Major League Baseball is facing a major league problem. Its audience is bored and fading away.
For a fan like me, this is a minor problem. I love my team, the Chicago Cubs, but if they are awful and boring, I can switch to Netflix, reading, or a podcast for entertainment. But for the baseball industry and the gambling community, which make their very profitable livelihoods from fans like me, baseball and boring cannot afford to go together for long before it really starts to hurt.
From an entertainment standpoint, it is not too hard to figure out why the sport is shrinking. Major League Baseball has become the prisoner of its own perfection. A game with 20 strikeouts is becoming commonplace. Pitchers routinely throw in the mid 90s, and many are stunningly accurate. A top pitcher in today’s game is aiming his pitches not at the center of the plate, but at a corner of the strike zone, 4″ by 4″.
Good scouting and computer records have identified hitters’ weaknesses. If you combine tremendous velocity with computerized analysis and superb accuracy, plus catchers’ well-honed ability to “frame” pitches, deceiving fallible umpires by subtle movements of their gloves, you end up with strikeout after strikeout.
Another addition to the pitching arsenal is “spin rate.” Again, the computer mavens are spoiling the game by analyzing the effect of spin and the movement of pitches, which shrewd pitchers and their coaches translate into manipulation of pitches, to accentuate hitters’ weaknesses. Add in sticky materials, which pitchers can hide in their scalp or uniforms, and you get even more pitch movement, which fosters batter failure.
Hitters have not solved the problem of pitcher mastery to bring more balance to the game, partially because of their tendency to overswing to pad their home run statistics, for which the teams have rewarded them by paying huge bonuses.
Because taking walks is infrequently lauded by management, players are now swinging without remorse, hoping for a lucky long ball. The result is, again, more hitting failure. It used to be that a 200 hitter was banished to the minor leagues. Today, he may bat cleanup if he hits more than one homer per week.
Add in dynamic relief pitching, which features pitchers who specialize in throwing 100mph and pitch only one inning. With starting pitchers generally limited to 100 pitches maximum, the bullpen becomes extremely important. The “closer,” who pitches the ninth inning, is often the highest paid pitcher on the team. Put it all together and you have the formula for “boring ball.”
The leaders in the sport have just begun to figure out how baseball is killing itself with its precision and velocity on the mound. Pitchers are now inspected after every inning by the umpire, checking them for sticky stuff. It does not seem to be changing pitcher-batter balance yet.
Some folks are proposing that the pitcher’s mound be lowered or even moved back a few feet. Others want robots to call balls and strikes to combat umpire fallibility in the age of spin and velocity.
These changes are probably necessary to combat the hitter failure rate. Every sport needs to change with the times. Basketball added the 3-point shot, and football has made it harder to crush the quarterback because people want to see Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, not some pretender.
Sports needs to be fun, with a balance between offense and defense. When hitters rarely swing successfully, even fans who have loved the game for decades, tune it out.
Question: Are you losing interest in baseball?