In a phone interview with WEEI.com, FOX broadcaster Joe Buck went into detail about why he thinks the ratings for the 2018 World Series were down. The ratings were the fourth-lowest ever and were down 25 percent from 2017’s World Series between the Astros and Dodgers.
The games were really not that compelling. (John) Smoltz has gone from the darling three years ago to, ‘He hates baseball.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s that he loves the game, and he’s not that (removed) from playing, and he wants to see a certain approach that’s starting to disappear in the game. I’m not sure analytics, launch angle and all of that is producing better baseball. He has said 1 million times to me, because they’re allowing the shift, sluggers say, ‘If I hit the ball on the ground, I’m going to make an out, because everyone is on this side of the field. So I’m going to swing and try to launch the ball out of the ballpark, and we don’t care about strikeouts.’ That might be fine in the regular season, but the better at-bats belonged to the Red Sox, and to me, that’s why they won. They fought to get on base, they went deep into at-bats, and they were able to put the bat on the ball, and get runs. I think that’s always going to help a team win. It might not be the only way, but my God, if putting the bat on the ball and creating action isn’t better than swinging and missing, then I don’t understand it either.
Buck added that he would like to see earlier start times.
First off, yes, the 2018 World Series was not all that compelling. The Red Sox were by far baseball’s best team, having won 108 games during the regular season, then quickly eliminating the Yankees and Astros on their way to the Fall Classic. Of the five World Series games, only two were decided by two or fewer runs. The Red Sox overall outscored the Dodgers 28-16.
However, that the games weren’t compelling isn’t entirely the sport’s fault. It’s a major aspect of Buck’s job — and Smoltz’s and Tom Verducci’s — to make the game interesting. What made Vin Scully so great, for example, was that you still had reasons to tune in even if the game was a blowout in the third inning. Scully would have anecdotes from years past as well as tidbits from conversations he’s had with relevant players and coaches, adding intrigue to an otherwise forgettable game.
There is a way, without being over-the-top or dishonest, to make the game compelling as a broadcaster. This is not to say they didn’t try at all, but complaining about the games not feeling compelling seems like a cop-out. Smoltz’s commentary, which Buck referenced, was part of it. As the adage goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Smoltz’s commentary has become almost entirely vinegar. The World Series is the one time every year that baseball is on in lots of households and bars across the country. Use that opportunity to build up the sport: talk about what makes the players interesting and unique, why the sport is so fun to watch. Smoltz didn’t do any of that. He repeatedly tore into the players, coaches, and front office personnel for not playing the game the way he thinks is right, which is sans analytics.
Smoltz, by the way, is wrong that the shift is leading to fewer hits for batters. League-wide BABIP was .297 in 2010 and was .296 in 2018. Research has shown that partial shifts, as opposed to full shifts, are essentially ineffective. Research has also shown that pitchers give up more walks when the defense behind them is shifted. So it’s not like hitters are being completely bamboozled by the shift. Even if they were, it’s up to them to adapt to it. That’s part of what makes baseball interesting.
Buck’s suggestion that a focus on, essentially, three-true-outcome baseball has led to less interesting games definitely has merit. The three true outcomes are plate appearance results that don’t feature a ball in play: a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. As a percentage of plate appearances, the three true outcomes in 2018 were the highest in baseball history and a new record has been set year over year since 2014. In 2018, 34.2 percent of all plate appearances ended in one of the three true outcomes. So, we’re seeing less and less interesting baseball because fewer and fewer balls are being put into play.
The constant mid-inning pitching changes as well as lengthy replay reviews grind the momentum of playoff games to a halt. Major League Baseball could, perhaps, limit the total number of pitching changes a team can make in one inning. All replay reviews, objectively, shouldn’t take more than a minute. It’s a black-and-white issue most of the time and for the rare instances where there is gray area, the call on the field stands, which is the case now. There should never be a five-plus-minute replay review and perhaps that needs to be codified.
We’re seeing more three true outcomes because the sport is becoming hyper-optimized thanks to increasingly intelligent front office personnel and the power of computing. Baseball is, for the most part, a solvable puzzle. To keep the game interesting, we likely need more rules-tweaking going forward. For instance, some have suggested that the pitcher’s mound be moved back a few inches, which would be a slight nerf to the ever-increasing fastball velocity, something that has contributed to the rapidly increasing strikeout rate. That would give batters a better chance at putting a ball into play and creating some action.
To use an example from video games: I play a fair amount of Hearthstone, a fantasy card game in which the goal of the game is to reduce your opponent’s life total to zero. Every few months, Blizzard (the creator of Hearthstone) comes out with an expansion — a new set of over 100 cards — that shakes up the meta-game, which is how players approach the game outside of actually playing the game. For example, if most players are playing Deck A and Deck B is really strong against Deck A, I’ll use Deck B. As the game moves forward and no changes are made, the best and most optimized decks rise to the top and are used by most of the players playing competitively. As a result, the game becomes stale, boring to both play and watch because the same handful of decks are being constantly played by everyone. Expansions, as well as rotations (taking older sets out of standard competition) help keep the game fresh and forces the players to come up with new ways to approach the game. Major League Baseball should consider adopting a similar strategy.
There are a lot of reasons why baseball isn’t the most popular game in town and it’s not an issue that is going to be solved overnight. While the powers that be work on that, Buck and Smoltz can at least focus more on the positives of the sport and the players that play it, giving us a reason to continue watching. If they continue with their negative approach, a not-insignificant portion of fans will have left not because of shifts or three true outcomes, but because Buck and Smoltz told them the sport isn’t worth watching anymore.