What is Wrong with Baseball (Part II)

What’s Wrong With Baseball: Part II

In 2019, overall attendance at Major League Baseball games shrank. This is the 4th year in a row this has happened, and fifth of the last six. TV viewers remain about the same, but baseball’s audience has declined by about two thirds from its peak in 1978.

The five most viewed World Series, since they were moved to prime time, were 1978 (Dodgers & Yankees), 1980 (Phillies & Royals), 1981 (Dodgers & Yankees), 1982 (Cardinals & Brewers), and 1979 (Pirates & Orioles). The high was just under 44.3 million (1978) and the fifth was almost 38 million in 1979. One might attribute that to who was playing. After all, two of the top three pitted the Dodgers and the Yankees, the two largest TV markets. But, how then do we explain numbers 2, 4, and 5. St. Louis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Kansas City are among the smallest TV markets. The theme is not who was playing but when. The top five were all between 1978 and 1982. It’s obviously the era more than the markets influenced the viewership. 

The five least watched World Series are 2012 (Giants & Tigers), 2008 (Phillies & Rays), 2019 (Nationals & Astros), 2014 (Giants & Royals), and 2018 (Dodgers & Red Sox). All Of these are in the last 11 years. The totals range from 12.6 million in 2012, to 14.1 million in 2018.  Here there are big markets, Giants, Tigers, Dodgers and Red Sox. But they could not pull in the viewership the way they once did.

What changed in baseball in the early 1980s?

Bill James.

Bill James was just a fan who thought about baseball constantly. He had a very analytical mind, and tried to figure out how strategically games are won and lost. His theories were sound, and his methodology convincing. We’re not going to get in the weeds of all his studies, but he advocated major changes in the way the game is played. Now his philosophy is known as analytics. It has crept it’s way into every major sports, but no where more dramatically than baseball.

His most influential discoveries were:

On Base Percentage is the single most important statistic, when evaluating an offensive player. A walk is as good as a hit.

Slugging Percentage is the second most important offensive statistic, much more important than Batting Average.

The most valuable thing a team has during a game are their 27 outs. This discouraged teams from using the sacrifice bunt, hitting behind the runner, stealing bases, or trying to take an extra base, unless they the runner was sure he could get it. 

You can sacrifice a whole bunch of defense to get an extra bat in the line-up. 

Encourage batters to take more pitches against the opponents starting pitchers. Make them work, and get them out of the game as early as possible. You do not want to face Sandy Koufax, or Bob Gibson, or Tom Seaver, or Roger Clemens, etc. when the games on the line.

Batter strikeouts is not a significant statistic, but pitcher strikeouts is the best indicator of future success for a pitcher. 

Players tend to peak between ages 26 and 28, not 28 to 32, which was the consensus prior to his study.

 Using resources to develop young talent is much more effective than signing established players in their late 20s.

All of these theories were shunned by the baseball community when he first published them in 1977. Now every successful franchise today accepts them. Implementing these strategies are central to putting a competitive team on the field. 

He and his ideas have been credited with killing curses, he was hired by the Boston Red Sox when they finally won their World Series. Then the Cubs broke their 100 plus World Series curse by hiring a disciple of James.

The down side of this new information is that every one of these new strategies has led to a less exciting game.

Taking pitches and trying to walk are good winning baseball, but they are boring. A 12 pitch at bat, with 8 fouls offs and an eventual walk is painful in it’s length and result of a single at bat.

Today, power is more important than Batting Average. In the current game, just about every hitter swings for the fences. Home Runs are way up. Scoring runs via the home run is not nearly as exciting as doubles, triples and stolen bases. When the tension of a quality defensive throw against a offensive run is removed with the home run, much of the magic of baseball is lost.

Stealing bases may be exciting, but it is a losing proposition unless you’re successful about 75% of the time. The bases gained are not as valuable as the outs lost. Taking Stolen Bases out of the game makes the game less interesting. The most exciting play in baseball is the steal home. Jackie Robinson was excellent at this play and every heart, whether cheering for or against him, beat a little faster when he took his lead on 3rd base. Now, a solid baseball fan may see a steal home once a season, if they are lucky.

Baserunners reluctance to take an extra base means that close plays on the bases is greatly reduced. Station to station baserunning is encouraged and strategically sound, but is also boring. 

Since batter strikeouts are not particularly damaging, hitters take way more strikes, and swing for the fences, even when they have two strikes against them. More pitches not put in play by the batter is very boring.

The fact that baseball clubs know that players peak between 26 and 28, leads to small market teams shedding their biggest stars sooner than before, preventing fans from fully embracing the players on their team. Letting young talent go when they can earn a huge salary is wise, but what does it tell your loyal fan base? Who was the last Hall of Fame caliber player to spend his entire career in a small market town. From 1999 to 2007 their were five players from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s who spent their entire career with a small market team (Robin Yount, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, and Tony Gwynn), since then there have been three (Barry Larkin, Trevor Hoffman, and Edgar Martinez). Of the latter three, only Larkin was a star of the magnitude of the prior five. 

The other side of this coin is how small market teams manage their young talent, get as much out of them while you can afford them, then lose them to a big market franchise for draft choices. They then repeat the cycle, sign and develop another young talent too repeat the process. Oakland’s Billy Beane is the cover boy for this strategy. On the field this plan allows small market teams to be competitive, but the fluidity of the roster does not allow fans to fully bond with their players. 

We at A Sip of Sports have nothing but respect for what Bill James has done, but the game he has created is hard to watch. Something needs to change to capture the young generation. The game is BORING!


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