Happy Bastille Day. In France, they will celebrate with what is considered to be the oldest and largest military parade in Europe. Here in Curmudgeon Central, I will celebrate by recounting some good news and some potentially good news – – maybe – – about baseball…
Don’t look now, but the Baltimore Orioles have won 10 straight games and as of this morning the team is a game over .500 in the middle of July. I certainly did not see that coming – – and I suspect that even the team brass had such a status filed under “Wild Dreams for 2022”. This is an extremely young team, and they are playing with enthusiasm; when they take the field or come to the plate, they look as though they are really enjoying what they are doing. They look like they are playing a game and not going through the motions of a person doing a job.
The Orioles are only 3 games behind in the race for the last wild card slot in the AL. This would be an incredible Cinderella story should they stay that close to contention over the next couple of months; but for now, this team is fun to watch and is a team that should be enjoyed for what they are doing now.
That’s some good news; now for some not so good news that might be better news in the future. MLB has a few endemic problems that need addressing:
- Pace of play is too slow.
- Over-reliance on analytics is hurting the game – – particularly the use of “The Shift”.
- The establishment of the “Universal DH” has not brought unbridled excitement to the games in 2022.
- Creation of playground scenarios like “ghost runners on second base” has not been particularly interesting.
- Umpiring – particularly home plate umpiring – is an embarrassment.
So, what are the baseball mavens going to do about any or all of these “issues”? Maybe there are rays of hope here – – and if not, there will come a time when fans might just think about Bastille Day and storm the barricades of MLB HQS.
First, the pace of play problem is clear and so are potential cures. The pitch clock used in minor league games works; if you do not believe that, please take yourself to a minor league game and try not to focus on the lower level of talent on display but focus on the action presented to you. The game is faster and more entertaining; pitchers do not get the ball back from the catcher and then take a stroll around the mound pondering the origins of the universe; batters do not step out of the batter’s box on every pitch to adjust their gloves even if they took the previous pitch. The games move; there is action; it is far more dynamic than a game in MLB.
- MLB needs a pitch clock and restrictions that are enforced on batters leaving the batter’s box.
The over-reliance on analytics is hurting MLB. Seriously now, are you better entertained listening to or watching a baseball game when you are informed about a player’s WAR or a pitcher’s spin rate or the exit velocity of a line drive? I certainly am not. Moreover, the most successful achievement of baseball analytics – – “The Shift” – – is a major factor in the number of strikeouts in the game today. When over-shifted defenders make “singles hitting” much less likely, many batters adjust their swings to hit the ball over the defense and out of the park. That has always been – and continues to be – a boom or bust hitting strategy.
- MLB will experiment with a new “anti-Shift” rule in the low minor leagues starting now. [Hat tip to Jayson Stark here]
Minor league games have made teams put two players on either side of second base for this season. That has not had much of an effect on “hitting against The Shift”, because defenders line up inches to the required side of second base and then slide to the other side as soon as the pitch is released. Nice try, MLB…
The new experiment will put two lines on the infield; it will create an area of the infield that looks like a slice of pizza. Picture that the line from first to second base is extended to the outfield grass and the same thing happens to the line from third base to second base. Under the experimental rule, no defensive player may be in that excluded area and all infield defenders must be on the dirt when the pitch is thrown.
This is an interesting experiment, but is this “cure” a cockamamie creation that will end up as welcome as the infamous “ghost runner on second base” to start extra innings? And just for the record:
- MLB needs to get rid of that “ghost runner” nonsense ASAP.
I am on record for decades that I do not like the DH and after watching some NL games this year where they have adopted the DH, I have to say that I am not blown away by the dynamism those hitters bring to the game. Yes, they hit better than pitchers – – but they are not lighting it up on a nightly basis. I do observe, however, that DH players do strike out an awful lot.
And finally, let me talk about umpiring – – particularly home plate umpiring. I have not been a fan of “robo-umps” and if you think electronic sign-stealing was bad, wait until you learn about some team adjusting the “robo-ump’s” strike zone from half inning to half inning. And even with all that negative thinking in place, I have to say that every time I watch Angel Hernandez behind the plate, I am forced to believe that “robo-umps” are a necessity. I am not picking on Hernandez here; he is reliably the worst of the home plate umpires in terms of calling balls and strikes relative to a home plate that fixed in place on the field, but other umpires are not paragons in this endeavor. If there are two umpires that have the same strike zone game-to-game, I think I would like to see video evidence of that. I never thought I would get to this point, but:
- MLB needs seriously to consider using electronics to call balls and strikes.
Baseball is a great game to see in person. However, the future of baseball as a major sport in the US demands that it be an entertaining TV or streaming property. That is where the big money will come from to support paying players guaranteed salaries of $400M or more; there is not enough revenue that will come from the live gate to make that sort of thing viable. And on TV, baseball does not appeal to a young audience in 2022; the fanbase is aging – and dying off – and it is not being replenished with viewers that create TV ratings. The real warning sign seems to be ignored; in addition to low TV ratings, average attendance in the parks is also dropping. I am not trying to be Chicken Little here; attendance is not dropping in a free-fall, but it has been eroding slowly for the last 5 years or so. The game must adapt, but the game is adapting painfully slowly.
Finally, in honor of Bastille Day, let me close with this definition from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:
“France: A country that inspires an almost pathological contempt in Americans who, much to their dismay, cannot eat all the freaking Brie they want and still not gain any weight.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………