Baseball Dystopia Watch

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I love baseball and you love baseball and even less-than-ideal baseball is better than most things. Still, baseball is not beyond criticism, and there’s a lot to criticize in today’s game.

You’ve heard me talk in recent months about some of these things. Developments of which I am not a big fan. A lot of them have to do with specialization and strategy that take action away from the game in favor of home runs, which are cool of course, and also strikeouts, which are not quite as cool. As in most things, balance is important and baseball seems to be out-of-balance of late.

Rather than go on rants every time this imbalance bugs me — rants get old — I’m going to use the “Baseball Dystopia Watch” to highlight factoids and articles which get at it this phenomenon as a means of keeping track of it, at least passively. Today I have three items to highlight.

First, a tweet from Joe Sheehan which positively boggles the mind:

The story is simple: a cascading failure of overlapping systems: (a) velocity being favored above all else; (b) increasing use of relief pitchers leading to more max-effort pitches from guys with no need to pace themselves; (c) strikes being called pretty dang low in the zone compared to past eras; and (d) most recently, uppercut swings being encouraged to max out homers. Pitchers want to strike guys out, and they’re doing it. Batters are OK with striking out if they can hit more home runs and they’re doing that. The result, though, is far less baseball action involving players who aren’t batting, pitching or catching than ever before.

Second, an article from Yahoo’s Jeff Passan expands on this, ushering in what he calls “The Strikeout Era.” The article talks up some of the eye-popping strikeout rates of both hitters and pitchers. When you see that sort of thing, it’s tempting to roll your eyes and say “oh, there goes a ball writer talking about strikeouts as if they’re a moral failing again.” I get that, and that has always bugged me, because unlike some old timers did and still do, I do not think it’s particularly useful to talk about strikeouts as something shameful or to be avoided at all costs in and of themselves. There are always tradeoffs, and I’d rather a guy capable of hitting for power strike out in an effort to do some damage than shorten up or bunt, for example. I don’t think Passan’s doing that sort of complaining, though. He’s merely explaining where the game is now, and he’s right. Personally, I find it a less-than-great aesthetic product, and one can say that without getting too preachy about strikeouts.

Finally, on a different topic, Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchick writes about the Rockies’ method of creating what they believe to be an unbreakable code for signs to their catchers. They use a random number generation system and little wristbands to tell catchers how to call the game, when to have the pitcher throw over to first or what have you. On one level it’s pretty ingenious. A great way to combat sign-stealing which is and always has been a part of the game. On another level, though, it’s just the latest bit of analytical-driven automation which takes instinct and feel for the game out of the hands of the athletes and puts into the hands of some baseball operations guy. Yes, I’ll grant that this is an esoteric complaint — if a pitcher catches a base runner napping and picks him off it’s still a great play — but part of me hates to see catchers wearing code-laden wristbands like some backup quarterback for a college football team. It reminds me that so much of what goes on on a baseball diamond these days is a function of a coach’s or analyst’s decision and not that of the players, who are the reason I’m watching.

OK, that’s it for now. And again: I’ll try not to turn this feature — which will show up every once in a while, not every day or anything — into a complaint-fest. If you’ve been reading me for any amount of time you know I am not a curmudgeon or a luddite and that I am not beholden to nostalgia. The idea is not to give any new innovation or development in the game the raspberries and pine for the game I enjoyed in my youth.

I do, however, think it’s useful to think about how the game is changing and to make note of the fact that, contrary to what some folks will tell you, change is not always for the better. That’s what we’ll be doing here from time to time.