We all understand how hard Major League Baseball is working to quicken the pace of game, addressing shrinking attention spans and what one member of the study committee calls “the fragmented and competitive entertainment landscape.”
We understand why instant replay is important to a younger generation, and, in fact, it has gotten increasingly efficient and credible in the early stage of its work in progress. And they have worked really hard to get it as right as it can be.
We understand that young pitchers today come in throwing 93+ MPH; hey, the Marlins had an intrasquad game this spring with 11 pitchers who threw between 96 and 101, and Nate Eovaldi, who has the highest average velocity of any starting pitcher in the game in 2013-14, didn’t even pitch that day.
We understand the decline in skilled, athletic college players, as the NCAA has all but eliminated scholarships and any chance minorities or poor kids can afford college baseball while the leaders of the NCAA roll in their football sugar daddies’ arms. In an effort to take agents out of the draft process, rewriting the draft has virtually eliminated any chance baseball can challenge bigtime college football for athletes.
But the National League on base average is .312, which means the league average player isn’t as good as Ruben Tejada. The American League average slugging percentage is .394, which means that the average American League player’s slugging percentage is lower than Houston’s Chris Carter, a .172 hitter. We get the younger attention span concept, we all hope that the rules of engagement can allow major league players to show the same level of fun that all of us had when we were 13.
When, in the past, offensive arms went off, they looked at these:
Indeed, 1968 was a period of indomitable pitching, of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average, Luis Tiant’s 1.60 ERA for the Indians, with 9 shutouts, 258 1/3 innings, 152 hits, 264 strikeouts. So they changed the rules, lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches.
It so happens that 1969 was also an expansion season, and history has shown the impact of expansion on pitching (go back and watch “Sixty One,” arguably the best baseball film ever made), and appreciate that the Maris/Mantle show came the first year of expansion with the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators. But by 1972, runs were again at a premium, there were historic players like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda and Ron Blomberg ready to hit with limited exposure to the field. And they called it the Designated Hitter. In a league then dominated by the Oakland and Baltimore markets, it made sense. So they changed, because tweaking isn’t twerking. It can work, in thoughtful moderation.
Where we are since industry-wide drug testing was put in place before the 2005 season:
The point was that in 1968 and 1972 they were willing to try rule changes, which other sports have done, sometimes excessively, but to adjust to trends and to what is tending on Twitter. ”Could we be seeing what the game looks like not only without PEDs but without amphetamines (that were accepted in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies)?” asks one club executive. “We are also dealing with a lack of impact players coming into our game. The talent pool is shrinking. We focus on (Mike) Trout and Bryce Harper and some of our great young players, but after that it becomes problematical.” Look no further than this year’s draft. No impact position players, especially at the infield and outfield corners.
In 2005, the Red Sox really wanted Jacoby Ellsbury, who was a leadoff hitter with great athleticism, with the 23d pick. That was the first year of full drug testing, and Boston GM Theo Epstein predicted “the game is going to change, and we’d better be preparing for that change.”
The Red Sox were hoping they could get a little-known outfielder from The College of Charleston in the third round named Brett Gardner. They figured Gardner would slide to them in the third round and took a catcher named Jon Egan in the second. Egan did not pan out. The Yanks grabbed Gardner ahead of them in the third round.
And how much has the game changed? Never mind that Ellsbury has hit double figures in homers once in his career. Gardner and Ellsbury went into Sunday’s games sixth and seventh, respectively, in WAR among American League outfielders. While we watch Dee Gordon with the Dodgers and Billy Hamilton with the Reds and wait on Micah Johnson with the White Sox and Mookie Betts with the Red Sox and see how increasingly important speed is becoming, we need to address another issue.
“It is ridiculous that impact lefthanded hitters like Joey Votto, David Ortiz, Shin-Soo Choo, Chase Utley and Anthony Rizzo will almost never face a righthanded pitcher from the seventh inning on,” says one National League GM. “Can’t we see some great hitters hit with games on the line? This whole matchups thing gets carried away, but everyone has two or three Randy Choates to throw at a Votto.”
Experienced managers howl in laughter and advise that MLB post orthopedic surgeons’ phone numbers in every clubhouse when the matchup computers get overloaded in the third or fourth innings of games and their managers are forced to be warming up right and lefthanders in the early innings. Pace of game? Is it thrilling to see five or six pitching changes a game? In 1972, a team used an average of 2.94 relievers per game. In 1992, 4.29. Now it’s 5.96.
What baseball needs is fewer pitching changes, fewer matchups; on July 27, 1979, the Orioles beat the White Sox 12-7, it was 8-5 in the fourth inning, Earl Weaver left Mike Flanagan in to throw a complete game and did so in 2:48. My suggestion is to limit rosters to 11 pitchers, which would open rosters to a hitter who could act as third catcher in extra-inning games, or a Tony Phillips kind of versatile performer. They could require that a reliever either finish an inning or have to face three hitters, but this way relievers would be required to have to retire batters from both sides of the plate and be groomed not to throw 3-5 pitches, but have to be used to 4-6 outs. Starters should pitch seven innings. Relievers should be able to get six outs on both sides of the plate.
That would limit matchups. Limit stalling while the next Randy Choate heats up to face Utley or Votto. Pace of game? Limit the number of combined visits by managers and pitching coaches to two a game—between them.
We have reams of pages of statistical data on why it’s dangerous to allow a starting pitcher to face a lineup the third time around the order. “I asked our guy whether we’re allowed to have 25 man pitching staffs,” laughed one veteran pitching coach. “Take away the value of starting pitchers’ innings and we’ll make a lot of surgeons a lot of money.”
In many ways the sport is in a golden era, certainly the best it has been run in terms of business. But there are disturbing numbers that indicate that fans aren’t going to flock to games decided by corner kicks, sidearming one pitcher matchups and five to seven pitching changes a night.
It’s worth at least a few new and creative ideas. How many 13 and 15 year olds are beginning to ask, “Is this becoming The Deadball Era, or is this the Polar Vortex?” Come the All-Star Break, it’s worth studying.