The Game Formerly Known as Baseball.
by Ed Botti
Here we are approximately 2 1/2 weeks into another MLB season. It couldn’t have come any sooner. As a longtime follower of not just the Yankees, but Baseball in general, I sit and watch every evening, and cannot believe some of the things that I am seeing.
What happened to our game? How did all of these new highfalutin on field strategies, game plans, rule changes, and fads actually get past baseball’s gatekeepers?
I know I get it, it’s not 1978 anymore. Times change. That’s fine. We now all have smart phones, flat screen TV’s, some of you plug your cars in instead of buying gas, and our music is now streamed. Some of us still look back and relish the times of buying a new album and studying the art work for subtle hints and storylines. Now, we just hit the blue tooth button and essentially every piece of music ever recorded is available instantaneously, sans the artwork.
And isn’t that the driving force? Today, we have become accustomed to instant gratification, and it has worked its way into our national pastime. All we hear nowadays, is “pace of play”, which is just another way of saying “I can’t wait 3 hours to know who wins”.
Sorry to tell you, but Baseball does not have a clock. The ebb and flow of a game is organic. That is the beauty. There is no four corner defense and no one can take a knee at the end of the game to run out the clock. It’s based on both sides making 27 outs.
Having said that, there are absolutely realistic and legitimate ways, discussed here many times, to heighten the pace back to what it was originally established to be.
In my field of work, we have a formula for solving financial inconsistencies and problems.
We call it the “who, what, where, when and why” assessment. When we answer those questions, we easily reach our conclusion.
It always leads back to one conclusion. Money!
Since 1980, despite no extra outs being required per half inning and no additional innings added to the length of a normal 9 inning game the time required to play the game has increased by 31 minutes to 3:05.
Where is that extra 31 minutes? I can tell you it is not because of the intentional walk, it is not because of late inning pitching match ups, and it is not because pitchers throw to first base too often. Sorry, Commissioner Manfred, but your solutions to solve the problem have nothing to do with the problem.
“My clutch keeps sticking”.
“OK change your stereo, if that doesn’t work we’ll change your exhaust system”.
One contributing factor is the in between inning time that has been added for advertising sales. The longer it takes to take the field and throw a pitch, the more ads that can be sold.
Currently the time between innings and pitching changes is 2 minutes and 5 seconds for local broadcasts, 2 minutes and 25 seconds for nationally televised games and 2 minutes and 55 seconds for postseason games.
So the length is based on whether it’s a local game, nationally televised game or a playoff game. No uniformity.
Got to get that extra 30 seconds in for the playoffs! Who cares if the game ends at midnight and your future fans/customers have been asleep since 10:00 PM!
Another reason for the length of game lies in the hands of the umpires.
Photo by Sports Illustrated
I read an analysis of a 1984 game between the Cubs and the Mets. The purpose of the analysis was to measure length of time for inactivity pitches which are simply pitches thrown where the catcher caught the ball and threw it back to the pitcher, whose next job was to throw it back to the catcher. Foul balls, stolen bases, wild pitches and the fourth ball of a walk were not included. Just the pitches where contact wasn’t made, and the pitcher received a return throw from the catcher.
The numbers were measured against a 2014 game. Since 2014 the length of games has increased by an additional 7 minutes.
In the 1984 game there were 146 inactivity pitches that accounted for 32 minutes and 47 seconds
In the 2014 game there were 144 inactivity pitches that accounted for 57 minutes and 41 seconds.
It took nine seconds longer for a pitcher to get rid of the ball in 2014. That has increased in 2021.
In the 1984 game, there were 70 inactivity pitches that were returned to the pitcher and thrown back to the plate within 15 seconds.
In the 2014 game, there were 10.
In the 1984 game, there were 32 balls, called strikes, or swinging strikes that took 20 seconds or more between pitches.
In the 2014 game there were 87 balls, called strikes, or swinging strikes that took 20 seconds or more between pitches.
Couple that one stat with the difference in commercial breaks and we can identify why games are now longer than 2 ½ hours.
