I promise you that I'm not trying to drum up page views by writing articles with titles like "Farts: How Your Butt is Killing the Planet" or "Which Game of Thrones Character Are You? A 20 Part Slideshow NSFW." But I am worried about the future of baseball as a spectator sport.
Don't get me wrong, I certainly love baseball just as it is and, for most of the people who write blogs and read baseball coverage on an endless loop, waking up at 3 am in a cold sweat because you forgot to check Baseball Prospectus, that will always be the case. At least until the sun turns black and oil-hungry marauders make playing a game too dangerous while we huddle in a cave for our family's survival. But there are also people that follow cricket or Ironman tournaments closely, and that doesn't make any sense. Baseball is changing and I worry if it's at its own harm.
I'm not naive enough to think that the game hasn't constantly been in a state of evolution. Equipment changes, improvements in medicine and training, clubs moving to cities and environments that didn't use to hold teams, perhaps even the Fall network TV schedule– all have served to change the game in one way or another. In the 1920s and '30s, batters ruled all, with teams averaging 5.55 runs per game in 1930 with the average batter hitting .296. The 1960s were pitcher dominated, with runs dropping to 3.69 per game by 1972 with the average player posting an OPS of .664, or roughly one Clint Pennington. But these, as far as I know (and perhaps a better student of baseball's history will correct me), were largely natural shifts that occurred, the pitching dominated 60s and early 70s changing only once MLB intervened with a rule change. And while I believe that sabermetrically inclined fans are some of the best that exist, being the ones dedicated to learning more about the game rather than simply enjoying it with mirthful ignorance, baseball's latest shift has plenty to do with their hard-fought lessons.
Go back in time about a decade and chances are you would hate me. I watched Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts and took everything Joe Morgan said at face value. I thought the sacrifice bunt was one of baseball's grand achievements; expanding your strike zone when runners were on base was exactly what you should do (as sluggers should never take a walk when they have a chance to drive in runs); and pitchers should pitch to contact, looking to induce weak groundballs. It was around that time, thanks to my college roommate, that I started getting interested in sabermetrics, actually reading Moneyball instead of burning effigies of Billy Beane and his computers and reading this site called Baseball Prospectus when I should have been in class. It was during this time that not only was I being lured in by the fresh ideas and critical ways of examining baseball, but formerly resistant front offices were catching on, too. Now the need to preserve team outs, draw walks to extend innings, and wanting pitchers to miss as many bats as possible are accepted as fact, even among the sports talk radio set. As more teams have caught on, lineups and pitching staffs have changed as well. No longer does a batter worry about whiffing, because how is that more harmful than a pop fly? With growing bullpens amid even more bullpen specialization, strikeouts continue to spike.
But does that make baseball a better game? Employing those kind of strategies may make a team more likely to win, but in the end, is it better for fans? While strikeouts are fun to watch, so are lots of other outcomes on the field like diving catches, doubles down the line, bloop singles, and even lazy pop flies into foul territory. Teams are currently striking out 7.68 times per game this year, up from 7.50 last year. Before 1994, the average strikeouts per game had never reached 6. Pedro Martinez, who lead the league with 9.9 K/9 in 2003 would currently be eleventh this year, just behind Gavin Floyd (small sample size alert in full effect). When baseball was in its infancy, batters were able to select the area where they would like to be pitched–above the belt or below, the game being predicated not on pitcher domination, but on the action once a batter put the ball in play. Baseball is certainly better now when pitchers can deceive with any number of tumbling, sliding, cutting pitches, but perhaps it would be more enjoyable if there was more action on the field. After all, a batted ball can result in any number of combinations, while a strikeout results in just that: a strikeout.
That chaos of the batted ball is precisely why strikeouts are so valued for pitchers. Men much smarter than I did the original research that indicated that a pitcher, once the ball left his hand, had little to no ability to dictate what would happen. A hurler that could strike out more batters wasn't at the mercy of luck like those others who must rely on their defense for support (though it should be noted that just this month, Russell Carleton looked at this long held assumption
and saw that perhaps pitchers can influence batted balls more than we thought). As GMs have reacted to that information, those who can strikeout more batters have been more highly valued while their contact-inducing brethren were moved to the bullpen where perhaps their mediocre fastballs could rise a few ticks, inducing increased strikeout rates.
Along with the rising strikeouts, the three true outcome rate for the entire league is on the rise
. Like your mother taught you, everything is best in moderation. Home runs are great to watch, but only when they're more rare than other outcomes, strikeouts are fun when they happen infrequently, and walks, well, walks are useful to win games. I don't know if I've ever been excited by a walk, even when I've been rooting for one.
And sure, baseball protects itself. The game is too hard for all batters to have great eyes and all pitchers to throw blazing fastballs, ensuring that if the sport shifts, it does so slowly, almost imperceptibly, letting the rest of the league adapt along with it. Stolen bases cratered at around .53 per game at the turn of the century, but in the past two pitcher-dominated seasons saw a return to .66 and .67 (though I should mention that through only one month of baseball this year, it currently sits at .53. Dave Cameron recently wrote about this
). Because of the current offensive environment, the value of a stolen base is also higher, making the break even point on successful stolen base attempts roughly 67% as opposed to nearly 70% in 2000
. Defense, largely forgotten when Jeremy Giambi was looked at as a viable Major Leaguer, has returned to prominence, even as fewer and fewer balls are hit into play.
But where is this breaking point, when the game shifts too much and is no longer interesting to watch save for only the truest of diehards? Currently, nearly 29% of all outs take place only between the pitcher, catcher, and batter. Perhaps we've peaked and the game will begin shifting once again and we'll watch strikeout rates fall like the Dow after the Associated Press' Twitter account was hacked. (I've been waiting to use that joke for years!) I don't know where the line is, where that fuzzy point between what's best for a baseball team to win games begins to harm what's best for people to watch, but I worry that we're close enough to begin thinking about it. I'm sure articles like this were written when home runs were leaving at rates never before seen in the early 2000s, just as there probably were in the 1920s when Babe Ruth started blasting home runs or the late 1800s when ballplayers started wearing gloves. Chances are baseball will survive and shift again, just as it always has.
But even though we like to pretend that baseball was this gift from whatever power's that be, with rules that were handed down on stone tablets, in the end, it's merely a diversion, an activity for us to turn to when we have time to drink beer and argue with our friends. And if the game ever swings too wildly away from being a spectator sport, well, what's even the point of its existence?