By Ken Reed
Major League Baseball (MLB) has increasingly become a game of strikeouts. A person can see more contact in the batting cage at the local amusement park than at an MLB stadium.
Batters are striking out in 22.3 percent of their plate appearances. That’s an all-time high and Major League Baseball is almost 150 years old.
Here’s another alarming stat: Go to an MLB game today and on average you’ll see a hit once every 10 or 11 minutes. Oh, the excitement! The overall batting average across all MLB teams is a whopping .246, which if the season ended today would be the lowest collective batting average since 1972.
In addition, on-base percentage (OBP) remains a favorite stat of baseball general managers, so batters are taking more pitches per plate appearance in an effort to draw more walks.
There aren’t many things in sports more exciting than seeing a batter keep the bat on his shoulder and then slowly jog to first base with a walk.
What happened to the stolen base attempt? Hit and run plays? Suicide and safety squeezes? Those action-packed plays have been put on ice.
What is going on here?
There are multiple factors involved but a good chunk of it can be blamed on the proliferation of baseball analytics. General managers, managers and their analytics staffs can flip on a computer and know within seconds where a certain batter tends to hit baseballs. A defensive shift is then employed to takeaway hits from that batter. In addition, analytics gurus are promoting a steeper “launch angle” (i.e., upper cut) for its team’s batters in an effort to hit more home runs — the resultant increase in strikeouts be damned. Moreover, the stat heads are also telling managers that stolen base attempts, hit and runs, and squeeze plays aren’t worth the risk.
What’s the fallout from this baseball analytics revolution? Average attendance is down more than six percent from last season and is on track to be the lowest in 15 years. Fans might dig the long ball but they aren’t digging slow-paced games with very little action.
You can’t blame the baseball operations folks. They are simply using every tool available to them in an effort to gain a competitive advantage.
But if you’re on the business side of the game — or you’re the commissioner of baseball, and you’re supposed to be concerned about the best interests of the game — what do you do?
I wish I had a simple answer. But I’m not sure there is one. For example, the high number of strikeouts can be attributed to the steeper launch angles used by batters today, but strikeouts are also likely up because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before.
One possibility is the mound could be lowered again. After the 1968 season, dubbed the Year of the Pitcher, the mound height was lowered from 15 inches to 10. It worked. The number of runs scored was up 20 percent in 1969.
A side benefit of lowering the mound might also be fewer pitching injuries. According to one study, lowering the mound would likely result in fewer shoulder injuries to pitchers.
Another possibility would be to move the mound back six inches or a foot. But that would upset baseball traditionalists. The distance from the mound to home plate — 60’6” — is considered sacred by many baseball fans.
Maybe all we need is a realization by managers, hitting coaches and GMs that leveling the swing out some and putting the ball in play more often is actually a good thing. Same with shortening up one’s swing with two strikes in order to avoid striking out. Baseball history will tell you that a lot of good things can happen when the ball is simply put in play.
When it comes to fan interest in baseball, MLB owners and executives have focused on the length of games, believing that long games keep fans away. The average game takes about 3 hours to play these days. Personally, I don’t think it’s the length of games that is turning fans off from the sport. I think it’s the lack of action during those three hours.
Strategic recommendations from sophisticated baseball analytics professionals in every Major League Baseball team’s front office have unwittingly taken a lot of action out of the game. How do you counter the effects of those recommendations in order to put more action and excitement back in the game?
That’s what commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB owners need to focus on. And it would be best to do it sooner rather than later because no baseball fan digs watching whiff after whiff at the ol’ ballpark.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.