MLB issues, modifications to the baseballs, stats, strikeouts, no small ball, methods to repair, Rob Manfred

‘America’s game’ is threatening to lose America’s interest.

Major League Baseball is facing an ever-growing problem, with the games themselves coming under fire for being less exciting to watch, not to mention too long.

The introduction of a pitch clock (like a basketball shot clock) may help with the latter, but the former has been created by a confluence of factors, from the increased power of pitchers, to constant tweaking of the baseballs themselves.

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Yes, MLB keeps changing the actual baseballs. After a rise in home runs in 2019-20, the league tried to produce a ball that didn’t fly as far when hit hard.

Making matters worse, a report by Insider found the league secretly used two different types of balls last year, creating serious questions over game integrity.

Theoretically this is an attempt to bring the game back to ‘the way it was’; but in reality it’s a misguided attempt to fix what is ailing the sport.

We’re seeing ever-increasing numbers of the ‘Three True Outcomes’ – home runs, walks or strikeouts, called that because they don’t involve defense or baserunning, purely the interaction between the pitcher and the hitter.

Home runs are fun, but this results in fewer dynamic plays – players trying to run out doubles or triples, attempted steals, even double plays – which most would say are the most exciting part of the sport.

There’s an element of nostalgia here too, because baseball has moved so far away from the ‘small ball’ era where bunting, stealing and tactical plays were en vogue. (Part of that is a realization that sacrificing an out to move a runner forward one base isn’t usually worth it, which leads to frustration from the old-school types with analytics, but that’s a separate topic.)

The last decade of baseball has seen major changes in pitching. The average fastball back in 2002 was thrown at 89 miles per hour; last year the average reached 93.5 mph, with over 600 players throwing harder than that at least once.

Minnesota’s Jhoan Duran throws his fastball at an average speed of 100.3 miles per hour. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Part of this is an increased focus on recruiting powerful pitchers; another part is how pitchers are handled. No longer are they asked to complete a full nine-inning game, no matter how long it takes or what it does to their arm.

The virtual cap for a starter is 100 pitches, even that is rarely reached; relief pitchers have gone from coming in for a couple of innings to complete the game, to being used for just a few players, allowing them to maximize their effort on every single pitch.

This makes things much harder on hitters, because even a small increase in speed decreases the tiny amount of time they have between seeing the ball come out of a pitcher’s hand and making a decision on where and whether to swing.

And if they have less time to react to a fastball, players will often make an early decision to ‘sit on’ the pitch and swing quickly. That in turn makes them more susceptible to ‘breaking balls’, like curveballs and sliders – velocity in effect makes there pitches better, not just the faster ones.

Combined with improved defensive tactics known as ‘the shift’, where players aren’t placed in their usual third base/shortstop/second base positions but where the numbers say groundballs are more likely to be hit, we’ve seen hitters make a major change as well.

They’re selling out for power, focusing on hitting flyballs to increase their odds of a home run. They now know that it’s worth increasing your odds of a strikeout to increase your odds of a certain run (or multiple, if there are runners on base).

Yankees superstar pitcher Gerrit Cole throws a 98 miles per hour fastball, but can slow down into the mid-80s for his breaking balls. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

These factors are creating the worst of all worlds. Around 23 per cent of all plate appearances are strikeouts – only down slightly because both the American and National League now employ the designated hitter replacing the pitcher.

The walk rate (9.1%) is higher than it’s been since the 1950s. There are fewer singles (13.3% of plate appearances) than ever. Balls in play are turning into outs at the highest rate in three decades.

And the deadened ball is clearly having an impact. Advanced tracking systems are able to predict how often a certain type of hit – based on its speed and angle – should result in a home run.

According to Statcast, flyballs hit this season should’ve resulted in a slugging percentage of .969. Instead the number is .721, a massive drop-off that means it is much harder than it ‘should be’ to hit home runs.

Baseball fans have been left frustrated by the lack of attempts to fix these style of play issues, directing their ire at MLB boss Rob Manfred, who appears more focused on milking as much short-term money out of the game as possible via infinite sponsorships, moves into NFTs and splitting the broadcast deal pie into many smaller pieces so it’s harder to watch every team your game plays.

The problem is so much of what ails the game is about baseball teams being smarter. They know how important pitcher velocity is, and how much it’s worth focusing on home runs over small ball. They are incentivized to play in these less-entertaining ways because they want to win.

To fix the problems, then, the league needs to make major changes to the very core of the game. Perhaps that is a stricter cap on the number of pitchers that can be used in a game; maybe it’s even moving the pitcher’s mound backwards, so that velocity is weakened by the requirement of having to throw further to reach the strike zone.

But does MLB have the courage to make those moves?

Or rather, does MLB find these issues a big enough problem in the first place?

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