MLB has a worse problem than cheating: boring baseball

Games are too long and lack action...

(A version of this story was sent to the Kansas City Star, but I haven’t seen them use it so I figured I’d put the cuss words back in and post it here. Hope you enjoy it.)

Now that spring training is up and running the people in charge of Major League Baseball probably hope we focus on the coming season and forget what happened in the last one.

Fat chance: the Houston Astros got booed in their first spring training game…and it was a home game.

But even if we somehow develop national amnesia and forget the Astros’ cheating, baseball still has some serious problems and sign-stealing is not at the top of the list.

Let’s take a look.

Length of games

Every team has an analytics department and every analytics department seems to be giving their team the same advice. As one big league scout put it; depending on their individual philosophies, teams used to drive Corvettes, Mustangs or Thunderbirds and now everybody drives a Camry.

Analytic advocates believe the game is played most efficiently when hitters try to walk or hit home runs and pitchers try to strike everybody out. Unfortunately for baseball fans, that kind of baseball takes a lot of time to play and is excruciatingly boring to watch.

To give the numbers guys credit, runs scored were up last season, but so were pitches-per-plate appearance, the average number of pitchers used in a game and the average length of a nine-inning game. In 2018 nine-inning games averaged three hours; in 2019 it was three hours and five minutes.  

And things got even worse during baseball’s biggest showcase, the World Series.

The Nationals and Astros played seven games and because MLB got greedy and crammed in extra commercials and managers went to their bullpens at the drop of a rosin bag and all those relief pitchers had to warm up, on average the World Series games lasted just over three hours and 44 minutes.

If you weren’t a baseball fan already, watching the Fall Classic wasn’t likely to make you one. On the other hand, the people who make 5-hour Energy drink are looking at a golden opportunity.

New rules that will make baseball worse   

MLB has announced a couple ideas for shortening games and one of them is requiring a pitcher to face at least three batters unless an innings ends or a pitcher gets injured. Look for smart pitchers to enroll in acting classes.

This rule completely screws up a manager’s ability to work his way through a difficult part of the opposing order by looking for favorable pitcher-hitter match-ups. Matching up pitchers and hitters is one of the main things good managers do and now MLB won’t let them do it.

And the new rule also means some of those crafty left-handed pitchers might be driven out of baseball.

For decades left-handed relievers could make a living by coming in to face left-handed hitters and get them out despite having a fastball that couldn’t break a school zone speed limit. Now those pitchers’ worth is diminished because they might have to face a couple right-handed hitters and that probably won’t work out so hot.  

MLB is also trying to shorten the games by cutting the time managers have to decide whether to protest a play from 30 seconds to 20.

When you see a manager hold his hand up and ask the umpires to wait for his decision, someone somewhere is reviewing the play on video and then lets the guy on the dugout phone know whether the manager should challenge.

With less time to review a play, those video replay guys might be reluctant to challenge any play they have to watch more than once. Baseball instituted replay in order to get calls right and now it appears getting calls right isn’t important enough to wait 10 extra seconds.

If MLB really wants to speed up the game they could start enforcing the rule that requires a pitcher without runners on base to deliver a pitch within 12 seconds – it’s right there in the rule book – have umpires call the strike zone as it’s described in the rule book and give borderline calls to the pitcher, which would force batters to swing the bat or risk trying to make a living while hitting in 2-strike counts.

Baseball does not need new rules; it needs to enforce the rules it already has.

Fewer innings from starting pitchers

In the past managers would say “we’ll go as far as our starting pitching takes us” and if they had a starter on the mound having a good night they’d get as much as they could from him. If a pitcher was on a roll, let him roll.

These days managers are less inclined to do that.

Instead, they’re doing what their analytics department tells them to do and the numbers guys are telling managers a lot of pitchers lose effectiveness third time through the opposing batting order. So managers are more likely to jerk starters earlier than they have in the past.

In 2001 44 pitchers gave their teams 200 or more innings; in 2019 there were 15.

Following the overall numbers, some managers have been pulling starters early even when they’re having a good night. That philosophy led to Astros manager A.J. Hinch’s disastrous decision to pull Zack Greinke from Game 7 of the World Series while Zack was throwing a two-hitter.

Hinch followed the numbers from the past instead of what his eyes were telling him about the present and the Astros paid the price.

But a manager who follows the advice of his analytics department covers his ass because if things go wrong he’s got someone to blame; a manager who trusts his own judgment is out on a limb all by himself.  

Hinch got suspended and then fired for tolerating cheating and because we’re focused on that, it’s easy to forget he made one of the worst managing decisions in World Series history and analytics helped him make it.  

Lack of action

Another reason pitchers are throwing fewer innings is the tendency to go all-out on every pitch. Why save something for a third trip through the order when you’re not going to make one?

Going for strikeouts combined with hitters swinging for the fences has meant fewer balls in play. Last year there were more strikeouts than hits. And the analytics guys don’t think much of the sacrifice bunt or stolen base, so those tactics are being employed less often.

All of which means we get to watch base runners stand around waiting for someone to hit a home run because everyone is too scared to try anything else because something bad might happen.

But it already has.    

Bottom line: attendance

Here’s why the people who run MLB are freaked out: in 2019 paid attendance went down for the seventh year in a row. If you like numbers, here’s one: fewer and fewer fans want to buy a ticket to watch the type of baseball an over-reliance on analytics produces.

Nobody wants to get rid of analytics or denies that movement has brought something positive to the game, but it is possible to blend the information that analytics provides with the experience and knowledge of the players and coaches and come up with an even better version of baseball.

Pretty much what the Washington Nationals did last year and their approach to baseball was entertaining and good enough to win a World Series. Here’s hoping more teams follow the Nationals’ example.

I’ll leave you with this:

In 1985 St. Louis Cardinal Tommy Herr hit a grand total of eight home runs and still had 110 RBIs. When Ozzie Smith was asked about it, he said you could drive in runs without homers as long as you had five guys who could steal a base.

That year the Cardinals hit 87 home runs and stole 314 bases; a style of play good enough to win a National League pennant and make it to Game 7 of the World Series — a style of play that got the Cards to three World Series in the 1980s.

It was also pretty damn entertaining.

There’s more than one way to play the game and if and when baseball remembers that, they won’t have to hope the rest of us forget about the Houston Astros.