Baseball’s Stubborn Ways

By Tyler Melvin

Seasoned fans typically scoff at the idea of altering their beloved sports. Hailed for generations as America’s pastime, baseball has represented an undying patriotic tradition in times of uncertainty. Through World Wars and the Great Depression, through segregation and player strikes, through terrorism and pandemics, baseball is a true mark of time in the United States. Passed down from one generation to the next, the legends of the game are considered the standard by which modern achievements are measured. Baseball markets nostalgia to promote today’s product, fostering the bygone agenda that the “game ought to be played the way it used to.” Its grand traditions make those who love it most hesitate to move the game forward, and the product of this mentality is becoming evident. Major League Baseball’s refusal to adapt over time has led to a decrease in interest among the younger generation of sports fans. Evolutions in consumer taste and media consumption along with the continuous refinement of the modern athlete’s abilities using analytics have all contributed to the need for major reshaping of the how the game is played and how it’s covered from a news perspective.

Sports fans have developed a new appetite for compacted and sensationalized entertainment. As life has become more fast paced, the average attention span has decreased. In stark contrast, the length of the average baseball game keeps growing. Some of the main contributors to the drawn-out nature of the sport include the players themselves. Pitchers mill about the mound with each throw, stalling the next sequence to build suspense, and psyching themselves up for the following maximum effort pitch. Almost religiously, the batter steps out of the box, adjusting their gloves, repositioning their helmets, taking deep breaths in preparation for the inevitable scorcher… or maybe a knee-buckling breaking ball. This painstakingly slow process raises the question, “who’s waiting for who to play ball?”. MLB has certainly pretended to address the issues regarding pace of play, going as far as applying a pitch clock and mandating the batter keep at least one foot in the box after every pitch (unless fouled). However, the complete failure to enforce such rules beyond their implementation suggests the memos were never to be taken too seriously; or perhaps players simply refuse to alter their mechanics. FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur studied the competitive benefit of delayed deliveries by compiling pitch data from across the league, determining, “pitchers truly seem to gain velocity by waiting longer to deliver the ball. For every additional second… (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about .02 miles per hour harder”. This knowledge suggests a performance-related explanation for the growing delay between pitches and serves as one of many examples of how analytics are defining the current state of baseball. By MLB’s definition, these advanced metrics are an objective form of baseball knowledge based on in-game, situational data points that go beyond the traditional statistics. They account for variables and make comparing players to the “league average” level of production a much less ambiguous process. Their employment revealed to front offices the importance of velocity and in turn encouraged pitchers to take time in their preparation between throws to maximize it. Perhaps an additional repercussion of unrestrained arms, the complete game pitching performance has nearly become a thing of the past. Several different pitchers make appearances for either team in any given contest; each is provided with more than adequate time to saunter to the mound and warm up despite emerging from the bullpen where they’d just finished tossing. Ultimately, these leisurely gaps between the action lead to a longer overall game length, and a product that is increasingly difficult to be fully invested in as a casual fan. 

Even baseball lifers must come to acknowledge the fundamental differences in the way the game is being played today. Gradual implementations of new-age analytics at the professional level have resulted in what can only be described as an entirely new approach. Evaluating advanced stats permits baseball executives who have never played professionally the credibility to interject their opinion with numbers that support their stance. Probability calculations have led to adjustments in nearly every dimension of the sport down to the fielder’s defensive positioning, the batter’s swing trajectory, and as aforementioned, a pitcher’s delay between throws.  In accordance, the game has been reshaped by the odds and percentages that advanced metrics rely on. 

