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It doesn't take a sledgehammer to change a light bulb, but that is the approach of Major League Baseball when it comes to responding to what it perceives as the problems with today's game.
Commissioner Rob Manfred certainly recognizes that attendance dipped below 70 million last season for the first time since 2003. Perhaps he tosses and turns at night haunted by visions of millennials scanning Tinder rather than box scores. He's confronted daily with concerns about the length of games, tanking, Bryce Harper's contract, and labor strife on the horizon for 2021.
So last week Manfred announced a number of rule changes. Not at the big league level, nor even for minor league teams affiliated with major league clubs. No, Manfred found a willing guinea pig in the independent Atlantic League, an eight-team circuit based primarily in the east with one team in Texas. Rickey Henderson, then in his mid-40s, put it on the map 15 years ago when he played a couple of seasons for the league's late, great Newark Bears.
I sure hope that MLB is paying its little brother a pile of cash for what they just agreed to, such as outlawing defensive shifts, pushing the pitching rubber back two feet, using a computer to call balls and strikes, and cutting time between innings from 2:05 to 1:45.
See what I mean about a sledgehammer?
If the baseball powers really, truly believe that games are too long, there is a very simple solution: Play seven innings. This also will reduce wear-and-tear on the pitchers, aside from getting fans in and out of the park in 2 1/2 hours. After all, nine is such an arbitrary number. No one questions six-inning Little League games. Many colleges play seven innings, and even minor-league doubleheaders are limited to seven frames.
In the early stages of the game in the 19th century, the rules evolved constantly. Initially a runner not standing on a base could literally be thrown out when a fielder fired the horsehide, striking the runner square in the back - or head, or, heaven forbid, the front. The players quickly figured out that the welts and bruises were no way to play a gentleman's game, hence the rule was changed.
For almost 40 years, fielders didn't wear gloves, until A.G. Spalding introduced the first ones in 1877. Certainly he must have had player safety in mind, but he also understood that he could get rich by manufacturing the leather mitts. Then he started making baseballs and soon the Spalding Company became the nation's largest sporting goods outfit.
So change clearly is not unknown to the Great Game. However, it's not the rules which require visitation, but rather certain trends and practices that could use investigation.
Consider that major league hitters averaged .248 last season, the lowest mark since 1972 when the MLB batting average was .244.
However, there is little comparison when it comes to the pitchers for those two season. Last season the ERA for MLB was 4.14, while 47 years ago it was almost a run lower at 3.26. You might attribute the paltry batting average in 1972 to overpowering pitching, and you would be correct. The top 10 pitchers in ERA that season were all 2.50 or less, while last season only four pitchers fit into that category.
So the hitters, at least from a batting average viewpoint, didn't have such a hot year in 2018, but, surprisingly, the pitchers didn't either. They walked more than 8 percent of batters faced, and they gave up the fourth-most home runs in history. But they did strike people out to the tune of 22 percent of batters faced.
What we can decipher from this numerical mishmash is what everyone knows. Approximately one-third of all plate appearances in 2018 resulted in either a walk, strikeout, or a home run, creating for some observers a lengthy, often boring experience. In 1972 one-fourth of plate appearances had a similar outcome, meaning that there was notably more action involving the defense than we saw last year.
Walks and strikeouts take time, requiring more pitches, making the poor hurlers tired or injured, resulting in a parade of relief specialists who jog in from the bullpen before taking their eight warm-up pitches. That, my friends, is why games consume three hours or more.
To change this paradigm doesn't require new rules but better coaching. I wish someone could explain why today's pitchers have a more difficult time throwing strikes than the pitchers of past generations. Guys like Mark Buehrle and Greg Maddux walked 1.8 and 2.0 batters per nine innings, respectively. Even hard throwers like Bob Gibson (3.1) and Bob Feller (4.1) didn't give up hordes of free passes. Is it too much to expect today's pitchers to be able to throw strikes? You'd think that pitchers who reach the major leagues would have pinpoint control. Otherwise they wouldn't be in the big leagues. Who are the coaches at all levels guiding these athletes? You'd think they could help them throw the ball over the plate.
On the other side of the ball, hitters are encouraged to increase their "launch angles," a concept created by Statcast, brought to you by Amazon Web Services - wouldn't you know it? - in 2015. A launch angle of zero theoretically would result in a line drive about belt high, providing the hitter makes contact. But ground balls and line drives are not the soup de jour today. Couple an uppercut swing with "exit velocity" and you have a home run, which, of course, was encouraged and celebrated 20 years ago to bring fans back to the ballpark after the strike of 1994. (See Sosa vs. McGwire.)
Once the commissioner and owners were forced to confront the steroid issue, those 60 or 70 homers in a season became much less celebrated. But the owners already had achieved their goal. Fans were lined up to watch batting practice, let alone the actual contest. And, of course, the Home Run Derby on the eve of the All-Star Game continues to put strength and power on a pedestal.
Josh Donaldson, the American League MVP in 2015 when he was a Toronto Blue Jay, once said, "No grounders. Ground balls are outs. If you see me hit a ground ball even if it's a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident."
Now that launch angle and exit velocity are entrenched in the game, strikeouts and shifts have skyrocketed. Hitters who dwell on the uppercut swing for power aren't the least bit interested in using the whole field or hitting the opposite way. This season in the Atlantic League, two infielders on each side of second base will be the new rule, which simply plays into the power, swing-and-miss game.
The "no-shift rule" does nothing in terms of teaching hitters to hit the opposite way. It encourages them to continue to swing for the fences.
Consider a player like Tony Gwynn and his .338 career average and 3,141 hits in 20 seasons, all with the Padres. His biggest home run year was 17. If a strike hadn't cut short the 1994 season, Gwynn might have hit .400. He wound up at .394.
White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox used what was called a "bottle" bat whose handle was almost as thick as the barrel. Fox, a left-handed hitter, was adept at dumping base hits into short left field, but when he saw an opportunity, he could drive a ball into the right field corner for a double. A Hall of Famer, Fox was MVP the pennant-winning year of 1959. He might have been the Volkswagen Bug in terms of exit velocity, but he made 12 All-Star teams. The most he ever struck out in a season was 18 times in 1953.
Think of Rod Carew (19 years, 3,053 hits, .328 career average, 92 HRs) or Ichiro (18 years, 3,089 hits, .311 average, 117 HRs) and you wonder why there aren't more players whose approach is similar to those gifted athletes.
Instead of teaching the art and craft of hitting a baseball - as opposed to swinging and missing with the intent to connect for a 400-foot blast - coaches appear to have bought into the launch angle philosophy. You never hear anyone talk about a guy who's been dead for almost 100 years who amassed almost 3,000 hits from 1892 until 1910. That would be Wee Willie Keeler who once said, "Hit 'em where they ain't."
Too bad Wee Willie isn't around today teaching these guys how to hit.
Roger Wallenstein welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Feb 10, 2020