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Wednesday, September 04, 2019

MLB Is a Game of Extremes in 2019. What Does That Mean for the Sport’s Future?

How many times has baseball been declared dead? My colleague Emma Baccellieri attempted to tackle that very question last week and found that writers and columnists have been shoveling dirt on the sport’s shallow grave for the better part of the last 100 years. The game, it seems, is constantly teetering on the edge of extinction, and always changing in a way that leaves its elders fearing for the worst. A few years ago, I stumbled across a piece in one of Sports Illustrated’s earliest issues in which several Hall of Famers were asked if the game had gotten softer. Most said yes, including Jimmie Foxx, who offered a look back to a bygone age: “Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

The revolution came too late to save Double X from a childhood full of crap, but he’s right that the future—and particularly technology—changed both life and the game. In the most advanced age in human history, baseball now exists in a form that Foxx and the rest of his Cooperstown compatriots would likely barely recognize. Data, analytics, training, nutrition, science—all of those have helped create a generation of players who are, by every measure, the best the sport has ever seen. Baseball has never hosted more talent or more talented players. The result is something you see across the other sports too: Individual performance that is touching the upper bound of human ability, with pitchers and hitters who are stronger and faster than their predecessors.

That’s also created a game, though, that has morphed into a contest of extremes. Two weeks ago, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale decided to trudge through the seemingly annual column that is “old players hate how the game is now played.” To that end, he dug up two of the sport’s resident embarrassing Thanksgiving uncles in Goose Gossage and Pete Rose and recorded their bloviations. Normally, the complaints of such fossils are good for a dismissive gesture and maybe a laugh or two. But there is something to be said about some of what they dislike. “It’s like a video game now,” Gossage carped, later launching into an expletive-filled rant about how general managers now are nerds directly imported from fantasy baseball and the Ivy League into each team’s C-suite. To his chorus are Rose and Lou Piniella, each worrying that the explosion of home runs creates a version of baseball that isn’t baseball.

They’re not wrong. (To be fair, they’re not entirely right; the death of the hit-and-run is not a national crisis, as Piniella would seem to think.) Baseball is all homers and strikeouts now—unsurprisingly given the physical makeup of its stars, men who excel at throwing 97 mph and hitting 110, and by analytically-inclined executives who value and target those specific skills. The future of the game lies in the extremes of power, and it’s worth wondering what baseball will look like the longer that continues. Before the Home Run Derby, ESPN’s Sam Miller imagined a world in which the derby grew out of baseball to become its own hyper-popular sport—one that surpassed its predecessor. Given the game as it now exists, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

There is an obvious response to this- but I have a bad feeling I’ll be yelled at if I say it….

QLE Posted: September 04, 2019 at 01:41 AM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: going to extremes, home runs, strikeouts

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   1. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: September 04, 2019 at 09:46 AM (#5876670)
Baseball is all homers and strikeouts now—unsurprisingly given the physical makeup of its stars, men who excel at throwing 97 mph and hitting 110, and by analytically-inclined executives who value and target those specific skills. The future of the game lies in the extremes of power, and it’s worth wondering what baseball will look like the longer that continues.

The entire problem with this viewpoint is that is treats the changes in the game as some natural phenomenon that humans are powerless to change, and can only observe. That's demonstrably false.

A great deal of the current HR and K drenched game is driven directly by human decisions. Humans decided to make the ball slicker with lower laces. Humans decided to make the parks smaller, with less foul ground. Humans decided to allow the 10-day DL, and the disabling of not actually injured pitchers, greatly enhancing the AAA-shuttle.

It is entirely within the power of MLB to change the shape of the game. It's their product, they own it.

If municipalities added some beneficial chemical to water that negatively altered the taste of Coke, do you think the Coca-Cola company would just sit there and say "Oh well, that's how our product has evolved"? No, they'd figure out how to remove it, or source water elsewhere.

