Friday, June 18, 2021

Has Baseball Become Unwatchable?

 This is my official annual baseball essay. Well, I don’t really have an “official” annual baseball essay, and even if I did, I already wrote about baseball three weeks ago. So, if anything, this would be my official semi-monthly baseball essay, in which case, I should be working for the Sports Department rather than the Features Department. But the Sports Department already has a team of terrific writers, so maybe I could convince the editors to let me write movie reviews, which probably wouldn’t work out so well, since my method of judging movies is a bit simplistic: if there are lots of explosions, then it’s a great movie, and if there’s lots of talking about personal relationships, then it’s a lousy movie. I guess I should be grateful I’m doing whatever it is I’ve been doing each week on this page for the past 20 years.

Anyway, even though I already discussed baseball quite recently, I’m compelled to revisit that topic again. After being shut down for most of last year due to the pandemic, major league games are being played in front of actual fans, rather than last year’s awkward cardboard cutouts. This should be a golden age for baseball. There’s one slight problem, however: the games are almost unwatchable.

Over the last decade, a concept called “analytics” has come to dominate the game. Every aspect of play is analyzed by sophisticated computer software to determine what steps should be taken to maximize the chances of success. The defensive “shifts” commonly employed nowadays are one obvious result.

Analytics has impacted hitting, too. The computers have determined the best way to win a game is to have every player try to hit a home run on every swing, regardless of the situation. So, the number of home runs has indeed risen in recent years. What’s also risen are the number of strikeouts and walks, two aspects of the game with no action.

Sportswriter Tom Verducci hit the nail on the head recently when he said every team now has a roster filled with Dave Kingmans. If you’re not familiar with Dave Kingman, he was a big, strong guy who played in the 1970s and ‘80s. He could do only one thing well as a baseball player: hit home runs. His 1982 season with the Mets epitomized his career. That season, he hit 37 home runs with 99 RBIs — very respectable. But his batting average was only .204 and he struck out a league leading 156 times. In 1982, this was extremely frustrating for Mets fans, as his one or two homers each week never seemed to offset his relentless whiffs. But in 2021, Kingman would be the MVP of analytics.
When the batter makes contact and puts the ball in play, 10 people immediately start moving (more, if there are runners on base). When the batter strikes out or walks, no one moves, except maybe some folks in the grandstands who move toward the exit because a nine inning game should never take four hours to complete.

I like to think of myself as a knowledgeable baseball fan, who knows the subtle intricacies of the game. But it’s actually more like my take on movies. If there’s a lot of action, I like it. If they stand around and talk for the whole movie, meh. Major league baseball has become a chick flick. And those of us who want to see steady action are not satisfied when one homer finally interrupts a string of 11 strikeouts.
Don’t worry. At this rate, there will not be a third official annual baseball essay later this summer. But maybe I’ll review “Wonder Woman vs. Godzilla” when it hits the theaters.

No comments:

Post a Comment