Despite the steady adoption of modernized statistical analysis across the league, some media outlets have been slow to learn what exactly “analytics” represent. Networks covering MLB have the inherit responsibility of understanding the shifting nuances of the game and communicating that meaning to the fans who consume the league’s product. Unfortunately, the term has been muddled and confused because of conflicting information and opinions conveyed by baseball analysts who struggle with the concept behind the shift towards data-driven decision making. MLB’s own network television channel largely features middle-aged and senior veterans of baseball who struggle to view the game through the relatively new analytical lens. One of the more vocalized gripes in the elder baseball community is a distaste for strikeouts, analytics’ opponents citing the squandered opportunities associated with the swing and miss as reason to “put the ball in play”. Sabermetrics, with their impartial stance, view strikeouts in their literal sense as nothing more than an unproductive out, thus the de-emphasis on simply putting the bat to ball to create potential havoc. An out produced by strikeout is objectively no better or worse than a pop fly caught at the warning track. Over the past ten to twenty years, teams have also demonstrated a reluctance to steal bases. Veterans of the industry commonly argue in favor of a return to “small ball” in the name of generating more frequent action, but the essential element of speed has become less common and no longer carries the weight it once did in terms of winning. Alternatively, on-base-percentage and homeruns are the new standard of offensive worth. Although it’s an oversimplification of their thinking, progressive baseball minds have essentially identified the “big swing” as the most efficient way to score runs, and therefore teams try to avoid missed RBI opportunities in the form of running into outs. Again, probabilities are in play with this new school of thought that encourages hitters to focus on waiting for a pitch to drive. Gone are the days of manufactured runs, the strategy of getting on and getting over, and the ability to score consistently without the long ball. It’s difficult to fault baseball’s alumni for their inability to suddenly view the sport so differently than they did as tenured players, coaches, and consumers. However, their obstinate attitude towards baseball’s evolution is exemplary of how the sport is being held back by its loyalists. 

Analytics’ ramifications aren’t limited to just the on-field dynamics. Organizations value a different breed of player than they did in previous decades. The most notable shift in roster construction favors a larger build that profiles as a power-hitter as opposed to the purely athletic, fleet of foot, individuals who defined baseball’s fast-paced, small ball era. Hall of Famers like Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith, and countless other African Americans can be credited as primary influencers of their generation. The fans’ desire to return to an older style of play is considerably ironic when you acknowledge the men who made that former brand of baseball so popular. The modern game has a glaring shortage of comparable athletes due to the continuous trend of young black people’s indifference to the sport.

A brief comparison of baseball to its contemporaries shows a transition occurring where the national pastime is losing its footing as an American staple. The source of the problem lies in young people’s general detachment and migration from the sport, stemming from a disdain for the grand old traditions associated with it. Comedian and baseball lifer, Chris Rock, provided an intriguing perspective on the philosophical issues limiting MLB’s growth in HBO’s “Real Sports”. Half-jokingly, he remarked, “Baseball wants everything to stay the way things used to be… It’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past…  [It’s] the only game where there’s a right way to play…  The way it was played a hundred years ago”. By subtly jabbing at the infamous unwritten rules, Rock highlights another area of dissent within the baseball fandom. Old schoolers argue that the concept of a “right way to play” is primarily rooted in a deeper respect for what they believe the sport represents. Gene Seymour of The Nation suggests this type of glorification is partially to blame on American literature’s romanticism of baseball’s historical significance, perhaps most notably found in Ken Burns’ ten-part documentary: Baseball. The enduring nature of baseball makes it almost irresistible to draw parallels between it and the endeavors of the nation who plays. Consequently, it has taken on some of the complicated characteristics of American history. 

Despite desegregation’s impact on the entertainment quality of the sport through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, MLB has all but refused to accept African American Culture, and therefore popular culture, as part of their own. In 1974, nearly thirty years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Hall of Fame broadcaster, Vin Scully, gracefully described the persistent hesitance to embrace black players as he narrated Hank Aaron’s record breaking seven-hundred and fifteenth homerun. “A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South,” he remarked, “for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol”. Hammerin’ Hank crossed home plate as Scully noted, “That poker face of Aaron’s shows tremendous strain and relief”. Aaron’s contribution to Major League Baseball was unparalleled, but still he dealt with blatant racism and unfounded criticisms throughout his career. Scully referenced the immense weight on Hank’s shoulders as he neared Babe Ruth’s record, having to know there were people who’d never recognize him as the rightful homerun King. Fifty plus years ago, baseball historians possessed an even greater ineptitude for understanding how to allow their favorite game to flourish. Instead, they attempted to gatekeep and essentially whitewash its record books. It becomes obvious why the sport struggles to intrigue young people when you consider its history of exclusivity. The majestic tones of organ music between innings only furthers this notion that baseball has placed itself atop a pedestal to be portrayed as the superior American sport, available only to those who “respect its heritage”. Its conservative tendencies limit the appeal to younger, progressive minds. In a way, baseball has become somewhat of a political analogy.

