Winston Churchill once said when trying to describe the dense, secretive and indecipherable intentions of Russia during the second World War, it is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” If Churchill were alive today, he could just as easily have been trying to describe the current state of Major League Baseball. A recent session watching highlights on MLB Network had me once again pondering the current state of the game and channeling how Churchill must have felt when trying to decipher Russian intentions at that time. A one or two-minute highlight segment of a typical baseball game now consists almost solely of strikeouts, save for the one or two balls put into play that drive in runs, most of which are homeruns. Maybe you’ll get the obligatory great defensive play highlight, but other than that, it is watching guys get punched out.
One look at the daily box scores tells the story much more in depth. A game last Friday, April 22nd between the Phillies and Brewers ended with the Phillies winning the game 4-2 and lasted three hours and twenty minutes. A nine-inning game that ended in a 4-2 score lasted almost 3 ½ hours and no one batted an eye or thought anything of it because that has become the norm in 2022. The irony of that is that the league is doing everything in its power to speed up the game. But is that what they’re actually doing? Despite every “effort” by MLB to speed up the game, games continue to get longer. I can’t help but feel that there is a black cloud over the game and a sense of impending doom surrounding it.
The game between the Phillies and Brewers featured eight walks, twenty-two strikeouts and eight pitching changes. With the current emphasis on homeruns, walks and OPS and the accepted mentality that striking out is no longer such a big deal, less and less balls are being put into play and games are getting longer and longer. Hence the strikeout and homerun fueled highlight videos. When less balls are put into play, there is less action on the field and that is a huge problem for the sport. I would also argue that it takes away the aura of homeruns and strikeouts when they are the norm. A homerun is always exciting, don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t nearly as exciting when it is constantly happening. Things that are unexpected tend to be more exciting, hence why we are still talking about Bartolo Colon’s shot heard ’round the world (all due respect to Bobby Thomson) homerun all these years later.
Dwight Gooden was called Dr. K because he was the only pitcher in the league at the time this side of Roger Clemens that you expected to reach double digit strikeouts in a game. Shea Stadium would sell out just because people wanted to see the great Dr. K pitch and they would hang K signs in the seats for each of his strikeouts, much like David Cone fans would later hang cones from the rafters to commemorate his strike out totals. In today’s game, if a pitcher isn’t averaging more than one strikeout per inning, it is almost unheard of. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I saw fans hanging K signs in the stands because everybody strikes out!
The Phillies/Brewers game also featured a controversial play where the Brewers’ Andrew McCutchen was called out at second base for committing the mortal sin of trying to take out the Phillies shortstop to break up a double play. The thing is, McCutchen never left the baseline and was able to easily slide into the bag, both requirements to not violate the “Utley rule” that dates to the 2015 NL Division Series between the Mets and Dodgers where Chase Utley completely left the baseline and abandoned any intention of sliding in a take-out play that ended with Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada breaking his leg.
As a Mets fan, I was fuming at Utley at the time, but as a baseball fan, I understood that that is how the game has been played for over 100 years, whether you think the play was “dirty” or not. I certainly never wanted a rule implemented to ban the takeout slide, much like barreling into the catcher to jar the ball loose in a close play at home plate is now illegal. (See: The Posey Rule). After McCutchen was called out despite not violating any rule, we had to wait multiple minutes for a challenge that resulted in a replay review only for the umpires to confirm the call on the field. More elongating of the game.
While MLB claims to be doing everything under the sun to speed up the game such as restricting mound visits, implementing a three-batter minimum rule before a relief pitcher can be removed from the game and creating a pitch clock, the games continue to get longer and longer. One reason for this is because for every rule MLB implements in an attempt to speed the game up, they implement another rule that slows it down, such as replay and manager’s challenges. Some replay reviews have taken upwards of ten minutes. It is literally like taking two steps back for every step forward in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bigger reason is that none of these rule changes address the actual problem, that Major League Baseball has become almost unwatchable due to the current analytical thinking that has pervaded the game.