How hard was that? It isn’t just the commercials, although they play a big part. It isn’t just the specialized pitching matchups, or throwing over to first base too often. No. Pitchers are taking much more time to deliver the ball and batters are stepping out. The solutions are simply known as Rules 6.02 (a)-(c) and 8.04.
Enforce the rules. Shorten the game. Not exactly nuclear physics or string theory.
Why than was Peter Ueberroth able to control this but Bud Selig and now Rob Manfred can’t?
Why not enforce the rules? Stay with me, we’ll get to that.
I can tell you one thing, all those extra commercials aren’t going anywhere. Which means the driving force is Money.
But it doesn’t stop there. No, not by any stretch of the imagination. It seems like every year small little pieces of the game, once cherished nuances, disappear in front of our very own eyes.
The fabric of the game is under attack.
Somehow finely tuned professional athletes no longer have the ability to get through the rigors of a season that not too long ago not so finely tunes athletes used to do without an afterthought.
Somehow batting averages mean nothing.
Somehow 6’4’’ 230 lb. pitchers can no longer throw more than 90 pitches a game.
Somehow it is no longer of value to have a balanced line up featuring table setters for the better hitters to drive in.
Somehow it is of no value to move runners along by making contact and hitting the ball where no one is standing.
Somehow we have third basemen positioned in left center field.
Somehow hustling and playing hard is a thing of the past.
Somehow managing a game by using your experience and instincts has been subordinated by spreadsheets printed out by people that have never played the game.
Somehow we allowed the game to turn into a strike out, home run or walk derby.
Somehow nearly every player seems to think they are the second coming of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.
Somehow tearing the ulnar collateral ligament seems to happen almost weekly to a major league pitcher.
Somehow exit velocity is more important than RBIs.
Case in point: We all just saw 22 year old picture of fitness, Fernando Tatis, Jr. at 6-3, 215 lbs. swing a bat so hard he tore his shoulder and collapsed on home plate.
What’s going on and why?
Why has the game we all grew up watching and playing become a game that needs an entire retrofit? A complete renovation.
This is a game, not a rusty 1969 Camaro.
I always think back to a quote on an old WPIX broadcast. When discussing injuries Phil Rizzuto told Bill White “We didn’t have ACL’s when I played”!
It’s funny. But I think Phil actually meant, “we played with injuries”.
As Derek Jeter would say many times “There’s a difference between being injured and being hurt”.
How could Cal Ripken play in 2,632 consecutive games but Giancarlo Stanton needed a day off after playing in two of three days to start the season?
How could Bob Gibson pitch 314 innings in 1969 but Stephen Strasburg led the league in 2019 with 209?
It seems, today’s ballplayers either have a very low tolerance for pain, just do not have the same internal fire that we have seen in the past, or the team management is over the top cautious because of the financial investment that has been made in the player.
My view? Management is protecting an investment. In other words, Money!
But the changes in the game go way past just injuries and days off.
As a frustrated student of the game, I need to at least understand the genesis of this paradigm shift.
Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the preposterous changes (my opinion) in strategy and operations that have taken place in just the last decade (I will leave 2020 out for obvious reasons and conclude my analysis with the last full regular season 2019 stats) and why they have become not only accepted, but embraced by many in the industry.
The Batter’s Box – Home Runs
Needless to say, MLB teams stress the home run more today than ever in the history of the game. Many of us have voiced our opinions and concerns over this matter with respect to the Yankees. What is surprising is how much more that stress actually is.
In 2019, MLB teams averaged 226 home runs, while in 2009 MLB teams averaged 168 home runs. A 34 % spike in home runs in one decade.
What I find interesting is that the large spike has not really been a steady or incremental shift. Just going back to 2014, home runs had actually dropped to 140 average per team.
However, since 2014 changes to the approach teams and hitters take to produce offense (most of them emboldened by the growing role of analytics) have provided a significant surge to power.
Individual players’ statistics illustrate the dramatic impact of this new approach.
