baseball grass

The State of Baseball is Strong. But it could be better. How do we make that happen?

123 Comments

Tom Verducci has a very long but very well thought-out analysis of the State of Baseball as we enter the 2014 season. In a lot of ways it’s the intelligent person’s take on the “Is Baseball Dying?” thing. Being a creature of baseball he understands the current strengths and weaknesses of the game from a competitive, demographic and financial perspective so he isn’t trafficking in the alarmism and broad-brush paining of the non-baseball writers who make a sport of declaring the game dead each fall. As such, it’s an important read.

The facts:

  • While financially flush, the game is dependent on TV money to a huge degree and what happens if something radical happens in the structure of the TV business?
  • A lot of that flushness is based on increasingly local fandom, not national, and while that’s OK for most of the season, it really does bollocks-up the national showcases like the World Series and the All-Star Game and stuff;
  • While still extremely popular on its own merits, baseball’s fan demographics are somewhat worrisome compared to other sports. Yes, people “come back” to baseball when they’re older, but if fewer are with it as kids in the first place, there are fewer to “come back” later;
  • While baseball will never be a kinetic thing on the level of basketball and football, it is slowing down even by its own standards with fewer balls in play, longer games and more down time/farting around time during games;
  • Less quantitatively, there is something culturally anachronistic about the overall vibe of baseball. The fascination among those inside the game and many fans with a conservative culture and a disdain of youthful exuberance, style and attitude. There are structural reasons for baseball not appealing to the young like football and basketball do and we can’t do much about a lot of that stuff, but baseball is really making it harder on itself by insisting on a code of orthodoxy that punishes and shames the Yasiel Puigs and Bryce Harpers of the world while elevating and venerating old farts with 19th century moral codes.

How severe a problem any of these things are is debatable. How severe all of them taken together are is as well. And while it’s possible to acknowledge all of these as problems, even potentially serious ones, and to still think the game is healthy, it is also the case that anyone who cares about an institution should care about improving it and addressing its faults, even if everything is going well in general.  This is where Verducci is coming from here, and I agree with a great deal of what he says in the part of his essay in which he critiques the state of the game.

The second part is a bit more fun and is likely to be the focus of more talk. In it Verducci proposes some changes to the game to address the problems he identifies. Some are great ideas. For example, he talks about instituting The Summer Game. Sort of baseball’s answer to The Winter Classic in hockey, and I think it’d be terrific:

It makes no sense that in one of the few windows when baseball has the sports calendar to itself — the All-Star break in July — it goes dark for two nights after the All-Star Game. It needs an “event.” It should schedule one game for the Thursday after the All-Star Game, bill it as The Summer Game, and play it at an iconic American venue, such as the foothills near Mount Rushmore, the mall in Washington D.C., the Field of Dreams field in Iowa, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. . . . one regular season game out of 2,430 that is visually stunning, brings Major League Baseball to a place it never has been before, appeals to the “event” appetite of demanding sports viewers, and underscores baseball’s unique place in Americana.

This is fantastic.

Other ideas are not so good. Neutral-site World Series. Allowing managers to mess around with the batting order to send whoever he wants up to bat without losing players once a game. Starting hitters off with 1-1 counts. To be fair, Verducci knows some of these are never going to happen and acknowledges their flaws. He’s merely trying to get a conversation started about such things, and that’s a great idea.

I think one of the bigger things baseball needs to figure out — and how they do it I have no idea — is how to change its conservative culture, how to do better at promoting the game’s young stars and how to do better at promoting the game in general to younger fans. And how to do all of that without being gimmicky or lame.

I feel like this is hard because so much of the dynamic is dictated by baseball’s very structure. Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. You do your time in the minors, where conformity and humility is drilled into you. The very socialization of a player into the game is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. This goes for the coaches too. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Between their education in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through. And even then the showman is roundly criticized and given a way shorter leash if his performance falters than is someone who Plays The Game The Right Way.

Given all of that, how does a young star make the kind of splash a young basketball player or football player does? How does baseball market a cog who has every incentive to eschew a claim to uniqueness given the almost militaristic structure that produced him?

I don’t know how you crack that nut. I don’t know how one can come up through the system required to learn the skills of the game without necessarily losing that flair and that style. The rare cases that are able to bypass a long conformity-instillation process because of their talent — like Puig and Harper — had better be the absolute best right out of the chute. And even if they are, the scrutiny by their peers and the media is still pretty high. How do you sell these guys to young fans if they’re being punished for what’s so marketable about them in the first place?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. Most people don’t. But I like that Verducci has started this conversation publicly. I also like that those inside Major League Baseball — people you don’t hear from or see much of on a day-to-day basis but with whom I have some contact — are wrestling with these issues too.

