'I Find It Very Difficult' to Watch: Why MLB Greats Think Baseball's in Trouble

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 20, 2018

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 07: Elias Diaz #32 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws the ball to third base as Chris Taylor #3 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks back to the dugout after striking out in the second inning during the game at PNC Park on June 7, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
B/R

As legends gathered in Cooperstown, New York, last month on the Friday evening of Hall of Fame induction weekend, it was business as usual for modern day baseball.

In Houston, the Astros and Texas Rangers struck out 19 times. In Boston, the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins missed Strike 3 21 times. In Detroit, the Tigers and Cleveland Indians struck out 16 times and also hit five home runs.

And in Cincinnati that night, the Reds and Philadelphia Phillies were striking out as if they were 18 blindfolded men chasing a housefly. The clubs combined to whiff an astounding 14 times...in the first three innings. By game's end, they had tallied 23 strikeouts and 14 hits, and it wasn't exactly as if Mario Soto was facing Steve Carlton (no offense, Anthony DeSclafani and Nick Pivetta). Six of the game's 10 runs scored on home runs. DeSclafani didn't make it out of the fifth inning, the Reds used five pitchers...and they won.

"We could sit here and talk all day about the way the game has been changed, and not in a good way," Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage says. "I try to watch a baseball game, and I find it very difficult to be able to watch today.

"It just breaks my heart to see the changes that have been made. Huge changes."

Says Hall of Famer Don Sutton, now an analyst for Atlanta Braves television broadcasts: "As soon as somebody decides it's not a good idea, then people will draft differently. They'll train differently. But right now it's about the home run and the strikeout and give me five good innings [from a starting pitcher]. Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton are not loving this. Neither is [Sandy] Koufax or [Don] Drysdale."

Hall of Famers are not the only ones voicing their displeasure with an all-or-nothing game in which:

• The ball is not put in play in roughly a third of all plate appearances, 31.6 percent of which end in a strikeout, walk or hit batter.

• The .248 MLB batting average is the lowest since 1972, the season before the American League instituted the designated hitter, when it was .244.

• There were more strikeouts than hits in a month for the first time in MLB history in April and, through early August, MLB had accumulated more strikeouts than hits overall. The race is on for whether it will happen in a full season for the first time.

• Through Saturday, the combined rate of strikeouts, walks and home runs across the game was 33.6 percent. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since strikeouts were first recorded in both leagues in 1913, there have been only six seasons in which strikeouts, walks and home runs have accounted for at least 30 percent of all plate appearances, and all of them have occurred since 2012.

J.D. Martinez embodies this era of offensive play, ranking among the game's leaders in home runs, on-base percentage and strikeouts.
J.D. Martinez embodies this era of offensive play, ranking among the game's leaders in home runs, on-base percentage and strikeouts.Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Defensive chances over the past two years have declined to the fewest in history—36.7 per game this year and last year, the first time that figure's ever dipped below 37.0. While we arguably have some of the greatest athletes ever on the field today—Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson has little over the Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado and Oakland Athletics' Matt Chapman, just as one example—they're not on display as often as they could be.

• Strategies like the hit-and-run and stolen base attempt (at their lowest per-game average since 1964, according to Elias) have become endangered species.

• Rules changes have eliminated the takeout slide at second base and the collision with the catcher at home plate.

• Emotion and energy is being drained from the game one replay and administrative move at a time (see above re: takeout slides and home plate collisions). Games are averaging about three hours in length and replays almost one-and-a-half minutes per review, according to Maury Brown in a story written for Forbes.com in April.

Perhaps not coincidentally, per-game attendance this season has dropped to its lowest point in 15 years. And longtime baseball people shake their heads at the bland sameness of it all.

"It's the most boring game I've ever been to, and it's every night," says one scout who has been in the game for 50 years. "You know exactly what's going to happen before it starts."

Says another: "The game is unbelievably bad right now."

"Every box score you read, it's 5.1 innings pitched for the starter," Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox says. "I'll bet some guys in our box in Atlanta. A buck. Before the game, we'll say, 'What's the over [for how long the starting pitcher will last]? It's 5.1. I'll bet the under because you know the starter is not going to make it. Even in the American League [in which, because of the designated hitter, managers don't pinch-hit for pitchers]."

There has been a grand total of 24 complete games in the American League and 10 in the National League. As recently as 10 years ago, in 2008, there were 75 complete games in the AL and 61 in the NL. Ten years before that? AL pitchers fired 141 complete games, and NL pitchers checked in with 161.

