Chapter 3: The Changing Game
We pick up our ongoing series on the State of Baseball. You can read the first two chapters here:
Chapter 1: The History of the Game
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For those fans who believe that baseball is either less or much less enjoyable than it was in your youth, what do you think is the reason(s)?
Pace of play is too slow: 41.4%
Games are too long: 35.4%
Use of too many pitchers: 34.8%
I miss the importance of starting pitching: 32.8%
Lack of speed in the game (triples, doubles, stolen bases): 27.3%
Too much defensive shifting: 23.2%
Instant replay: 20.2%
Not enough balls are put in play: 18.2%
(Fox Sports/Joe Blogs survey)
The majority of the baseball fans we polled -- more than 70 percent of fans, in fact -- believe that baseball is at least as good as it was when they were young. So that's good. Baseball FANS are fairly pretty happy with where the game is now.
But is baseball expanding its reach? Is the game growing?
Most signs point to: no.
I'm not talking about the "baseball is dying" panic that ALWAYS infects the game and has since the late 19th century. Baseball is most definitely not dying. More people go to baseball games and watch baseball on television in the aggregate than any other sport, and it isn't even close.
In general, when people point to baseball's weaknesses (World Series ratings, polls about what the kids are watching, vague Q-ratings for star baseball players vs. stars in other sports), they are simply looking away from the game's great strengths. Baseball is the No. 1 cable show (and often the No. 1 show period) in the majority of big league markets all spring and summer long. We'll get into the plusses and minuses of all this in our next chapter on baseball as national pastime vs. baseball as local game.
Empty seats have been all too common so far this season.
For now, though, we are asking a different question: Is baseball growing? Overall attendance is flat over the last 20 years -- and it would be underwater except for several billion dollars spent on new stadiums. It's early, but this year's attendance numbers in several cities have been pretty shockingly low.
-- They're setting new lows every day at Camden Yards in Baltimore (they just played four straight games with fewer than 10,000 fans).
-- Florida attendance -- both in Tampa Bay and Miami -- is doornail dead and has been for a long time now. The Marlins are simply a lost cause. The Rays are one of the most fascinating teams in recent memory, but that stadium is an enormous problem and the team just hasn't won over the region.
-- Just three years ago, Kansas City might have been the most baseball-crazy city in America. But that team was torn down/torn apart and in the early going the Royals are dead last in the American League in attendance.
-- They're drawing flies on the South Side of Chicago. The White Sox have the potential to be an exciting young team over the next few years, but right now interest is at its lowest point in at least 20 years.
-- Baseball has lost its way in Ohio. The lack of interest in Cleveland is stunning considering how good the team has been, and with the Browns looking exciting for the first time in decades, it will likely get worse (Cleveland is and has in my lifetime always been a football town). Cincinnati has been a bad team for so long that it's hard to even find the Reds' place in the city's landscape. They haven't drawn even 20,000 for a game since Opening Day.
-- They're still drawing fairly big numbers in San Francisco by normal measures, but that stadium used to be packed every single night, with huge demand for spare tickets. It was the best atmosphere in all of baseball. Now, they're drawing some of the smallest crowds in the ballpark's history.
-- On Monday, Minnesota drew 11,727, its smallest home crowd since leaving the Metrodome. In fact, it was their smallest home crowd since 2003, which includes the last seven seasons of the Metrodome. Yes, the weather was bad. Baseball often blames such things on weather.
-- On April 4, Pittsburgh drew 8,523 ... its lowest home attendance since playing a game against the Cardinals in Williamsport. Pa. to celebrate Little League Baseball (though last year the Pirates had SEVEN games where they drew fewer than 10,000 fans).
-- That same day, in Toronto, the Blue Jays drew 10,375, its smallest home crowd since a game against Kansas City in 2010.
Those are 11 markets -- more than one third of the teams in baseball -- where the game is really scuffling right now, and you could probably throw Detroit in there as well. You know about the constant issues in Oakland, things aren't too hot in Arizona, even the crowds at Wrigley Field have felt a little sparse. Washington baseball teeters a bit. And, yes, it's early, and you can list off all the reasons and talk about how it will get better. Maybe it will. But it feels like dark clouds are gathering.
So, yes, you can see why Rob Manfred and company are eager to try a few things to make the game more interesting to more people.
