Strikeouts fests to old fans: How existential are the existential threats to MLB?
The problems with Major League Baseball can perhaps best be summed up by an anecdote from the NBA. When the news broke that famous (and infamous) New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez was part of a group purchasing the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, a reporter asked shooting guard Anthony Edwards’s thoughts. “I don’t know who that is,” Edwards said in a quote that soon went viral. “I know he’s going to be the owner. But I don’t know anything about baseball.”
In his defense, Edwards was all of three when the Yankees acquired A-Rod. But the fact that the 19-year-old Edwards had never heard of one of the most famous baseball players of modern times raised a familiar topic. Is baseball really fading in irrelevance? And how serious are the game’s problems? Let’s take a look at the most commonly debated issues.
1) Game length
While baseball has always been played at a – let’s say … leisurely – pace, the average game now takes more than three hours.
It’s not really all about how long games last. It’s about how long it takes in between things actually happening. Pitchers take an age between pitches and, when players do get on base, audiences are “treated” to endless pickoff attempts. Meanwhile, teams (wisely) employ defensive shifts that result in would-be extra-base hits turning into routine flyballs. Often, offense consists of waiting around for a home run (more about those, later).
To be fair, the league is attempting to change this. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has added a baserunner on second during extra-inning games. So far, this non-solution has had the effect of radically changing the game during extra innings without doing a single thing to address the actual problem of regulation-length games becoming slogs.
What may end up being more useful are changes currently being tried in the minor leagues. In the last few years, there has been testing of a pitch clock which – if actually enforced – should speed up the game. Limits have also been placed on pickoff attempts, something which has led to the intriguing rise of stolen base attempts.
2) Too many strike-outs
There’s only so much MLB can do to increase the action because that involves hitters putting balls into play – and it’s harder than ever to do that. Pitcher velocity is at an all-time high, which means that strikeouts are on the rise. This is a big reason why no-hitters, once a rare event, have become so frequent that they are in danger of becoming routine.
It used to be that teams could wear down the opposing starting pitcher before feasting on the lesser talents in the bullpen. Now, with relievers also lighting up the radar guns like never before, teams are increasingly comfortable letting their starter go through the lineup a handful of times before handing the ball over to the bullpen. No-hitters are up, yet complete games are increasingly rare.
The last time the league batting average was this low (it was .236 as of this weekend), was 1968 and the league responded by lowering the mound. Before that, you have to go back to 1908, during what is referred to as the “dead ball” era for obvious reasons. It may be time to look into similar measures.
3) Too many home runs
Here comes the weird thing: the increase in velocity has increased the number of home runs. This seems counterintuitive but it makes sense: with contact at a premium, hitters are incentivized to make their hits count. Also, the faster balls are thrown, well, the faster they come off the bat, something which has led to the growing obsession over exit velocity.
Which is a good thing right? Home runs are theoretically exciting. It’s a widely held belief that the (PED-fueled) home run battle of the 1990s helped revive the sport. Well, it turns out that at a certain point the law of diminishing returns kicks in. The thing about the so-called three true outcomes of baseball (the strikeout, the walk and the home run) is that there’s not much that happens during any of them. The inherent drama in the home run decreases when it’s the main way teams get any scoring done, and the game becomes one-dimensional. MLB has done something to address the home-run frenzy by deadening the ball, and this season home runs are down. That’s not necessarily a solution though: now batting average and home runs are down, making for plenty of low scoring games.
4) The demographics
According to a study in 2016, the average age of MLB viewers was 57 and just 7% of the league’s viewers were under 18. This was not good news, not just because advertisers covet those younger fans, but because of the simple fact of human mortality: without a strong base of younger fans there’s nobody to replace the older fans. One obvious trick here would be to make games be more accessible: less restrictive local blackout rules and more afternoon games probably wouldn’t hurt, for instance.
It also doesn’t help that there’s a very clear divide within the game between two camps: the “let the kids play” movement and the Cult of the Unwritten Rules. Not to go into too much detail, but there’s a certain level of complex etiquette in the major leagues that seems to boil down, at least to “baseball is not a fun game, it is not entertainment, it is serious business for serious people.” Let’s just be blunt: it makes baseball very much feel like it’s an Old Timer’s Game.
For the perfect distillation of this, there’s no better place to look than the Chicago White Sox where veteran manager Tony La Russa is publicly battling with one of his players, Yermin Mercedes, for (checks notes) hitting a home run on a 3-0 pitch because a position player was pitching. “There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family,” La Russa said. Maybe the MLB has a home run problem, but threatening your own player Godfather-style for hitting one is a bit much.
An embarrassing fact: for a while, Tim Tebow, the former Denver Broncos quarterback who toiled in the New York Mets’ minor league system for several years, was the most famous baseball player in America. There’s a reason why everybody expected Kyler Murray, currently the Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback, to turn down $4.6m from the Oakland Athletics to declare for the NFL draft: the NFL simply operates on a higher level.
One of the unsolvable problems with baseball may be that the team is more important than the individual: it’s not like NFL where you can build teams around talented quarterbacks or the NBA where a single player can change the entire dynamic of the league simply by moving franchises. Mike Trout has been the best player in the world for most of his career and he’s taken the Los Angeles Angels to the playoffs exactly once. It’s partly because of this that MLB hasn’t figured out a way to make exciting players like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr into the superstars they deserve to be.
Is anything changing?
While it’s easy to criticize Manfred for some of his decisions, particularly his tendency to bad-mouth his own product, it’s not a bad thing that he accepts that the game needs tweaks in order to maintain relevance.
The good news is that after years of decline, recent reports have shown that youth participation is on the rise. Baseball’s reputation for player safety isn’t entirely earned, Kevin Pillar’s recent facial injury speaks of the dangers of the increased obsession with pitch velocity. Still, compared with the concussion/CTE risks of contact sports like football, hockey and soccer, baseball is seen by many parents as a safer alternative for their children. And the biggest way to create young fans is to get them to actually play and (theoretically) fall in love with the game.
In the meantime, and despite a threatened GOP boycott, MLB ratings are up this year. That may just be a reflection of how MLB bungled its response to the pandemic last season, but it’s an encouraging sign nonetheless. We should be heartened by any evidence that the much-ballyhooed death of baseball is probably a touch exaggerated.