(First of a two-part series)
Changes in baseball may happen at a glacial pace, but over time they produce dramatic effects. Much like any business, baseball as an industry faces constant challenges. Many of them are of their own making. Today the game sits on an odd spot of roadway. The industry as a whole makes more money than ever. Most of it comes from local and regional network television deals. Attendance is on a worrisome downward trend, however. The age demographics of the sport’s consumers is skewed heavily towards the upper range. Generalities are that “Millennials” and “Gen Z” are noted for shorter attention spans; demanding action while loathing dead time. Precisely on cue, baseball is providing less motion while the time between balls put into play has grown to an all-time high. A major reason is that the game has evolved into one of “Ultimate Outcomes.”
A baseball field is occupied by the nine defenders, anywhere from one to four offensive players, two coaches, and four umpires. When a ball is put into play some or all of them move. Movement is stimulating. Standing still is not. The so-called “Ultimate Outcome” is one that does not involve the defense other than the Pitcher and Catcher. A walk, a strikeout, a homerun, and a hit batsman are the four Ultimate Outcomes. When one of them happens the other seven defenders barely move. Over the course of time the numbers of walks and homeruns have held at somewhat steady values. Compared to 1950 when a game averaged over 4 walks per game today’s average of 3.23 per game is a 21% reduction. Homers cracked the 1.0-per-game value in 1994 and have not looked back. Today’s average of 1.15 per game is a 15% increase. Spread over 24 years the rate of increase is hardly dramatic. Strikeouts, however, are a whole different story.
“The Year of the Pitcher” was 1968. Bob Gibson and others had grown so dominant that the pitching mound was lowered by a third of its height to ten-inches. During that year the average number of strikeouts per game was 5.89. In 2018 the number was 8.48, a 43% increase. To get this huge increase in strikeouts several fundamental factors had to coalesce. The first and most impactful is that pitchers throw a higher percentage of pitches at maximum effort. Aiming for a strikeout requires more pitches than the weak contact approach. With more effort per pitch and more pitches per batter the logical outcome is that Starting Pitchers produce fewer outs than historical norms. The 1968 World Series runner-up Cardinals’ starting pitchers averaged 22 outs per start. Last year’s runner up Dodgers produced 17 per start. The bullpen workload for the 2018 Dodgers was twice that of the 1968 Cardinals. Relief Pitchers are in the same paradigm as starters: Throw the ball at maximum effort. It should be no surprise then that the number of relievers used by the modern Dodgers was 17 compared to the historical Cardinals’ total of 8. The active roster size of 25 was established in 1914. The roster churning to keep bullpens staffed is incessant. Another outfall is the Complete Game which is going the way of the Passenger Pigeon. In 20 years the number of Complete Games has decreased from 302 to 42.
Another factor driving this change in the game is the new reverence throughout the game for metrics. Numbers are a form of absolute. There may be variations among the teams where one metrics office produces slightly more insightful analysis than others. Eventually, however, it will all even out into one universal set of solutions. One of those solutions is that strikeouts are king for pitchers, yet are no big deal for batters. Ted Williams used to chew on his Senators’ players for taking a strikeout. Putting a ball in play can produce unexpected good fortune. The Yankees arguably lost the 1960 World Series on a bad-hop ground ball that injured Shortstop Tony Kubek. For that matter the sole Washington title in 1924 was won on a bad-hop ground ball that sent Muddy Ruel scampering joyously home with the Championship-clinching run. That’s all out the window. The metrics people want homers. Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon get noticed for changing approach and stance with two strikes. It is a modern rarity, but was the historical norm. Metrics also disdains the sacrifice bunt. It is disappearing from baseball at an amazing rate. In just ten years the number of sacrifice bunts has been cut in half. Metrics have also produced the unsightly and ubiquitous defensive shifts. The answer from the offensive side of the house is the default; hit a homer over the shift.
The net effect of this on the game manifests itself in increased time and decreased action. On average a ball is put into play every 3 minutes and 45 seconds. That is 41 seconds longer than it was 20 years ago. The games average 3 hours and 4 minutes which is 10 minutes longer than it was 11 years ago. There are more pitches total and more pitches without a ball in play. There are nearly 10,000 less balls in play now than ten years ago. Add to that the implementation of replay which has its own set of dead time. It also has negatively impacted the stolen base as replay will catch the millisecond a runner loses contact with the base. The number of attempts is down over 20% since 2012.
Despite all of this, the game produces total bases and runs commensurate with historical norms. Total bases have averaged 13.6 per game for the past 50 years. This year’s total of 13.93 is well within the standard deviation. The number of runs follows suit. Offense is still there. Players hit the ball harder than historical counterparts. For one thing, it’s coming in with more velocity on average. It stands to reason it would leave the bat at more velocity if barreled up. Despite the exaggerated shifts the 2018 batting average of .248 is well within the standard deviation of the past 20 years.
So, if offense isn’t the problem, what is? The answer is motion. Our game is more stagnant than ever. It has less visual appeal. With another generation entering the marketplace raised on the continuous motion and stimulation of video games this is problematic.
What should be done? We will examine the possibilities in Part 2.
Edited to correct Tony Kubek’s position to Shortstop