But what can they do? Will various rules adjustments -- like changing how baseball is played in extra innings or doing some pace-of-play things -- make the difference? Or will those things simply tick off baseball fans who are happy with the game? (We're always happy with baseball.)
I want to talk about one specific reason some fans gave as to why the game is less enjoyable for them now: fewer balls in play.
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Let's start at the beginning -- feel free to skip over this part. In the beginning, baseball was not built around the hitter-pitcher confrontation. The game was built entirely around balls in play.
All the action -- ALL the action -- was meant to be in the field and on the bases. Baseball (or base ball as it was generally called) was a game of defense and speed and precision.
There were no strikeouts. There were no walks. There were no fences for home runs. The pitcher was not only discouraged from taking on the hitter, he was expressly forbidden to do so: The batter was granted the right to ask for the pitch exactly where he wanted it, and the pitcher was to dutifully and without chicanery pitch the ball underhand to that spot.
That didn't last long. Pitchers, like Baby, were not about to be put in a corner. They surreptitiously began to throw pitches with a little extra speed or spin to frustrate the hitters. They began to throw to spots away from the hitter, making it hard or impossible to hit the ball. The powers of baseball halfheartedly tried to stop this for a short time, but they soon realized that (1) they couldn't really stop it and (2) there was something fascinating in the hitter-pitcher confrontation.
So they wrote up some new rules and allowed the game to evolve into a game of pitcher vs. hitter.
Baseball has continued to evolve in that direction for 125 years. And as you will see, it evolves in that direction even now.
There are four numbers I have started using to determine what KIND of game we're watching. You can look at these four numbers and, in general, get the general flow and rhythm of baseball in that time period.
Number 1: Batting average on connected balls. This is like Batting Average on Balls in Play, except it also counts home runs.
Number 2: Slugging percentage on connected balls.
Number 3: Home runs per connected ball.
Number 4: Strikeouts per nine-inning game (two-team total).
Let's start in Deadball. What kind of game was that? Let's look at those four numbers:
Batting average: .285
Homers per connection: 1 in 200
Strikeouts per game: Seven or so.
You look at those four numbers and you can see the game pretty vividly. Batters rarely struck out. But they also hit the ball softly. They bunted and slashed at the ball and tried to beat out a lot of singles. They were largely unsuccessful. A fan would see 65 to 70 balls put in play every day, and 18 to 22 of them would be hits. They would, on average, see 47 outs recorded by fielders.
In other words, in those days the game was still pretty close to its original ideal, with most of the action happening in the field.
Then, Deadball ended with the prohibition of the spitball and the arrival of Babe Ruth's launch angle revolution.
From 1920 to 1940, the numbers shifted somewhat:
Homers per connection: 1 in 67
Strikeouts per game: Six or seven.
What's interesting here is that after Deadball, strikeouts actually went down -- the only time in baseball history that's happened. And because hitters were hitting the ball harder (mostly seen in a huge increase in home runs), teams scored many more runs than they had during Deadball.
Batters were putting more balls in play AND they were getting more hits. An average game would have 71 or 72 balls in play with 19 or 20 of them being hits. In 1930, when offense went haywire, batters hit .326 on connected balls, slugged .478, and because pitchers weren't countering with strikeouts, teams averaged 5.55 runs per game, still by far the most since 1901.
After World War II, baseball settled into a balance that held for almost 50 years. In fact, the rhythm was SO clear, that many people assumed that baseball had found its equilibrium and the game would stay the same forever.
From 1946 to 1993:
Homers per connection: 1 in 36
Strikeouts per game: Slowly increasing from 9 to 12.
This is baseball as most of us came to know it. We would see roughly 76 or so plate appearances and 64-67 balls in play. We would see 18 hits, about 42 to 45 outs made by fielders. We'd generally see one or two homers in a game, though some games we wouldn't see any. Stolen bases became an increasingly big part of the game. Triples too. Astroturf played a huge role for a couple of decades. We thought: "This is baseball."
Sure, there were outlier seasons. In 1968, the year of the pitcher, batters hit only .287 and slugged just .413 when they connected, and that lack of hard contact almost brought the game to its knees.
