Baseball's pressing question: What happens to a sport when nothing happens?
- The two-headed monster of home runs and strikeouts, coupled with the pace of play dilemma, are threatening the future of the national pastime.
This story appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
The signature game of what baseball has become took place in Milwaukee on June 2. The Dodgers beat the Brewers 2–1 in 12 innings. What may sound like a thriller passed for a tedious revival of a Samuel Beckett play. Instead of waiting for Godot, the plot revolved around waiting for a ball in play.
Over the course of three minutes shy of four hours, 90 batters came to the plate and only 40 of them put the ball in play, or once every six minutes. Nine pitchers, all of whom hit 93 to 99 mph on the radar gun, including L.A. starter Clayton Kershaw, paraded to the mound to strike out a National League–record 42 batters. Nobody managed a hit in 13 tries with runners in scoring position. All three runs scored on solo home runs.
Unlike most sports, baseball’s beauty is not only in its action but also in the anticipation of its action. The brief interludes allow conversation among friends, a pondering of the strategies and outcomes that may come next, and the hope—with caps turned backward and inside out—for the greatest excitement the game can allow, the extended rally.
That game is disappearing. In its place grows a game obsessed with power. It is driven by the pursuit of the most blunt of outcomes: strikeouts by pitchers and home runs by batters. Both outcomes, which render useless defense, baserunning and teamwork, happen more frequently this year than ever before.
The great philosopher and journeyman catcher Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh on screen in 1988, “Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist.” Since Davis was behind the dish for the cinematic Durham Bulls, those boring punch-outs in the majors have soared 48.8%.
The chesslike quality of the game has tilted toward checkers. One-third of all turns at bat now end without the ball in play, an all-time high: either a strikeout (at a record rate for a 10th straight year), a walk (the highest in eight years) or a home run (an all-time high), the so-called three true outcomes promulgated by the sabermetric community.
“It used to be that managing a game, you would think about what pitching matchups you wanted based on maybe who could get you a ground ball or a double play if you needed one,” says Reds manager Bryan Price. “Now what you find yourself doing is defending the home run. Who can get the swing and miss?”
As strikeouts and home runs increase, so does the time players take to gear up for these max-effort battles. Each pitch brings a slow diligence as if scrubbing for surgery or calibrating the splitting of an atom. The quaint interludes between balls regularly put in play have become yawning gaps of nothingness. Major League Baseball is concerned how the trends of more velocity, more relief pitchers and more all-or-nothing hitters are slowing the game. While the game prospers economically, baseball officials worry about where the sport is headed. They fret over internal polls that show they risk losing the next generation of fans as the pace of action slows in a technology-driven world that offers more diversions at a faster pace.
MLB statistical analysts made a presentation to owners in August 2016 cautioning how the analytically driven practices in today’s game—bullpen usage, shifts, a de-emphasis on the stolen base, an emphasis on slugging over contact—slow the pace of action. Since then MLB has wrestled with the questions of what should be done about it.
In January commissioner Rob Manfred restructured the Competition Committee, which had included only team owners and presidents, to include general managers and field managers, and he charged them with improving the game on the field. In February, after fruitless talks with the players’ association about pace-of-action issues, Manfred threatened to unilaterally impose rule changes next year, which could include a limit on timeouts and a 20-second pitch clock. Since that warning, according to two baseball officials, baseball has had no substantive discussions with the union about the issue. Worse, the game has actually become slower.
Players are taking 1.1 seconds more between pitches this year than last year, an unprecedented one-year jump in the 11 seasons such records are available. In just one year they have added five minutes, 28 seconds of dead time between pitches to an average game.
Baseball always ebbs and flows. Just three years ago we were talking about the bottom of an offensive trough in which runs per game sank to a 36-year full-season low. Waiting for baseball to self-correct, however, becomes riskier in what is now a $10 billion industry in the most competitive environment ever for entertainment time and dollars. The risk is that less action over a longer period of time may continue to increase, given trends such as these:
• Less contact. From 2007 through ’11, the rate at which players made contact when they swung at a pitch remained fairly constant—around 80%. But as velocity and spin rates have risen, contact has dropped steadily. It is down for a sixth straight year, hitting a record low of 77.5% this year.
• Increased velocity. The average fastball velocity has increased nearly every year in the 16 seasons baseball has measured the speed of pitches, from 89.0 mph in 2002 to 92.7 mph this year.
• Increased pitching supply. Teams used a record 742 pitchers last year (about 25 per team), an increase of 107 pitchers in 10 years. The last four innings of a baseball game have become a procession of high-velocity, two-pitch bullpen specialists who try not just to get outs, but also to keep the ball out of play.
• Fewer true aces. Starters work less often and for fewer innings than ever before. Their work has been cut because of the inventory of relievers, analytics (which favor a fresh arm over a starter facing a lineup for the third time in a game) and injury prevention (fatigue and poor mechanics are the greatest injury factors).
“Extra” rest has become normal rest. The percentage of starts with five days or more of rest increased from 39.5 in 1997 to 52.9 this year, or a majority of the time. Even with more rest, pitchers face an unofficial ceiling of 120 pitches. This year there have been only eight 120-pitch games. In 2000 there were 466 such games. The result: Last season only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings, by far the fewest ever in a full season.
• Baseballs are flying out of the park like never before. Baseball is on track to surpass 6,000 homers for the first time in a season. Home runs are up 46% in just three years.
Some of the increase may be due to a modern hitting -philosophy to hit more balls in the air—to defeat shifts and to capitalize on a pay system that values slugging, where once it valued on-base percentage, and before that valued batting average. That swing theory, however, is not overwhelmingly found in statistics. Hitters this year are hitting fly balls at a rate (35.5%) only nominally higher to the rate they were hitting them in the dark offensive days of 2014 (34.4%). The difference is how often those fly balls are going out of the park: from 9.5% to 13.7%.
The jump in home runs began suddenly, and without explanation, in the second half of the 2015 season, leading to speculation that the ball is being manufactured or stored differently to fly farther. MLB contends that independent testing shows no change in the baseball. “I don’t know if it’s got something to do with if the ball is harder,” says Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel. “A lot of people think they are.” Asked if he believes the balls are livelier, Kimbrel said, “Come on. Have you seen how the balls have been flying the last two years? I don’t have a problem with it. But if the balls are harder, I think pitchers would like to know.”
• Less strategy. Home runs are so easy to come by that teams are more likely to just wait for them rather than be creative. Sacrifice hits are at an all-time low. Intentional walks have been at near-record-low levels the past four years. Nobody has stolen 75 bases in 10 years. The hit-and-run is an endangered play. The veteran pinch hitter has been eliminated so that teams can carry eight relief pitchers.
How baseball is played has changed significantly in just the past three years. It is a game of specialists predicated on power. Today the game is on track for 4,444 more strikeouts and homers than it saw in 2014.
In its extremism, the June 2 game in Milwaukee best represented what the game has become. Appropriately, the deciding run scored on a home run by Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ rookie first baseman who changed his swing in Class A two years ago to loft more balls. Bellinger hit 19 home runs in his first 50 games, tying the major league record set way back ... in 2016 by Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez. Bellinger also whiffed 64 times, nine more than any other player in Dodgers history through their first 50 games, and walked 21 times.
Add them up and virtually half of Bellinger’s turns at bat, 104 of 210, served as a proxy for how the game is played these days: All or nothing. ±