It’s no secret that Major League Baseball has a problem with the overall product presented by today’s game. What is seemingly a secret through is the understanding of the problem by the commissioner’s office, and the plans moving forward to combat the problems the game faces in the 21st century.
If you’ve read my columns over the last four years, you know how big of a baseball fan I am. It pains me to my core to watch most games today, due to the lack action outside of the three true outcomes: home run, strikeout, or walk, and due to the lack of competitiveness throughout the game. The first problem has a problem inside of that problem, too. Along with the lack of action, something is clearly different with the baseball, resulting in it flying farther off the bat with a higher exit velocity than normal, and the ball doesn’t break as well as it has in the past for pitchers that rely on breaking balls, such as sliders and curveballs. That’s resulted in runs per game rising, which is good for offenses, but bad for pitching staffs.
Think about this: last year, just five teams averaged more than 5.0 runs per game offensively. This year, there are 13 teams on pace to score 5.0 runs per game. On the flip side, in 2018, 13 teams had a pitching staff ERA finish under 4.00. Through roughly 90 games in 2019, just six teams have staff ERA’s under 4.00. Looking closer, the average runs per game across the league is up nearly half a run in 2019 compared with 2018. Maybe that’s what the baseball industry wants, but it’s certainly not making a better product.
That can be seen through attendance numbers and viewership numbers, which are down across the board for the third straight season despite the league trending toward younger stars.
Growing up, it was so rare to see a home run or two in a single game that I’d attend. Now, home runs are as common as a cold beer, cotton candy and a hot dog at the ballpark. Add into that the skyrocketing number of strikeouts and the game is quickly becoming boring and not worth sitting there watching for 3-plus hours. It crushes me to say that because when I was younger, that’s all I wanted to do. I went to games not only to root for my favorite team and my favorite players with my childhood best friend, I went to see the Web Gems, the triples into the gaps, stolen bases, and the occasional home run. Now, when you go to a game, you’ll see homers, strikeouts, and not much else.
A few weeks ago, a co-worker of mine went to the Rockies-Dodgers game at Coors Field with his wife. It was the first MLB game he’d attended in his 40+ years on this Earth. What he ended up seeing was a game that featured seven home runs and a combined 20 runs scored. The ball was flying around the park like it did in the pre-humidor days. That’s not good. Pitchers aren’t happy with it, while batters are — and realistically should be. What bothers me about the home run issue though is that it’s tainting the game, much like the steroid era has.
I’m a big statistics guy in baseball, so I like to compare historical numbers for guys like Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle, or Justin Verlander and Nolan Ryan. It’s nearly impossible to do that today with the way the offense is exploding, and strikeouts are through the roof for pitchers. Something is definitely different with the baseball, making it easier to hit homers for hitters, which in turn makes it somewhat easier for pitchers to blow past hitters. With Major League Baseball owning Rawlings, the league’s baseball manufacturer, there’s certainly reason to believe the ball has been altered to create a greater sense of entertainment.
I can complain about the game within the game all day long, but the real problem I have with baseball that I’m extremely concerned about is the lack of competitiveness across the sport. As we sit here on July 11, as many as five teams are 20+ games out of first place within their division, with a total of eight other teams sitting at least 10+ games out of first. We’re only at the All-Star break! That’s insane.
As of now, the NL West is all but over with the Dodgers holding a 13.5-game lead over the Diamondbacks in second place. In the AL, the Twins hold a 5.5-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central, while the Astros hold a 7.5-game lead over the Athletics in the AL West. Then in the AL East, the Yankees are starting to run away from the Rays, pushing their division lead to 6.5 games. The only division that is an actual race right now is the NL Central, where the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are separated by a mere 4.5 games.
Realistically, the AL Wild Card spots have just five teams battling for two spots, while the NL Wild Card has nine teams fighting for two spots. That means that 10 teams — 33 percent of the league — really doesn’t have a shot at fighting for the playoffs with roughly 70 games to go in the season.
While the owners say publicly that they want to compete, too many are refusing to show they want to compete financially by putting the best product on the field. Tanking is a major issue in nearly all of the major sports in North America, but baseball’s might be the most obvious.
As the product on the field gets worse and worse, so too does the year-to-year competitiveness and parody within the league. The league appears to be heading down a dark, troubling path, one that I’m afraid they’ll never be able to get off of without swift action.
Josh Carney is the sports editor of the Post Independent. You can reach Josh via email, [email protected].