In a baseball game last week in St. Louis, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt brought in relief pitcher Génesis Cabrera in the sixth inning. Cabrera’s first pitch hit Phillie Bryce Harper in the face. New batter Didi Gregorius stepped into the box. Cabrera’s first pitch nailed him in the back. Neither instance was intentional. Cabrera simply had no idea where his 95-mile-per-hour fastballs were going after they left his hand.
Shildt, commenting afterward, said he would have yanked his wild pitcher after he hit Harper. But he couldn’t, because a rule implemented in 2020 requires a pitcher to face three batters or pitch until the end of the half inning.
One more, understandably nervous Phillie had to face Cabrera to fulfill the letter of the law. Andrew McCutchen mercifully ended the drama by sending a line drive into the outfield, thus meeting the three-batter requirement and allowing Shildt to dispatch his errant hurler to the clubhouse.
The Cabrera incident is not a one-off — a similar two-pitch double plunking occurred in Atlanta earlier this season. But it is extremely unusual, and one will probably be able to count on one hand the times it will occur in the next few years.
And it highlights what can go wrong when an organization, for all the right reasons, tries to make its product more amenable to its customers, in this case, baseball fans.
Major League Baseball has decided that one of the reasons its sport is losing popularity is that games move too slowly and take too long. The three-batter rule is an effort to remedy one aspect of the problem: the lacuna in action that is the mid-inning pitching change. You’ve no doubt seen that movie. In the sixth or seventh inning — actually, after 5.1 innings, according to the statistics — the pitching coach shuffles out to the mound to remove the starting pitcher and to signal in a replacement. The bullpen doors swing open and a reliever begins his long, languorous march toward the mound to receive the game ball from the pitching coach and deliver eight warm-up pitches before facing a live hitter. A batter or two later, here comes the pitching coach again, climbing the dugout steps to perform the same ritual. Rinse and repeat until game ends.
The three-batter rule joins other regulations — like limiting mound visits, reducing the time interval between innings, eliminating the throwing of actual pitches in the intentional walk, playing seven-inning doubleheaders, and starting the 10th inning of tied games with a runner positioned on second base — that have been installed to inveigle fans, and TV viewers, to return to the game.
The entertainment value of the grand old game has been suffering for years. Since 2015, the last season with an uptick — slight though it be (0.03 percent) — MLB attendance has declined by over 7 percent. The numbers on the TV side are equally dismal: a mere 9.8 million watched the 2020 World Series (44.2 million tuned in for the 1978 Fall Classic).
Length of games is one problem. An average game in 2020 lasted three hours, 7 minutes, which is two minutes longer than the previous season and 11 minutes longer than a typical game in 2015. For comparison’s sake, nine-inning contests were wrapping up in two hours, 25 minutes in 1972, and in under two hours in 1946.
But more than how long the games last, it’s what happens during the games that nettles — or, more accurately, what doesn’t happen. Consider Game 1 of last year’s National League Division Series, in which the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres took three hours, 54 minutes to deliver a result. During that time, fans saw 14 walks, 21 strikeouts, and 12 pitching changes. And, oh yes, a total of seven hits.
Or take the final game of last year’s World Series. Baseball writer Tom Verducci recaps the “action”: “Over the final 26 minutes of play, viewers saw only two balls put into play. Over the three hours, 28 minutes it took to play the 8 ½-inning game, they saw 32 balls in play, or one every 6 ½ minutes. They saw more pitchers (12) than hits (10). They saw 27 batters strike out, or 42% of all plate appearances.”
A lot of the blame for these problems can be laid at the feet of analytics.
Modern analytics started as an idea in the late 1970s in baseball hobbyist Bill James’s head — how to determine, via empirical data, the most efficient way for baseball teams to win games. “Sabermetrics,” as he labeled this new “science,” brought into the game philosophy based on statistics and probabilities. Out were the old-hand, tobacco-spitting, radar-gun-waving scouts judging baseball talent by their feelings and their instincts. In were stat-driven eggheads birthing innumerable recondite acronyms that evaluated baseball performance down to the last detail.
Largely ignored, frequently ridiculed by old-time baseball hands, James’s philosophy got a major boost when it was successfully employed by the low-budget 2002 Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane. Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, and the subsequent movie starring Brad Pitt, catapulted the concept into the popular mind.
Since 2002, the Boston Red Sox, with James on their payroll, have broken their decades-long championship drought, and franchises in both small markets and large have notched a lot of wins using analytics.
On a macro scale, analytics changes profoundly the value of players. Players are valued for their ability to get on base, which is measured by a stat called on-base percentage. While getting base hits is still a vital quality, equally important is the ability to achieve a base on balls or even be hit frequently by the pitch. Once on base, the philosophy is to not trade bases for outs. This rules out sacrifice bunts, and it makes stealing generally inadvisable, because the risk for most runners is greater than the reward, statistically. Even hitting to the right side to move a runner from second to third is trading a base for an out. In practical terms, what this means is runners get on base and then don’t try anything too daring.
They wait for the long ball. The home run has shot way up in value in the modern game. Managers love it because it is the most efficient way to generate a run, and the most fail-safe. Players love home runs because those who hit them get paid more. Slugging percentage — which measures proficiency of hitting doubles, triples, and home runs — has become one of the most valuable data points in the game.
