In this era of home runs or nothing, baseball is getting pretty boring
As the people that run baseball get smarter, the games themselves have become far less interesting.
Not even 20 games into it, the whole abbreviated baseball season — just like this whole endless calendar year — has dragged like the dog days of August, hasn’t it?
If there’s one year to be lousy, it might as well be this. These hapless, hopeless Red Sox will be done soon enough, I suppose, heading into the offseason with roughly as many wins as Roger Clemens collected in 1986. That would be 24. I’m taking the under.
The Red Sox entered Thursday with a 6-12 record and a .333 winning percentage, which over a full season would be their worst since the 1932 star-studded squad of Rabbit Warstler, Urbane Pickering, and Smead Jolley went 43-111 for a wretched .279 winning percentage.
But their real misdemeanor is not that they’re terrible, though that certainly is true. I trust that Chaim Bloom, a bright executive off to an impossibly complicated start, will remedy that in time.
The misdemeanor is that they’re relentlessly boring. That’s an issue that plagues the sport as a whole.
Baseball’s biggest problem is not that its commissioner, Rob Manfred, has no grasp on why anyone actually likes the sport. It’s that as the people that run it get smarter, the games themselves have become far less interesting. Intelligence and knowledge have damaged the aesthetics and appeal, and it might be irreparable.
This struck me during what was actually their most satisfying victory of their six this season, Sunday’s 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays that ended with a Mitch Moreland homer. Despite the enjoyable ending — watching the team celebrate a walkoff victory with no fans in the ballpark was compelling and weird at once — the brunt of the game was a microcosm of what’s wrong with baseball right now.
There were five home runs hit, including Moreland’s, and 27 strikeouts. That’s an absurdly one-dimensional game. At one point, from the bottom of the seventh inning through the first two outs of the ninth, 11 straight batters struck out.
Home runs and strikeouts used to draw oohs and aahs. Now, it seems like that’s all we get, and the redundancy has taken away their appeal. The American League batting average this season through Tuesday was .233. Every hitter has become some version of Adam Dunn.
That all-or-nothing nature right now — meaning you’d better try to mash homers because analytical insights and defensive shifts have closed up the infield holes where hits used to sneak through, and, oh, don’t worry about striking out, because whiffing is no longer embarrassing — has robbed the game of perhaps its most appealing aspect when it is at its best: a diversity of skill and style.
Not to fall too deep into the grumpy-old-man, back-in-my-day rabbit hole here, but one of the things that made me love baseball as a kid in the late ’70s and early ’80s was that teams had distinct identities.
The late ’70s Red Sox of Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, and even Butch Hobson were a marauding lineup of mashers, a slugging team that would fit rather well into today’s game. But then they would go into Kansas City and play those speedy Royals teams featuring Willie Wilson and George Brett that seemed to hit five triples a game against the plodding Sox, and it felt like the teams were playing different sports.
They weren’t, of course. They were playing enjoyably different versions of the same sport, and it was a blast to see that there was more than one exciting way to win.
That was fun, and the Royals were not an outlier in their speed-oriented style. Consider the 1979 Astros, who won 89 games and finished second to the George Foster/Tom Seaver/Johnny Bench Reds in the NL West despite hitting just 49 home runs. Or the 1985 Cardinals, who stole 314 bases, had a No. 3 hitter in Tom Herr who hit just 8 home runs but drove in 110, and won the NL pennant.
Now … now it’s home runs or nothing. Rickey Henderson stole a record 130 bases for the 1982 A’s. Through Wednesday’s games, there were 127 stolen bases total in the American League through 272 games. Baseball doesn’t just miss a Rickey or a Tim Raines or a peak Ichiro Suzuki. It has no one at all like any of them. And forget about someone like Vince Coleman, an electrifying if one-dimensional speedster.
We know now that outs are too valuable to be risked for the sake of excitement on the basepaths. We miss the risk.
On Tuesday, Sean Forman, the whiz behind baseball-reference.com, tweeted about one effect of the homers/strikeouts singularity right now: There is more time between balls in play than there has ever been, an average of 3 minutes and 44 seconds. That’s up nine seconds from 2019, which was up seven seconds from 2018, and the trend toward a lack of action has gone on for years.
This is time between balls in play for baseball games. For this a bip includes batted balls (HR), but also SH and SBAs, basically something other than just the pitcher, batter, catcher from the CF camera needed. Courtesy of @DanHirsch again. pic.twitter.com/LmPodY3Ino
— Sean Forman (@sean_forman) August 11, 2020
In 1978, my first year as a fan, there was an average of 2:27 between balls in play. That doesn’t just mean that the game was played at a faster pace. It means that there were more opportunities for spectacular defensive plays, or more opportunities for thrilling offensive plays such as a triple into the gap.
As the great columnist Joe Posnanski pointed out recently, the triple is dying, too; there has been an average of just .14 triples per game this season, which would be the lowest in history over a full season.
Please don’t take this as a screed against analytics. I love the Statcast data — “Trout hit that ball how hard?” — and dig the ability to compare players across seasons and eras that OPS-plus, ERA-plus, and WAR afford. I’ve long devoured the insights from Bill James, and admire the work of his disciples at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus. One of the great privileges of my career is writing the Red Sox chapter in the Baseball Prospectus annual a couple of years ago.
The game is smarter, the intellectually curious among us understand more than ever, and that should be a good thing. For the most part, it is. But when the depth of knowledge starts to overwhelm and erase the differences that make the sport so enjoyable, it’s time to start coming up with some changes to discourage such a uniform, repetitive approach. Now, I’m not saying artificial turf is due a comeback, but perhaps some limits on defensive shifts and a couple more quirky angles and power alleys in new ballparks would be a good place to start.
Playing the percentages is fine. It’s smart. But when it becomes so extreme — homers and strikeouts, homers and strikeouts, with the occasional walk mixed in — that it interferes with the game being played in any enjoyable way, it’s time to change the rules.
Before no one even cares what they are anymore.
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