The other day there was a discussion at Let’s Go Tribe about this column by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. I responded there, and would like expand on my response here.
I’d recommend everyone who reads further to first read Nightengale’s column (not just the headline and introduction, which is designed to get the reader emotionally involved, whether for or against the premise. But I digress).
Nightengale seems to be mixing a bunch of issues into his conclusion that baseball is unwatchable when he just could have stuck with his main point: there is a lack of action in the game. He notes that MLB players are on track to accumulate more strikeouts than hits, which would mark the first time in history that that would be the case. His graph showing this trend starts in 2009, so I want to go back further to see if there was any trend beyond that. I went back to 1999, the year after the last batch of expansion. Here’s what the expanded graph looks like:
Hits have fallen over the years, but it’s been a rather gradual decline. Strikeouts, on the other hand, have seen a rapid ascent over the past 15 seasons. I want to go a bit further, because I don’t think Nightengale quite diagnosed the real issue. Let’s look at percentage of balls in play (anything but a strikeout, walk, home run, or hit by pitch) over the years:
The BIP percentage was fairly stable until this decade, then fell off considerably over the past 3 seasons. In the early to mid 00s, 70% of all plate appearances ended with a fielder making a play on a ball, but over the past couple of seasons, the percentage is now around 65%. For a game that’s been around for 150 years, that’s a sudden change.
You may be thinking: so what? The amount of runs per game have actually been trending up over the last couple of seasons:
Maximizing the amount of runs is the ultimate goal of an offense, so teams have been willing to trade contact for power (hence the recent emphasis on launch angles, etc). See the dip in runs per game in 2012-2013? That’s roughly the time when home runs % began to increase as well as strikeout %. That’s a rational adjustment by teams to a uptick in league pitching quality: you aren’t going to get as many chances to score runs, so go for the downs when you get a pitch to hit, even if you miss more.
But the on-field personnel aren’t the only ones who have input: there’s the fans as well, who ultimately keep the game profitable, and while a portion of fans only care about winning, I think there’s a considerable portion that also want to be entertained. And if there’s fewer things happening on the field, whether it be because of the amount of time between pitches or more strikeouts/walks, the game becomes less pleasurable to sit through. I can’t give you an exact percentage of fans who prioritize aesthetics over anything else, but I do think it’s enough to have an effect on the overall consumption of MLB, whether that be through the box office or the TV or the Internet. Other professional sports have over the years tried to reverse evolutionary changes to the game that fans haven’t liked; as one example, see the neutral zone trap in the mid-90s NHL. When the maximization of wins conflicts with the maximization of entertainment (and ultimately profitability), entertainment is going to win out eventually.
So what could MLB do if they do decide to incorporate rule changes to reverse this trend? If it were possible, the best way would be to both move the fences back across and increase the amount of real estate in the outfield across board; in other words, make every park play like Comerica Park in Detroit, with fewer home runs and more of every other kind of hit. But that would not be practicable given the way parks are constructed today, with valuable seats placed just beyond the fence. Lowering the mound or even moving it back is in my mind too broad a fix, as that would serve to increase offense across the board, perhaps accelerating the trend of fewer balls put in play. MLB could change the baseball itself so that it doesn’t travel as far off the bat; however given that their own recent study concluded that the baseball itself wasn’t a cause of the increase in home run rates, I wouldn’t be too confident that they even know what could “deaden” the ball.
My preferred solution to the BIP problem emanates from the same source that caused the BIP problem in the first place: adjustments by the teams and players themselves. As more and more pitchers are selected (in an evolutionary sense) to get high launch angle hitters out, hitters that are more line drive hitters will thrive, and clubs will try to develop more of those types of hitters. General Managers are constantly looking for undervalued talent, so someone is bound to go against the conventional wisdom and try to field a team of contact hitters at some point.
I do think MLB will move quickly on the pace of play issue (reducing the amount of time between pitches), implementing a pitch clock as soon as next year. After those changes are in place, if the BIP rate continues to fall, and if MLB determines that fans don’t like that trend, then rule changes will be implemented, and those would have a faster effect than evolutionary changes.
Nightengale’s other causes aren’t as compelling. Neither the have/have not issue is a new one, and the imbalance is not due to payroll/market size; the most recent CBA has put into effect a soft salary cap (the luxury tax threshold seems to be where teams stop spending). Yes, there aren’t that many mediocre teams (especially in the American League), but I don’t see that being any kind of structural problem. Many of the really bad teams are in large markets (Baltimore, White Sox, Mets), and either made really bad contract decisions or are consciously undergoing a rebuild.
The argument about advanced statistics being a cause of attendance being down made my head hurt. I seriously doubt any fan, no matter how casual, is going to stop going to games because there’s a couple new stats on the scoreboard or on the television screen. He uses Mike Trout, who is a player, to endorse this, which is absolutely backwards. A player’s goal is to drive in runs, because that’s how his team wins. I don’t have a problem with players thinking runs and RBIs are the ultimate goal, as long as they understand that in order to get better they should utilize other types of measures (such as the new types of stats made possible through the Statcast platform).
Even if you’re a casual fan, I think having other types of measures makes following a sport a lot more fun, as you can understand more deeply why and how things happened. Expected/projected wins/runs/etc shouldn’t be used as a guarantee for anything, but if anything they enhance your understand of the game, even if it’s enjoying a player or a team completely turn those projections upside down.