What have they done to my game?
Baseballs are flying out of ballparks in record numbers. They are on pace this year to go over 6,000! Hitters are conversely striking out in record numbers. Managers are using relief pitchers in record numbers and the game itself has become almost unrecognizable from the tidy 2½-hour strategy-fests that so captured the nation’s conscience for over 100 years. Strategy? There is no strategy in baseball anymore, unless you consider the constant trips to the mound by managers from the sixth inning on in search of the right matchup.
Used to be that a big part of manager strategy in baseball was when to remove the starting pitcher. Now it’s done for them: 100 pitches or six innings, whichever comes first. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the average number of pitchers per game in 1978 was 4.8. Since then it has gradually increased to 5.8 in 1987, 7.0 in 1997, to 8.2 this season, the third year in a row it has exceeded eight. And it figures to go higher yet as the new “six-inning complete game” becomes the norm.
But while this could be considered the major factor in time-of-games inching ever upward again — to 3:04 this year after baseball, upon implementing a number of speed-up measures, had succeeded in getting it under 3:00, to 2:56 in 2015 — it is not the only one. Players are seeing more and more pitches, counts are longer, with the end result being a preponderance of strikeouts. In 2005, the average strikeouts per game was 12.6. It jumped to 14.1 in 2010, 15.1 in 2013 and this season it is 16.5.
Strategy? Today, the managers’ strategy is to sit around and wait for the three-run homer. Earl Weaver is kicking in his grave, wishing he could come back and manage again. Hit-and-run? Bunt? Put the runners in motion? When do we ever see any of those things anymore? A big part of the reason is because simple hits per-game are down dramatically, so there are also fewer base runners with which managers can strategize.
At the same time, there is now this obsession throughout baseball with velocity, whether it be the pitchers’ velocity or the velocity with which baseballs are leaving the ballparks. The former is what is causing so many pitchers to fall victim to Tommy John surgery, since velocity was a part of their life from the time they were 13-year old Little Leaguers being groomed for a big money bonus by the time they graduated from high school. The latter is just useless information that will nevertheless soon be used by agents as another asset to boost their hitter clients’ value.
“Money,” said a high level baseball exec, “is what all of this is all about. Home runs translate into money. That’s why players today don’t care about striking out, as long as they’re hitting home runs that will generate bigger contracts. What’s troubling to me is that most of our general managers don’t seem to give a s–t about all the strikeouts by the hitters either. It’s the same thing with the pitchers. The higher their velocity in high school the bigger the bonus they can expect to get, and the harder they throw the more likely it seems they’re eventually gonna get hurt.
“But I’ll be honest. I don’t know how we can fix this. It’s gotten so out of hand it’s going to be almost impossible to reverse.”
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is equally concerned. Last month, Manfred announced the formation of a reconstituted Competition Committee assigned to further study measures to speed up the pace of games and to look into all the other issues with pitchers. There are four managers — Joe Girardi, Mike Matheny, Dave Roberts and Buck Showalter — on the committee and maybe they can explain why the managers have allowed the “six-inning complete game” and the increasing amount of relievers to become the new baseball.
John Smoltz is also on the committee, which is a good thing, because he can reiterate what he’s been saying for years — unfortunately so far to deaf ears — that “we are training athletes for sprints when some of them should be doing marathons. We’re developing guys to throw max effort instead of just pitching. It’s going to take an organization not so consumed with analytics.”
What is not clear is whether Manfred, the union and the other baseball poohbahs have had any discussions about the elephant in the room — which would be wide scale quiet speculation that, with all these homers, PEDs have once again reared their ugly head in the game and that the players have found a way to get around testing. According to Statcast, the number of homers hit at least 450 feet is on pace to be up 31% from two years ago. Something is going on here.
“It seems that more MLB players are learning how to circumvent the drug testing program that is not truly a random program since players know they will primarily be tested at the ballpark,” Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO who is now a prominent anti-doping advocate, said Thursday. “As soon as they leave the ballpark, they can use fast acting forms of testosterone, including creams, jells and micro-doping techniques that do provide several hours of accelerated tissue repair and overnight benefits, and by the time they get back to the ballpark they know they will test within the allowable limit.”