Baseball is broken, though, as the Cubs neither got to the World Series nor reverted to being lovable losers. (Paging Kurt Schlichter: how many Fredocons are Cub fans?) Let us count the ways:
Today’s all-or-nothing baseball is too one-dimensional. There are too many strikeouts — for the first time in history, more than hits, a lot more. And the number is increasing for the 13th consecutive season. Also, too many of the hits are homeruns. It was imprecise for Crash Davis (Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham) to say that strikeouts are “fascist,” but he was right that they are “boring,” at least in excessive quantities. So are home runs (and caviar, and everything else except martinis). In about one-third of today’s at-bats, the ball is not put in play (home-run balls are put in the seats). Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci notes that by the end of June there were “more strikeouts in half a season than there were in the entire 1980 season.” And “on average, you have to wait [3 minutes and 45 seconds] between balls put in play — 41 seconds longer between movement than 20 years ago.” Steals (hence pitchouts), sacrifice bunts, hit-and-run plays — interesting things for fans — are becoming rarer.Yes, and all those April postponements might have contributed to the Cubs wearing out as September wore on. Let's focus on those things that are making the game boring.
This is not the main reason attendance is down. The weather is: In 35 April games, the temperature was below 40; in the entire 2017 season, only one. But the all-or-nothing style is not helping, and it is encouraged by the exponential increase in the use of defensive shifts — from 2,357 in 2011 to a projected 36,000 this season.
[S]hifts cause pitchers to target a particular part of the plate in order to increase the probability that the batter will hit into the shift. This results in more walks, which batters like because high on-base percentages are rewarded: Today, baseball’s compensation system is an incentive for walks, and for equanimity about striking out, if home runs are frequent.Yes, or learn how to spoil pitches that are likely to be hit into the shift, which might be a way of inducing a mistake as the pitch count mounts, or of working the pitcher for the walk.
What baseball people call “analytics,” and less-scientific people call information, has produced all this: Particular hitters have particular tendencies; defenses adjust accordingly. Now, let us, as the lawyers say, stipulate that more information is always better than less. But for the moment, information is making offense anemic. So, there is a proposal afoot — this is fascism — to ban shifts, to say there must be two infielders on either side of second base, or even that as the pitch is delivered all infielders must be on the infield dirt. This would leave some, but much less, ability to manage defenses. It would, however, short-circuit market-like adjustments.
Incessant radical shifting will persist until it is moderated by demand summoning a supply of some Rod Carew-like hitters. A Hall of Famer, Carew was a magician who wielded a bat like a wand, spraying hits hither and yon, like Wee Willie (“Hit ’em where they ain’t”) Keeler. The market is severely meritocratic, so some hitters who cannot modify their tendencies and learn to discourage shifts by hitting away from them might need to consider different careers.
Managing defenses, though, involves more than pitching to induce ground balls into the shift. Sometimes, it's about inducing outs by depriving the top of the order from seeing as many pitches.
Sergio Romo struck out the side against the Angels on Saturday, then struck out three more batters in 1 1/3 innings the following afternoon. It was an unusual pairing of performances for one small reason: Romo had never struck out three batters on consecutive days before. And it was an unusual pairing of performances for one massive, potentially paradigm-shifting reason: Romo served as the modern era’s first designated “opener.”Baseball writers noticed this phenomenon at the beginning of the season, and Milwaukee Brewer manager Craig Counsell used creative substitution to get to within eight innings of the World Series, along the way creating all sorts of havoc for the Dodgers' platooning. The terminology in Milwaukee is "first out-getter," and pitch counts are less important than outs recorded, and hitters deprived of opportunities to see a pitcher's style.
The new terminology itself indicates the novelty of Romo’s weekend role. He started two games after making his first 588 career appearances as a reliever. But he was doing so on consecutive days, with the express purpose of clearing the top of the Angels’ lineup before making way for pitchers—normally starters—who would give Tampa Bay more innings. Romo was technically starting, but not in the traditional sense of the term. He was opening—the games, and, perhaps, a futuristic path to ordering a pitching staff.
The average starter in 2018 faces just 23 batters—the lowest total ever and the latest point in a decades-long decline. That number means a starting pitcher faces a lineup two and a half times, on average. Because teams know that starters tend to perform worse as they progress later into a game, it follows that they’d restrict those third-time-through-the-order matchups to the worse hitters at the bottom of a lineup, rather than the Mike Trouts and Justin Uptons at the top.Yes, produce eighteen outs, then have a variety of leverage pitchers available for hold or save situations.
Teams pitch relievers, in general, because they want livelier, fresher, and often more effective—at least in short bursts—arms to combat a team’s toughest hitters in high-leverage situations. But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.That "short burst" suggests differences in the training and conditioning of pitchers. The act of throwing a hundred pitches, give or take, to record eighteen to 21 outs, every fourth or fifth day, is different from the act of throwing forty to fifty pitches to record six to nine outs every second or third day.
Note, though, that the initial out-getter appears to be a thing in the American League, where pitchers don't bat. Now the powers that be in the National League consider doing the same thing. It's not just the potential end of the sacrifice bunt, as Brett Joshpe frets, but it's the art of managing defenses that gets messed up. The recently concluded National League championship included a number of double shifts, as position players would substitute in for pitchers in order to keep the pitcher's spot from coming up in the next inning, and a Brewer relief pitcher hit a home run, and another Brewer relief pitcher came up to bat with the bases loaded and two out in order that the setup man and closer, who were being held in reserve in case the lead got slim, did not have to be used.
With Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts platooning some of his hitters, it's not clear that he's going to have many more degrees of freedom with one (or two?) players intended as the designated hitter in the Fenway Park games.