Playoff baseball is glorious, but MLB must continue to change
Baseball gets cold in October. It rarely gets boring. It’s the only time I don’t scream at pitchers to throw the dad-gum ball.
It’s a glorious time when all the dawdling actually fuels the drama, allowing important moments to breathe and expand, when television cameras capture fans in various states of torment.
Playoff baseball is also dangerous. Rabid fan engagement can easily fool the sport’s hierarchy into believing nothing is wrong with their business model. Same with all the money still pouring into MLB at record rates from media rights fees.
That’s why Commissioner Rob Manfred must resist the status quo and remain resolute about radical change. Because MLB’s problems aren’t going away by themselves. To wit:
Analytics have spawned demoralizing, disorienting defensive shifts. Has your favorite team ever been victimized by a perfectly-positioned infielder, like a shortstop standing in the outfield grass behind second base, turning a sure hit into an easy out?
It’s the worst. It’s proof that too much information can be a very bad thing.
These defensive shifts have also spawned the launch-angle theory, an upper-cut approach where most everyone is swinging for the fences. Groundballs are no longer desirable, and putting the ball in play is no longer considered winning strategy.
The home runs records set in 2019 are ridiculous. The all-time single-season record fell by 671 home runs. That’s 11 more than Willie Mays hit in his career. Teams hit six or more home runs in a single game 34 times. And you know what else? It’s all good.
The record book has already been desecrated by PED users. Fans love prodigious displays of power. A primary attraction of sports is watching feats that ordinary people are incapable of performing. Tape-measure home runs certainly qualify.
It’s the flipside that is killing the game.
Today’s hitters are also whiffing at alarming rates. Do you remember when striking out 100 times was the third rail for professional hitters, worthy of a scarlet letter?
In 2019, a whopping 157 players struck out at least 100 times. As a result, the growing pockets of inactivity during a regular-season game keeps growing more and more insufferable. It’s why baseball can be so rich and so vulnerable at the same time, so appealing in October after flirting with extinction in the previous six months.
Nobody knows where it’s all going because today’s baseballs are obviously full of moon juice. They’re spinning hard, flying fast and traveling extremely far. What if this is just a manufacturing glitch? What if they’re dead and dull next season and all the home runs start turning into long outs? Nobody will tolerate all the strikeouts in that scenario.
There are all sorts of tweaks on the road to reform: a strict pitch clock that keeps the game moving; limiting the deployment of relief pitchers, the ones contributing to the strikeout problem; smaller boutique stadiums that offer greater ambiance and intimacy, attacking the ongoing attendance problem; better marketing for young American stars like Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge and greater appreciation for players with brazen swagger, those unafraid to show real emotion on a baseball field; and a new generation of players who learn how to bunt with accuracy, the best weapon for all defensive shifts.
My preferred solution is considered sacrilege by most. I strongly believe in the the advent of seven-inning games, which will shorten the length of games while hastening the sense of urgency. And while diehards will scream blasphemy, diehards are not the problem. Their baseball worship will never wane, no matter how much the game changes. The solution is making young people love baseball. On their terms. As awful as that might sound.
For now, baseball has become what the NHL once was, the sport that benefits most when the postseason arrives.
Unfortunately, that’s not a compliment. It’s a death wish.
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Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.