Heads are no longer buried in the sand. Major League Baseball has seen its future. The edge of the cliff is approaching.
Welcome to reality, boys.
The sport is clearly trending in the wrong direction. Each season brings more strikeouts and less action, more analytics and less entertainment.
At a time when the average attention span is dwindling, MLB makes us wait 25 seconds between pitches. Here are all the landmines facing MLB as it enters a new season, as cited in a must-read piece by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated:
During an average game, batters put the ball in play on only 16% of all pitches. In sum, 259 pitches are thrown without anything happening. Ten years ago, fans waited 3 minutes and 18 seconds to see a ball put in play. In 2020, the number bloated to four full minutes.
That’s more than just disgusting. That’s a death sentence.
Even more infuriating:
Players are dawdling more than usual, likely because hitters are facing a steady diet of high-end fastballs and power pitchers are angling for more rest in between pitches. Stalling tactics in between pitches have increased by nearly three seconds in the last 10 years, adding nearly 14 minutes of poisonous downtime to a broadcast.
MLB has long refuted the hint or scent of a problem. They defended the unique qualities of their timeless sport, and how America would always make time for baseball. More recently, they’ve put toes in the water, limiting the number of mound visits and allowing automatic intentional walks.
Now, they are in an all-out battle for survival.
MLB will debut numerous experiments in the minor leagues this season, from automated strike zones to pitch clocks to enlarged bases that could increase the amount of stolen bases. There is a definitive goal to reduce the amount of strikeouts.
With heavy hands, MLB is also cracking down on foreign substances commonly used on baseballs, the stuff that helps pitchers increase their spin rates. A memo obtained by ESPN said compliance officers will monitor dugouts, clubhouses, tunnels, batting cages and bullpens. That’s serious stuff.
This is not about the average length of contests, even though I’ve long been a proponent of seven-inning games. Nine innings is just too much baseball for Americans to consume every day for six months. I’ve long been ridiculed for championing radical reforms. But the advent of analytics and Big Data have exposed a sport that was already slow and vulnerable, threatening MLB’s status as a mainstream sport.
In the final 26 minutes of the 2020 World Series, only two baseballs were put in play. Over the course of a Game 6 that lasted three hours and 28 minutes, only 32 balls were put in play. Verducci correctly opines that the sport has become too much like watching a chess match, where opponents stare across the board at one another (pitcher vs. catcher) for what seems like an eternity, where actual movement on the playing field is a rare occurrence.
I’m not a fan of analytics. They’ve sucked the joy out of baseball. They’ve empowered general managers, who have begun to control and marginalize their managers, many of whom no longer feel comfortable trusting their eyes and gut instincts.
Go back 50 years and the NFL looked plodding and slow, a time when quarterbacks were not dual-threat weapons. The NBA looked less athletic and even less fashionable. Hockey players rarely wore shields and goaltenders wore flimsy masks.
But baseball looks great in the 1960s and 1970s. It reflects a sport joyously played by eager participants who couldn’t wait to throw the ball or swing the bat. The game was immensely popular back then because it felt breezy and unpredictable. Because it had real tempo and diverse ways to cross home plate. Because it wasn’t overwhelmed by spin rates and advanced metrics.
Because it was sport and not math, and math will never be America’s pastime.