The frightening future of baseball and why a shorter season makes sense
- Does baseball need to be fixed? And if so, how? Tom Verducci examines why the game seems to have stagnated, and what can be done to breathe new life into it.
The final five innings of this year's All-Star Game demonstrated the frightening future of baseball. The growing trends of more velocity, more strikeouts and more relief pitchers—seen every night during the regular season—were on display again on July 12 in San Diego, where after the fourth inning, the American League and National League teams combined for 12 pitchers, nine strikeouts, five hits (all singles), no runs, no stolen base attempts and 27 swings-and-misses. The game essentially ended two hours before the final out of the AL's 4–2 win.
It was the baseball equivalent of college basketball's four-corners offense in the days before that sport adopted a shot clock: a system that is too efficient, especially when placed in the context of an entertainment option.
Keep those five innings of nothingness in mind as baseball owners and players negotiate a collective bargaining agreement this summer to replace the one that will expire on Dec. 1. The future of baseball is at stake.
This week, I will be examining some of the issues confronting the sport and exploring possible solutions. The game is still relatively healthy; in fact, it has prospered so much economically, and the players have been enriched so much by it, that this may be the first CBA negotiation in which money is not the root issue. Tony Clark, a former player himself, is negotiating his first CBA as executive director of the union. The emphasis for Clark and the players are “quality of life” issues, such as length of schedule, travel schedule, service time, roster size, free-agent compensation rules, etc.
In the players’ perfect world, there would be a shorter schedule, more off days, more getaway day games and a bigger roster, even if that means a floating taxi squad—say 28 players who are getting major league service time, but only 25 of whom are designated as active for each series. After more than 50 years, during which time television and expansion have made for a bigger travel burden, playing 162 games in 183 days has become too much for them.
The shorter schedule always has been a non-starter for owners, whose television and sponsorship agreements are based on 162 games, half of them at home. Giving up, say, four home gates is just one of the many economic worries tied to a shorter season. Per-game attendance is already down this season for 19 of the 30 major league teams.
Commissioner Rob Manfred has indicated, however, that this year the owners will at least consider a shorter season. The catch: He wants the players to take a pay cut. “You want to work less, usually you get paid less,” he told reporters in San Diego.
Clark doesn’t agree. He thinks the players shouldn’t take a pay cut while playing fewer games because more off days actually will keep stars on the field more and make for a better product. “The value of every games goes up,” he said, with a shorter schedule that allows the best players play a greater percentage of the games.
Such disagreements are why they have negotiations. As those talks heat up—the soft target for a deal is within the next three months—these are the cold truths about where baseball stands now:
1. Owners already are paying players more money to work less often;
2. The product on the field is deteriorating as an entertainment option;
3. A bigger roster size only means more pitchers, which is the worst possible idea considering the state of the game today.
Let's examine each issue in more detail:
1. More pay for less work
With little notice, baseball and the union agreed in November 2005 to ban the use of amphetamines, a performance enabler used by around 75% of the players, according to some estimates. Amphetamines were especially popular to recover from a night of drinking, to play a day game after a night game, or to wake the body after an overnight flight. In short, they were baseball’s rocket fuel.
The ban on amphetamines has changed baseball as much as the ban on steroids, if not more so. Coupled with advances in performance analytics—many teams now regard physical recovery as a market inefficiency to exploit—the ban means players are playing less. It is common now to see healthy players sitting and healthy pitchers taking more rest. (The majority of starts by major league pitchers are now made on five days rest, not four days; back in the 1960s, it was three days.)
When Clark says “the value of games goes up” with a shorter schedule—say, 154 games—what’s unsaid is the inverse: the value of games goes down with the 162-game schedule, which is happening now.
Despite all the advances in strength training, nutrition and medicine, from 1998, the first year with 30 teams, to 2015, the number of players who took 600 plate appearances in a season declined 21% (from 102 to 81), and the number of pitchers who made 32 starts declined 38% (from 58 to 36).
During that same time, players’ average salary jumped 204%, from about $1.4 million to about $4.25 million.
2. Deteriorating product.
Red Sox DH David Ortiz said he is retiring not because he can’t hit—he told me he has several years left in which he can hit at an elite level—but because the grind of the schedule has worn him down. There are days when he tells Boston manager John Farrell, “I can’t go today.” Day games after night games and games after late-night flights typically are the hardest for the 40-year-old slugger.
As baseball continues to do its best to serve its national and regional television partners, games—especially those for teams that drive ratings—are scheduled in a way to maximize the viewing audience, not for the accommodation of the players.
Here’s what one MLB executive texted to me at the start of this month: “Have you noticed a general downturn in quality of play last month? Guys getting tired. Season is too long and more off days needed it seems.”
