Baseball has a fan-interest problem because “chicks dig the long ball,” while making for a quaint phrase, just isn’t true. The complex chess match of baseball includes navigating players around each of the 4 bases, leading to a wealth of different situations. HRs aren’t strategically fascinating, especially when they are not even an unusual achievement.
MLB insists, speaking through its ever-lengthening nose, that the baseballs were not juiced in any way in 2019, yet it doesn’t take a Jamba Juice senior executive to deduce that balls were flying like never before. And no, it wasn’t just the “launch angle era” of batters changing their approaches — medium fly balls were carrying to the bleachers, until the post-season came and suddenly, magically, they weren’t.
Here’s the problem: with increased HRs come increased BBs and increased Ks. Why? Pitchers have to nibble more when strikes are so prone to being sent into the stratosphere, leading to an increase in bases on balls. Pitchers also have great incentive to miss bats when “balls in play” keep finding gaps and cheap seats.
And so baseball became, in 2019, a game in which 1B, 2B, and 3B became bit players in a game of “all or nothing,” a game in which “small ball” — stolen bases, hit-and-run, bunting, dashing from 1B to 3B — went virtually into hibernation because HRs score you from anywhere and Ks score you from nowhere. The “2 strike approach” became “swing from your ass one more time!”
MLB needs to remember what create the very most exciting moments in a baseball game. As A’s fans can appreciate, great defense is electric. A speedster legging out a triple is perhaps the single most dramatic at bat a hitter can have. A perfectly executed hit-and-run is far more appealing on the baseball field than it is on the highway. Managers and players maneuvering runners around the bases through a daring SB, a calculated sacrifice bunt, a 2-strike “pitcher’s pitch” slapped the other way through the hole — that’s baseball. They put 4 different bases out there for a reason.
What MLB ought to do is a complete 180 and that is to deaden the ball. Only the perfect swing on that hanging slider or center cut fastball should produce the “holy grail” outcome of a HR. The result would be pitchers throwing more strikes (which, in turn, speeds up the game), batters using the whole field, a count-based approach and a situation-based approach, and defense taking center stage.
The focus of a baseball game should, ultimately, be on “balls in play”. BBs and Ks were invented to put limits on how many times a pitcher could try to get you to chase or miss a corner, and how many failures a batter was allowed before giving up his turn. HRs were the ultimate reward for the ultimate hit, not intended to be doled out like skittles on Hallowe’en.
What balls in play, “small ball,” situational hitting, daring base running, and electric defense have in common is that they are interesting. An endless parade of HRs, BBs, Ks, long counts, the same approach with any count or situation? Not fascinating.
A bit of a “dead ball” era would be great for the game of baseball, bringing back into focus players with skills that enhance the game: for position players speed, contact skills, defensive acumen, bat control, for pitchers command of the strike zone, deception and the ability to “control bat speed”.
I think it is no coincidence that the 2019 post-season and World Series were legitimately riveting. They produced “real baseball” with endless fascinating scenarios and outcomes that resulted on balls in play. The occasional HRs, the BBs and Ks, were mostly a backdrop against a larger canvas of action.
And what do you know? The balls that had flying in record batches all season were suddenly settling lazily into the gloves of the outfielders. It’s high time for a dead ball era defined by “balls in play”. Let’s hope the 2020 season picks up where the 2019 post-season left off because this fan is more than ready for a return to “real baseball”.