Baseball strikes out

Baseball is boring. There, I said it. I don’t think it can survive the short attention-span and demand for non-stop action that are characteristic of life in the internet-age.

The games can routinely stretch into four-hour long marathons of nothingness, punctuated by the occasional instant of action or excitement. Baseball games used to take no more than two hours. The average time to complete nine innings so far this year is 3:06, while in 1978 it was 2:28, and in 1930 it was 1:09. There are lots of factors that explain this:

TV advertising dollars.  As with everything else, ad revenue now rules baseball, and if they can sell more ads, they will. This translates to longer pauses between innings, so that TV viewers can be assaulted with ads.

Pitching changes. We are in an era of specialization. In the past, starting pitchers were expected to go all nine innings, and relief pitching was rarely used. Now, you hope to get five or maybe six innings from your starter, then go to your set-up man for the seventh and eighth, and finally your closer for the ninth. If any of the three have problems, you have to go back to the bullpen and change again. Before each change, the pitching coach has to come out to the mound to discuss things with the incumbent, everything from how he feels to peace in the Middle East, in order to give the next guy a chance to get loose in the pen. When the new pitcher finally does arrive, he has to adjust to the mound with a bunch of warm-up pitches. Tick tock.

Batters wandering around between pitches. This pernicious waste of time started in the 1970’s with one or two guys notorious for doing it – Mike Hargrove and Carlton Fisk come to mind, but now everyone does it. Step out of the batters box, look around, adjust your batting gloves, check the third base coach for signs, check the heavens for support or a weather change. It takes forever. Batters used to just stay put and wait for the next pitch.

Advanced metrics. There’s a new “science” called Sabermetrics that has come to rule baseball. It consists of analyzing everything that happens during a game and using computer models to figure out if it helps or hurts. And I mean everything. I won’t bore you with examples, but it’s become quite absurd.  Many aspects of the game that made it interesting have been devalued: stolen bases, bunting, good defense, for example. It has been determined that these things don’t contribute to winning.

There are a couple of Sabermetric measurements which contribute more than others to stretching out the game and making it more one-dimensional, i.e. boring.

One is that it has been determined that the more pitches you can force the opposing pitcher to make, the better your chances are of getting him out of the game. The sooner you get him out, the sooner you can start to work on their second-line bullpen pitchers. The more of them you can tire out, the better your chances of facing one who’s having an off-day and maybe getting some hits. And even if you lose the current game, your chances of winning tomorrow or the next day, when you’ll be playing this same opponent, have improved because their pitchers will all be tired. Pitchers can only throw so many pitches without several days of rest in between to be effective.

Sabermetrics has determined that starting pitchers, in particular, must be held to a precise pitch count for each outing, usually about 100 pitches, after which it has been determined they must sit down, no matter how well they’re doing. All this calculation means more pitching changes which translates to longer games.

The disciplined teams are “taking” more pitches (not swinging) to achieve this goal, so more pitches have to be thrown in each game to get to the end. Add in all the walking around between pitches and the effect is amplified.

All this leads into a discussion of the real problem that underlies the transformation of an already less-than-heart-stopping two-hours into a four-hour slog, a problem that not only contributes to the time needed to play the game, but also makes it intrinsically less interesting to watch.

It has been determined that striking out is not a bad thing. There is no shame in it anymore, and, in fact, it can make you a lot of money if you do it right. Here are a couple of examples to help make this point.

Mike Napoli, currently with the Texas Rangers, has been a highly desired commodity in his 12-year major-league career, even though he is apparently a mediocre hitter with a life-time average of .249, somewhat less than the aggregate average of all players in history. He drives in a few more runners than many other players and hits a few more home-runs, but has never come close to leading the league in these categories.

Mike Napoli strikes out more per plate appearance than almost anyone who has ever played the game. He is painful to watch. But he’s better than everyone else at one thing, and that thing is valued by Sabermetricians: he sees more pitches per at-bat than anyone else, meaning that he “takes” more and “spoils” more (by fouling them off) before striking out. Time stands still when Napoli steps in to hit.

Napoli played on the 2013 World Series Champion Red Sox, and had three other teammates who also struck out more per plate appearance than anyone else: Jared Saltalamacchia, Johnny Gomes, and David Ross. That 2013 team struck out a lot, more than just about every other team in the league, and still won it all. But they were very boring to watch.

The Baltimore Orioles are paying Chis Davis $23 Million this year and for each of the next five. He hits a lot of home runs but strikes out way more than anyone else in a season. He’s leading the American League this year with 83 strikeouts as I write this, less than one third of the way through the season.  By contrast, in 1941, Joe DiMaggio struck out 37 times during the entire season. Davis led the league in strikeouts each of the last two years, striking out a total of 437 times over those two years. DiMaggio struck out only 359 times over his entire 13-year career.

Davis can be expected to hit a home run once every four games or so. The rest of the time he’s striking out.  Davis and Napoli are just examples. The strikeout is ruining baseball, which already has enough issues.

I wrote about Jim Bunning the other day, but  I didn’t mention that at the time of his retirement, he had struck out more batters, 2855 in his 17 years, than anyone in history except Walter Johnson. That was in an era when hitters would do anything to avoid striking out. Bunning mentioned how hard it was to face the likes of Yogi Berra, who struck out only 414 times over 19 years (less than Chris Davis in the last two years), and Stan Musial, who struck out 696 time in 22 years. The list goes on.

Striking out was something for a batter to try to avoid then, but not now. Bunning’s achievement is all the more impressive in this context. Today,  Bunning is only 17th on the list of career strikeouts. All those who have passed him have done so in the era of the re-evaluated strikeout, even though they are indisputably great pitchers.

The game itself has changed, and not for the better. Now, it’s just boring to watch.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Baseball strikes out”

  1. I agree with Richard; as a kid I tirelessly listened to the Yankees (sorry, family loyalty) all summer on the radio and on tv with my Dad. He would be disgusted with what’s happened. Sabermetrics made one good book, but, has slowly boring-ized my favorite game. Even the playoffs are hard to get through.

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  2. Nice piece. How did I manage to follow Pirate games at 12 years old…on the radio? Football is just as bad in many ways, at least when I stopped watching it. Now I watch pro cycling grand tours that can last six hours or more, but the last 30 minutes, combined with a 3 minute highlights video, is all you really need.

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