Baseball Is Teetering On Boredom. Here’s How To Fix It.
Lots of shifts. No stolen bases. Lots of home runs. No sustained action. Yawwwwwnnnnn. But there is hope!
Rudiments and executed skills of the game of baseball have been greatly diminished in recent years. They’ve been replaced by the home run, exit velocities, and an endless parade of graphics, spreadsheets and launch angles. . For pitchers, it’s all about the strikeout. An Uncle Charlie on 0-2 or 1-2 has been mostly replaced by 97+ Octane gas that just simply blows away a hitter. MLB Network and ESPN highlight reels are dominated night after night by little else. And for a fan of all of the skills that make up the game of baseball, this is alarming.
How about good baserunning? That term today appears to be an oxymoron. I’ve witnessed more fundamental gaffes on the basepaths by these guys in one week than I used to see during an entire season. The Pirates Ke’Bryan Hayes recently missed first base during a home run trot.
How about making contact? Don’t get me wrong. I love watching a no-hitter. But a half-dozen of them by the end of May? A contributing factor is more and more hitters swinging for the fences -all the time- regardless of the situation.
How about laying down a drag bunt to surprise the third baseman? Nope. Most hitters can’t bunt on purpose, much less laying one down on the fly. It’s another lost art, yet another skill that has been swallowed up faster than a mom-and-pop wiped out by a new big-box store.
How about hit ‘em where they ain’t? While home runs this year are down about 8 percent from 2019’s pace, the longer trend is more telling. Four-baggers increased 20 percent since 2016, and a whopping 62 percent since 2014. Since the early 1990s, home runs have doubled. Contributing factors? Juiced ball, lower stitching, livelier bats.
How about out-thinking the hitter?
Today’s baseball athlete is bigger, stronger and faster than his predecessor of five, 10 and 20 years ago. Players are in better shape now than at any time in the game’s history. But what appears to be lacking are baseball instincts. Too much of a focus on the home run has left fundamental baseball in the rear-view mirror. Used to be, a pitching staff might have two guys that could throw 95+. Now nearly all of them can and with filthy movement. The portly pitcher with the crafty curveball who got away with it with sheer guile, is gone.
Clearly, Major League Baseball is out of balance.
Here’s how to solve it:
Step 1: Move the fences back 20-30 feet.
Now before the boo-birds come out on this one, consider this: basic dimensions of baseball fields for the most part have not changed much over the past 50+ years. While there are outliers (Comerica Park in Detroit and Colorado’s Coors Field are 420 and 415 feet to center, respectively), most parks today are 328-335 down the lines, 374-385 in the alleys and around 400-405 to center field. There are quirks and anomalies such as higher and lower fences and a few odd angles in some ballparks. Watching a ball carom around cavernous Coors Field or San Francisco’s Oracle Park is great because it often produces a hefty number of triples – which I think is the most exciting hit in baseball because it involves a batter’s speed combined with the defensive acumen of up to three players to try and prevent it. (Personally, I think they should have left right-center in Oracle at 420 feet instead of the new 415. But maybe that’s just me).
My recommendation: 350 down the lines; 395-405 in the alleys and a minimum of 425-435 to straightaway center field. I know the hue and cry will be “That will take away too many seats for fans,” or “With some ballparks it just cannot be done. It would be an engineering nightmare.” I’m a glass half-full kind of guy and believe advances in stadium engineering and design have come a long way in the last several years. I think that it can be done, and without sacrificing seating capacity. Two parks I would not adjust at all: Wrigley Field and Fenway Park because, let’s face it, ivy is cool and you don’t mess with a monster.
Step 2: Reemphasize fundamental baseball.
Begin with youth leagues on up through the minors. Once the home run begins to diminish, it will have a reverberating effect throughout all levels of the game and place more emphasis on the way it was meant to be played.
Step 3: Rule changes.