MLB continues to appear out of touch by ignoring the recent shift in ways people consume sports media through a variety of new platforms. Where television once reigned supreme, streaming services and social media content have stolen a large share of the market, particularly the coveted eighteen to thirty-four-year-old demographic. And although MLB has become available through streaming, an occurrence called, “blackouts” have plagued local fanbases who already cut their cable chords. Customers living in designated regions are subject to sports network’s restrictions as to which platform they can watch games on. The regulated zones are based on proximity to MLB teams. For example, in the St. Louis region, customers can exclusively watch games through Bally Sports Midwest, which is only carried by certain cable providers, or through the Bally Sports streaming application that demands a cable subscription for access. As for baseball’s digital provider, MLB Network blacks out local fans from viewing their team’s games while allowing them to watch out of market freely. Ben Godar of SB Nation says the outwardly unreasonable business model is primarily a result of the league enabling individual teams to control who broadcasts their content. Exclusive rights are granted in contracts between regional sports networks and franchises, fueled by multi-million, sometimes billion-dollar deals. Another example of baseball’s inaccessibility, what ensued was a growing number of casual fans digesting games in bite-size portions using social media-based content to get the highlights in lieu of the broadcast. 

Several newer production companies have shown promise as a means of reestablishing interest among young fans. Jomboy Media and Rob Friedman’s “PitchingNinja” were some of the first to cover MLB from a different lens emphasizing analytics and entertainment. Jomboy, also known as Jimmy O’Brien, makes use of his “editing skills, humor and uncanny ability to read lips,” cleverly articulating the game and intriguing new audiences by “highlight(ing) absurd and entertaining moments” as described by Cronkite News’ Erica Block. He brings parts of the game to life that standard analysts would never bother to acknowledge; helping to reveal the cinematic effects and complexities of baseball and justifying why fans tend to romanticize the sport. Rob Friedman, who’s twitter handle is, “PitchingNinja”, produces equally compelling work involving advanced statistics. Through impressive video editing and narration, he breaks down singular pitches, revealing what makes them move, how they’re unique, and why the batter has virtually no chance of hitting it. The content is short but digestible, making a complicated game comprehensible to those starting out while also engaging entrenched fans. Both creators embrace the changing sport by viewing sabermetrics’ impact as a tool for refining competition rather than a detriment to its integrity. They market baseball as what it truly has become and to some extent what it always has been: A game with so many details and intricacies that only statistics could begin to make sense of it.

Vintage baseball, in a way, represents all the things that millennials are trying to abandon. Their fondness for sensationalism and compacted entertainment necessitates real regulation of game length and a more in-tune coverage style. They prefer not to be restrained by the ideals found in the imaginary book of “unwritten rules”, such as “[when] one of your players gets knocked down by a pitch, retaliate,” or “[The] leadoff hitter must be a base stealer”. Those concepts have dictated aspects of the game since its heyday, but modern statistics and consumers’ appetite are nearly a direct contradiction to those foregone “fundamentals”. Old schoolers will argue that analytics cause managers and players to play the game in accordance with a script. They’ll claim there’s no room for gut-based Decision making but ignore the fact that following the numbers can be an equally instinctive tactic. Major League Baseball must not second guess its naturally shifting dynamics, but instead run with them. Historian, John Thorn, proposed an explanation as to why baseball fans cling so desperately to the past, stating, “there’s no continuity in American life… what Baseball does is… it gives us the illusion that something lasts”. For baseball to last, to usher into the next generation of fans, it must adapt and understand there’s no need to fear evolution, for it means survival. It means upholding the names of baseball immortality for generations to come while still living in the moment, savoring every pitch in appreciation of the game we love so unconditionally.

Lou Brock Steals (graphite), by Tyler Melvin

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