Keith Strudler: Baseball's Full Count
There are few more definitive moments in sport than baseball’s strikeout. It’s an example of one individual athlete -- a pitcher -- completely and single-handedly dominating another athlete -- a batter. Unlike a ground out or a pop up, a strikeout doesn’t necessitate any assistance from teammates. That’s because the batter can’t manage to get a single ball into play and finds himself unable to simply make contact to push the ball into fair territory. It’s a feat so domineering that fans sometimes hold up signs with a “K” for each one.
But, as they say, there can be too much of a good thing. And for baseball, it seems there are perhaps just a few too many strikeouts. At least compared to another important baseball stat -- that is, how many times a batter actually gets a hit. So far this season, there have been more strikeouts than hits in Major League Baseball, a pace that’s never been sustained over a professional season. So you’re more likely to see someone whiff than hit, which is exciting if you’re a) a pitcher, or b) a pitching coach. On top of that, this season over 33 percent of all at-bats have been strikeouts, walks, or home runs. Only six times since 1913 has that stat finished above 30 percent. There’s more, like the ball never even gets in play in nearly a third of all at bats, and league batting average is lowest since 1972, the year before the designated hitter.
Now why does that all matter? Perhaps most importantly, that trajectory coincides with a 15% decrease in baseball attendance this season. Whether correlation is also causation is a matter of perspective, but it has a lot of people in the game pretty worried -- perhaps more because of the root of the issue than the symptoms themselves. At least according to people who know the sport, a lot of these statistical realities are because managers are driven largely by analytics, batters are trained to swing for the fences, defenses shift like the San Andreas Fault, and pitchers are lucky to stay in longer than the length of an average sitcom. In other words, the game has changed. It’s also gotten longer, thanks to all this strategy and more instant replays than you get in a professional wrestling match. This is exactly what baseball wanted not to happen when they started considering rule changes like the pitch clock, designed to make the game quicker and hipper for a younger more diverse audience. I think we call them soccer fans.
Baseball isn’t the only sport that’s struggling with it’s trajectory. Another, shall we say mature sport, tennis, is trying find a way to make its sport relevant for people who don’t drive very large Cadillacs. The sport’s current play is to institute a serve clock, where players have to serve the ball more quickly instead of sometimes bouncing the ball until we nearly fall asleep. This hopefully would attract younger fans who apparently demand non-stop action or will instead instead play with their phones. It’s hard to say whether this is in fact true, particularly since I’m neither young nor a psychologist.
But what’s interesting in the case of both baseball and tennis, and I’m sure most sports other than soccer and basketball and professional video gaming, is whether these ailments are in fact curable, as they certainly hope, or perhaps simply a normal part of the aging process. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed managing these seemingly organic changes to the game, which is the same thing tennis is trying to do. But like all living things, sports have an arc to their lifespan. Just ask the race horses or the boxers, who used to be a lot more popular decades ago when their sports were favorite American fare. When basketball was a niche sport played in urban American neighborhoods, not the place where American royalty is cultivated. Societies change, and their tastes change with them. Which is why people now listen to Candi B instead of the Foxtrot. It’s up to you whether that’s a good thing.
Is baseball the Charleston, a trend cascading towards a slow but inevitable decline, a pastime only enjoyed by aging seniors whose tastes haven’t evolved? I think that’s a bit overblown. But I’m also not sure the sport can get young again by forcing a few more hits and maybe cool uniforms and helmet cams. Can strikeouts take down a whole sport? That, like the act itself, would truly be dominant.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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