In 2009, 87 major league players, or less than 3 per team, hit 20 + home runs. In the 2014 season the number of players with 20 + home runs actually dropped to 57, less than 2 per team.
In 2019, 130 major league players, or more than four per team, hit 20+ home runs. That would be more than twice as many as just five years earlier. A Huge shift.
Predictably, the increases in home runs has propelled a simultaneous increase in run production that disregards a decline in batting average.
In 2009, MLB hitters had an average of .262, and teams scored 4.61 runs per game. In 2019, MLB hitters fell to an average of .252, nevertheless runs per game rose nearly five percent to 4.83.
Just because runs go up per game, does that make it good for the game? Fans love home runs for obvious reasons, but fans also love on field action. Teams putting all their eggs into the home run basket creates a boring game, in my opinion. One of the primary reasons why soccer is not a huge sport in terms of digital content distribution here in the US, is because games can go 90 minutes without nearly a shot on goal.
The excitement of a game is more than just touching home plate. The goal of the game is touch home plate, but the excitement of the game takes place before the spikes touch the plate; on the field of play.
That little, simple principle seems to have been forgotten by the powers that be in MLB.
I have discussed this before, but it’s worth repeating. Home runs are exciting, because they are somewhat rare and majestic. In 2019 the Yankees hit 306 home runs in 6,243 at bats. That’s 4.9% of the at bats.
A little perspective on that success rate of 4.9%.
I am also a fan of the NHL, and probably the rarest of all plays in hockey is a shorthanded goal.
Shorthanded goals occurred in approximately 3.2% of power plays in 2019/2020.
Not much less frequent on a % wide basis than a home run.
My question is, how many NHL teams build their offensive approach on shorthanded goals?
The answer is zero.
In football terms, is it a good idea if Patrick Mahomes does nothing but throw bombs into the end zone because 4.9% of them result in a touchdown?
Obviously no. That would be boring.
When hitters go to the plate with a primary goal of hitting the ball out of the park, a great deal of the strategic chess match that makes this game such a pleasure to watch, is missing. A great deal of the plays on the field of play that make this a great game are missing. A 4.9% success rate is not enough success to retrofit this game.
I was practically sick to my stomach recently hearing Sweeny Murti (a sports journalist who primarily covers the Yankees for WFAN, SportsNet New York, and the New York Yankees Radio Network) defend the all of nothing approach after a recent game.
I thought to myself, has this man ever played the game? More so, I thought, who is telling him to say that?
As a direct result of the all or nothing home run approach, the universal acceptance of strikeouts is even more pronounced. In 2009, MLB teams struck out an average of 1,120 times per season. By the end of 2019, that average had propelled to 1,427 strikeouts per team, a 27.5 % increase.
The term “strike out” can be and often is applied to many other things in our life. Each and every one of those applications means one thing; “failure”.
“Did you get that new job?” “No I struck out, they gave it to someone else.”
In the game today, a strike out is not viewed as anything different than hitting a line drive to right field that gets caught.
Just about 12 years ago MLB team’s indifference to striking out was beginning to be seen. In 2008 as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Mark Reynolds became the first player in history of the game, which dates back to 1869, to strike out 200 times in a single season (204). The following year he beat his own record and struck out 223 times.
At that point in time the 190 strikeout level had been reached just seven times in 150 years, all of those arising since 2004.
Reynolds’ 223 “failures” remains the major league record, but it is categorically under attack.
Since he established that dubious record, 23 players have struck out at least 190 times, and 11 have done so at least 200 times.
In 9 of the last 10 years the major league record for average strikeouts per team has been broken. The one exception was 2015, when teams averaged 1,248 strikeouts, exactly matching their 2014 amount.
The variance during this period amounts to 307 strikeouts more per team. 307 more times the ball was not put in play. 307 more times there was no action on the base paths. 307 more times the defense didn’t have to make a play.
The worst part is that it appears that no one in MLB cares.
