Let’s Have Some Action

Kevin Kiermaier makes a lot of catches he seemingly has no business making. (via Keith Allison)

Baseball is losing me.

I’m not easy to lose. I have more years as a fan than Giancarlo Stanton had homers this season. I’ve been passionate about the Cubs since Ernie Banks was a pup and have traveled at considerable expense to see them in person from then ‘til now. I play fantasy baseball. I have a head full of baseball trivia and several shelves full of baseball books.

But I’ve been finding it harder each year to watch the games.

The trends have been documented endlessly. More strikeouts–a major league record this season. More home runs–another record. Mound conferences, batting glove adjustments, replays of umpires’ calls, pitching changes.

More and more of these things leads to less and less actual action–that is, the men on the field actually doing something.

Ah, but more home runs. They’re exciting! Well, not so very, it says here. Not when they’re as commonplace as in a men’s beer softball league. The Home Run Derby is fine, I guess, but just once a year.

I’ll tell you what’s exciting: triples. Usually, you have a well-hit ball. Will an outfielder catch it? Will he cut it off? If not, will it take a crazy bounce off a wall? Will the fielder pick it up cleanly? Will the batter/runner see the possibility of three bases and go all out? Will the cutoff man be in the right place? Will the throw(s) be strong and accurate and well-handled at third? Often, the slide and tag are close.

I’ll you what else is exciting: Kevin Kiermaier catching a fly ball he can’t possibly catch. Andrelton Simmons going deep, deep into the hole at short and getting a fast runner at first. Javier Baez foiling a steal of second with that magically quick tag of his.

Plays at the plate. Infielders tumbling into the stands in all-out pursuit of foul pop-ups. The bases loaded. Joey Votto is exciting, and Mike Trout and Jose Altuve, who are on base every time you look up, are exciting.

I’ll tell you what isn’t exciting: Baez going back to the dugout having whiffed (as in about 30 percent of the time). That plate appearance has involved him, the pitcher, the catcher and the plate umpire. Everybody else on the field has just stood around.

I coached little-kid baseball for a time. Batters didn’t hit the ball very far. So the big challenge was dealing with the precious darlings assigned to the outfield. The quiet ones picked dandelions. The rambunctious ones threw rocks at each other. They were bored. Their attention span could take just so much inaction. Mine, too.

Having worked with The Hardball Times for many years, and now, indirectly, its parent FanGraphs, I can’t helped but have soaked up and appreciated modern sabermetric thinking. It’s really good if your pitchers strike out a lot of other teams’ batters. But it’s not really bad if other teams’ pitchers strike out your batters a lot, because your batters are better off swinging for the fences.

And I understand the myriad other reasons for the increase in strikeouts. Pitchers are bigger and stronger and better-trained than ever. The starters are expected to go all-out for as long as they can, and when they’re gassed, guys who throw even harder in short stretches take their place. Those starters are relieved of having to face batters a third and fourth time. The strike zone, most agree, is unofficially bigger than in years past.

As for the home runs: Bigger stronger batters are making contact–when they do make contact–with faster pitches, which are therefore faster coming off the bat, and go farther. Add to that: Trying to hit it up the middle is out. Putting the ball in the air is the current fashion. Best get with it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

And, everyone except Major League Baseball tells us, the ball must be juiced.

I understand this is efficient. The trend’s poster child is Joey Gallo. He got into 145 games this season while hitting .209. Back in the day when people cared about batting average, this was known as nine points above the Mendoza Line and as a ticket to some industrial league team. But: Gallo’s .867 OPS was more than 100 points better than league average. His 123 wRC+ meant he was nearly 25 percentage points better than league average at creating runs.

But: He trotted around the bases 41 times after hitting home runs. He ambled to first base 75 times after walking, limped there eight times after getting hit by pitches. He shuffled back to the dugout 196 times after striking out. More than 60 percent of the time, his plate appearance involved nobody running, or catching a ball (except the catcher), or throwing a ball (except the pitcher). He is a king in the land of Three True Outcomes, none of which involves action on the part of anyone outside the 60-plus feet between the mound and home plate.

I certainly am not the first to notice what’s happening–or not happening–on the field. There’s been a ton of commentary this season on the TTO increase. For example, late in the season FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris talked to batters and pitchers about just this topic. Good article. The conclusion was, “Whaddya gonna do?” That’s pretty much the consensus.

There’s been talk in recent years of lowering the mound, reducing the pitchers’ leverage and thus their velocity (and the strain on their arms). That’s what baseball did after 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” when it reduced the mound’s height from 15 inches to the current 10.

But that might be an impractical expense for every high school, college and minor league field. Besides, it wouldn’t change the all-or-nothing ethos of current baseball. “I’m not sure lowering the mound would have much impact,” broadcaster Keith Olbermann said a while back. “Does a lower mound transform strikeouts into homers? …Batters continue to hit the ball harder and farther—and less. Ultimately this seems like just more in the decades-long transformation of batting into mere swinging.”