Baseball is a great game. The greatest game. But so much of what makes it great is holding it up from a wider and deeper audience and could, possibly anyway, present problems for it in the future. I want baseball to always be the greatest, so I want to think about these things too. I hope you do as well. And that, as a community, perhaps we can come up with some small ideas of our own. Because, whether you believe it or not, those people in the game who are wrestling with these ideas are paying attention to folks like us.

CC Sabathia goes on the disabled list with a strained groin

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia throws to the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game in Baltimore, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Leave a comment

CC Sabathia pitched wonderfully Wednesday night, tossing seven shutout innings in what was easily his best start in ages. But since we live in a world in which we simply cannot have nice things, that sweet has to come with some sour: the Yankees just announced that they have placed Sabathia on the 15-day disabled list with a strained groin.

The Yankees have replaced Sabathia on the roster with their old friend Phil Coke, whose contract they just purchased from Scranton.

The Yankees have had bad luck with all of their starters not named Masahiro Tanaka so far this year. Losing one of them just as he put together his best start of the season is just a killer.

Tim Lincecum’s showcase is a lot bigger a deal than it seemed before

Tim Lincecum
2 Comments

When a pitcher doesn’t sign anywhere before or during spring training people sometimes wring their hands a bit, but it’s usually the case that they’ll be OK if they are patient. Once the season starts guys start going down with injuries left and right or show that they’re ineffective. In such cases, a free agent pitcher’s value goes way up. He’s a relatively low cost option for a team which, a month ago, seemed set but is now suddenly desperate.

Tim Lincecum may benefit from that dynamic.

As we noted earlier today, the Angels’ rotation is a hot mess now that Garrett Richards is out for the year and Andrew Heaney‘s absence may be just as extended. The back end of the Giants’ rotation is likewise a mess. Lincecum was never seriously on San Francisco’s radar this past winter, but given how Matt Cain and Jake Peavy are going, those crazy kids may get back together. The Dodgers could use a pitcher and their competition with the Giants may make this whole situation a lot more profitable for Lincecum than it might have otherwise been.

Of course, Lincecum still has to show that he can pitch and that he’s healthy. That’s why he’s having the showcase, that goes down here very shorty — 2:30 eastern time — and you can watch it streaming live at CSNBayArea.com.

Buddy Carlyle named the Braves new replay assistant

Buddy Carlyle
1 Comment

The Braves have been terrible with respect to replay challenges this year. Almost improbably terrible. Fredi Gonzalez has challenged calls seven times and he’s been unsuccessful on all seven challenges. Given how these things work, it’s likely because he’s getting bad advice from the Braves employee designated to watch the replays and suggest when challenges should be made.

Now Gonzalez is going to have a new guy in that role. A familiar name too: Buddy Carlyle, who Mark Bowman of MLB.com reports, will join the Braves as a coaching assistant who will handle the replay review decisions.

Carlyle, of course, spent nine seasons as a major league pitcher and nearly 20 as a professional overall. Most recently with the Mets last season before calling it a career. He pitched for the Braves as well, from 2007-09.

Now he’ll provide a new and, hopefully, more discerning set of eyes for the Braves’ replay operation.

Garrett Richards needs Tommy John surgery, Andrew Heaney has UCL damage too

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
3 Comments

Bad, bad news for the Los Angeles Angels: their best starter needs Tommy John surgery and their most promising young starter has UCL damage as well.

Jeff Passan reports that Garrett Richards has a torn right ulnar collateral ligament and is expected to need Tommy John surgery. Richards was scratched from today’s start due to fatigue and dehydration, but Passan says they found the UCL tear while examining him yesterday. Richards is the Angels’ ace, having won 13 games in 2014 and 15 games a year ago. So far this year he a 2.34 ERA in six starts.

Heaney, meanwhile, has damage to his left ulnar collateral ligament, Passan reports. He was diagnosed with a flexor muscle strain after he was placed on the disabled list following his first start of the season, but this is obviously more serious. Unlike Richards, the plan at the moment is for Heaney to rehab rather than go under the knife. Sometimes that works. Often it doesn’t and Tommy John happens later. We’ll see.

These twin blows are huge and terrible for the Angels, who already had serious depth issues basically everywhere on the roster. The conventional wisdom before the year started was that, if everything broke right and everyone stayed healthy, they could possibly contend in an often volatile AL West, but that they didn’t have a big margin for error. This is a lot of error. The Angels are 13-15 and four games out in the division as it is. Without two starters on whom they were counting big, it’s hard to see how the rest of the Angels’ season isn’t going to be a total slog.