One thing you learn from studying baseball history is that people have always predicted the sport’s demise. Over and over, the game weathers every perceived crisis and continues to thrive. More than 70 million fans will attend major-league games this season; another 40 million or so will go to minor-league games. Countless more watch the sport on television and online.
And yet attendance is down, and more and more balls are being kept out of play. Some long-time observers consider the shifting landscape – hitters swinging for the fences, pitchers throwing everything with maximum effort, fielders standing in unusual spots – and wonder what has happened to their game.
“Keith and I were talking, and I said, ‘You know, our window is probably three years until we can’t work anymore,’ because the game is going to be so different,” said Ron Darling, the former New York Mets pitcher and broadcast partner of Keith Hernandez, the former Mets first baseman. “I mean, what was fair is foul, and what’s foul is fair.”
This could be the first season in major-league history to feature more strikeouts than hits, a slowdown that worries many league officials. Thirty years ago, batters compiled nearly 13,000 more hits than strikeouts. Last season, that edge dwindled to about 2,000. This season, through Wednesday, it was nearly even, with hits only slightly ahead: 30,678 hits, 30,569 strikeouts.
Fifteen years ago, only seven qualified pitchers averaged 8.4 strikeouts over nine innings. Now, 8.4 is the major-league average. Collectively, batters are hitting .248, the lowest average since 1972, the year before baseball introduced the designated hitter.
“There’s going to be a breaking point,” said Erik Neander, general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. “In terms of purely watching a baseball game, seeing a few hundred pitches a night that aren’t put in play, there’s not a lot about that that’s entertainment. People don’t come to see the umpire call a ball or a strike or a foul ball. I think it’s something we have to be mindful of, because this is an entertainment business, and we are here for the fans.”
Fans may be sending a signal that the modern game – focused so much on power pitching and power hitting – is losing its appeal. Attendance across the majors is down an average of about 1,500 a game, with 19 teams experiencing a drop from last year.
When he talks with fans, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said last month, he hears the same concerns over and over: the downtime between balls in play and the rise of strikeouts, shifts and bullpen usage.
“I think everyone realizes what’s going on,” Manfred said.
The worry, for baseball, is that the changes on the field could make the product less appealing for future customers. While declining interest is often tied to the local team’s outlook, especially if that team is rebuilding, the increasing emphasis on keeping balls out of play – by throwing the ball past hitters or bashing it over the fence – seems out of touch with modern tastes.
“I just wonder if the issue has to do with the parts that appeal to people now in sports,” said the Houston Astros’ Charlie Morton, who reinvented himself as a power pitcher and became a first-time all-star last month at 34 years old. “Do people like the chess game, or do they like quick action?”
In football and basketball, analytics and rule changes have promoted more action: the passing game rules the NFL, and three-pointers reign in the NBA. In baseball, though, the reverse holds true. For a pitcher, the surest way to get an out is to strike out the opponent, thus eliminating all fielding variables. For a batter, the easiest way to score a run is to do it with one big swing.
Home runs made up 10 per cent of the hits in the 2014 season. That percentage spiked in ensuing years, rising to 11.7 per cent in 2015, 13.3 per cent in 2016, and a stunning 14.5 per cent last season, which had a record number of homers. This season, home runs account for 13.6 per cent of hits through Wednesday.
“We know now, just like we did 15 years ago, that home runs are the best way to score runs, the most efficient way to get back to home plate,” said David Forst, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, a surprise contender thriving with a power-packed lineup. “That’s sort of our style, and those are the hitters we go after. The patience and power profile is something we’ve never tried to get away from.”
Forst’s boss, Billy Beane, the team’s executive vice-president for baseball operations, helped spark teams' reliance on data as the subject of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s landmark book in 2003. The lesson of the book was in the importance of finding undervalued assets to gain an edge; it was not purely an ode to numbers. But every team, to varying degrees, now employs a team of analysts seeking to uncover hidden value in the data.
Athleticism vs. analytics
No team mines the data more diligently than the Astros, whose general manager, Jeff Luhnow, came to the executive ranks with an Ivy League education, an extensive business background and no professional playing experience.
Luhnow acknowledged that extreme infield shifts spring directly from data, which – quite logically – encourages fielders to play in spots where batters are most likely to hit the ball, and thus encourages batters to hit balls over the shift and into the seats. But the power game, Luhnow said, has more to do with athleticism than analytics.
“Look at these guys last night,” he said before a recent game, after a succession of unheralded Oakland pitchers had dominated the Astros’ brawny lineup. “I mean, where are these guys coming from? How are you supposed to hit off these guys? And every team we face has guys starting in the sixth inning throwing 100 miles an hour [160 km/h] with breaking balls.
“Granted, technology’s allowing them to fine-tune their repertoire and know how to use it, but holy cow, the development of these athletes – in the past you’d see one out of 100 guys in the big leagues like that. Now, they’re more common than they’re not. Of course, Nolan Ryan and those guys always existed, but there was maybe one in a division. There weren’t four or five in every bullpen.”
Amateur pitchers often train specifically to build velocity, inspired by examples such as Trevor Bauer, the Cleveland Indians right-hander who made himself into a star with help from the data-driven Driveline Baseball program near Seattle. Teams covet hard throwers and select from that ever-expanding pool, flooding their farm system with heat – not just in the bullpen, and not just with fastballs.