The thinking is, fly balls increase the batter’s odds of getting a hit. They eliminate five players from fielding the ball (the infielders), and they put pressure on the three outfielders, who must cover a vast area to get to the ball before it hits the ground. Generating inordinate discussion these days is launch angle — the angle at which the ball comes off the bat. So sophisticated has analytics become that the optimal angle to produce a home run has been set at from 25 to 35 degrees. That angle, combined with sufficient bat speed — the low number is 95 miles per hour — should give a ball sufficient distance to leave the playing area.
Fly balls are considered more productive than ground balls. “Ground balls are outs,” claimed Josh Donaldson, American League MVP in 2015. “If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.” At the major league level, most balls hit on the ground turn into outs. Even the grounders that make it through the infield are only singles, whereas the fly balls that aren’t caught and don’t leave the park often result in doubles or triples.
But when you lose ground balls, you lose a lot of action — players move, players field, players run and throw when the ball is hit on the ground. The whole infield is in motion. Offensively, you completely lose the concept of small ball — bunting for base hits, the hit and run, hitting it on the ground the other way, trying to hit singles up the middle. The whole idea of manufacturing runs, the staple of many great teams of history, is eliminated from the game.
All these hitters swinging up, and swinging hard, has produced more home runs, true, but it has generated more strikeouts as well. Pitchers, logically, rather than pitching to put the ball in play, as pitchers in former times often did, try to avoid bat contact altogether. They pitch for the strikeout. And strikeout numbers have gone over the moon, increasing by almost 25 percent in the last decade, from about 36,000 in 2012 to over 41,000 in 2018. In the 2018 season, there were more strikeouts than base hits, 41,207 to 41,019.
Baseball writer Travis Koch sums up what sabermetrics has wrought:
Under sabermetric rule, baseball has simplified to a game of home runs and strikeouts. Sabermatricians have determined the most effective way to score runs is via the home run, which has hitters obsessed with launch angle and driving the ball to their stronger pull-side. Higher launch angles produce more homers but also more whiffs.
Increased swings and misses play perfectly to a pitcher’s intention of striking everyone out. Sabermetrics has persuaded pitchers to pursue a strikeout at all costs because a ball in play is susceptible to misplays and bad luck. As a result, contact pitchers are losing favor, and the new generation of pitchers is being trained to throw harder and harder.
All of this translates to one thing: less on-field action. Only 15.8 percent of pitches in a game this season will be put in play, which is down from 18.3 percent in 2011. Verducci comments,
And because the goal of pitching has become avoidance of contact, not just getting outs — a passive-aggressive game with more breaking pitches — there are 14 more pitches in a nine-inning game than there were a decade ago. More pitches. Less contact. More dead time. It adds up to 259 pitches per game without the ball in play, up from 239 just 10 years ago and 213 from 1988, when pitch data began. In 2011 fans waited on average three minutes, 18 seconds to see a ball put in play. Last year the wait was four minutes.
The length of games and the lack of action have prompted the suits in the league office to tinker with the rules. The three-batter law and pitchless intentional walks are a product of their thinking.
Both look to be here to stay, as does the complimentary runner at second base starting in the 10th inning. This innovation was hailed as a great success — extra-inning games in 2020 ended in the 10th 69 percent of the time, up from 46 percent of the time in the three previous years; TV viewership, according to one metric, as much as doubled because of the change. But this rule change smacks of slow-pitch softball, where leagues try restrict games to an hour’s length. It seems beneath the stature of big-league baseball, and it plays havoc with the record book and statistical comparisons between eras.
Other measures are being tried out in the minor leagues. Rule changes in triple-A and high-A ball this year have been employed to incentivize base running. The bases themselves are being increased by three inches on all sides, from 15 inches square to 18 inches square. The runner on first is thus a little closer to second when he takes off on a steal attempt. Also, pitchers are being forced to step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff. This will reduce dramatically successful pickoffs, especially for left-handed pitchers.
An electronic, automatic, and consistent strike zone is also in the works, currently being experimented with at the single-A level. This will theoretically take a lot of the judgment out of strike-and-ball calls and lower the strikeout rate. But experts say it needs more development before it’s ready, and the idea of machines umpiring a baseball game seems, well, un-American.
Also, one minor league is addressing directly the problem of defensive shifts. So exact have the analytics become that every hit of every player can be charted and diagrammed. Defenders can thus position themselves in the exact spots certain players are likely to hit the ball. A rule adopted in double-A ball this year will require four players to have their feet on the infield dirt.
But these measures are just picking at the edges of the problem. The big change, the panacea to pace problems, is a pitch clock. A 15-second clock is being experimented with in low-A ball, out west. The current wait between pitches is about 25 seconds and rising. “Just since 2011, players take 2.6 seconds more between pitches, which has added 13 minutes, 17 seconds of pure dead time to a game,” Verducci writes.
A 15-second clock would curtail that delay, and it would also eliminate much of routinized activity at the plate. Gone would a batter stepping out of the box to un-Velcro and re-Velcro his batting gloves after every single pitch, as well as everything that follows that: the slow, meticulous regripping of the bat, the resolute digging in of the back foot, the waving of the bat a few times across the plate. There won’t be time; he’ll have to suck it up and address the pitched baseball.
Of course, the idea will not go down smoothly in all quarters. All-star pitcher Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals has gone on record against the idea: The pitch clock “just shouldn’t be in the game,” he said. “Having a pitch clock, if you have ball-strike implications, that’s messing with the fabric of the game. There’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in baseball for a reason.” He joins many others: in 2018, MLB players were said to be united against the idea.
A pitch clock sounds like a win-win. It would speed up games, no question. Plus, the strikeouts would not last as long.
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