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Playoffs Baseball: Almost Unwatchable

October 6th, 2019 · No Comments · Baseball

The home run era has been fun. I think a consensus has developed among baseball people that it is beginning to grow tiresome and that something will soon need to be done to make baseball look more like baseball.

Know who wrote that? Bill James, the man whose insights jump-started baseball’s advanced metrics revolution back in the 1970s.

Know when he wrote that? In 2001.

I wonder what he thinks now, after the real Home Run Era landed in the bleachers all around the game?

In 2001, Major Leaguers hit 5,458 home runs.

In 2019, nearly two decades later?

MLB hitters mashed a record 6,776 homers.

All those home runs! This season’s totals were half again as many hit just five seasons ago — 4,186, in 2014.

Adding 2,600 homers has changed the game. And not in a good way.

My favorite moment so far in the 2019 playoffs?

It was in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series pitting the St. Louis Cardinals against the Atlanta Braves. The Braves led 1-0.

Harrison Bader of the Cardinals led off against Dallas Keuchel of the Braves and took a full swing that behaved like a bunt, rolling up the third-base line as Bader beat out the infield single.

The next batter was Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas, who failed in his first two attempts at a sacrifice bunt (!), but on the third attempt he got a bunt down toward first base. Bader safely reached second as Mikolas was thrown out.

A few moments later, Bader, who was ignored by the Atlanta defense, stole third base. And soon after that Dexter Fowler hit a ground ball to the right side of the infield, and Bader scampered home, and the Cardinals had a run thanks to a dribbler, a sacrifice bunt, a steal and a ground out.

They were back to 1-1, and they didn’t need a home run to get there. They eventually won 7-6.

Most everyone who pays attention to the game knows that the kind of “small ball” shown by the Cardinals there is considered hopelessly retro. About the only way the new metrics can justify what the Cardinals did … was because Mikolas happened to come to bat before the Cards were ready to take their ace out of the game.

The way most everyone plays the game, these days, is all about homers, walks and strikeouts.

It is so easy to hit homers — one play-by-play man said “the ball just seems to take forever to come down” — that to spend an out to manufacture a run … is considered wasteful as well as passe.

Which goes toward understanding why baseball so often has grown dull. And I say that as a fervent baseball fan, the kind of guy who wakes in the middle of the night and half the year turns on the MLB-TV site to see what is going on, during the six-month season.

Baseball claims the ball is the same as always, but no one believes that. As Bill James noted, 20 years ago, at the tail end of the “Steroid Era” and all the homers hit back then (to wit: Bobby Bonds, 2001, 73 homers) … “I would be in favor of deadening the baseball a little bit. The people who buy the baseball insist that they test the resiliency of the baseballs all the time, but what I don’t understand is, if you test the baseballs all the time and the resiliency of the baseballs is a problem, then why don’t you fix it? Are you just testing them so you can keep insisting that it isn’t a problem? … But if we decided to tame the hitters a little bit, it would be a lot easier and a lot less dangerous just to deaden the baseballs a tiny bit.”

Baseball has reached a danger point. There is so much dead time in a game, and especially in the playoffs and World Series, that the sport risks alienating customers who actually would prefer to see hitters putting the ball in play, as opposed to what happens now — fielders doing no fielding because so many balls end up in the seats, or the catcher’s mitt (via strikeout) or they amble down to first base via walk.

So far in these playoffs, with 10 games in the books, 20 homers have been hit — which is a modest total, given the context of this season. Expect that rate to climb, and soon.

We have other issues here. Pace of game is one of them. Baseball just set a record for slowest average time-of-game in the history of the sport — just shy of 3 hours and 6 minutes.

Predictably, games get longer in the playoffs, and so far games are finishing 24 minutes later (3:30 from start to end), on average.

A major problem to getting games finished before midnight in the eastern United States, is the relays of pitchers who show up for a batter or two, while nothing happens on the field.

So far, 65 pitchers have appeared in those 10 games, an average of 6.5 hurlers per team per contest.

They do that because clubs are obsessed with the tiny advantages that (apparently) accrue when pitchers with certain qualities (left-handed, etc.) are brought in to pitch to a batter or two. Maybe even an entire inning.

Pitchers and hitters then embark on pattern that is repeated time and again.

Pitchers throw two quick strikes as batters watch carefully. Then, with an 0-2 count, the pitcher throws balls out of the strike zone, hoping to induce a whiff, and very often they are successful. If they are not, the count often runs full, which produces a moment of actual tension. Will the pitcher throw a ball in the zone that a hitter might be able to crush? Or will he throw it out of the zone hoping for a swing and miss but willing to settle for a walk?

Lather, rinse, repeat.

It makes for some dreadfully dull baseball. Batting averages are diving because everyone is focused on the upper-cutting “launch angle” that leads to more homers (and strikeouts). So far, 218 strikeouts have been recorded in 10 playoffs games, an average of 21.8 per game, 10.9 per team per game.

Walks are dreary, too, but they are coming thick and fast, 49 in 10 games, an average of 4.9.

Plays with a lot of action on the field are fewer. Triples are nearly extinct. Steals are way down. The sacrifice bunt is rare.

But homers are up! There’s that! The five-second thrill as the ball soars out of the stadium, the often leisurely circle of the bases.

And then the vigil begins anew: When will someone else put the ball in the seats and generate a frisson of excitement? Soon enough we have all become jaded, that’s for sure.

Where baseball is now? The clubs need to sell the game experience, because it has lost touch with all the little things that used to mean so much.

I am watching the playoffs, but not with the pleasure I would have felt 10-15 years ago.


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