The discussion should not be "What will baseball look like if we passively let the current trends continue". It should be "What should baseball look like to maximize the entertainment value?" and "What rule changes do we need to get there?"
   2. Rusty Priske Posted: September 04, 2019 at 09:54 AM (#5876675)
I don't agree with snapper about a lot of things, but on THIS, we agree.
   3. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: September 04, 2019 at 02:07 PM (#5876759)
If municipalities added some beneficial chemical to water that negatively altered the taste of Coke, do you think the Coca-Cola company would just sit there and say "Oh well, that's how our product has evolved"? No, they'd figure out how to remove it, or source water elsewhere.


a better analogy would be "if Coca Cola added some beneficial chemical to water that negatively altered the taste of Coke..."
   4. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: September 04, 2019 at 02:15 PM (#5876761)
a better analogy would be "if Coca Cola added some beneficial chemical to water that negatively altered the taste of Coke..."

I'm giving the league the most favorable interpretation possible (that the changes are driven by teams and players optimizing strategy), even though we know MLB itself is behind the ball changes.

Even if the changes were 0% due to league actions, they still have the power and responsibility to make the game better.
   5. Booey Posted: September 04, 2019 at 02:52 PM (#5876767)
There is an obvious response to this- but I have a bad feeling I’ll be yelled at if I say it….


Then I'll say it - Foxx is right. We need to toughen up modern players by making them shovel manure.
   6. Mellow Mouse, Benevolent Space Tyrant Posted: September 04, 2019 at 02:59 PM (#5876771)
Because of how such complex systems work (unintended consequences, exploitation of loopholes and such) I think you need to make small changes and few of them and see what happens. Otherwise even if you do magically decide where you want to go (goo luck with that by the way) you likely won't get there.

Of course that is way too boring, so suggest many changes large and small to take place RIGHT NOW. :)
   7. Rusty Priske Posted: September 04, 2019 at 03:33 PM (#5876785)
Stop obsessing with a the time between pitches in a normal at bat and work on minimizing pitching changes.

And if you have a way to get rid of the bloody 'Opener', please do that, too.
   8. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: September 04, 2019 at 04:44 PM (#5876811)
Stop obsessing with a the time between pitches in a normal at bat and work on minimizing pitching changes.

Why? The 25-30 second wait between pitches damages the entertainment value even more than the TTO style.

If I had to choose between a 2019 style of baseball played in 2:30, or a 1980s style played in 3:15, I'd take the TTO abomination. But that's probably not a possible outcome.

The goal of having more action is the game is completely aligned with faster pace, and TTO dictates a slower pace. Forcing pitchers to work faster should reduce velocity and strikeouts.
   9. Steve Parris, Je t'aime Posted: September 04, 2019 at 05:10 PM (#5876814)
Yeah, the time between pitches is easily the biggest problem right now. Everything else - even mid-inning relievers - is a distant second.
   10. Walt Davis Posted: September 04, 2019 at 07:01 PM (#5876831)
It's impossible to disagree with Snapper in #1 ... and not just because it's an obvious truism that an entertainment product needs to maximize entertainment. Alas Snapper's #1 doesn't answer the question of what's (broadly) entertaining. (The debate's been had here 7000 times so no need for it again.)

The deeper issue with Snapper's #1 is its assumption that TTO hasn't always been the best strategy for baseball. That assumption has likely not been true since Ruth invented the HR. For a very long time, baseball stressed not striking out for hitters -- which was a mistake in every era in terms of run production. Teams emphasized steals which are simply not very productive. They emphasized moving runners along which was always a waste of outs. And they had guys playing SS who weighed 170 pounds and had arms the width of twigs.

You can obviously deaden the balls in some way to reduce HRs. Will that reduce Ks? Or will it just drop us into TTO ball except with just 8 runs per game? (See 2014) Will that then "force" batters to swing even harder to generate more runs but leading to even more Ks?

Much like people older than me and the 50s, the 70s-80s are being over-sentimentalized. Sure, other than the fact they were the Cardinals, those Cardinal teams played an interesting brand of baseball. Sure, Rickey was a blast to watch. But Omar Moreno was no more fun to watch than Billy Hamilton. And exactly why an Anthony Rendon strikeout is so much less entertaining than a George Brett grounder to second is something I've never understood.

