Deflated Football

Is football dying?

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As baseball news is at its offseason nadir, it’s time to take note of something everyone is noticing but no one is willing to discuss openly: professional football, which used to be America’s most popular sport, no longer has a hold on the nation’s consciousness.

Over the years, you have heard myriad explanations for football’s declining popularity. High-definition television making people less likely to go to stadiums. The increasing sophistication of video game consoles creating a more appealing form of home entertainment. People’s increasing love of Sunday marathons of “Top Gear” on BBC America. All are valid explanations. But they have not seemed to detract from America’s new favorite pastime: baseball.

Look no further than this past season’s playoffs. Sellouts in Boston, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles. Everyone from the cop on the corner to the man on the street enjoyed the baseball playoffs and Fall Classic. It really brought our nation together.

But the NFL? Costs are skyrocketing, pricing out the common fan. Playoff teams struggle to sell tickets. When the league should be celebrating its moment in the spotlight it finds itself enmeshed in controversy. A mere five years ago no one would have predicted that baseball would trump football in a popularity (non)contest like it does now. But they probably should have.

And to be clear: football’s declining allure has nothing to do with costs, the prevalence of social issues in the discourse or even the natural ebb and flow of popular entertainment. It has to do with the sport itself. There’s too broad a canvass on which to paint needed progressive change in football. Literally. There’s too much space.

Including end zones, a football field is 120 yards long and 53 yards wide, giving it a playing-surface area of 8,242,560 square inches. Eight million-plus square inches is far too much space for its participants to cover, both literally and thematically. It’s strategic schemes are simultaneously far too broad and far too intricate, and thus there is far too much required of the fan to accommodate the sport’s advancements.

Baseball, on the other hand, has a relevant playing surface area of a mere 216 square inches. That’s the area of home plate. Yes, baseball fields are about the same overall size as football fields, but the field does not become relevant until someone hits one of the pitches thrown to home plate. The sport hinges on what takes place near those 216 square inches. There are only so many things an athlete can do when confined to such tight parameters. There are only four things, really: throw a strike or a ball and swing the bat or don’t. Fans can handle something as simple as that. The entire game’s perfection is confined to a reasonable area, clearly seen by the home viewer and the fan in the overflowing stands alike. Granted, this is an oversimplification of a long-lived sport like football, but it is a clear explanation for why football’s best days are behind it.

Is football dying? The playoff game ticket sales, the sport’s own natural evolutionary limitations and the history of similar sports say yes. It’s just a matter of how quickly. The rate of football’s demise can easily turn into something of a mathematical argument based on presumption and perspective (two things that do not mix well with numbers). The National Football League came about in 1920. The sport’s golden age – its teenage years, if you will – was the 1960s through, oh, let’s call it early 2013. So perhaps football hasn’t even reached its midlife crisis yet. And yes, football’s TV ratings for the upcoming playoffs may show the sport to be back in full swing.

Bt in the big scheme of things, fewer people are going to playoff games. Meanwhile, the Spring Training is a little less than a month and a half away, and new records for attendance will probably be set.

Evolution at work.

My thanks to Kyle Daugherty for inspiring the idea of this post and to the New York Times’ Andy Benoit — and many other silly doomsayers of baseball — for inspiring the structure.

The Rays are considering reliever Tyler Clippard

New York Mets pitcher Tyler Clippard throws during the eighth inning of Game 4 of the National League baseball championship series against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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On Thursday, we learned that the Diamondbacks were still considering free agent reliever Tyler Clippard. You can add the Rays to the list as well, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

The Rays traded lefty reliever Jake McGee to the Rockies in exchange for outfielder Corey Dickerson in late January, so Clippard would be able to slot right in behind closer Brad Boxberger. Clippard, 30, compiled a 2.92 ERA with 64 strikeouts and 31 walks over 71 innings in a season split between the Athletics and Mets. The strikeout rate was at its lowest since the right-hander become a full-time reliever in 2009, and his walk rate was at its highest since 2010, which may be a factor in his still being a free agent in February.

