It's Not About Losing Money, It's About Losing Interest
The most excellent Tom Verducci just wrote a zinger of a piece for Sports Illustrated with the headline: “Baseball’s Greatest Threat Isn’t the Lockout.” I highly recommend that you read all of it. His basic point is something we have talked a lot about here — while the owners and players kick each other over a few hundred million dollars, they are not even talking about the one thing that really matters to fans:
Baseball, on their watch, has become significantly less interesting.
In 1977, the NFL faced something of a crossroads. The game was flagging. Scoring was at a 40-year low. Cheap shots by defensive backs had become the norm. Teams were running the ball 60% of the time, even though they were averaging less than four yards per carry. In all, 23 of the 28 teams threw more interceptions than touchdown passes*.
*All hail the 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — quarterbacked by Gary Huff, Randy Hedberg and Jeb Blount, Combined, they were 131 for 321 (41% completion rate) with 3 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions. No, I said that right: 3 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions.
The NFL could have done nothing. Yes, there were some troubling signs, but pro football was still extremely popular. More than 100,000 people attended Super Bowl XI in the Rose Bowl, and Super Bowl ratings were off the charts. Monday Night Football was still one of the better rated shows on television (though certainly not the ratings powerhouse that Sunday Night Football would become). The game still had tremendous star power.
But here’s what the NFL did instead: They completely and utterly reshaped the game. They had started trying to open up the game earlier in the 1970s — moving the goalposts to the back of the end zone to deemphasize field goals, reducing offensive holding penalties from 15 to 10 yards, etc. — but now they really changed things up.
They created what is now called “the Mel Blount Rule,” which made it illegal for defensive backs to hit receivers more than five yards downfield. And they loosened up pass blocking rules, allowing offensive linemen to extend their arms and open their hands.
The effect was immediate — passing numbers immediately jumped. And they would continue to climb and climb and climb.
And the popularity of pro football climbed with it.
Over the years, the NFL has continuously tinkered with the rules and adjusted priorities and taken advantage of technological advances to make sure that the game would be exciting for fans.
Now, you ask: How would baseball have handled the same crossroads? Well, you don’t have to ask because, as Verducci writes, it’s happening RIGHT NOW. Like with the NFL in 1977, baseball is still extremely popular. You can point to any number of positive signs for the game. But, like with the NFL in 1977, the game on the field is becoming less dynamic in obvious and unmistakable ways.
Let’s look at a few of those Verducci numbers — he did something really clever with the numbers. He didn’t go looking back 25 or 30 years ago, which is tempting with baseball (i.e. “Baseball used to be so much better in my day!”). No, he looked at just the time period covered by the last collective bargaining agreement, so he looked only from 2016 to 2021. And here’s just some of what he found:
Defensive shifts: Up 125%
Strikeouts: Up 8%
Home runs: Up 6%
Games with teams using five pitchers or more: Up 30%
Balls in play: Down 6%
Time between balls in play: Up 29%
Hits: Down 7%
Triples: Down 23%
Stolen base attempts: Down 17%*
*Verducci actually used stolen bases being down 13% as his statistic, but I think the 17% decrease in attempts is even more telling. Did you know that in 2021, base stealers were successful 75.7% of the time. That’s a record, the best stolen base percentage in recorded baseball history. And yet, counterintuitively, teams tried to steal less often than any time in the last 50 years.
These are sobering trends to many of us. At the very least, they have drained so much of the variety out of the game. Fewer balls in play means fewer hits, of course, but it also means fewer great defensive plays. Fewer risks on the bases means fewer exciting moments. More pitchers means less fan investment in each one. You can go on and on with this. And all the while, the games themselves go on longer and longer.
Tom seems to pin some of the blame — perhaps even most of the blame — on the analytics that have squeezed so much of the character and verve out of the game.
From the piece:
What happened? The players are now fighting to recover from a system they didn’t see coming in 2016: an analytics-driven, risk-averse, youth-leaning game that is built on keeping the ball out of play. Their beef should be framed less against “greedy owners” and more against the front-office efficiency experts who over the length of this CBA usurped from field personnel the power to determine how baseball is played.