First, get rid of all the new, COVID-era rules and those designed to speedup the game. I’d begin with the automatic runner at second base to start extra innings. Intended to help teams get through a pandemic-stricken season, this rule is a farce, and is not real baseball. Why should a pitcher be charged with a loss on a seeing-eye bounder up the middle, allowing a ghost runner to score?
Next is the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. If the intent was to speed up the game, Commissioner Rob Manfred, and MLB brass sadly misfired. Instead, simply eliminate the second mound visit, and automatically make a pitching change from the dugout. This way strategy would not be sacrificed. Plus, omitting the slow-walk to the mound by a manager, and the perfunctory jaunt by the Homeplate umpire, would actually save quite a bit of time.
Automatic intentional walks without delivering a pitch must go (yeah, this one shaved off a lot of game time alright, about 1 minute according to multiple studies). Exciting, often hilarious stuff tends to happen when a ball is pitched during an intentional walk. Vladimir Guerrero Sr. once homered on a free-pass pitch, and Barry Bonds was walked intentionally with the bases full (better one run, than four, right?). My personal favorite: the catcher who signals his pitcher to issue an intentional walk on a 3-2 pitch,only to surprise the batter with a zinger down the middle. Catcher Tony Pena was infamous for this fake. All that is gone now, thanks to Manfred’s “flow of the game” tightening.
Seven-inning doubleheaders. Did MLB really believe the chances of a player contracting COVID would be reduced by cutting two innings from selected games? Who bent Manfred’s ear on this dim bulb idea, Dr. Fauci? Major League Baseball is nine innings, commissioner. This rule is now a solution in search of a problem, and already revealed an embarrassing, unintended consequence: Madison Bumgarner earlier this year pitched a “notable achievement” and not a no-hitter when holding the Atlanta Braves to no hits on the back end of a COVID doubleheader. Such malarkey, this is.
And for God’s sake, either dump the designated hitter altogether or make it universal. Yes, there are some good-hitting pitchers over in the National League – Bumgarner, Jake deGrom of the Mets and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers quickly come to mind. And Zack Greinke was pretty good with the stick when he was in the NL. But they’re outliers for the most part. How many other Shohei Ohtani’s are out there? Look, I am not a big fan of the DH, and I’m an American League guy. But the inconsistency of a basic element of the lineup between the two leagues is glaring.
Institute these changes, and here’s what I believe will happen:
Fewer home runs will prompt baseball to focus more on fundamentals, such as baserunning, the hit-and-run and (hark!) hitting behind the runner to get him over to third base (I know, some of you reading this are already imagining me having three heads. But bear with me). No longer relying on a couple of walks and a dinger, you’ll see teams execute sacrifice bunts more successfully. You might even see a suicide squeeze play (when’s the last time anyone saw this?). Tell you what, it’s one of the most exciting plays in the game.
Brett Butler of the Giants, the A’s Campy Campaneris, and the Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki were among the best drag bunters ever. In today’s game, this play is a rarity. I really don’t know who can do this now because we almost never see it.. Not relying on the long ball will prompt an emerging star to hone this skill once again. And man, it will be exciting.
The stolen base will return. Yeah, some guys can do it on occasion. Whit Merrifield of Kansas City’s Royals currently led all of MLB with 21 steals in late June, but that’s still only one steal every four days. In the 1980s and 90s, There was nothing more exciting than watching Rickey Henderson steal second base – and all that went with it. Then third! Watching him disrupt the entire infield, let alone the pitcher, was an absolute work of art. It was the game within the game. Sabermetrics diminished the value of the stolen base, but Sabermetrics diminished the value of a lot of valuable skills that I think could and should return with a bang.
As the great George Herman “Babe” Ruth once said, “Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.”
Let’s keep it that way.
Mike Marando is a former sports writer for The Sacramento Union and various other news publications. He previously served as Public Address Announcer for the Sacramento River Cats and currently lives in the Sacramento area.