The shifts in strategy, many brought on by the increased use of analytics in the game, have come fast and furious over the past few seasons, to the point where Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to have an ongoing, open dialogue regarding what he calls these "organic changes" and whether he should move to ban shifts, limit the number of relief pitchers teams can use each game and even corral the amount of time chewed up by waiting for replay decisions.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has openly spoken of the need for the league to consider managing the defensive shifts that have arisen in recent years.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has openly spoken of the need for the league to consider managing the defensive shifts that have arisen in recent years.Win McNamee/Getty Images

"There is a growing consensus among ownership that we need to have a serious conversation about whether all of those organic changes are good for the game over the long haul," Manfred said at this year's All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. "I think we are at a point of time where we need to begin to manage that change."

Increasingly this summer, that conversation—and grumbling about today's product—is underway in every ballpark you visit.

And there's plenty of time for that grumbling: Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated in June noted there is more dead time per game than ever before and that the average time between balls in play is three minutes, 45 seconds.

"Go to the bathroom and miss that ball in play, you could go nearly eight minutes at the ballpark without seeing anything happen," another veteran scout quips.

Today, the man dubbed the "Human Rain Delay" would look as if his game were stuck on fast-forward.

"You got that right," says Mike Hargrove, who played first base for the Rangers, Indians and San Diego Padres and Cleveland from 1974 to 1985 before managing the Indians (1991-99), Baltimore Orioles (2000-03) and Seattle Mariners (2005-07). "I go to quite a few of the Indians games, and I really find myself, especially when the Indians are losing, reaching the fourth or fifth inning and I'm ready to go home.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, if a guy struck out 100-plus times, he really had a hard time breaking into a lineup. Anymore, someone strikes out 140 or 150 times, baseball takes it in stride. The language has gone to 'launch angle' and, to use an old term, it's like the s--thouse or the castle."

Speaking of those loftier heights, home runs, through the first week of August, accounted for 40.2 percent of all runs scored this season, according to Elias. Though that is down a tick from last year's 42.3 percent, this is the third consecutive season the number of runs scored on homers has been 40 percent or higher.

Even in 1961, an expansion season that featured the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle assault on Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 homers, long balls accounted for only 33.4 percent of all runs scored. And 53 years later, in 2014, the figure was still the same, 33.4 percent.

The game has become rock 'em, sock 'em with room for little else. The average number of stolen base attempts per game has dropped to 1.37. That's the lowest per-game average since 1964 (1.17), according to Elias.

"There's an art to winning a game, and part of that is knowing what your responsibility is as a player and knowing what you can contribute to help your team win the game," retired manager Jim Leyland says. "Everybody can't hit a three-run homer."

Giancarlo Stanton has struck out more than 120 times in every year of his career but one, in which he was limited to 74 games because of injury.
Giancarlo Stanton has struck out more than 120 times in every year of his career but one, in which he was limited to 74 games because of injury.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Like Joe DiMaggio—who had more home runs than strikeouts in seven of his 13 MLB seasons—Albert Pujols has spent much of his career as a power threat whose control of the strike zone is exemplary. Pujols has never fanned as many as 100 times in a season, and in 2006 he slammed a career-high 49 homers while striking out only 50 times.

"Strikeouts always have been a part of the game I don't like," Pujols says. "If you can put the ball in play, you can help your team start a rally."

But he is an anomaly today.

"When you don't put the ball in play, you have no chance to get on base. Absolutely none, unless the catcher can't catch," Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire says. "The point of baseball is to get on base. I don't think that will ever change. But it's taking some knocks now."

Time after time in today's game, players insist on swinging for the fences. It is the path to riches—salary arbitration hearings and free-agent negotiations usually don't hinge on "productive outs" and other little things that help teams win. And across the game, clubs tolerate strikeouts in a way they once didn't.

Whiffs this season are at an all-time high, gobbling up 22.1 percent of all plate appearances. Through Sunday, 15 of 30 teams had more strikeouts than hits. Yet one of those teams was in first place (the Arizona Diamondbacks), and three others were in position to qualify for the postseason (the Phillies, Rockies and New York Yankees).

"I think you're seeing results of a couple of things over the years," says Pete Rose, who was signing autographs in the back of a Main Street baseball card shop in Cooperstown. "One, the number of ballparks it's a joke to pitch in. It's not really fair, to be honest with you. You think about [Baltimore's] Camden Yards and Philadelphia, Cincinnati. Houston's a joke—I mean they're world champions, but it's a joke to try to pitch there—Colorado, Arizona.

"You get tired of watching the highlights on MLB Network and ESPN because everybody hits a home run. Every hit is a home run."

Strikeouts, power pitchers and defensive shifts have conspired to keep batting averages low and diffuse old-fashioned rallies. Power is the biggest thing the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout notices on both ends of an at-bat.

