So I found this article in the Atlantic that takes a bunch of baseball stats, does some analysis on them, and basically sets out to explain why baseball is becoming less and less interesting, and why less and less people are tuning in to watch it. You can find that link here.
It’s a fine article. It makes some good points. I don’t fully disagree with it. I showed it to my dad, and he had some strong opinions on it, and I wanted to post them because I think they’re really interesting to read through. My dad’s been watching and listening to baseball since he was a kid, so he has a wider perspective on this. I’ll let him do the talking (barely edited for clarity).
I read this and wanted to reach through the screen to punch the writer. Yes, power numbers are down and it can be attributed to fewer juiced batters. Also, more interleague play takes a few DHs out of at-bats. Yes, umpires are calling the “low” strike more consistently, but there are players (like Matt Adams in St. Louis) that are not only accustomed to the low strike, they thrive on it. The strike zone means nothing in this equation. The near-extinction of gorilla ball is a difference maker. Someone in the comments [of the Atlantic article] made mention of aluminum bats, but with the BBCOR standards, alloy bats play like wood. There’s an outcry about the lack of home runs in college ball, particularly the CWS. People don’t want to see refined pitching, speedy defenses, and calculated risks. They want cavemen with clubs.
As to the popularity, baseball is not a violent game. Football is. Americans like violence. With the rules changes that nearly eliminate home plate collisions, you make the play at the plate less exciting, less chest-thumping. There is more of an emphasis on speed and defense. You’ve heard, perhaps, of Whitey Herzog, onetime manager of Kansas City and St. Louis. Hey built his teams around a philosophy that has come to be known as “Whiteyball.” You’ve heard of Moneyball, this is similar. Pitchers pitch to contact, defense is fast and agile. You had players like Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Tommy Herr, Terry Pendleton, and Vince Coleman—players whose first step was so quick that they could chase down a ball and make a play no matter where it was. On the offense, guys drew walks, infield singles, then stole bases. Station-to-station baseball. Even catchers bunted. There was the occasional Jack Clark, the power threat at first base, but mostly small-ball. I once watched a game where Vince Coleman walked to start the game, stole second on the next pitch, and scored on an infield single (yes, infield, yes, from second) by Willie McGee. Seven pitches into the game, one run and no outs with no balls leaving the infield. It’s hard to defend raw speed.
One of the less-talked-about things that hurts baseball is radio. You can’t miss a day without a baseball game on cable. But if you don’t have cable, that dynamic is different. If you go back in time when baseball had fewer teams and more dedicated fans, the difference was radio. Yep, yep, yep—radio. If you couldn’t be at the game, you listened to it on the radio. Nowadays there are few games on the radio. More emphasis is put on TV and streaming media. You don’t reach the impoverished areas of southwest Detroit, south Chicago, or south-central Los Angeles with streaming media. You reach it with radio. Satellite radio has games on all the time—for a price. I don’t know too many ten-year-olds that have satellite radio. Even fewer who listen to ballgames with their dad.
MLB already has gone to a flat-seamed ball. It reduces the break on a curve. Makes it easier to hit. In the 70s, they made the mound shorter, made it easier for batters to see and catch up with the fastball. I think dropping the mound too much makes this look like slow-pitch softball.
No national stars? Sure there are, one for every team. The problem is that there was an era of expansion in which there were barely enough players to staff and now there is a dilution of talent between Low-A, High-A, AA, AAA, Fall League, Winter Ball, and The Show. There are sooooo many players out there that need reps and exposure and to play. It’s hard to have a star when you have four guys able to take his position if he gets the sniffles. Last year, Matt Adams was hitting .485 after about 100 at-bats and was not playing every day. The Cards also had the highest scoring offense in the NL. Everybody was producing. Adams had an 0-fer and sat out three days. Meanwhile, Allen Craig had an historic season. Two guys nobody had heard of last year ended up being just what the team needed—after letting Carlos Beltran go in the offseason and trading David Freese (yes, World Series hero) a season after letting MVP Albert Pujols go. Stars are expensive and mobile. If you develop, you don’t need stars, you’ve got a guy at AAA on speed dial.
This turned into more of a rant than I had expected. I, for one, enjoy the calculated chess match that is current major-league ball. 20-16 games devastate pitching staffs and can ruin a road trip. 4-3 games over after 2 ½ hours are thrilling. I like football and hockey, but baseball will always be my true love.
The second-to-last paragraph is probably my favorite, and I think contributes heavily to the problems facing the MLB. Name recognition is hard enough with huge rotating staffs, let alone guys that switch teams. There are relatively few interesting plays (as in Whiteyball) because everyone is just that consistent and good. They have to be, or they won’t be in the majors long.
I have a lot of trouble watching baseball on TV. Even if it’s one of my teams! This is the saddest thing to me. Three years ago, I was watching a World Series game — a World Series game! — in which my Cardinals were playing, and it was a close game… and I was drifting off every ten minutes as the game dragged on for more than four hours.
Maybe I’m just not patient. Maybe I’m not a “true fan.” But heck if I am going to try extraordinarily hard to watch a sport on TV if I’ve gotta hit the caffeine just to make it through.