My favorite off-season sports story was when Adam Ottavino, then a free-agent relief pitcher, told MLB.com’s Mike Petriello on the excellent Statcast podcast that if he faced Babe Ruth today, “I would strike Babe Ruth out every time.”
The “strike Babe Ruth out” line got all the headlines — particularly when Ottavino ended up signing with the Yankees and backed down from his initial statement — but I loved what Ottavino said next: “I mean the guy ate hot dogs and drank beer and did whatever he did. It was just a different game.”
It may sound sacrilegious to your grandfather, but, of course, Ottavino is totally right. What baseball players are doing today and what they did 90 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago, is so dramatically different that it is almost two separate sports entirely. If Ruth were to face even your average big-league pitcher now, not only would he strike out, he would likely shuffle away from the plate muttering about witchcraft and sorcery. As former big-league pitcher Phil Hughes noted when seeing old “historic” footage of Hall of Famer Whitey Ford pitching:
In most walks of life, this would be considered unquestioned progress: Players are faster, stronger, smarter, better conditioned, better coached, simply better than they have ever been. But all that progress has also put pressure on the existing contours of the game, which was not developed for athletes who played like this. It was also not meant to be played with nearly as much intricate strategy and gamesmanship. A hundred years ago, pitchers basically pitched until their arms fell off; today they get brought in to face just a single batter, and some pitchers can go whole years without ever completing a full inning. Some of that gamesmanship seems, practically, pointless — sacrifice bunts, for instance — but in the stathead era, many more of the innovations serve a purpose. At some point in the last decade, pitchers and coaches studying stat sheets realized the most effective approach was to just try and strike everybody out, since doing so meant not relying on chance hops of the ball in play; over the same period, hitters and their coaches realized that sacrificing everything for home runs made sense, too, for the same reason; and last year, for the first time in baseball history, Major League Baseball had more strikeouts (41,207) than base hits (41,020), which means a game that is already most beloved by the patient has slowed down even more dramatically. In an age of second-screen experiences and constant distraction, and with a fan base that’s already among the oldest in professional sports, that’s a dangerous factoid, and one MLB is actively concerned about. Or take the aggressive infield shift, for instance, in which most of the defense gets arranged on one side of the diamond to face a hitter unable to put the ball in play anywhere else. This is such a logical response to certain batters and their unshakeable tendencies it seems insane, on some level, that it took so long for it to come into wide use. But it also makes the baseball field look … somewhat considerably less like a baseball field, at least a few times every game.
But if you’re Major League Baseball, what do you do? One answer: Test some stuff out, ideally not on the biggest stage. Last week, the Atlantic League, a semi-pro independent league that recently signed onto a partnership with MLB, announced a series of rule changes for the 2019 season that seem a direct response to rising concerns about both baseball’s leisurely nature and the increased strikeout rate. The Atlantic League — which is roughly around Double A or Triple A in quality, a step below MLB but hardly a teenager testing ground — is basically a petri dish in which MLB will throw cauldrons of crazy notions to see what sort of strange brew they produce. The Atlantic League is the lab of ideas, and the ones that pan out will likely make their way to majors, and the ones that don’t … well, the way things are going, they might anyway. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to shake baseball out of its tradition-moored torpor, and the Atlantic League is his current romper room.
It’s going to get a little wild. Some of the ideas seem harmless, like a shortened time between innings and a ban on mound visits unless there is a pitching change or an injury, the sort of obvious fixes that, when MLB inevitably implements them, you won’t even notice or care about. (I have never met a fan who cheers for mound visits.) But others are more radical, from a “home-plate assisted” radar tracking system for balls and strikes (robot umps!) to every relief pitcher having to face three batters, to an increased base size (which essentially shortens the immutable 90-feet distances between bases). One change, forcing two infielders to be on each side of second base on every pitch, appears to be a direct (and ill-advised) response to retired players grousing about baseball’s embrace of that defensive shift. And the most dramatic of all involves actually moving the pitching rubber back two feet in the second half of the season, which changes the physics of the game in ways that are difficult to even comprehend until you physically see it happen. (And feels like an open assault on the health of pitcher arms, by the way, asking them to throw a farther distance in the second half of the season than they did in the first half.) The idea is that it will give batters more time to react to the pitch, though some physics folks argue that in fact it’ll make it harder to hit because the ball will have more room to move now.
Again: Some of these ideas may make it no farther than a random mid-August Long Island Ducks game. But they are the beginning of a long-term plan to make sure that baseball can stay relevant, and current, in a marketplace that is turning away from it. Baseball is not alone, among sports, in facing these challenges: The average NFL fans’ age has increased by a half decade as well, and the only sport whose average fan base age hasn’t increased over the last ten years is women’s tennis. But for obvious reasons having to do with its reputation as old-fashioned and just plain slow, the story of baseball’s decade, under Manfred, seems certain to be in some part about all the face-lifts the game is about to undergo. The only question is how far they are willing to go.
The perilous, probably impossible, task is figuring out how to make the game livelier and more palatable without upsetting the loyal, dedicated fans who already love the sport. I can talk to you all day about the supposed necessity of these changes, but I am a 43-year-old baseball fan who, I gotta say, loves the game exactly the way it is, who is absolutely riveted by every baseball game I watch, even if the strikeouts outnumber the hits. The evolution of the game is part of what makes it exciting — it’s why banning the shift seems so wrong — and watching teams use strategy to combat what their opponents are doing, rather than taking it away because you think it looks bad on television, is half the fun of baseball in the first place. I love this game, but if you alter the game too much, is what I’m watching even baseball anymore? MLB has nodded to this, slowing some of its pitch-clock initiatives and not putting in, even in the Atlantic League, a highly controversial plan to automatically place a runner on second base in extra innings. But these radical measures are sure to ruffle some traditionalists’ feathers. And what I call “traditionalists,” others might simply call “fans.”
Which does raise the question: How much should a game change to appeal to a younger fan base? Do they go full rock-and-jock? Targets in the outfield?
And of course there is no guarantee that any of these changes, if implemented, will actually work, in the sense of attracting more younger fans. The next millennial to tell me, “I’d watch more baseball if there were more balls in play and fewer relief pitchers” will be the first. The danger is needlessly irritating your most dedicated fans while chasing the elusive phantom that is the Millennial With Expendable Income. And baseball fans, for better or worse, are more resistant to change than fans of other sports. The NFL changes half its rules every year; the NBA changes the way it officiates hand fouls and turns the league from a rugby scrum under the basket into a gorgeous floor-spacing track show. But much of that is baseball fans’ own illusion of a linear history, the idea that Babe Ruth could hit a Triple-A pitcher’s breaking ball, or that Whitey Ford could spend the off-season drinking and bricklaying and show up at spring training and remain the best pitcher in baseball. (This is tied to the even more widespread and insane illusion that all baseball fans could have made the majors themselves, had they just caught a break.) The strategy has evolved, the training has evolved, and the players have evolved: The sport is now just trying to catch up. What’s it going to look like when it’s done? That’s the central dilemma of the next decade of baseball. I do know this: If you beamed Mike Trout 90 years into baseball’s past, they’d all think he was Superman, and if you beamed him 90 years into baseball’s future, he’d run away from the box weeping after every pitch. That’s the way human progress is supposed to work, and it’s certainly the way baseball progress is supposed to work. The game can’t change itself. The people have to. The question is whether they should … or even can.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.