THE CARDINALS AND THE RED SOX BROUGHT THE WEIRD IN THE 109TH FALL CLASSIC, A SERIES FULL OF TENSE GAMES AND NEVER-SEEN-BEFORE ENDINGS. BUT LOOK PAST THE DRAMA AND THE TWO EVENLY MATCHED TEAMS, AND YOU SEE A SPORT IN NEED OF CHANGE. THINK THE DH WAS FUNKY? MAKE WAY FOR THE BONUS AT BAT
DURING HIS second at bat in Game 4 of the World Series, Red Sox catcher David Ross stepped out of the batter's box and asked home plate umpire Paul Emmel for time. The issue that was giving him pause: Lance Lynn, the Cardinals' starter, was showing the temerity to work quickly.
"The crowd booed me," Ross said later, "but I didn't care. I felt rushed. The last thing I want is to be in the box and feel rushed."
The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they're preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013. Stylistically, the Red Sox--Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. This keeps the outcome of closely contested games in doubt. At the same time, when you extrapolate the trend of the ball being put in play less frequently, it raises questions about whether—and how—the game needs to be modernized.
November 4, 2013
The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today's game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis's innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.
The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent countertacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for "grinding out at bats" to "run up pitch counts," the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers' Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey's Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to "grinders" when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.
To force high pitch counts the Red Sox dictate the pace of the game, which is to say they slow it down so each pitch gets punctilious attention. And so between pitches, Ross steps out; Dustin Pedroia loosens and tightens his batting gloves even if he hasn't swung; Jonny Gomes tugs repeatedly at his gloves, jersey and helmet as if playing charades ("Poison ivy! Hives! Bedbugs?"); David Ortiz spits on his hands and claps them; and Daniel Nava rakes the dirt in the batter's box with his spikes as if tending a Zen garden. Nobody is in a rush. You can practically see the hair in their beards growing.
Nothing happens until the Sox decide it will happen—and even then the result is often ... well, not much. With bad teams, fifth starters and middle relievers weeded out, postseason baseball is an even more refined version of the depressed run-scoring environment created by the wave of young power pitchers. Through 36 postseason games this year, teams hit .231 and combined to score 7.2 runs per game, which equates to the same run production of the 1906 regular season, smack in the Dead Ball era—only with a batting average 16 points lower.
Postseason games in 1906 took an average of two hours, one minute to play. Through four games of the World Series it took an average of 3:27 to wind things up this October. The average time of games not involving the fussy Red Sox was 3:13; their games averaged 3:37. Boston—which was hitting a combined .223 in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series—added 24 minutes of dead time to a postseason game.
Much of the added length in 2013 is due to the mini-docudramas that pass for engagements between pitcher and hitter, many of which end without the ball in play. Nearly one out of every three plate appearances this postseason has ended in a walk or a strikeout (31.5%). Thirty years ago, only about one in four postseason plate appearances ended that way (25.6%), and postseason games were 44 minutes quicker (2:43).
If there is an upside to hits and runs being so hard and long to come by, it is that the Cardinals and the Red Sox provided hours of suspense, with the game outcomes almost always in doubt to the end—the requisite for adding television viewers. For 26 of the 27 innings in Games 2, 3 and 4, no more than two runs separated Boston and St. Louis. Each of those games was decided by one play. The winning run in Game 2 scored in the seventh inning when Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow threw a ball from behind home plate into the leftfield stands. In the bottom of the ninth in Game 3, another Boston player, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, sent a throw from home past third base, which led to third baseman Will Middlebrooks's being charged with the first walk-off obstruction call in World Series history, allowing St. Louis's Allen Craig to score the winning run. In the sixth inning of Game 4, Gomes smashed only the fourth homer of the Series, a three-run shot that broke a 1--1 tie and set up a 4--2 Boston victory that evened the Series.
Such tension was good for ratings, especially as it lasted deep into the night. While 9.3 million viewers watched the first pitch of Game 3 at 8:07 p.m. Eastern time, 14.1 million viewers watched the last pitch and that bizarre (but correct) obstruction call at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time. Overall it was the highest-rated, most-watched Game 3 since 2009 and gave Fox its best Saturday-night viewership since January. World Series ratings were up 13% over three games compared with last year.
Speaking before the weirdly epic Game 3 in St. Louis, and addressing media queries about the NL's possibly adopting the DH in response to the decline of offense, commissioner Bud Selig said, "I'm never going to say never to anything. But at the moment is there anything going on? No. If somebody has something to say, I'm glad to listen."
SELIG TURNS 80 next year, in what he promises will be his final season as commissioner. Selig has shown a willingness to think creatively to improve the game; for example, this year he reversed his opposition to an expanded replay system, which is scheduled to launch next season. But most club and league executives believe further substantive changes to how the game is played will wait until a successor to Selig is chosen. Those changes could come quickly and boldly if the next commissioner is progressive-minded and considers baseball an entertainment option fighting for attention in a fast-paced cultural landscape. "One of the things we have to get rid of is this idea that you're not supposed to celebrate or show emotion in baseball," says one high-ranking official. "That's something we need to encourage."
Ironically, just after Selig allowed for the slight possibility that the DH could be adopted fully, the Red Sox and the Cardinals played a fascinating game of strategic baseball that is possible only under NL rules—without the DH. Managers John Farrell of Boston and Mike Matheny of St. Louis used 35 players, including 12 pitchers, a World Series record for a nine-inning game. Fifteen players hit in the ninth spot in the batting orders, and five pinch hitters were used—and Farrell was still left to curse a double switch he neglected to make in the eighth inning.