I know, the first defense of this is that the pitchers throw harder today. Yes, they do. But the hitters also swing harder and faster, lured on by the ultimate goal of hitting the ball 450 feet, and getting on the nightly news reels and numerous social media platforms.
Plus, they get paid more than singles/doubles hitters.
Any suggestion that pitchers not named Nolan Ryan were all throwing 85 mph 30 years ago is disingenuous. Guidry would fit like a glove right now with his fastball/slider combo, along with many others. And those guys went 9!
For 140 years, batters regularly shortened their swings or even “choked up” with 2 strikes. We very rarely see that happening anymore, and I can’t even tell you the last time I saw a MLB hitter “choke up“.
The hypocrisy is that the strike out statistic is than used as a way to evaluate and elevate pitchers. Whether it is a stat on the screen during the game, an arbitration hearing, or during contract negotiations we hear how many hitters they struck out.
An “out is an out” they say. Wrong on so many levels, yet universally accepted as the gospel by this new generation of statisticians, managers and players.
If an out is an out, why bother bifurcating the pitcher’s strike outs from his other statistics?
A quick question or two for all those “intellects” who believe that new way of thinking? When was the last time a run was set up by a strike out? When was the last time a run scored on a strike out?
You have to put the ball in play. That is why you have a bat. Otherwise, you fail.
On The Mound
In 2009, 117 MLB pitchers started at least 20 games. These were your normal main stays in MLB 5 man rotations. We did not see a major change in that amount over the last 10 seasons as 113 MLB pitchers started 20 or more games in 2019.
However, as the number of starting pitchers remained constant, dependence on those starters decreased precipitously. In 2009, those 117 pitchers had an average workload of 176.8 innings per pitcher. Very close to approximately 50% of the 1,400 innings (excluding extra innings) necessitated by a team over the course of a 162-game season.
Fast forward to 2019, that same group of starters had an average workload of just 161.8 innings. Virtually a 10 % drop in starter workload over the course of the decade.
The distribution of innings is now spread throughout the entire staff. By 2019, MLB teams were averaging 18.2 pitchers with at least 20 innings of work. That is two more pitchers per team than just a decade earlier. Yet fewer pitchers worked 125 innings. Moreover, in 2019 62 pitchers pitched the minimum 162 innings required to qualify for consideration for the ERA title, while in 2009 79 pitchers reached that requirement. A 27.5% drop.
I promised I wouldn’t go back too far, but here is my one exception. In 1978 25% of games started ended up in a complete game, over 1,000 complete games. Move to 2009 and 3% of all games started ended up in a complete game (145). In 2019 1% of games started ended up in a complete game (48).This was the lowest total in the history of the game.
Q. when was the last time a pitcher had 20 complete games in a season? Complete games used to be a badge of honor for a starting pitcher.
A. Fernando Valenzuela in 1986. James Shields, in 2011, became the first pitcher to reach double-digits (11) in complete games in a dozen seasons.
Last year, no one threw more than two complete games. No one delivered more than one shutout.
Numerous factors chipped in to the demise of the dominant, nine-inning performances on the mound. Injury fears, increased emphasis on accumulating bullpen arms, the ridiculous “opener” strategy of using a reliever to get games started, and protecting young pitchers in such a way that they never build up an ability to pitch 9 innings.
Just to clear things up, it’s not that pitchers are no longer born with shoulders or elbows able to pitch complete games. No, their teams simply won’t let them even try and largely don’t properly prepare them to do so.
It now starts in the minors, when pitchers are pulled as soon as they show signs of fatigue.
By the time they get to the majors, they’re not used to working through 9 innings.
In today’s game, 6 innings and three or fewer runs is a quality start. That is a 4.50 ERA. Starting pitchers, as recently as the 1980’s, would have considered six innings pitched a day off.
Don’t tell me it helps prevent injuries. There are more Tommy John surgeries now then there have ever been.
In the field
The father of the current “fad” in baseball is also one of the better managers in baseball, Joe Maddon (at least in my humble opinion).
