John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s terrific official historian, posted a video the other day that shows how great a game baseball once was and how wonderful it could be again.
The content showed a pair of Japanese teams in the bottom of the ninth inning with the home team trailing 2-1 and runners at second and third base. The batter dropped down a suicide bunt.
Now, for the analytics-addled crowd, a suicide bunt requires the batter to make contact because the runner on third is not waiting around. He is barreling toward home plate. Miss the bunt and, well, it’s suicide.
The bunt was dropped down perfectly. The runner on third scored the tying run and as the defense tried to retire the hitter, the runner on second kept on going and slid home with the winning run.
That’s old school baseball. Put the ball in play. Make something happen. Force the action. It is in stark contrast to the stand-around style preached by the Sabermetric-Analytic crowd which lives for strikeouts, home runs and defensive shifts. That approach has baseball in a bit of trouble.
Never mind that America’s most popular sport, professional football, is about to start its season. That would be trouble enough for the Grand Old Game. But baseball has created its own headache with the new age approach to the game.
At the All-Star break, strikeout rates were at an all-time high and batting averages were at a 46-year low. In 1990, teams averaged a little over nine hits per game and a little less than five strikeouts. Today, the hits and strikeouts are about even at eight apiece.
Every team has a tech unit measuring spin rates on pitches, launch angle on batted balls, computers spitting out printouts of player tendencies. It is data-driven baseball. How about we just play the game instead of trying to reduce it to a mathematical formula?
Modern baseball requires batters swinging for the fences, pitchers trying to overpower them and defenders standing in very odd places. Pitchers are limited usually to 100 pitches or six innings, setting off a parade of relievers, a formula for burning out bullpens. The game is on a pace to have more strikeouts than hits this season for the first time in history. Major League hitters are struggling along with the lowest collective batting average since 1972. It is not your father’s baseball but the nerds who have taken over the game swear by it.
There is, however, a problem. The fans appear to be bored by it. Attendance is down around the major leagues. That alarms those who run the game and they are at a loss for a solution. They decided the pace of games was a problem so they gave us replays which requires an umpire huddle to consider close calls. The game stops. The clock does not.
There may not be a simple solution as long as baseball embraces the changes it has imposed on itself. A less than sympathetic observer might suggest a single word to describe what modern baseball is doing.