Why you should care
If the MLB wants to win back fans, it’s time to restore action to the diamond.
Beyond the baggy knickers, one only needs to study grainy video footage of 19th-century pitchers for proof that baseball was once a completely different game. The exact date of baseball’s inception remains up for debate, but the sport’s purpose is agreed upon. Baseball was a gentleman’s game — a friendly playground pastime meant to spawn camaraderie via exercise. And the pitcher? He was merely a delivery system. Whether sidewinding or underhand, the pitcher served the ball to the batter, ensuring that exciting action ensued.
Suffice it to say, the days of an active baseball diamond have passed.
8,184 fewer balls were put in play in 2017 than 10 years ago.
Towering home runs and 100 miles per hour fastballs are impressive, but modern baseball features a startling lack of action that may soon require mending. Today’s game is just a series of epic confrontations between pitcher and batter. While base hits, errors and stolen bases are being phased out, strikeouts, walks and home runs are on the rise. So much so that last season was the first time in baseball history that more than a third (33.5 percent) of plate appearances ended with one of the “three true outcomes” — a walk, strikeout or home run.
But this is no surprise. Power — both on the mound and at the plate — is the trait that today’s front offices covet most. As the ripples of power-based roster building are revealed, Major League Baseball is now faced with the reality that less action may mean more fan boredom. Forget the pitch clock; MLB needs to put the ball in play. “You can’t penalize the players,” says former MLB utility man–turned–MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa. “If my manager told me I could swing like Javy Báez, boy, would I like to try my career again.”
With a .268 batting average across 16 seasons from 1998 to 2013, DeRosa was no slouch. But his point stands. In previous eras, Báez, a 6-foot middle infielder, would be pressured to adopt a more traditional hitting approach. “Shorten his swing, put the ball in play and move runners over,” DeRosa speculates. “But today, he can let his swing eat every time.”
What DeRosa calls “letting his swing eat,” others might call “swinging for the fences.” Either way, the power-obsessed plate approach that was once frowned upon has now become best practice. The rise of sabermetrics and advanced analytics ushered in a belief that slugging percentage — a player’s total bases divided by at-bats — is the best indicator for success at the plate. And since home runs earn the most total bases, well, you see where we’re headed. The home run is king, and increased strikeout rates are just collateral damage.
The power-obsessed plate approach that was once frowned upon has now become best practice.
According to MLB Network host Brian Kenny, this is all the product of players reacting properly to incentives. The dawn of Moneyball has led to a rethinking of which players are most highly compensated. “Sabermetrics brought about the Adam Dunn–type slugger,” says Kenny, referring to a batter known for his exceptional power and high strikeout rate. “Now everybody’s walking, striking out and hitting the ball as hard as possible. That’s a very valuable player, but you don’t want everybody doing that.”
Still, today’s highest-paid players and fastest risers through the minor leagues are almost always power hitters. Or pitchers who flash triple digits on the radar gun. Thus, young players and coaches around the country are following suit. “We’re still at the tip of the iceberg,” says Kenny. “Every kid in youth baseball sees that velocity and exit velocity get you to the majors.”
As MLB tinkers with pitch clocks and other pace-of-game reforms, perhaps Commissioner Rob Manfred should consider that pace of play is only one small part of his product’s problem. Yes, attention spans are shrinking and a three-hour leisure sport can have trouble captivating a younger generation. But the real problem is when a long baseball game is absent any action. Fans won’t sit through nine innings with no base runners for just a few momentary home run blasts. A return to more action would lead to more conflict, strategy and excitement on the diamond.
There’s no stopping baseball’s continued evolution. But will MLB manage the change?