Brett career: 305/369/487, 132 OPS+
Rendon career: 292/369/493, 126 OPS+

Those lines aren't much different.** The league contexts aren't that different -- 263/33/427 for Rendon, 263/330/395 for Brett. 32 points of SLG is 20 total bases for a 650-PA player, spread out over 150 games. Less than one a week. Here's the 1983 and 2018 ALs (to keep pitchers out of it):

1983: 266/328/401, 4.48 R/G
2018: 249/318/415, 4.53 R/G

Pro-rated to 1983's PAs/ABs ... we've lost just under 1100 hits in just under 2300 team games so half a hit per team game or one hit per game. You are slightly more likely to see a double today. You are definitely less likely to see a triple but you only saw 1 of those every 4 team games anyway. You're less likely to see a SB attempt ... but you only saw one of those per team game. You were just as likely to see a walk in 1983 as 2018 (as in 3.13 per team game vs. 3.14). You do see 0.35 more HR per team game.

You do see a LOT more striekouts, around 7 per game (3.5 per team-game).

So in terms of offense, in a game you're watching, you've lost about 1.5-2 singles per game, replaced by 0.7 HRs. You're down from 2 steal attempts to 1.4. You wouldn't even notice.

There really are only two issues. The obvious one is the game time and there are any number of obvious things that could be done to reduce game time. Whether those things would have other consequences is key but game time is very much under the control of the league and union. The other obvious issue is the number of strikeouts. Now whether strikeouts are really that much less entertaining than the in-play outs they've replaced I think is doubtful but most of you seem to think so and, in entertainment, the customers are always right. (Whether you guys reflect most of MLB's customers is an open question.)

So, how do you substantially reduce Ks -- and we're talking about "needing" to reduce them by, what, at least 5 per game? -- without offense exploding and maybe even more TTO-style ball? Other than reducing the strike zone, I'm not sure how you can even reduce Ks. That leads to more runs, more boring walks and probably makes rake-and-take even more rewarding. Maybe a smaller strike zone but heavier ball would maintain the current HR pace while reducing Ks ... or maybe the heavier ball just leads to harder swings and more rake and take that works because the strike zone is smaller. Anyway, I'd be willing to give that a go.

As to the current ball -- it does seem extra silly and, more importantly, MLB has been caught red-handed, the media believes it, the AAA fiasco has confirmed it. They'll have to change it. (Why they didn't see this PR problem coming when they decided to use a rabbit ball ...)

Which to me suggests next year could be very dull indeed, similar to 2014 -- c'mon, it was just 5 years ago folks, have you forgotten how bored we all were? I mean if AAA HRs went up 60% in a year -- if that's anything like the effect the ball is having on MLB HRs ... well, the 2019 AL HR rate is almost exactly 60% higher than the 2014 HR rate.

2014's AL line: 253/316/390, 4.2 R/G ... but only 15 Ks per game rather than 17. I'll guess we'll still see 17. Of course that line isn't that much different than today's line either -- 35 points of SLG, just 1 less run ever 3+ team games. Find yourselves 10 points of BA somewhere and you're right back in 1983 ... with a lot more Ks.

Anyway ... start by reducing game time. That doesn't require any tinkering with the style of play or the equipment. Something like a pitch clock might have unintended consequences of increasing offense (because of reduced Ks?) and you might want to do something about that (less-rabbit-y ball). I don't think game time changes have to be incremental but I don't see any objection to introducing them incrementally if that will gain agreement to introduce them.

By the way, I'm perfectly amenable to the counter-argument that if all of these changes are less dramatic than portrayed and probably actually aesthetically un-noticeable ... then what is the point of all this rake-and-take, strikeouts, etc?

(Personally I think that was a genuine part of the "evolution" of the game. Batters finally realized that weight training ... and possibly certain substances ... were beneficial to hitting a baseball very hard. That gave us early sillyball. The obvious counter-measure for pitchers/managers was to reduce contact rates via strikeouts. This is something of a vicious circle -- if contact is going down, a hitter has to try to further maximize the value of what contact he does make ... or, easier in theory than in practice surely, maintain the same contact rate without losing much value per contact. There's no way to put the weight training genie back in the bottle ... nor should we want to IMO.)

** No that's not an argument that Rendon is the 2nd coming of Brett, let's see how long he can keep it up. It's simply pointing out those lines are not radically different and the league context is not as radically different as sometimes portrayed.
   11. JAHV Posted: September 04, 2019 at 08:02 PM (#5876841)
And exactly why an Anthony Rendon strikeout is so much less entertaining than a George Brett grounder to second is something I've never understood.