No longer is batting average valued at all. Wins? They don’t mean a thing either. The only thing valued anymore is power, the ability to walk and how hard a pitcher can throw. Pitchers are no longer measured by wins, losses and era, but rather by velocity, swing and miss rate and the like. While the argument that wins aren’t a fair way to evaluate a pitcher does hold water, because sometimes a great pitcher gets no run support, completely devaluing wins makes no sense either; because an even bigger reason why pitchers don’t accumulate wins and losses the way they once did is because they are barely allowed to pitch into the fifth and sixth innings and are long removed from a game by the time the game is decided.
Even great pitchers like Jacob deGrom, who clearly has suffered from a lack of run support, would have accumulated far more decisions had he been allowed to throw more than 75-80 pitches in games he was removed from while throwing shutout baseball. That being said, as I write this, deGrom is recovering from a shoulder injury and has yet to pitch this season, no doubt a victim of his own increased velocity the past four seasons where he has averaged nearly 100 mph on his fastball, a huge increase in velocity from his early, healthier seasons.
The game has devolved into a caveman mentality of pitchers trying to throw the ball through a wall and hitters swinging out of their shoes trying to hit homeruns. OPS, which is on base percentage plus slugging percentage has become the be all end all new age statistic, and while it is a great stat that does tell us a tremendous amount of information about a hitter, it is flawed just like any other stat.
New school proponents of OPS devalue batting average because it doesn’t tell the full story, and someone who is hitting .300 may not have much value if they aren’t walking much, driving in runs and hitting for extra bases. While all of that may be true, OPS doesn’t take into account productive outs such as driving in a runner from third base with a groundout or bunting runners to second and third with one out. Neither does batting average, but batting average is typically a good measure of who is making the most contact at the plate.
OPS lovers argue that bunt attempts and stolen base attempts are wasting one of your valuable 27 outs and you’re better off swinging for the nines looking for that three run homerun than playing for one run. Therefore, striking out is no longer considered a big deal, because if you’re getting your fair share of extra base hits, strikeouts are a necessary evil. This shortsighted thinking ignores the fact that every single day teams are putting runners in scoring position with nobody out and are stranding them there because the
next three hitters strikeout. A couple of productive outs would have scored a run, and with pitchers throwing 100 mph leading to even more strikeouts and pitching changes, the games are getting longer and longer. You can watch a Major League Baseball game and go an hour without seeing a single ball put into play, and because guys are taking more pitches to draw more walks and are striking out in record proportions, at bats are taking longer and longer as well.
One would think such a drastic overhaul in the way of thinking throughout the game would have resulted in more runs scored, since the old way of thinking was so flawed, but the reality is that there has been zero increase in runs per game over the past 20 years. Even worse, a sport that is trying to appeal to a younger audience and compete with the NFL and the NBA has made their product practically unwatchable. In an era of highlights, social media and instant gratification, why does MLB think teens and pre-teens, the demographic they need to market to in order to keep the game relevant in the future, want to sit for four hours watching guys stand around?
Even if there had been an increase in runs scored, would it have been worth selling the soul of the sport? At the end of the day, Major League Baseball is a business and Major League Baseball players are entertainers. Without an audience, the sport dies. If the fans aren’t being entertained by a fast pace of play with lots of action, why are they going to watch?
At last check, there were fifty-six Major Leaguers hitting at or below .200. The league batting average as a whole was .231, which was the lowest batting average in the history of Major League Baseball dating back to 1871. And it isn’t just the major leagues. The batting average in Division I college baseball is at its lowest point since 1970. This means that the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Without base hits, speed, stolen bases, triples, lots of great defensive plays and quick innings with fewer pitches, the game is boring to watch, and games will continue to get longer and longer.
No matter how many silly rules MLB tries to implement to speed up the game, it isn’t going to help, and it isn’t going to make up for the lack of excitement in the game unless the way the game itself is being played changes. The most egregious of all the rules currently in effect to speed up the game is the ghost runner on second base at the start of extra innings. Rules like this make a mockery of a game that no one had a problem with for over 100 years and do nothing to address the real problem. People have a lot to choose from to entertain themselves these days. Why would they choose watching a pitcher and a catcher play catch for four hours, which is what the game has often become these days? The black cloud hovering over MLB isn’t going away anytime soon and the league better figure it out before the real reckoning arrives.