Then in 1987, for whatever reason, batters hit .318 and slugged .503 on balls in play (first time in baseball history that batters slugged .500 on balls in play). They hit a homer for every 27 connections, an insane number that boggled the minds of baseball fans across the country.
But generally, the game felt settled. You got used to the rhythm.
All of that kind of blew up in 1994. Suddenly, batters were hitting the ball MUCH harder than they ever had before. They hit .329 on connected balls, an all-time high. They slugged .517 on connected balls, an all-time high.
And it wasn't a fluke. As you can see, from 1994 to 2014, 21 seasons, the numbers stayed right there:
Homers per connection: 1 in 27
Strikeouts per game: 13 (1994-2008), 14 (2009-11), 15 (2012-14)
This was now becoming a fundamentally different game. Batters were crushing the ball with such authority that in some ways they were taking the game out of the hands of the defense. Pitchers had to step up.
And pitchers stepped up. Strategies changed. Managers began to build super-staffs of 100-mph throwing behemoths. And with the rapid rise of the strikeout, pitchers actually were dominating the game by 2014. That year, teams averaged just 4.07 runs per game, the fewest in 40 years.
That year, a fan would come to the game and see 75 or 76 plate appearances. Fifteen or 16 would end in strikeouts, meaning only about 60 balls in play. Hits were down. Specific kinds of hits such as doubles and triples were down. Stolen bases were down. Walks were also down. Fielders would make 37 or 38 of the outs.
Throw in a lot of pitching changes, a general sluggishness in pace of play, the shift, and there's no question that baseball looked and felt different than it had for a half-century.
But here's the big point: Hitters now had to push back. And they did -- not by striking out less but by striking out MORE ... and hitting the ball even harder.
The evolution is now in hyperdrive.
From 2015 to present:
Homers per connection: 1 per 23 connections
Strikeouts per game: 16 (2016-17), 17 (2018), 18 (so far in 2019).
Here's what you might expect to see in a baseball game in April of 2019 -- 76 plate apperances, of which 18 will end in a strikeout. That means 58 balls in play, of which three or four are likely to be doubles and three are likely to be homers.
Triples are almost nonexistent so far (Kansas City's Adalberto Mondesi notwithstanding), as are stolen bases.
Fielders will be responsible for just 36 outs even though fielders are probably better than they've ever been in baseball history.
These numbers blow my mind. These are the per-team strikeout totals per nine innings since 2008:
2008: 6.77 K/9
2019 (so far): 8.85
I mean, that's absolutely incredible -- the K/9 rate has gone up literally every single year since 2008. Yes, it has gone up in tiny increments at various times (like from 2014 to 2015) but even so, name one other thing that has gone up every year since 2008.*
*Climate change people, it's up to you if you want to start a fight in the comments.
The closest thing in sports -- hat-tip to a couple of Brilliant Readers -- would be NBA three-pointers. They've gone up every year since the 2011-12 season (6.4 three-pointers to 11.4 per game).
What's interesting to me about this is that's entirely a strategic choice made by teams and players. The fundamentals haven't changed. Players are not making a higher percentage of threes -- players actually made a higher percentage of threes in 1994 than they did this year.
They're making more per game because teams have decided to fire up three-point shots in record numbers -- attempts have gone up every season since 2012. Shoot more threes, make more threes, that's the NBA way. I know people feel different ways about it, but either way it feels more like a sober decision made league-wide. Meanwhile, the crazy rise of strikeouts feels to me more like an unintended consequence.
But that might not be right. The two might be more similar than I first realized. Baseball teams have also made strategic decisions. Managers have decided to use their pitchers to maximize their velocity and stuff (thus maximizing strikeouts). Hitters have decided to shrug off contact in order to make HARD contact (thus maximizing strikeouts).
And, obviously, none of them individually is too worried about how the game evolves for the fan. They're trying to win the hitter-pitcher battle. That's what they're supposed to be doing.
Meanwhile, though, we're seeing people reject this brand of baseball.
And look, I don't point this out to complain about baseball; I'm one of those baseballholics who will love the game no matter where it goes.
My point is that the people who fight against change because they consider themselves traditionalists are missing the big picture here. The game HAS changed, and it IS changing, and if "tradition" is what matters to you, then you should be in the front of the line screaming that they need to move the game back into balance.