Big swings… and misses

Home runs are being hit at a record pace, but baseball is becoming, well, boring

Baseball used to be so easy.

Not to play — it’s one of the most difficult games there is — but to follow.

You could follow statistics easily. As a kid who looked at baseball cards and box scores, there were only a few numbers that mattered to me when judging a player.

Batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases.

For pitchers? Wins, losses, saves. As I got older, I started to pay attention to a hurler’s ERA.

Man, those were the days.

Now, we have more stats. More numbers. Check a hitter’s on-base percentage, add it to his slugging average, and you get an OPS.

There’s WAR (wins above replacement), there’s WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) and many, many others that I can’t be bothered to recite.

But here’s the thing.

When we paid attention to just a few things — say, a .300 hitter, a guy with 40 stolen bases, or someone with 30 homers — we seemed to be getting more from the game.

If you grew up in the 1980s, there was a little bit of everything. Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson stole more than 100 bases in a season. George Brett chased .400 in 1980 and ended up with a .390 clip. But more than that, players of all kinds had value. You had guys who hit for power, and you had speedsters. You had knuckleball pitchers and you had flame throwers. You had defensive specialists like Ozzie Smith, and you had the “where do I hide this guy?” Think of the Dodgers’ Pedro Guerrero. Whitey Herzog led the Cardinals to three pennants and a World Series with the speed of Coleman, the hitting of Willie McGee and Tommy Herr and the occasional power of Jack Clark.

It was fun and exciting to watch. But it also was different.

And for as many home runs as my team, the Indians, hit in the 1990s, they still had a stolen base prowess of Kenny Lofton and the defensive wizardry of Omar Vizquel.

Omar didn’t hit too many homers, but I loved his at-bats because he practically never struck out.

But that was before the onset of analytics. Before Moneyball.

Now we have more statistics to keep an eye on, but less to actually watch.

What was once a game for all kinds of hitters, all kinds of players, has become homogeneous. Doubles, triples? Singles hitters?

Those are rarities these days. If you go to a baseball game now, prepare for three things:

1. Home runs.

2. Walks.

3. Strikeouts.

Friday marked the final day of June. It also marked the most home runs in a month in MLB history. There were 1,101 in June, breaking a mark set in May of 2000, or, right in the middle of the “steroid era.”

I know most baseball fans — especially the casual ones — appreciate the home run. Even I — someone who loves pitchers’ duels and sacrifice bunts — appreciate tape-measure shot every now and then.

But when everyone can hit a home run? How special is it? It was great to see Scooter Gennett hit four home runs in a game for the Reds. But it still felt odd. Johnny Bench, George Foster, Lee May, Ted Kluszewski never hit four home runs in a game, but a journeyman second baseman does?

It’s like the old Monty Python sketch where everyone is Superman, so the superhero is the dude who fixes bicycles.

But there’s a bigger problem. When everyone is seemingly trying to hit home runs — that is, swinging hard and swinging for the fences — there will be strikeouts.

And when so many pitchers can throw 95 miles per hour or faster, there will be wildness, and walks.

That means a lot of pitches in at-bats.

That means less baseballs put in play by the hitter.

And that means long, long games.

The average time of MLB games in 2017 is about three hours and five minutes. It’s the highest average in the sport’s history.

Now, normally, advanced metrics annoy me. I don’t like the idea of baseball becoming an algebra class.

But there is a number I kept track of this week.

In Monday’s 15-9 Indians win over the Texas Rangers, there were 32 at-bats where the hitter failed to put the ball in play. That is, they walked, struck out, or were hit by a pitch.

Thirty-two is a big number, but it could be explained away by the wildness of the game itself. After all, there were 24 runs scored, and a number of pitchers were used.

On Tuesday, the Rangers beat the Indians 2-1. The number of at-bats where the hitter didn’t place a fair ball?

Thirty.

A 2-1 game, an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel, right?

It took two hours and 52 minutes.

In August 1990, I went to a Reds-Dodgers game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Tom Browning threw eight shutout innings. Sixteen batters didn’t put the ball in play, more than I remember.

But the Reds won 1-0, and the game was over in two hours and three minutes.

Those were the days.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is aware the sport has a problem. He’s constantly harping on the pace of play. It’s why the big leagues have adopted the rule where you no longer have to throw four pitches in an intentional walk.

And, boy, you can see the difference that’s made.

Manfred has talked about other rule changes. Maybe the sport will limit the amount of pitchers who can be used in an inning. Maybe they’ll place a runner on second base at the start of extra innings.

Or, maybe, they should tell hitters to focus on making contact.

How do you do that? I don’t know. But other sports make changes. Football outlawed bump coverage past 5 yards so quarterbacks could complete more passes.

The NBA has defensive three seconds.

Look, for as much as I dislike Moneyball and analytics, I can’t argue they can be effective in building a winner. Billy Beane has been successful with it in Oakland by stressing on-base percentage and not being concerned with strikeouts.

It’s sound practice.

But it’s also dull baseball.

And those last two words should never go together.

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