In 2009 as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Madden, was the only manager experimenting with infield shifts.
The concept of destabilizing the standard defensive alignment was years away from being an accepted tactic. Baseball Savant didn’t even begin charting MLB shift frequencies until 2016.
In 2016 teams shifted on an average of 13.7 % of plays.
In 2019 teams shifted on an average of 25% of plays. The Dodgers shifted on over 50% of the plays.
Oddly, Joe Madden in 2016 while guiding the Cubs to their first World Series victory in over 100 years, shifted only 4.6 % of the time, fewer than all but one MLB team.
How can that be? A team that shifted 4.6% of the time won the World Series.
What really blows my mind is that batters very rarely take advantage of the open side of the infield. No, they continue to try and pull everything and hit it out of the ball park.
Imagine if an entire side of the infield was open when Don Mattingly or Rod Carew played, or when Billy Martin or Sparky Anderson managed.
The shift causes problems and confusion for the infielders. Why not use that against the infielders, instead of letting them use it against the hitters? A good hitter (and if they made it to MLB, they can control a baseball bat) should welcome the shift, and then line the next pitch right through the open hole. Let’s see how long they would continue to shift.
Today they continue hit it right into the shift, and look down at their cleats as they return to the dugout as if to say “I was robbed”!
No, you were hoodwinked.
In 2019 the batting average in MLB was .252. The second lowest (2018) league batting average since 1972, the year that led to the implementation of the designated hitter. The only other lower batting averages in history are from the 1800s, the dead ball era, 1967 and 1968.
We absolutely have a batting average problem and shifts and swinging for the fences are the primary culprits.
The Shift, in my opinion is a gimmick. The only reason why it is still employed is because most hitters are intoxicated by the home run, and instead of simply hitting the ball to the open side of the infield, they continue to swing from the heels and hit the ball where five fielders cover 50% of the field.
So instead of helping their teams set up a run scoring opportunity, they rely on 4.9% success rate.
In the Dugout and Front Office
A contributing factor driving all this change in the way the game is played is the significantly increased MLB front office structure. There are two components to this change.
Until the last 20 years or so no major league front office devoted much time, resources or energy to statistical analytics. At least, not even remotely to the insane degree we see today.
Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s changed all of that.
Beane expanded upon the theories of Bill James, whose influential 1980s work shaped the concept of SABRmetrics as a defensive measure. Beane’s Oakland Athletics operate under a very small budget. So any advantage he could muster up, must be considered. So Beane turned to analytics.
Within a short period of time, Beane disciples such as Dan Evans and Paul De Podesta in Los Angeles, J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto and Mark Shapiro in Cleveland bought in hook line and sinker and followed his teachings and theories to a whole new level. James was even hired by the Red Sox as a consultant.
Within a few years essentially every MLB team had come to the same conclusion: they needed to comprehend and build their team around statistical analytics.
That model led to the second major development: Investment in internal departments tasked with drawing up in game and lineup-related approaches that made statistical sense, in their opinions.
Today, every single MLB team has an analytics department. These departments wield a lot of power and their power is so intense that in some instances they have been accused of usurping field managers as decision-makers.
In other words, they now tell the field mangers what to do.
Decisions once the sole domain of the manager such as who bats third, when a pitcher is tired, and how to position his fielders are now being made by some Hugo Boss wearing Ivy League graduate computer geek that never had an at bat at any level higher than Little League.
I am grateful these guys weren’t around when Gene Michael used his instincts, keen eye and skill to develop the 1990’s dynasty Yankees that Joe Torre so perfectly managed!
The utilization of analytics is responsible for a lot of the changes we see in the game today. Why? Because baseball is so invested in these new theories that they need to change the game to make them fit.
Round peg, square hole. Change the game to make our new strategies fit.
It is insane.
To me, it is hauntingly familiar to what we have seen in the Bronx over the last 4 years or so. The Yankees are the epitome of the round peg in a square hole team.
Gambling and MLB
A couple of quick points.