Report: Juan Uribe is too expensive for the Giants

New York Mets' Juan Uribe follows the flight of his solo home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Chris Rusin in the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that, while the Giants are interested in free agent Juan Uribe, the utilityman’s asking price is too high for the club. Despite having a capable starter at every position, the Giants are a bit thin on depth and Uribe would be a nice fit given his versatility.

Uribe, 36, spent last season with the Dodgers, Braves, and Mets. He hit a combined .253/.320/.417 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI over 397 plate appearances. In his only postseason plate appearance for the Mets, he hit an RBI single in Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals.

Uribe has mostly played third base in recent seasons, but also has plenty of experience at second base and shortstop.

A study showed “grit” isn’t always a great attribute

Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper slides into third with a three RBI triple during the third inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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This popped up in my Twitter feed and I felt it had some applicability to baseball. This past October, Olga Khazan of The Atlantic highlighted a study in which researchers from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University performed three separate but related experiments to determine how “gritty” their subjects were.

One experiment had them solve anagrams. The second, a computer game. Finally, the third test had them solve math problems. Those who were deemed “grittier” attempted to solve fewer anagrams, which means they were sticking too long with difficult words rather than skipping and moving onto easier ones. The “grittier” crowd worked harder when losing at the computer game, but worked only as hard as the less-gritty when winning. With the math problems, the subjects when stuck were given a choice to take $1 and quit or keep going for a potential reward of $2 but $0 if they failed. The study showed that the “grittier” people weren’t any more productive but were more willing to risk the $1 for the doubled prize.

“Grit” is also a common colloquialism in baseball circles, used to refer to players who always run out a routine ground ball or pop-up. Other common characteristics include a willingness to dive for fly balls, slide into players to break up double plays, and to stick up for their teammates when there’s a disagreement between members of two teams. Often, those deemed “gritty” are in many other ways subpar players, but their perceived “grit” gives them value.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is a rare superstar player who has earned the “grit” descriptor. There are many examples showing why he has earned it, but the most famous incident occurred on May 13, 2013 at Dodger Stadium. Harper turned his back to the field to chase an A.J. Ellis fly ball but went face-first into the wall, suffering abrasions on his face and a jammed left shoulder. This was during a game the Nationals were comfortably winning 6-0 in the sixth inning. At the time, the Nationals were 95 percent favorites to win the game, according to FanGraphs. Is the risk of suffering an injury — which could keep Harper out only a game or two, or cause him to miss the rest of the season — worth potentially turning a double or triple into an out?

Famously, Philadelphia fans and talking heads got on outfielder Bobby Abreu’s case in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s because he appeared gun-shy when approaching the outfield fence on fly balls. He was under a lot of pressure to sacrifice his body for the supposed good of the team, and developed a reputation as “soft”. As a more recent example, former Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins caught flack from fans when he didn’t run out a routine pop-up against the Mets on August 30, 2012. Then-manager Charlie Manuel benched the veteran. At the time, the Phillies were 62-69 and 17.5 games back of first place in the NL East and 8.5 games behind the second Wild Card. Freak injuries can happen, as Rollins’ teammate Ryan Howard showed when making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals. Is that non-zero injury risk worth the tiny chance that the infielder drops the pop-up and Rollins gets a single (or, in rarer cases, a double) in a game that is essentially meaningless?

The aforementioned study shows that maybe Abreu and Rollins had it right after all. Statistically, a freak injury that occurs on a “hustle” play is bound to happen. Maybe that’s what it will take to stop expecting athletes to put their bodies on the line for no realistic gain.

Zach Britton settles with the Orioles for $6.75 million

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Boston. The Orioles won 6-4. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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The Orioles and closer Zach Britton avoided an arbitration hearing, agreeing to a $6.75 million salary for the 2016 season, Jon Heyman reports. The club has now handled all of its remaining arbitration cases and won’t have to go to a hearing with any players.

Britton, in his second of four years of arbitration eligibility, filed for $7.9 million while the Orioles countered at $5.6 million. $6.75 million is exactly the midpoint between the two submitted figures.

The 28-year-old lefty saved 36 games in 40 chances last season for the O’s while putting up a 1.92 ERA with a 79/14 K/BB ratio over 65 2/3 innings.