Here, I must admit, is where Tom and I part ways — not because I think that he’s wrong, necessarily, but because I think he is missing a key point: Teams in every sport since the dawn of time have always been risk-averse and driven by the best information and instincts they have. The word “analytics” have become a bogeyman, but the idea behind them — the idea of finding ways within the rules to gain an advantage — has been a constant.
Why do you think NFL teams wouldn’t throw the ball in the mid-1970s? Right, because they saw running the ball as the least risky and best way to win.
Why did NBA teams start playing grinding, physical, gruesome basketball for a decade starting around 1996 or so — sending scoring averages plunging? Right, because they saw it as the least risky and best way to win.
Why did NHL teams start playing zone traps in the late 1990s, causing goal scoring to go down to levels unseen for 40-plus years? Right, because they saw it as the least risky and best way to win.
Sure, now you can call it “analytics,” but this is the same old story only with better data behind it. Teams will keep pushing and pushing and pushing against the rules in order to give themselves the best chance to win. They don’t care about the excitement quotient of the game because they are not paid to care about that; nobody gets fired for playing boring baseball; they get fired for losing.
And that’s why it is the responsibility of the people running, promoting and playing the game to constantly monitor the game and make sure that it is the most enjoyable version of baseball possible. In 2014, after a steady rise, a nine-inning baseball game for the first time averaged more than three hours. That should have been a breaking point; the union and league should have immediately begun a serious discussion about how to shorten games. Pitch clock? A directive to umpires to speed up pace of play? Something! Anything.
Instead, in 2021, the average time of a nine-inning game was 3:11 — the highest it has ever been. Out of control.
In 2016, after a steady and alarmingly fast rise, teams averaged more than eight strikeouts per game. This should have been a breaking point; when hitters are striking out that much, the game has lost its balance. The union and league should have immediately launched a serious discussion about how to bring some of that balance back. A limit on number of pitchers per game? A roster limit on how many pitchers you could make active for any one game? Something! Anything!
Instead, in 2021, there were 2,661 more strikeouts than hits, by far the biggest gap in baseball history. Out of control. Throughout the decade of the 2000s — so we’re hardly talking ancient history here — teams averaged 12,377 MORE HITS THAN STRIKEOUTS.
In 2018, after a slow and steady decline, the league batting average dropped below .250 for the first time since 1972. That drop should have been a breaking point; batting average may not be the best analytical tool to determine a player’s value, but it has been an urgent and important part of baseball since the 19th century, and it’s just not nearly as vibrant a game when fewer than 25% of at-bats result in a hit. The union and the league should have immediately launched a serious discussion about how to get more hits back in the game. A ban on the shift? Robo-umpires? Again, a limit on the number of pitchers used? Something! Anything!
Instead in 2021, the league hit .244, the same average as 1972, when baseball was so panicked they actually DID make a major rule change (or at least half of them did) by adding the designated hitter.
And you can keep doing this with the lack of stolen bases, the lack of triples, the proliferation of one-inning pitchers, the deemphasis of defense and so much more.
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I should say: Tom does point out how much more aggressive other leagues are about rebalancing things — and that, to me, is the whole point. Blaming analytics is silly and self-defeating. People are always going to search for and find ways to beat the system. I’ve mentioned this before — in the classic video game “Tecmo Bowl,” somebody (I’m pretty sure it was me, though that has been up for debate) figured out that the Miami Dolphins had an unstoppable play: A quick pass from Dan Marino to Mark Duper. When I say “unstoppable,” I mean it truly could be stopped, it was a blip in the system, no matter what defense was run, no matter how much you concentrated on Duper, the play worked, every time.
Somebody (it was me) figured out how to beat the system.
And so guess what: When we played the game, that play was outlawed. You couldn’t run it. Nobody said, “Oh, hey, I know you figured this out, but it’s not really in the spirit of the game so maybe you’ll stop?” No, instead, it was: “Yeah, that play sucks, you can’t run it anymore because it drains all the fun out of the game.”
I’m not saying that solutions in baseball are that easy. I mentioned a few ideas in the preceding paragraphs, but I’m not sure that banning the shift or putting a limit on pitchers or robo-umpires or pitch clocks will solve or even ease some of these fundamental issues.
What I feel quite sure about is that the longer baseball waits, the worse things will get and the harder things will be to reverse.