“I was in low-A last year and you saw guys in the [mid- to upper-90-mph range] starting,” Buddy Reed, a top outfield prospect for the San Diego Padres, said. “Usually, you see that out of the pen, and the starters would be 89 to 93, which is a lot different. Now you’ve got to be ready, like, right away – because not only is their fastball good, but they’re throwing harder sliders, harder curveballs and harder change-ups, too, with a lot of movement.”
Reed spoke last month in Washington before the Futures Game, which featured eight home runs (doubling the record for the 20-year-old event) and 16 strikeouts. Two days later, the major leaguers set a record for homers in the All-Star Game, with 10 in 10 innings, while fanning 25 times.
Velocity was the story. Fifteen of the 18 pitchers in the All-Star Game threw a pitch at least 96 mph, and everyone threw at least 93.8 mph – 1 mile an hour faster than the average major-league fastball, according to Fangraphs. The 92.8 average matches last year’s for the highest in Fangraphs’ data, which dates to 2002.
“We try to adjust as hitters, but it’s a different style of ball now,” Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. “Guys are throwing a lot more breaking balls in hitter’s counts. You can’t really cheat to a fastball anymore. I feel like pitching is going to continue to get better and better. As far as hitting, I don’t know how that’s going to go.”
Defying the strikeout trend is rare; those who do it often earn World Series rings. The 2015 Royals and the 2017 Astros had the fewest strikeouts in the majors and wound up winning the championship. But it is not easy, even for hitters who have managed to cut their strikeout rates in recent years, such as Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds.
“Hitting is much harder than it was when I entered the league,” said Votto, a 12-year veteran. “Lots of things feel different. The strike zone feels a little different, the shift is something. In the past, at times when you were struggling, you’d think about hitting a one-hopper through the infield and that was a hit and that would get you going. But now, with each and every adjustment to the game, it feels like there’s fewer and fewer options. Especially as a left-handed hitter, you have to be very near perfect to be successful.”
The sinker has gone out of vogue, partly because the pitch, which can tail off the plate, cannot reliably be called for a strike. Encouraged by launch-angle data and the narrower strike zone, many hitters have tailored their swings to lift the low pitch.
The north-south approach to pitching – fastballs up and curveballs down – now reigns, although the overall percentage of fastballs keeps dropping, from 64.4 per cent in 2002 to 55.2 per cent this season, and slider usage is rising. More pitchers are scrapping traditional patterns, and have the stuff to do it.
“I think pitchers are better than ever right now,” said David Ortiz, the former Boston Red Sox slugger, dismissing the notion he hears from other retired players that the game was better in the old days. “Bro, the talent out there right now is stupid crazy. You see guys throwing 100, snapping breaking balls, throwing good change-ups in hitters’ counts.”
Pitchers, naturally, would prefer to be appreciated for their skills rather than treated as a problem. Baseball has a long history of stacking rules against the pitchers: banning the spitball in 1920, lowering the mound in 1969, creating the DH in 1973 and tacitly condoning steroid use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Baseball has a way of correcting itself,” Sean Doolittle, the Washington Nationals closer, said. “Any response we have would be an unfair, knee-jerk reaction to this thing. Why aren’t we talking about how awesome pitchers are? We’re really good. We have guys throwing harder than ever with nastier stuff. Celebrate that. It’s not bad.”
Hitters understand the futility of trying to score with a flurry of hits against dominant pitchers and over-shifted fielders. League officials have no way to regulate velocity or suppress the quality of breaking balls, but they could mandate that two infielders play on either side of second base, effectively killing the shift.
Now that so many teams use shifts, Luhnow said, the competitive advantage is all but gone; he would be open to experimenting with a ban in the minors. The players’ union would probably oppose the idea in the majors, and has so far resisted invitations from Manfred to discuss possible on-field changes.
“You can’t change the way the competitive people that run clubs are thinking about the game because they think they’ve figured out the way to win more games,” Manfred said. “The only option available to us is to have dialogue with the people that play the game every day and figure out what rules, if any, ought to be put in place to kind of check, or manage, these organic developments that are ongoing.”
Last winter’s sluggish free-agent market has made many players suspicious of owners’ motives and reluctant to co-operate on fundamental changes. Players are generally protective of the game, believing that on-field trends merely reflect the ability of highly skilled athletes to respond to the owners’ incentives.
“No matter what the game throws at them, they are talented enough to adjust to it,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ association, said. “And they have.”
In other words, with analytics encouraging power pitching and power hitting – and the patience to wait for pitches to drive and accept the risk of strikeouts – the players are simply giving front offices the game they want.
“It’s all about scoring the most runs and creating wins,” Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ three-time Cy Young Award winner, said. “That’s what drives this. This is how you win baseball games. If you’re trying to win 90 to 100 games, this is the formula. That’s how the GMs have formulated it.”
With that formula, at times, comes a lack of nuance from a game that should have so much to offer – daring base runners, far-ranging fielders, pitchers finding ways to last deep into games. Strikeouts may not be boring and fascist, as Crash Davis memorably said in Bull Durham, but they are eclipsing everything else in the game.
For the moment, anyway.
“Any time something’s different, people want to categorize it as good or bad, and it’s probably neither,” Bauer said. “It appeals to a certain fan base more and it appeals to a certain fan base less.
“And there will be adaptation, for sure. Hitters aren’t just going to sit here and continue getting punched out for years and years and years. They’re going to make some sort of adjustment to that. It’ll all equal out.”