Mike Rizzo, as far back as he can recall, has always felt that baseball — real baseball — meant pitchers, not designated hitters, had to step into the batter’s box with a bat in their hands and face their opposite numbers on the mound 60 feet away.
But after Major League Baseball decided this offseason to jettison the long-standing National League tradition of pitchers in the batting order in favor of the American League’s run-friendly designated hitter, the old-school Washington Nationals general manager knew it was time to adapt — or get left behind.
Rizzo became the first National League executive to sign a slugger to fill the position.
The Nationals and their new DH, Nelson Cruz, begin a new season Thursday, weather permitting, when they host the New York Mets for opening day. And though many of the day’s sights and sounds will prove familiar to casual fans, baseball purists may find themselves in a whole new ballpark.
For a sport often criticized for its reluctance to change, the adoption of a universal DH upon the conclusion of a contentious lockout signals an embrace to tinker with the game. Expanded playoffs. Banned shifts. Pitch clocks. Maybe even robot umpires.
All are ideas — some still a work in progress — aimed at modernizing the national pastime that finds itself at a crossroads.
And for some, it’s well past time.
“We’re embracing change for the first time I can remember,” said former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Dan Evans, who started working in baseball 42 years ago. “It seems like there’s a crack in the door.”
Something had to give
To even get to opening day, owners and players engaged in a heated 99-day lockout that almost led to the cancellation of games. As the two sides traded proposals, the negotiations were proof that finding common ground was no easy task.
During the discussions, there were fundamental debates over the direction of the game. Owners and players, it seemed, acknowledged that the status quo was no longer good enough and that alterations were necessary.
Need an example? Just look at the new playoff field this season. The two sides agreed on a 12-team postseason — up from the 10-team field that’s been in place since 2012. Before that, only eight teams made it. Each league’s postseason will feature three division winners and three wild card teams.
“People fight change wickedly, but I think change is good for the game,” said Evans, who spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago White Sox before serving as the Dodgers’ GM from 2001 to 2004. “It adds a level of interest to the game. I think some of the lack of change was the stoic, stubborn attitude that a lot of baseball fans cherish.”
At its core, money seems to be behind the change. More playoff games mean more revenue. ESPN alone, the New York Post reported, is expected to pay an additional $85 million per year for the expanded field — and that’s before counting Turner (TBS) and Fox, two of MLB’s other television partners.
But supporters of the new format have argued the change will have another much-needed impact: It ups the ante. With more teams in the hunt, the expanded field could help the league capture more fan interest down the stretch and, in turn, improve its floundering television ratings.
The World Series last year drew an average of 11.75 million viewers — a slight increase over the COVID-19-plagued 2020 season, but half of what the 2016 Fall Classic drew. The number marked what has been a steady decline for MLB, which saw ratings among local TV households in 2021 fall 12% from the pre-pandemic 2019 season.
The numbers themselves don’t indicate the exact reasons why baseball’s popularity has lagged even as the sport sees an influx of new stars such as Washington’s Juan Soto and the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. But, at the very least, they do appear to reinforce the idea that baseball has a perception problem.
“The game is wounded right now,” baseball historian Michael Gibbons said. “But it will fully recover. It always does. We’ve been through bad spots periodically in our history. I think the proactive, progressive moves of MLB and the players union will benefit the game and get it back.”
One issue that all baseball fans can agree with is that the games take far too long.
On average, MLB games took about 10 minutes longer in 2021 — 3 hours, 11 minutes — than they did a decade ago. And 20 minutes longer than three decades ago. And 30 minutes longer than four decades ago. And 40 minutes longer than five decades ago.
Playoff games are even worse. The average postseason contest last season was nearly 3 hours, 45 minutes. Game 3 of the NLCS took 4 hours, 14 minutes to play 8 1/2 innings, while Game 4 of the ALCS lasted 4 hours, 4 minutes as the two teams combined to use 12 pitchers.
The quality of baseball today — the skill, speed and power of the players — is better than ever. But is it better enough to warrant games that are 20, 30, 40 minutes longer?
“We’ve been living with longer baseball games for quite a while now. When Babe Ruth played, the games would be over in an hour and 45 minutes,” said Gibbons, director emeritus and historian at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. “We’re prepared to endure longer baseball games as long as there’s more action to fill up the time.”
These things happen
This isn’t the first time MLB has faced a fork in the road.
In 1968, Bob Gibson broke baseball.
Since 1920, no pitcher has been as dominant as Gibson was in 1968, known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander was unhittable, posting a 1.12 earned-run average and 13 shutouts — two live-ball era records that have not been broken.
