By Ken Reed

Major League Baseball has an entertainment problem. And when you’re in the entertainment business that’s not good.

Baseball has become a slow game with a lot of strikeouts, walks and occasional home runs. Those are called the “three true outcomes” in today’s game. The plethora of strikeouts is a big issue because they result in no action and no baserunners. For a 14th straight season, pitchers are on pace to set a record for strikeouts per nine innings (9.4). In 1990, the strikeout rate was under 15 percent, and today it’s near 25 percent.

“If I — if we — could change one thing, get one thing under control, for me it would be the strikeout rate,” says former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein. Epstein has been hired by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred as a consultant charged with looking for ways to make baseball more entertaining and fan friendly.

“When you talk to … thousands of people who love the game about what’s the best version of the game, there’s a growing consensus about what that means,” according to Epstein.

“I think for most people, it means that we want more action in the game, and a faster pace of play for the game, and a little bit less dead time. And it means we want more contact and more balls in play, and probably fewer strikeouts than we have now.

“We want to see more athleticism on display. We want more doubles and triples and more stolen bases — and probably less of the three true outcomes on offense. And those are consistent themes that you hear.”

Totally agree Theo, that’s what most baseball fans want. The challenge is how to get there. Ironically, Epstein is partly to blame for the developments in the game that have made it less entertaining and fan-friendly. Analytics have taken over the game when it comes to strategies employed by general managers and field managers. Ubiquitous shifts that gobble up what used to be hits, batters swinging with huge launch angles (uppercuts) and not choking up with two strikes in an effort to put the ball in play, pitchers working to increase their spin rate to make their offerings harder to hit, etc. From a strategic baseball standpoint, analytics-driven tactics have worked. But they are damaging baseball as an entertainment product.

Major League hitters are batting .232, which if it holds through the season would be the lowest batting average ever. In 2008, 42% of swings put balls in play. That’s down to 35.4% this year. In ’08 the swing/miss percentage was 20 percent. This year it’s 27.3%. MLB is also on pace for a record number of shutouts.

The lack of action and decreasing entertainment value has impacted MLB attendance, which is down over 7% since 2015 and 14% since the highpoint in 2007. The 2019 season was the first time in 15 years that total attendance dropped below 70 million (68,494,752).

Baseball, we have a problem.

Perhaps Theo can help save baseball as an entertaining, fan-friendly entity. He scored World Series titles for the Red Sox and Cubs after extremely long droughts, so there’s hope.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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