“Where it gets troubling, from a fan perspective, is tons and tons of strikeouts, no action, lots of pitching changes,” Manfred said. “That combination is troubling to me.”
The average time of a nine-inning game has risen to 3 hours 5 minutes this season, which would be the longest in history. Players are seeing 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, the most in the 30 seasons tracked by Baseball Reference. And this is the third season in a row that teams have averaged more than four pitchers per game, which had never happened before 2015.
“The game has, indeed, changed, and it’s been fascinating to watch,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ union. “I think a lot of that change is the result of how the game has been taught and what people are valuing along the way, and I think a lot of that is unfortunate.
“Having said that, fans like home runs, it seems. Fans like strikeouts, it seems. The game kind of ebbs and flows in shifts. It will be interesting to see if it has swung one way — no pun intended — and it swings back. Oftentimes, it happens based on how well a particular team does, and what the philosophy of that team may be, and then there’s copycats.”
Then again, the Kansas City Royals reached the World Series in 2014 and 2015, winning the second time, with an approach that emphasized contact and speed. Yet the Royals tailored their lineup to suit their spacious ballpark and see themselves as an outlier, not a trendsetter.
“It might not work for everybody, but it works for us,” said Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, who competed in the Home Run Derby on Monday and enjoys the power game. “It’s fun. It’s how the game is. There’s nothing you can really do about it other than figure out how to hit it. It’s baseball.”
It’s baseball today, anyway, and for highly competitive, highly skilled athletes, there is a certain thrill in the one-on-one, all-or-nothing confrontation. The average fastball velocity rises every year, and hitters have responded by essentially taking on the challenge.
“Competition raises everybody’s level,” Scherzer said. “So the hitters have had to become better hitters, and the only way they’re doing damage against some of these guys is to keep swinging for the fences, keep going for the home run. The pitching’s so good now that you just don’t see six consecutive singles anymore.”
He added: “I think the hitters have correctly identified that hey, if we swing for the fence a little bit more often, we can actually score more.”
Manfred reiterated that he was “absolutely certain,” through exhaustive testing, that the baseballs used in games still fall within the approved range of specifications. He said the league would also explore the effect of modern bats, and while Clark said that was not an area of emphasis for the union, “the improvement to the quality of the wood is apparent.”
Whatever the reasons, it is only natural that players would respond to the wishes of the people who pay them. Teams crave disciplined power hitters, who can intimidate many pitchers into nibbling around the edges of the strike zone, driving up pitch counts. They also want power pitchers, whose stuff is so good that they tend not to get quick outs.
“With strikeout pitchers, it’s gonna be 2-2 every time,” said Charlie Blackmon, the Colorado Rockies’ center fielder, who has 20 homers this season. “They might strike him out, and they might walk him. But it’s hard to hit these guys. If it was a bunch of guys throwing 89 miles an hour, I don’t think we would be having this issue. They would either get a hit or make an out right away.”
Blackmon said he does not like long games because they are harder on his body. But he also wants the freedom to step out of the batter’s box if he needs a quick break. The collective bargaining agreement gives Manfred the right to impose timesaving measures next season, such as a pitch clock. Players may grumble but would have no recourse.
“Rob hasn’t done anything that we’ve all dug our heels in on,” Cleveland Indians pitcher Andrew Miller said. “The positive is we all have the best interests in the game in mind. I don’t think anybody’s pushing anything that is going to ruin the game or we’re going to complain about.
“But the reality is, if we say no to a pitch clock one year, they can institute it the next year. We play the game, and we have pretty good opinions on stuff. I don’t want to say I want to be proven right and watch the pitch clock backfire, but I’m not a fan of the idea.”
Miller also said a smaller strike zone would be counterproductive.
“I’m very intrigued by why we have talked about making the strike zone smaller,” he said. “I think if you make it larger, they’d actually strike out less, because they’d put the ball in play more often.”
More balls in play would mean more action. But so much power, on the mound and at the plate, runs counter to that goal. Most changes Manfred could make — a pitch clock, a limit on visits to the mound or even on relief appearances — would probably have a similar effect as the new no-pitch intentional walk: They would be mostly cosmetic.
Baseball runs in cycles, so trend lines can always change. But for now, the evolution is exciting and exasperating, all at once.