The rise of shifts has also given rise to players who try to hit over those defenders and into the stands.
The rise of shifts has also given rise to players who try to hit over those defenders and into the stands.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

"Everyone's throwing 100 mph," Trout says. "When I first got into the league, there were just a couple of guys who threw 100: Aroldis Chapman and a couple of guys who closed ballgames.

"Now, you don't see anything under 93, 94."

What power bullpens aren't taking away, shifts are. Pujols and other sluggers lobby for the elimination of them, or, at least, significant modifications. Others simply shake their heads and say, guess what, hitters aren't powerless in this battle.

"If they had shifted me back in 1980, I would have hit .600," Hall of Famer George Brett says.

Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, observing how different the game is from his last season just six years ago, says, "It blows my mind that this is probably going to be the first year where you have more strikeouts than hits during a season." While that leaves him perplexed, so, too, does the shift—but for a different reason.

"I hear people complaining," he says. "Is this not a free enterprise? Can you not put those seven guys out there on the field wherever you want them?

"I would have welcomed somebody putting the shift on me because I would have inside-outed the heck out of them."

Is he surprised more hitters don't take that approach?

"It's not sexy, is it?" he says. "Chicks dig the long ball, still, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine used to say. And that's where all the money goes. The guy who's going to hit the measly singles and hit .300 is not going to get paid like the guy who hits .270 and 35 or 40 [homers]. It's unfortunate."

Former Mets right fielder Darryl Strawberry says if he were a hitting coach today: "I'd make my top hitters come to batting practice and hit the ball the other way. You're going to face those situations, and you've gotta be able to do that."

But in a game in which analytics has influenced every one of the 30 front offices, it's not that easy.

Unhappy as many are with it, there is a method to the numbers-crunching madness. Offensively, it emphasizes getting guys on base and keeping them there over taking risks with lower-percentage plays like the stolen base attempt and sacrifice bunt. And as teams have increasingly tried to combat the onslaught of offensive data with defensive shifts, many front offices prefer players hit over those unconventional defensive deployments—look for the home run—instead of veering from their strengths and going the other way, as Jones suggests.

The World Series success of the Astros and other analytics-oriented organizations has helped usher in throughout the majors an embrace of new strategies on and off the field.
The World Series success of the Astros and other analytics-oriented organizations has helped usher in throughout the majors an embrace of new strategies on and off the field.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

Though the analytics movement gained traction with the famous Athletics' "Moneyball" teams in the early 2000s, it wasn't until those numbers started helping produce champions in Boston and Chicago and Houston that the rest of the league caught on in full. There are now templates for winning, based on mixing new-school computer science with old-school scouting, and until someone finds a different way, the game looks likely to continue down that strategic path.

Certainly, it's not by coincidence that old-school strategy has become as endangered as the black rhino.

"Part of why teams don't hit-and-run so much anymore is so many hitters swing and miss," San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy says. "The art is missing."

What has arisen in its place is the science, and that has changed how managers direct games. Last year, pitchers averaged just less than 5.2 innings per start, less than the 6.0 they pitched in 2010, according to Baseball America's J.J. Cooper. A large part of the reason can be traced to analytics, which has led the charge both toward pitch counts and the belief that two trips through an opposing lineup is plenty for a starting pitchers and a third time through comes with warning bells and booby traps. As a result, in addition to a pitching pool diluted over the years by expansion, marquee pitching matchups, historically one of the game's most attractive features, are disappearing, too. There are precious few Max Scherzers and Justin Verlanders.

Now, as baseball fights for its slice of the sports landscape among the ever-popular NFL and an NBA that fast-breaked right past it in popular culture years ago, MLB turns its games over to anonymous relievers by the middle innings. Mix in that some people think the games last too long, the increasing dead time contained within and baseball's continued struggle to market itself to new fans, and the challenges deepen.

"My problem with it really is that that's the way we're grooming [starting pitchers] in the minor leagues," Leyland says. "They throw 75 f--king pitches in the minor leagues. They say if they throw 75 they're OK, but if they throw 76 they're going to get hurt. Who the heck ever came up with that? It's ridiculous. They don't pitch innings.

"John Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, they all pitched innings in the minor leagues. Now they've only got so many starts left because they're supposed to watch their innings? I don't buy any of that. They're supposed to f--king pitch."

Because of those strict pitch counts, starting pitchers often are not taught how—or given the chance—to pitch out of trouble in the minor leagues. A pitcher may reach the sixth inning and face a situation with one out and runners in scoring position, but if he's hit his pitch count, he's hooked.