Despite all that maneuvering, the Red Sox and the Cardinals had only four extra-base hits in Game 3, none of them home runs. Each team's best hitter, Ortiz and St. Louis rightfielder Carlos Beltran, was intentionally walked in the eighth inning. (Ortiz reached base 12 times in his first 16 plate appearances in the Series, including eight hits in 11 at bats. "That's why we call him 'Cooperstown,' " Ross said. "He is a true superstar.")
Other sports benefit from fans' knowledge that the star players on the field or court are going to get a chance to win the game in the most critical moments—Tom Brady will lead the last drive of the Super Bowl, LeBron James will take the last shot in the NBA Finals. But baseball loses that attraction because of the intentional walk and because of the rigidity of the batting order.
To modernize the game and help create those biggest-star-on-the-biggest-stage moments, baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting times. Call it the Bonus At Bat: Once per game a manager should be allowed to pick any player he wants to hit. You could send your best hitter up for this Bonus At Bat even if it's not his turn in the order—and without having to remove anyone from the game. For instance, if the Cardinals walk Ortiz with a base open to pitch to Nava, Farrell could invoke his one Bonus At Bat to let Ortiz bat a second consecutive time. (Nava would be skipped in the order but would remain in the game. A pinch runner would take Ortiz's place at first, and that player would remain available for further duty later in the game.) What if Ortiz is on second base in the eighth inning of a tie game and the eighth spot in the lineup is due up? Farrell could send in a pinch runner and pull his DH off the base paths and into the batter's box.
The Bonus At Bat adds not only the possibility of more action but also another element of strategy, a key tenet to a sport that derives much of its appeal from the power of choice. Do you let Ortiz bat in the second inning with the bases loaded and the ninth-place hitter due up? Or do you save your Bonus At Bat in case you're down by a run in the ninth inning? "I like the idea," says Boston general manager Ben Cherington. "My initial reaction is that it sounds like a good idea that deserves some discussion."
Says St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, "I'd have to give it some more thought and study. It may be a good idea, but I would have to think about it."
What both World Series GMs agree on is that without changes, pitching will continue to dominate—and strikeouts and walks will continue to consume more pitches and time without the ball being put in play. "Young power pitching is the currency of the game today," Mozeliak says.
ONLY LAST year Michael Wacha (now 22), Carlos Martinez (22), Trevor Rosenthal (23), Kevin Siegrist (24) and Seth Maness (25) were pitching in Double A. This year they pitched for the Cardinals in the World Series, along with fellow homegrown pitchers Joe Kelly (25) and Lynn (26). Wacha, the Game 2 winner, became the youngest pitcher ever to win four starts in one postseason and was scheduled for a fifth in Game 6. Over his first four outings he had an ERA of 1.00 and struck out 28 in 27 innings.
Young pitchers traditionally were liabilities who needed to "pay their dues" while "learning to pitch" in the big leagues. In 22 completed seasons from 1987 through 2009, pitchers age 25-and-younger never had a collective winning record. Yet such young guns have compiled a winning record in two of the past four seasons, including a .529 winning percentage this year, the highest for the age group since 1935.
This year nearly as many pitchers 25-and-under struck out 100 batters (35) as did pitchers 30-and-older (36). Just eight years ago there were almost twice as many older pitchers with 100 strikeouts (32) as youngsters (18). Young pitchers are reaching the big leagues with more velocity, better mechanics and better training, allowing them to make a quicker impact. "We've done a good job as an industry of understanding the mechanics of throwing," Cherington says. "You are going to see more and more young pitchers with plus velocity. You see them in the minor leagues now. You see them in Latin America. Years ago it used to be that you would see 16-year-old kids in Latin America throwing 86, 87 [mph], and those are the ones who were being signed. Pedro Martinez was part of that generation. Now it's not unusual at all to go to Latin America and sign teenagers who are throwing 90 and above."
Amateurs now realize the quickest, least complicated route to a professional contract is to show velocity off the mound. Latin Americans, for instance, understand a pro contract can be within reach simply by throwing 90 mph in a workout at age 16. American kids understand the showcase system for colleges and pro scouts, in which pitchers throw in a workout or to a limited number of batters in a controlled game, rewards one skill—velocity. Those who have it get the scholarships and draft selections, those who lack it don't. "As a position player you have to show multiple skills, on offense and defense," Cherington says. "But to get noticed as a pitcher requires one discipline. It really is the least complicated way of advancing, and that's why it's attracting so many players, including many of the better athletes."
The rate of strikeouts has reached a record high in six consecutive seasons. With more power arms in the pipeline, and with the long at bat afforded more prestige, games will continue to get longer with the ball being put in play less. To reverse such a trend, baseball may need to consider rules changes, as it did in reacting to the last major downturn in offense by lowering the mound in 1969 and adding the DH in '73. The Bonus At Bat is one idea. Noted sabermetrician and Red Sox analyst Bill James, responding to the plethora of bullpen moves that create downtime and are designed to depress offense, has proposed another: limiting mid-inning pitching changes to one per inning, or more if the reliever has allowed a run.
Sound radical? Consider that once the notion of creating a new "position" for a player who does not play defense but takes a regular turn in the lineup seemed radical. Once, too, it might have sounded radical for a game to take three hours, 27 minutes with only seven runs scored. Now, in this age dominated by pitching, it is your typical postseason game.
To modernize the game, baseball should consider a mechanism that guarantees the best players get to hit at the most exciting times.
Once per game a manager should be allowed to pick any player to hit. You could send your best batter up even if it's not his turn in the order.
For complete coverage of the end of the World Series from Tom Verducci and the rest of the SI MLB lineup, go to SI.com/mlb