Waiting out a rain delay. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Without doubt there is a trend over the past 15 years in MLB to see pitching becoming more dominant. Is this good or bad for the game of baseball?
Here on this off day for the Baltimore Orioles, I’ve been pondering this question. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while … but a rainy day without an O’s game gives me more reason for such contemplations.
Also triggering this brain storm activity (storm / rain – see what I did there?) is the performance of James Shields against the Orioles yesterday. He was excellent, even factoring in the two-run homer of Nelson Cruz. Shields only gave up three hits in seven innings.
But he wasn’t the only one to pitch that well yesterday. Here comes an amazing statistic … and it is what got me writing this article. Yesterday (Sunday) was the first time in the history of MLB that, on the same day, 10 starters went seven innings or more and gave up three hits or less. I’ll pause while that sinks in!
As I said above, pitching has become more dominant in the past 15 years. It certainly feels that way. So, to check it out, I did some research and came up with this following chart of the yearly statistics in all of MLB – tracking batting averages and ERAs…
Over 15 years, the batting average is now roughly about 20 points lower, with the ERA coming down now also about .75 or so.
So is this good for the game? That is probably an answer that brings a response much salted with personal tastes and opinion.
I will answer for myself that it is not good. And as a former pitcher, I surprise myself a bit. But honestly, I don’t think we want to see baseball turn into the bat and ball scoring version of soccer. In my local community I am somewhat renowned for my distaste of that sport that disallows the use of two limbs, except for one player. I don’t actually hate it nearly as much as my reputation suggests, but I don’t think the low-scoring nature of that sport will allow it to ever grow to popularity in the USA that it has in other parts of the world.
Here are a couple of things that I do “get” about soccer that fuels fans of that sport in their struggle to understand why anyone would like baseball. The action is continuous, even if it is a lot of passing it around far from the goal. And there is a set time for the game with few breaks – like between innings. And so, soccer fans think of baseball as interminable and too much suspended action between a pitcher and batter, while the rest of the players (and the fans) are waiting and waiting for something to happen.
As a baseball purist, I enjoy that suspension – which to the observant eye is filled with action and gamesmanship of pitch selections and defensive posturing. But here’s the point – low-scoring pitching battles add to the sort of (growing?) skeptical view of the sport as pictured immediately above.
There was a time in the history of baseball about 45 years ago where it reached a point that something had to be done to diminish the pitching dominance of the sport. In the late 60s, the mound was lowered in order to induce more offence. It did, and the sport benefitted.
Is the time coming when another modification is needed? I don’t know … maybe.
Perhaps we should also therefore ponder why this is happening … what has contributed to the chart above?
The answer is likely rather more complex than the two items I am going to suggest, but here goes…
1. In the highly competitive ebb and flow of baseball at the highest level, managers and coaches have rightly understood that good pitching will far more often stop good hitting than the other way around. Therefore, a premium has been put upon the technical development of pitchers that is beyond anything known in the sport until recent years. Again, some may argue that this is a good thing.
2. The development of advanced sabermetrics and computer analyses of EVERYTHING has allowed for strategic implementation of defensive shifts to the extent that this is having a statistical effect upon the game. The Baltimore Orioles are probably one of the best, if not the very best, at utilizing this resource. Again, some may argue that this is a good thing.
I would rather see the game returned to the offensive production level of 15 years ago. I think that is a more interesting game that is also more compelling to the masses of the people. So will the pendulum naturally swing back in that direction at some point? I don’t know, but I will say that I do not currently see anything that would generate a trend in that direction.
My personal bias will come out in this final remark: If indeed the defensive shifts have contributed to this change that MLB will deem as negative, a step that could be taken would be to disallow over-shifts. I personally hate them. Why punish a player who is good enough to hit consistently to a spot not traditionally defensed? By illustration, is it really better for the game of baseball to over-shift on a guy like Chris Davis and turn him into an opposite-field slap hitter instead? The idea is not actually that far “out there.” After all, the NBA disallows certain defenses for the good of that sport.
So, anyhow … this is a topic that perhaps some of you would have interest in commenting upon, and I’d welcome that … as it is a matter of opinion for sure. After all, it looks like we will have time for conversations over the coming days. I’m not sure when we are ever going to see baseball again in Baltimore. Between tonight (Monday) and Thursday morning, they are calling for up to five inches of rain in Maryland. The Orioles are off tonight and Thursday, with games on Tuesday and Wednesday – the peak periods of precipitation. All of these off days are going to make for some difficult decisions for scheduling.