Many retired players and managers bemoan the unwillingness of teams to allow pitchers to work themselves out of trouble late in games or if their pitch counts have reached certain levels.
Many retired players and managers bemoan the unwillingness of teams to allow pitchers to work themselves out of trouble late in games or if their pitch counts have reached certain levels.Gail Burton/Associated Press

"That's part of learning how to pitch," Leyland says. "You got yourself in a mess, now get out of it. Let's see if you can get out of it. I mean, I understand the investments. Believe me. But I think we're way too cautious. If something's going to happen with a pitcher, it's going to happen.

"The fact of the matter is, we're so cautious in the minor leagues that we're grooming five-inning pitchers to come to the big leagues. It's not worth s--t, in my opinion."

Then there's the "opener" that the Tampa Bay Rays introduced this year: starting a relief pitcher to help nurse a young starting pitcher deeper into a game. Designated relievers like Sergio Romo and Ryne Stanek handle the first and/or second innings so that the starter covers the second or third through, say, the sixth or seventh. The Rays have had enough success doing so that other clubs with young rotations are watching closely.

"It's really smart, but it's also really bad for baseball," Arizona starter Zack Greinke says. "It's just a sideshow. There's always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you'll end up never paying any player what he's worth because you're not going to have guys starting, you're not going to have guys throwing innings.

"You just keep shuffling guys in and out constantly so nobody will ever get paid. Someone's going to make the money, either the owners or the players. You keep doing it that way, the players won't make any money."

Meanwhile, as analytical business practices increasingly dominate in so many areas of the game, other areas suffer.

With roughly a third of teams "tanking"—or, at least, undergoing significant rebuilds—the playoff races this year are tepid at best. Four of the five playoff teams in the AL have pretty much been locks since May—Boston, New York, Cleveland and Houston. And in the awful American League Central, in which the Indians face no competition, the run differential is an incredible minus-366. No wonder attendance is down.

The rise of replay and the growing influence of front offices in game management has cooled some of the tensions between managers and umpires, to the detriment of the game, some Hall of Famers say.
The rise of replay and the growing influence of front offices in game management has cooled some of the tensions between managers and umpires, to the detriment of the game, some Hall of Famers say.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

No element of the modern game has come under more public criticism, however, than instant replay, which many feel has stripped much of the natural byplay between managers and umpires, draining passion from games.

"As a participant and as a spectator, I enjoyed that part of the game," Hargrove says. "Slowly but surely, they're regulating emotion out of the game."

Says Gossage: "Used to be, umpires made a call and managers ran out of the dugout and threw bases and kicked dirt and brought everybody out of their seats whether you were for that team or against it. It was exciting. It had character. They're taking every bit of character there was in the game out of it."

Many of the game's former greats say the issue not only is one of process but of personnel, as well.

"I think if more people spoke out, there would be [pushback]," Gossage says. "I thought Joe Torre, when he went into the commissioner's office [as MLB's chief baseball officer in 2011], we'd have a good ally there. But money—you're collecting a paycheck. ... Coaches used to put a foot in your ass, and they had authority because they were hired for that job. Now, it's soft.

"They're going to have nerds in the dugout. And I've said it: If [Yankees general manager Brian] Cashman had any balls, he'd have done that a long time ago. Or he'd like to now. Put a nerd in uniform. Because anybody can manage today. There's 100 pitches, and then you start parading your 10 relievers in."

Rose echoes those thoughts: "I'd have probably gotten kicked out of every game in the third or fourth inning [today]. Fans every once in a while like a fight at the ballpark. Instead of helping someone up, kick dirt on him."

As the bullpen door opens again and again and the reliever merry-go-round spins each night, and as the minutes between balls in play pile up, there is ample time to worry about where baseball is headed.

"Over the last five years, we have seen more changes to the game than in the years prior," Tony Clark, the players' union chief, said at the All-Star Game. "All of that is concerning to the guys. They don't want to get to a place where the fans are no longer enjoying it and it's not engaging the next generation of fans.

"That combo platter is very concerning to them."

Gossage and many of his retired brethren think they know who's to blame.

"These guys are responsible for the demise of this game; they're single-handedly the guys ruining it," Gossage says of the administrators. "Hopefully, it still exists."

Exists? The game has been sturdy enough to withstand the test of time for more than a century, and with baseball at a crossroads now, that's about the only thing that's reassuring.

"When we were in Cooperstown at the induction," Hargrove says, "I looked around and saw people from every state, from foreign countries, Canada, and I looked at my wife and said, 'There are thousands and thousands of people in this town right now that really love baseball.'

"That made my heart happy."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. Stats accurate through Saturday unless otherwise noted.

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