We live in the age of enlightenment on the diamond, baseball’s age of overwhelming information. Almost everything can be neatly measured and quantified, packaged and presented, studied and optimized. The advent of analytics and the infusion of Ivy League intellect into the game have resulted in remarkable advancements in the way baseball is played and evaluated, turning subjective beliefs into objectively optimal methods.
Much of the mystery is gone from baseball, but so is the variety. Analytics have rendered baseball more efficient and less entertaining. Groupthink has taken a tyrannical grip on the sport. It’s all boilerplate baseball now. Every team believes in essentially the same principles and plays essentially the same style. The game’s new conventional wisdom is unassailable, backed by raw data and cold, hard numbers, resulting in less deviation in playing styles.
“Game of Thrones” had an aspirant for the Iron Throne who billed himself as the one true king. Baseball has the one true way to play, which is based on the game’s three true outcomes — walks, strikeouts, and home runs. They have enveloped the game like vines blanketing a brick wall, smothering action and intrigue. Meanwhile, diversity of approach has gone the way of the dodo bird.
Clubs like the 1985 go-go St. Louis Cardinals, who built their team on pitching, defense, and Olympic sprinter speed, are extinct. Those Cardinals, who lost in the World Series, led the majors in triples (59) and stole 314 bases, 132 more than the next best team and 254 more than the team with the fewest steals that year, the San Diego Padres. (The Red Sox were second to last with 66 steals.)
In boxing, they say that styles make a fight, the notion that contrasting approaches foster an entertaining product. But baseball has lost a lot of its contrast. It feels like everyone is employing the same baseball belief system, and that’s becoming a bit boring. I’m nostalgic for the old days of different brands of baseball.
There used to be a wider spectrum of acceptable ways to win. There were teams that were built on athleticism, like those Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals clubs of the late 1970s and the 1980s. There were teams that were built to play to contact offensively. There were teams that were built to pitch to contact. There were teams like the Earl Weaver-era Baltimore Orioles and the Jim Rice-era Red Sox that were built to play for the three-run homer.
Diversity and divergence existed on the matter of how to construct a winning baseball club. Sabermetricians would say there was some ignorance, too. True. But variety is the spice of life.
Now, baseball has been boiled down to and based entirely upon four actions — home runs, strikeouts, walks, and bullpenning, that’s the gospel of the game, resulting in largely homogenous hardball.
Everyone knows you need power hitters and power pitchers. Velo is king. Keeping the ball out of play and putting it out of play are de rigueur.
That’s what pitch velocity, spin rate, exit velocity, and launch angle translate to in reality, the ability of a pitcher to keep the ball out of play and the ability of the hitter to put it out of play.
Last season was the first one in MLB history when there were more strikeouts (41,207) than hits (41,020). It’s on pace to happen again this season. Going into Saturday, MLB games averaged 8.72 strikeouts per game, which would be an all-time high, according to baseball-reference.com. Hits were at 8.54 per game.
The stigma of the strikeout is gone. There are so many whiffs that baseball could get into the wind farm business. Strikeouts have increased each of the last 11 seasons. They’re now viewed as a necessary evil in pursuit of the most desirable and efficient outcomes, walks and homers. They’re the cost of doing business with a bat. We’re on pace for an all-time high in homers in a season, with an average of 1.36 per game. The surest way to beat the epidemic of defensive shifts is to hit the ball over them. The preferred approach these days is all or nothing.
Perhaps, the apotheosis of this attitude occurred in Houston earlier this month. The same night the Bruins dropped Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, June 12, the Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Houston Astros, 6-3, in 14 innings, despite striking out 24 times in the game. The Brewers slugged four homers, including a two-run shot from Mike Moustakas in the 14th that proved the difference. The teams combined for 38 strikeouts and 15 hits.
Not to be outdone, the Colorado Rockies have actually had two games in which they struck out 24 times this year, including a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox in 11 innings May 14. The Rockies other 24-K day was understandable, coming in an 18-inning loss April 12 in San Francisco.
The game in 2019 has been distilled down to bullpenning and the holy trinity of true outcomes. That explains why this year pitches per plate appearance are at an all-time high, 3.92, as of Friday, and walks were at 3.32 per game, which would be the highest total since 2009. The 1985 Cardinals would be scoffed at in today’s game. Stolen bases per game this year were at 0.48, on pace for the lowest since 1971. To loosely paraphrase late Sox GM Lou Gorman, “What would we do today with Willie McGee and Vince Coleman?”
There are always unintended consequences of evolution and technological advancement. The uniformity plaguing baseball is one of them.
Even when a team does come up with something new and novel it quickly becomes adopted as the norm. The Tampa Bay Rays pioneered the concept of openers last year due to injuries and a constant lack of resources. Now, it has become prevalent across Major League Baseball. Heavyweights such as the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs have adopted the concept at times this season. It’s what the smart kids do now.
By nature, professional sports is a copy-cat field. If one team has success with an approach or strategy, other teams are bound to attempt to duplicate it. But it feels like baseball, driven by analytics, has become monotheistic. Teams are all looking for the same attributes. The variance is in the resources they have to acquire those attributes.
As an industry, baseball has increased the depth of its knowledge by a revolutionary degree since the dawn of the 21st century.
We’re light years beyond Moneyball. But the game has lost something, too — teams with distinct and varying approaches that made for easily identifiable traits and great entertainment value.
Progress comes at a price.