Guest Commentary: Change is the name of the game in baseball

Associated PressHouston Astros outfielder George Springer hits a two-run home run Sunday, Oct. 27, during the ninth inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series against the Washington Nationals in Washington.

The 2019 World Series marked the 150th anniversary of professional baseball, and there’s no doubt that the game being played today has undergone a lot of changes. To some, these changes are inevitable. But to others — like Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt — today’s game is “all about power,” and that’s a bad, bad thing.

Additionally, the “opening pitcher” and the vanishing role of the starting pitcher undeniably represent a shift that’s just as obvious as the defensive shift players assume in the in-field.

But what are these shifts if not “the thinking part of the game, the strategy” that Schmidt says has gone missing? The infield shift is a strategy; one that has caught on because it’s effective. Pitchers throwing harder fastballs and recording more strikeouts, too, seems like a pretty good strategy for any ball club that’s trying to win games.

It’s hard to argue, as Schmidt did, that these changes have “traded (baseball’s) subtlety” for “all-or-nothing entertainment.” The number of runs per game, on average, is still less, at 9.66, than it was during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, though it is more than in the last couple of years.

But if it’s subtlety you’re looking for, you don’t have to look any further than watching an ace pitcher work the count to get a strikeout — something that, I’d argue, is just as entertaining as a bunt or a sacrifice. Because while the 2019 season of Major League Baseball did set a record for home runs, it also set a record for strikeouts — the 12th straight season to do so.

Furthermore, the argument about games getting longer is simply not borne out by statistics. BaseballReference.com logs the average game time for all Major League Baseball games played in 2019 as three hours and 10 minutes — an increase of only six minutes over the previous year, and only 10 minutes more than in 2012. The average has hovered close to the three-hour mark since about the mid-1980s.

So while the four-hour games of 2019 may loom large in our memory — particularly when they keep us up past our bedtime (or our press deadline) — they haven’t moved the needle very much, league-wide, on the overall amount of time these games are taking up.

Of course, Schmidt “(doesn’t) like the game to be given over to statistics and probability” — a statement offered with no explanation. I have to ask — why on earth not? What is so distasteful to certain fans of the game about the idea of a manager or a coach using information to get the best possible outcome?

The truth is, like any game that’s been around for as long as it has, baseball is an arms race. At various times in the sport’s history, hitting and pitching have jockeyed for dominance. Right now, ball clubs are finding success with an aggressive infield shift. But it won’t take long for the sport to catch up — and some have argued it already has started to do just that. In a January piece for FiveThirtyEight.com, Travis Sawchik noted that batters have begun to adapt to the infield shift by putting the ball into the air more. “The drop in ground-ball rates against the shift suggests that more players are trying to bypass the infielders altogether by knocking one over their heads,” Sawchik wrote, noting that ground-ball rates have declined when batters are facing shifts.

One of the vexing things about sports is the tendency to view these shifting dynamics as problems that need to be solved. In the end, I agree with Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who Sawchik quoted as saying, “The beauty of the game is all the strategies we employ.”

For me, the current era in baseball is an exciting one, where I can tune into a game and see both excellent pitching performances (lots of strikeouts) and big hits (lots of home runs).

Obviously, measuring what statistics constitute “good baseball” is a subjective practice, but consider these figures (courtesy of BaseballReference.com). In 2019 across the Major Leagues, batters grounded into fewer double plays and left fewer runners on base than in the previous few years. The league total on base plus slugging percentage was better than the previous two years.

If that’s not good baseball, I’m not sure what is.

Emily Popek is former assistant editor of The Daily Star, a communications specialist and freelance writer.

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