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Why an essential part of the game's romance is in decline

One night last month while I watched the Oakland Athletics pitchers walk 10 New York Yankees, an idea occurred to me about what some people find "wrong" with baseball. It's not the time of games, the pace of games, the dilution of pitching because of expansion or the way hitters adjust their batting gloves and cup in between pitches -- the usual complaints that get attention.

Instead, we are missing an essential part of the game's allure and romance: the crack of the bat. You hear it less and less in today's game. Hitting and pitching have evolved in ways that mean the baseball is put into play less frequently than ever before.

In April, 28 percent of all major league plate appearances ended in a walk or a strikeout, continuing what has been virtually an unchecked increase in such non-contact plate appearances since the game was invented. Ten years ago, for instance, the rate of plate appearances without the ball being put into play was 26 percent; 20 years ago it was 24 percent; 30 years ago it was 21 percent . . . all the way back to 15 percent in 1920.

Baseball has become a game of catch between the pitcher and catcher more than ever before. That game between Oakland and New York, played April 20, was an extreme example of what is going on. Only 43 of the 79 hitters put the ball in play. There were 36 walks and strikeouts and only 13 hits.

Why is this happening? It's not because the "quality of play" has diminished or the "fundamentals" have gotten worse. It's actually the exact opposite. It's because players are better than ever, part of the natural evolution of teaching and training. Hitters are so good they can be more selective (and don't mind taking a full cut with two strikes), while pitchers must keep the ball out of the middle of the plate. The game is played on the margins of the strike zone, and not fully inside it, more than ever.

Consider these developments as part of that evolution:

• Major league pitching staffs averaged 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings in April, which would be the highest season rate of all time. The rate has increased steadily over history with only minor blips of regression, such as in the early 1980s. The strikeout rate has increased 25 percent in the past 20 years (from 5.7 to 7.1).

• The team walk rate of 3.7 per nine innings is the highest since 2000.

• When you combine strikeouts and walks, teams average 10.8 non-contact plate appearances per nine innings -- up 37 percent from 1980 and 24 percent even from 1968, in what famously became known as The Year of the Pitcher and helped convince baseball owners to lower the mound and adopt the designated hitter rule within the next five years.

• If you like hits -- not just the ball to be put into play -- there is less to like. Teams averaged 8.8 hits per nine innings in April, which would be the lowest rate for a season in 18 years.

Baseball has become a game of attrition -- a kind of passive/aggressive pursuit - and it's largely because of the way hitting is taught. Wait out the pitcher. Run up his pitch count. Swing early in the count only if the ball is in the middle of the plate. Take your walks. Teams don't swing at about 55 percent of all pitches.

Some teams, such as the particularly influential Yankees and Red Sox, are especially patient. The Red Sox, for instance, in April chose not to swing at 41 percent of pitches that actually were in the strike zone.

The popularization of the Culture of the Walk, for which the Athletics and Yankees of the late 1990s gained the most attention, has much to do with promulgating this game of attrition. Oakland manager Bob Geren, for instance, remembered a catcher in the Athletics' farm system named Danny Ardoin.

"He got traded to Minnesota [in 2000], and in his first game there he didn't get a hit but he got on base three times with walks," said Geren of Ardoin's major league debut. "And after the game they told him, 'Better luck next game, kid. You'll snap out of it.' They thought he had a bad game.

"Back then, a lot of teams didn't value walks like we did. Now, there's no team that doesn't value walks. It's how the game is played now."

The Twins, in fact, led the major leagues in walks through the first month of this season.

The rate of walks has increased for five straight years. Of course, maybe the pitchers, not just the hitters, have something to do with all these walks.

"The cutter has a lot to do with it," said Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long.

Indeed, what the splitter was in the 1980s and the changeup in the 1990s, the cut fastball has become in the 2000s and into this decade. As with pop music, football and junior high fashion, baseball has its own copycat culture, and in the case of pitching, so it is true when it comes to the influence of the best pitchers. Just as pitchers followed Jack Morris, Bruce Sutter and Mike Scott with the splitter, and then Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine with the changeup, today's pitchers want to copy Roy Halladay and Mariano Rivera, the masters of the cut fastball. Dan Haren, John Danks, Scott Feldman, Phil Hughes, Jon Garland, Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett and Clayton Richard are just a few of the pitchers who in recent years have added the cutter.

"Just about everybody is throwing a cutter now," Long said. "But not everybody can command it. A lot of guys have a hard time controlling the location and break on it. And I think that's why you're seeing more walks."

Haren said he went to a cutter so that he could throw a pitch that looks like a strike and moves off the barrel of the bat -- an especially good pitch when behind in the count without just giving in to a hitter with a fastball. That sounds like a good pitch-to-contact approach, but the fact is that pitchers, even in this age of the cutter, are getting more strikeouts than ever. Again, that's an indication of the evolution in both hitting (do you think the powerful Mark Reynolds, the record-holder for most strikeouts in a season, has a two-strike approach to just put the ball in play?) and pitching.

The layers of specialized pitching are another reason for this game of attrition. Starters don't concern themselves with completing games, so there is no shame in lasting only five or six innings with 100 pitches -- a mentality that encourages pitching off the margins of the plate. And the many specialists in the bullpen, who allow managers to create as many platoon advantages as possible, leads to more strikeouts.

Pitching, in fact, has been one of the great growth industries in this recessionary economy. Major league teams used more pitchers in April than they did in the entire 1985 season. Last year teams used 664 pitchers -- 79 more than they needed only 10 years earlier and 157 more than they needed (with two fewer teams) in 1993.

Like a mature industry, baseball continues to grow more specialized. And the increased availability and commodification of information (analysis, instruction, training techniques, etc.) has accelerated the rate at which the game specializes. I'm not sure much can or should be done to alter this evolution. It is interesting, however, that both a traditionalist and the modern marketing guru might actually agree on one change: calling a bigger strike zone, particularly when it comes to that pitch a catcher catches right in front of his mask that is regarded as too "high." Promoting strikes, swings and contact may be a good thing.

Right now baseball is involved in one form of official "self-discovery," in which commissioner Bud Selig has assembled 14 people to serve on an "on-field matters" committee to suggest what might make the game better today and in the years to come. Much of the time has been spent on how the game is packaged: the All-Star Game, postseason format, pace of play, realignment, instant replay, etc.

But maybe it's time to study how the game is actually played. Today baseball includes fewer hits, less contact and more walks and strikeouts. Baseball remains a beautiful, fascinating game that becomes even more interesting the more you know about it. But if you're the kind of fan who simply likes to see the ball put into play, there is less to like.

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