February 18, 2013

SMITH | America’s Favorite Pastime: Revolution and Evolution

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There isn’t a more entertaining moment at a baseball game than hearing the sharp crack of the bat and then watching as the ball shoots into the stratosphere, only to disappear seconds later into a sea of hands reaching out from the grandstand. As a pitcher myself I know I’m not supposed to be a fan of the long ball, but I am forced to admit there is something majestically beautiful about watching a baseball soar above the roar of the crowd.

It is this moment that not only entertains the die-hard fan who understand the intricacies of every at bat but the casual observer on a Friday evening in the heat of July. And it is for that reason that the quest to hit home runs has taken baseball on a roller coaster ride throughout the course of the last 20 years, redefining the very way the game is played.

Following the 1994 strike, baseball as a sport, was in a slump. Attendance was down and the sport frankly lacked an edge. That all changed during the summer of 1998 though with the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Fans flocked to ballparks around the country to see these massive sluggers try to launch baseballs into the next area code. We all knew something might be up by the ease with which they conquered formerly unconquerable records but we looked the other way because we were amazed by it all. Baseball itself looked the other way too and is now facing the consequences of its decision with the drama surrounding the Hall of Fame.

But whether or not we ever forgive McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and the other stars of the steroid era for their actions, they undeniably “saved” the game of baseball. They brought people back to the seats and helped the sport re-establish its place in our society.

However, while the steroids themselves are the primary culprit for the vast increase in home runs during this era, the trend cannot be solely attributed to performance enhancers. Over the course of the past 20 years as home runs have steadily increased, so have strikeouts. In 1993, there were only 5.8 strikeouts per game but by 2012 that number had ballooned to 7.5. These statistics indicate a mass movement toward an all-or-nothing approach at the plate by hitters across the league.

Most likely this trend began as players saw that their peers who hit a lot of homeruns were also the ones gaining popularity and signing large contracts. The traditional saying is “Chicks Dig the Long Ball,” but I think the more appropriate saying for the time period would be “Front Offices Dig the Long Ball.” Every team wanted to accumulate home run hitters not only to win games but also to fill the seats and they were willing to pay big bucks for them. It was in this process that they were also willing to look the other way not only on steroid use, but on high strikeout numbers as well.

During the steroid era, this wasn’t a problem because players were hitting so many home runs the increase in strikeouts did not negatively affect run production. But as we move away from the steroid era, these high strikeout numbers could negatively impact both run production and the future popularity of the sport.

Since Major League Baseball adopted its current Joint Drug Prevention and Blunt Treatment program, it has seen runs per game drop from 4.8 in 2007 all the way to 4.32 in 2012. Yet the amount of home runs hit has stayed at the same level. In fact, the same amount of home runs per game were in hit in 2007 as in 2012. Strikeouts per game on the other hand have only continued to rise from 6.62 in 2007 to 7.50 mark in 2012 mentioned earlier. In essence, to account for the loss in power from steroids, players are taking this all-or-nothing approach even more seriously.

This may be a dangerous game and lead baseball down a path it doesn’t want to go though. For example if we examine the time period from 2007 to 2012 even further, there are many unsavory consequences that come to light. In 2007, the league batting average was .268, but in 2012 it had dropped to .255. There was a similar drop in on base percentage as well from .336 in 2007 to .319 in 2012. It would be fun to believe that the pitchers have just become proportionally better over the past five years, but there are more than 100 years of data to show that probably isn’t the case.

The formula for success and popularity during the steroid era of lots of home runs despite lots of strikeouts was entertaining because the ratio of home runs to strikeouts was high enough to allow fans to look past the strikeouts themselves. But as the drug testing gets stricter (which is a good thing), this ratio will naturally become smaller and the game will become less entertaining.

That is unless hitters start changing their approach and putting the ball in play more. There is another baseball saying that goes “baseball is a game of reaction not action.” However, there cannot be any reaction unless there is action to begin with. Baseball was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the 1950s when both home runs per game and strikeouts per game were significantly lower than they are now. Fans might not have gotten to watch as many magical home run moments but they did get to see a game filled with line drives, bunts, diving plays, triples, and stolen bases. I’m not saying that these things don’t happen today, but they certainly happen less often when the ball isn’t hit to begin with. What is also intriguing to point out is that were actually more runs scored per game in six out of the 10 seasons during the 1950s than the past three seasons. This statistical fact proves that while the all-or-nothing approach helped lead to the astronomical runs per game totals during the peak of the steroid era, it is not a prerequisite for offensive success and it may actually hurt teams going forward.

The good news is that the advanced metrics front offices rely on today value aspects of the game like on base percentage and slugging percentage but they don’t put a specific premium on home runs. With players’ ability to hit home runs declining due to the lack of steroids, it is likely that front offices will look for more diverse production from hitters. Undoubtedly home runs are still going to be highly valued but even the slightest de-emphasization by front offices will affect the way the game is played. Of course, for a trend like this to reverse itself, especially in a trickle-down manner, as it would be coming from the front office, it will take years to actually happen. But just because the framework itself for this change is already in place is reason enough to be optimistic as a baseball fan. The game no longer needs gargantuan home run totals to sustain its popularity and its time to for baseball to go back to being played the way it was supposed to be played: with action occurring during every at bat and strikeouts and home runs being the exception rather than the rule.

Original Author: Alex Smith

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