But Gibson was far from the only potent pitcher that year.
One in five MLB games that season featured a team being shut out. Hitters compiled an anemic .237 batting average — the lowest in league history — as well as a live-ball era-low .340 slugging percentage. In both leagues, the Cy Young winner also won the MVP — Gibson in the National League and Denny McLain, who won 31 games for the Detroit Tigers, in the American League — for the only time in history.
The problem was clear: The pitchers were too good.
So the league did something unfamiliar. It made changes, and quickly.
In 1969, the pitcher’s mound was dropped five inches from 15 to 10 — still the height today — and the strike zone was shrunk. Those changes, in addition to four expansion teams, boosted offense. But it wasn’t enough for the American League, which in 1972 posted a lower batting average than the Senior Circuit for the ninth straight season.
Thus, the American League owners adopted a radical proposal — the designated hitter — to great effect in AL cities.
Today, like it was after “The Year of the Pitcher,” baseball is also at an inflection point. Last season, MLB batters hit just .244 — the lowest average since that 1968 season.
“In the late 1960s, pitching had become so dominant. It was kind of like today,” Gibbons said. “They had to do something, and it brought the game back. It introduced more offense into the game, and it was a good thing.”
But this time, there is no Bob Gibson — an obvious exemplification of the game’s imbalance — to point the league’s power brokers in the right direction. The issues with baseball in 2022 may be more complicated than they were in 1968.
Pitchers have the upper hand, but home runs are also through the roof. There are more homers, but overall action (stolen bases, other extra-base hits, balls in play) is down. There’s less action, but games are somehow taking longer than ever.
And on top of all the on-field issues, the economics of baseball — the ultimate sport of haves and have nots — has exacerbated a chasm between the players union and the owners. Some teams this season, like the Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, have payrolls south of $40 million as they openly tank in hopes of rebuilding for the future.
How can you fix a game that has so many problems?
Numbers don’t add up
For many baseball fans, the culprit for the game’s decline is simple: analytics.
The era of FIP, WAR and wOBA has changed and sometimes distorted the game.
In the NBA, the analytics movement led to more 3-pointers and dunks — the most exciting parts of a basketball game. In the NFL, the numbers game fueled more passing, more fourth-down attempts and more scoring.
But in baseball, analytics have turned the sport into a game constrained by three true outcomes — home runs, walks and strikeouts — with less overall action. In 2019, more strikeouts were recorded than hits for the first time in the sport’s history. Last season, there were an astounding 2,664 more strikeouts than hits.
“The game hasn’t resembled itself in recent years,” Gibbons said. “The lack of action is strangling the game.”
But analytics — often a buzzword used as a cudgel for anyone complaining about the game — didn’t invent the infield shift. Teams were shifting against Ted Williams in the 1940s. However, the knowledge teams gained from using more data has caused the explosion of shifts in the past two decades. That’s why banning the shift is on the table as a change the league may make in 2023. Games started taking longer in the 1980s, long before the book “Moneyball” came out. But teams pulling their starting pitchers earlier and using more hard-throwing relievers has caused games to run longer in recent years. That’s why the league is also contemplating the implementation of pitch clocks — 14 seconds with no one on base, and 19 seconds with a runner on — next season.
While analytics have improved the viability of a tanking strategy, there have been terrible, cheap teams since the league’s inception. Even so, that’s why MLB expanded the postseason — to give teams an incentive to compete.
“I think the analytics can make the game better not only for gameplay but for the entertainment value,” New York Mets pitcher and players union representative Max Scherzer said on HBO’s “Back on the Record with Bob Costas” last week. “We just have to educate the fans of what’s going on.”
“Can it be a bad thing? Yes. But I think it can be a positive,” added Scherzer, the former Nationals ace who is expected to start against Washington on Friday.
The changes, namely the universal DH, could be the start of a slippery slope. What’s unclear is whether the slope is one that will be good or bad for the sport and its fans.
When the American League adopted the DH nearly 50 years ago, NL President Chub Feeney was so displeased he implied the sport the Junior Circuit would be playing was no longer even baseball.
“We’ll continue to play by baseball rules,” he said.
In hindsight, Feeney’s comments seem like a petulant overreaction. But, for better or worse, that’s baseball. The roots are too deep — and the tradition too rich — for some people to not take changes, even minor ones, as insults.
“A lot of the beauty of the game is that it doesn’t change so frequently so that you have a tradition of consistency,” Gibbons said. “Human beings like tradition. We are driven to tradition.”
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