to one player throwing and another player occasionally swinging a long stick, and occasionally making contact. That's certainly a game and entertaining to a point. But really, it's just Home Run Derby with both guys trying to win.
Verducci's absolutely right about everything, including the suggestion that Bud Selig's Blue Ribbon Committee Including George Will and Tony La Russa should look at the heart of baseball rather than all those other things, which will drift away like the waters. The heart of the game is what happens after the pitcher releases the baseball. Get that right, and everything else will work out well enough.