1. According to the American Gaming Association, Major League Baseball stands to gain $1.1 billion in projected revenue from legal sports betting in 2021.
2. Baseball’s all-time hit leader Pete Rose, received a lifetime ban from MLB for betting on baseball games back in 1989.
3. Eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox (a/k/a “Black Sox”), including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, were banned for life for throwing the World Series that year because of pressure from a gambling syndicate.
4. MLB banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in 1980 and 1983 respectively after they were hired by casinos in Atlantic City as greeters and autograph signers.
5. 30 game winner Denny McLain was suspended for investing in a bookmaking operation, then had his foot broken by a mobster for failing to pay off a debt.
How do we go from banning players, lifetime suspensions and physical harm to partnering with sports book operators?
As we like to say; follow the money.
$1.1 Billion vs integrity? Integrity never had a chance.
On May 14, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which is the federal law banning states from sanctioning sports betting, was unconstitutional. The end result was to return to the states the authority to sanction and regulate sports betting.
Permitted sports gambling has become a double barreled proposition for MLB. The battles lines are drawn. You have a growth in fan engagement on one side vs. the prospect of a breach of the game’s integrity on the other side.
The very same deliberate pace of play that has resulted in baseball’s popularity to descend behind the NFL and NBA among a younger viewing demographic might actually be an advantage in attracting legal bettors and generating revenues.
Baseball’s regularly-criticized pace of play makes the game a spot-on winner for proposition, or “prop” as it is referred to in the gaming world. The pace allows for in-game bets to be made on the occurrence or non-occurrence of a play or action, not the final score.
So, instead of betting that the Yankees will win tonight at (-1.5), bets can be made on whether the next pitch will be a fastball or a curveball. Will Aaron Judge hit a home run in this game? Will the Yankees turn a double play in the 4th? Will Anthony Rizzo pull the ball or hit it the other way?
Lay your money down!
So, if a slow pace of play generates additional revenues, why fix it? Instead make it look like you are trying to fix it by incorporating ridiculous rules like a runner on second base to start an extra inning, eliminating late game pitching match ups, and even the intentional walk nonsense that saves 5 seconds every 5 games, etc.
Is all of that just a smoke screen to make us think they are trying to speed up the game while cashing in big time on the same pace of play they claim they want to correct?
Crazier things have happened. But MLB cannot deny, they are making a fortune off of it.
The acceptance of this new State revenue generating instrument is spreading throughout the fruited plains like wild fire.
The winners? The online sports books, the States, the networks that allow the advertising of the gambling sites, and MLB.
The losers? The millions of people now gambling on a nightly basis, and the integrity of the game.
We have all seen even the best of hitters brought to their knees by nasty breaking balls while they were futilely trying to hit the pitch. Is it now out of the realm of possibility that a player swings through a pitch on purpose? I don’t know. The fact that they actually could for financial gain is a concern and a very bad optic.
Baseball once had a no exceptions hard line approach to any form gambling or even an association with gambling, like Mantle and Mays learned the hard way.
Now, they are partners. In partnerships all sides have to gain value for it to work. Partnerships are a give and take relationship. I wonder what the “give” in this situation actually is?
Nevertheless, it is now a risk MLB is willing to take to boost fan interaction and engagement which means increased revenues and disingenuous rule changes designed to distract.
MLB is not alone in this new gambling venture, all of the major sports are now on board. The difference in my view is that baseball provides the highly valuable “prop” that the other sports do not have.
Is that being manipulated, and are we being told the truth?
Either way, the game is under assault by a commissioner that I believe has no love loss for the great game of baseball.
The game is under assault by actuaries and computer geeks, bestowed with unprecedented power, that most likely never played a game above little league.
The league and all of the teams are desperately trying to figure out ways to put a round peg in a square hole, and as we know that does not work.
Yes, change is good. I have no problem with change when it is needed. But change for the sake of change, or for the sake of altering the game to fit a certain business plan is wrong.
The business plan should be changed to fit the game. Not Visa versa.