That's easy. The first is basically all one guy succeeding - the pitcher. I guess we can argue that the catcher is involved as well. The batter has failed. No other action has taken place.

In even a routine groundball to second base, there are several actions - a batter has made contact with the ball and hit it into fair territory, which is a good thing; a fielder has to make a judgment on a ball, catch it, and make an accurate throw; and the first baseman has to catch it. You might also give a little credit to a pitcher who made a pitch that was difficult to hit with authority, but I don't want to get into the FIP thing.

Strikeouts have their place, but if given a choice where every strikeout in the game currently was replaced by a groundball or popup, I'd take the latter every time.
   12. . Posted: September 04, 2019 at 08:18 PM (#5876843)
The entire problem with this viewpoint is that is treats the changes in the game as some natural phenomenon that humans are powerless to change, and can only observe. That's demonstrably false.


And to make it worse, people with that viewpoint then fanboy gush like the girls screaming at the Beatles at Shea about how great the players are.
   13. . Posted: September 04, 2019 at 08:23 PM (#5876844)
And exactly why an Anthony Rendon strikeout is so much less entertaining than a George Brett grounder to second is something I've never understood.


Because the grounder to second causes elite athletes to do elite athletic things and adds additional motion to what we're watching. We should prefer motion to lack of motion. Particularly if the motion we see is from an elite athlete.

Anthony Rendon striking out is incompetence; a major league second baseman moving to field a ball and throw Brett out is extreme competence. We should all prefer competence and extreme competence to incompetence.

EDIT: Coke to JAHV.
   14. puck Posted: September 04, 2019 at 10:52 PM (#5876885)
The Rockies have allowed the batter leading off the game to homer in 5 of the last 7 games. They've also hit two of their own leadoff HR's in that span.

That really seems like watering down the leadoff HR phenomenon.
   15. Tom Nawrocki Posted: September 05, 2019 at 10:24 AM (#5876918)
Brett career: 305/369/487, 132 OPS+
Rendon career: 292/369/493, 126 OPS+

Those lines aren't much different.**


It's kind of a silly comparison, since Rendon is 29, and George Brett played till he was 40. After his last great year, in 1985, Brett's career line was .316/.375/.507, and his OPS+ was 143.
   16. SoSH U at work Posted: September 05, 2019 at 12:41 PM (#5876951)
And exactly why an Anthony Rendon strikeout is so much less entertaining than a George Brett grounder to second is something I've never understood.


That's a terrible way of looking at it. An Anthony Rendon swing and miss on a 1-2 count has virtually no chance to develop into something interesting. A ground ball can result in a base hit, or a great play, or an error, all of which are more interesting than the typical strikeout.

   17. Rusty Priske Posted: September 05, 2019 at 12:55 PM (#5876957)
Yeah, the time between pitches is easily the biggest problem right now. Everything else - even mid-inning relievers - is a distant second.


I strongly disagree. When the pitcher has the ball, the game is still going on. I get to think along with the players, judging decisions, figuring out which pitch is coming etc.

With a pitching change, what do you get. Commercials. Bonus commercials on top of the commercials you already get to see between innings and during the broadcast. They suck the life out of the game.
   18. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: September 05, 2019 at 01:14 PM (#5876961)

That's a terrible way of looking at it. An Anthony Rendon swing and miss on a 1-2 count has virtually no chance to develop into something interesting. A ground ball can result in a base hit, or a great play, or an error, all of which are more interesting than the typical strikeout.

QFT.

Watch SportsCenter's Top 10 on any given day and almost all of the baseball highlights are great fielding plays. Virtually none of them are strikeouts unless it's the end of a no-hitter. Strikeouts can be exciting but they're generally not what people want to see.

With a pitching change, what do you get. Commercials. Bonus commercials on top of the commercials you already get to see between innings and during the broadcast. They suck the life out of the game.

I strongly disagree with you that the time between pitches isn't an issue, but even if I agreed with you I would point out that the above is exactly the reason you won't see a limitation on pitching changes.
   19. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: September 05, 2019 at 01:52 PM (#5876972)
When the pitcher has the ball, the game is still going on. I get to think along with the players, judging decisions, figuring out which pitch is coming etc.

All I'm thinking is "Throw the damn ball!"

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