Throughout much of baseball history, day baseball meant more offense. The early generation of stadium lights didn’t come close to providing the conditions of daylight. As lighting improved, the difference between night games and day games went away. But now we’re seeing a first in baseball: offense goes down in day games. Runs per game this year drops from 9.04 in night games to 8.81 in day games. Batting average drops from .256 to .254.
If you buy a ticket to a day game, you’re risking seeing lineups without star players and with less offense.
3. Too many pitchers.
Let’s get something straight: The modern methodology of keeping the ball out of play—more pitchers throwing harder and being used more often in shorter bursts—works. In fact, it works too well. Teams used 557 pitchers in 1998; last year, they used a record 735, a 32% increase. We're not even through July, and teams have already used more pitchers this year than they did in the entire 2010 season (635). We are headed for a record number of pitchers for a fourth straight year.
The use of specialized bullpens impacts not only on each game but also baseball's declining pace of action overall. Every other sport holds its audience with the anticipation that the endgame is the most exciting part. Football promises no-huddles, two-minute drills, more passing and onside kicks. Basketball promises more three-point shooting and full-court pressure defense. Hockey promises goalies getting pulled for an extra skater. Things get more frantic.
The opposite happens in baseball because bullpens are so good and relievers throw so hard. Mound visits, jogs from the bullpen, warmup pitches ... the game literally slows down, and so does offense. As compared to the first six innings, scoring drops 15% in the final three innings and the rate of strikeouts goes up 14%. Take a look at this list—paying attention to the years listed—of the seasons with the worst on-base percentages in innings seven through nine since 1974, when such records are available on baseball-reference.com.
1. 2014: .310
2. 2015: .311
3. 2013: .312
4. 1989: .312
5. 2012: .313
6. 2016: .316
In the past five seasons the end of a game has become Dead ball Era baseball—only worse. In those pre-1920 days, hitters actually put the ball in play. This year, 23% of all plate appearances from the seventh through ninth innings end with a strikeout—no defense or base running needed in what is a glorified game of catch between the pitcher and catcher.
Last year, the Royals won the World Series in great part because their pitchers allowed just a .227 batting average in the seventh through ninth innings. This year, the Dodgers are the kings of killing offense late in games. From the seventh through ninth innings, batters against their pitchers have hit just .190, posted a .255 OBP, struck out in 27% of their plate appearances and scored only 80 runs in 94 games.
In the face of this depressed late-game offense, managers and the union would like even more pitchers to be available more often. An expanded roster or a taxi squad is needed, they would say, because pitchers need more recovery. Well, they need more recovery only because managers are using more of them more often, which is what the analytics people tell them is the “right” way to play baseball. Essentially, the union and managers want to institutionalize six-man rotations and 10-man bullpens, which we now see in modified, unofficial form because of the back and forth of young relievers who still have minor league options remaining (which means they can be demoted at any time without their consent). Deepening already deep bullpens is last thing baseball needs as it competes in an entertainment world with growing and faster-paced options.
So what’s the solution? What should owners and players be talking about toward a CBA that will define a critical turn in the road in the game’s future? They should be looking to Japan for answers.
Nippon Pro Baseball plays a 144-game season. It figured out long ago not to schedule games on Mondays, which was the worst-attended night of the week. It also doesn’t play interleague games every day of the season, confining them to a seven-week period, which prevents them from acquiring a “sameness” we now see in MLB because of these awful 15-team leagues. It also uses a 28-man roster in which 25 players are designated as active each game.
I don’t trust MLB teams with a 28/25 roster because of how they already deploy too many relievers at the cost of action. But the confined interleague schedule and the shorter schedule with Mondays off are great ideas and should be adopted. Even if you removed all Monday games in April and May—when attendance is really poor because school is still in session, night-time weather is still uncomfortable nights in many places and the season is so young—that alone would help.
I would make one tweak: Monday is a built-in off day for 28 teams, which allows for rest and for the easy re-scheduling of postponed games. There would be only one game scheduled for Monday nights, creating a true “national event” feel for Monday night baseball.
The All-Star Game is supposed to be a showcase for baseball, one in which it has the national sports stage all to itself. This year's game, on Fox (for which I was a sideline reporter), drew 8.71 million viewers and had a 5.4 rating, both record lows. Those who tuned in saw the 11th straight All-Star Game in which the greatest hitters in the world combined to score fewer than 10 runs, by far the longest such offensive drought in the 83-year history of the event.
Nobody should be surprised. With 51 outs divided among 19 power arms throwing as hard as they can in bursts of only three batters or so, the surprise is that the All-Stars score even nine runs. Is this the game owners and players want? More importantly, is this the game fans want?