Joe Sherman of the New York Post tweeted out an interesting fact a little while ago: as of last night, major league teams have, collectively, exceeded 1,200 players used this season.
Sherman goes on to note just how out-of-whack that is compared to the rest of baseball history. Before 1999, he says, the 1,200 mark had never been reached. Which, fine, since before 1998 there were fewer teams. But even in the 30-team era, the numbers we’re seeing are incredible. They have risen each and every year since 2012 and last year a new record was set. The record: 1,358. We’re, quite obviously, going to shatter that record this year.
The culprit here is teams shuttling players on and off rosters, on and off the disabled list and up and down from the minor leagues at rates never before seen. Each of these developments were likely born of efficiency and competitive considerations. Fresh arms and legs are better than tired arms and legs and it’s better to deal with injuries proactively than it is to let hurt guys linger on a roster.
Yet it’s hard to see how, whatever the motivation for this, it’s not a bad thing for the fan experience and thus the game.
While a lot of fans will own up to “rooting for laundry” (i.e. supporting a team no matter who is playing for it) fans unquestionably have a far greater attachment to a team which has players they know and recognize. Players whose development they can track and whose performance they can follow over time. With a much larger portion of the roster turning over constantly, the players increasingly become unknown quantities for whom feelings run comparatively shallow. That diminishes the fan experience, I suspect, and over time diminishes a fan’s loyalty and enthusiasm for a team. Many people have cited this as a problem of free agency, but at least that only impacts teams, at most, on an annual basis, involving a couple of guys. This is an all-year, many times a year phenomenon.
This is like any number of other problems facing baseball. With front offices increasingly looking for smaller and smaller edges and inefficiencies to exploit, any number of moves and strategies that may not have been employed a few years ago are being employed now, often with unexpected consequences. A GM wants pitching to get better, so he gets flamethrowers over pitch-to-contact guys and he wants hitting to get better so he beefs up on power. Oops, there goes all of the balls in play! Likewise, a GM wants to optimize the 25-man roster and all of its rules in maximal fashion and, oops, there goes any semblance of roster continuity.
There are no easy answers to this stuff and I won’t suggest I have any. But these are problems Major League Baseball has to acknowledge and address if it does not want to alienate fans.