Now, traditionalist that I am, I have come to accept that we live in the 21st century, that uniforms aren’t flannel, Babe Ruth isn’t the home run king, and the Braves aren’t in Boston. (I’ve also come to accept, reluctantly, that ballpark music is no longer, as columnist Mike Downey once observed of GM Jim Campell’s Tiger Stadium sounds, “something Myron Floren could play on the accordion.”)

So I’m not advocating a return to the Dead Ball Era of a century ago. But how might the game be different (improved, by my lights) if baseball amended a 26-word passage in 3.01 (1.09) in the Official Baseball Rules?:

It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference.

Leaving you to work later on the pronunciation of that fancy French-sounding word, let’s think about the weight part changing while the circumference part stays the same.

Pick up a baseball and contemplate how far Aaron Judge might hit it. Pick up a tennis ball. Could he hit it as far? Not. Now, put your best two-seam grip on that baseball and imagine throwing it as hard and far as you can. (If you’re in the house, just imagine, please.) Do the same with the tennis ball…See what I’m driving at?

My association with the science of physics began and ended with avoiding the subject in high school and college. However, here in The Hardball Times Building we have David Kagan, who amazingly just about every month finds something in physics that relates to something in baseball, or vice versa. So I popped into his office.*

* Disclaimer of Endorsement: Reference herein to any wacko ideas about messing with the baseball does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by David Kagan.

My question was this: If we de-juiced the ball by making it a little lighter, would that not only decrease the distance the batter could hit it, but reduce the speed at which the pitcher could throw it?

Translating his answer into terms simple enough for even me to understand, it boiled down to “Well, yes.”

“As far as the physics of throwing is concerned,” he said, “let’s start with the fact you brought to the table. You can’t throw a tennis ball (or more extreme a ping-pong ball) 100 mph. Neither can you throw a bowling ball 100 mph. It is a ‘three bears’ scenario; the mass of the ball has to be ‘just right’ to throw it 100 mph.”

Now, your definition of a steak cooked just right probably is different from mine, and for sure there are more permutations of just-right baseball than just-right steaks.

No one, least of all me, wants to reduce our game to Nerf ball. To return to the top, what I love about baseball at the major league level is its speed–a third baseman’s diving stop of a ball hit at him from 90 feet away a second earlier, a clothesline throw from deep short that barely nips the runner at first base, a line drive barely fair down the line.

Maybe 2017 is an outlier. Maybe, leaving conditions just as they are, we’ll restore the beautiful balance of the game I love, so that baseball, in my mind, is just right. But all the signs say no.

References & Resources

  • FanGraphs
  • MLB.com
  • USA Today
  • Official Baseball Rules, 2017 edition

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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4 years ago

A lighter ball would also increase the importance of hitting the cutoff man.

Lee Trocinski
4 years ago

(Note: I’m not a physicist, so this is just my guess.) I think the lighter ball can be thrown as hard, if not harder, than a regular 5 oz. ball. Also, I would think the movement on the pitches would be exaggerated, leading to even more Ks. When you put the dimension quote up there, I thought you were going to say to make it a larger circumference. That would presumably raise contact rate, though you would have to raise the weight slightly too, or else the movement would get exaggerated again. I wouldn’t advocate that change, but I think it would get you closer to the changes you want.

4 years ago
Reply to  Lee Trocinski

The lighter ball will be thrown harder, however, it will have less inertia to fight through air drag. What it will actually do it get thrown faster, but decelerate faster too. Time-to-plate depends on how you affect the parameters, but the effect you can put on the pitch will be much greater. It is a return of sort to the dead-ball era.

4 years ago

Totally agree with the intent, here. I’d love to see more stolen bases, too. By changing the game, you’d get more Starling Marte’s, fewer Joey Gallo’s.

I wish it were easier for MLB stadiums to move the walls back/make them higher. That’s expensive and not always practical. Between that and lowering mound, and possibly setting some rules limiting the shift (because it discourages groundballs), I think you could get there without messing with the baseball.

I’d also love to see the number of pitching changes during an inning drastically reduced. But you don’t want to do too many things to help hitters.

4 years ago

This will never happen as long as the league thinks fans want more home runs and higher scoring, which all their market research says they do.

What the league doesn’t understand is that fans like higher scoring THAN USUAL games. If you just raise the baseline run environment, you don’t move the needle (or at least not for long as fans adjust to the new baseline). It’s the same for home runs.

De juicing the ball and pushing fences up and back (where possible) and reclaiming some foul territory from Legends Suite-style rich guy seating will all go a long way to putting the advantage back towards exciting contact oriented players and not TTO pull sluggers. We saw this in 2014/2015 with the extreme contact-outlier Royals’ success.

A lower run scoring environment will lead to more close games and therefore more value for teams and players who can manufacture runs through baserunning than the current environment where the correct move is almost always to sit on a base and wait for a HR.

Instead the league insists on moving in the opposite direction for reasons that seem largely spurious.

4 years ago

Can’t say as to the lighter ball, but wanted to chime in and voice my support to the “too much standing is making the game boring” argument. I love the pitcher – batter chess match part of the game, but lately it feels like ALL I am watching is chess. No running, no throwing except the pitch itself. I don’t know what’s to be done but I too find myself simply not watching as many games for this reason and it saddens me.

4 years ago

More streakers.

You’re welcome America.