COMMENTARY: New era of MLB part of a cycle
Submitted to The Union
If you are a sports fan, there may be no more enjoyable time of the year than the fall, as it provides a (moveable) feast for our sporting appetites, viewing indulgences and requisite reflections.
In response to this, then, is a critique of the most recent MLB season, for your sampling.
With the completion now of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, it is very clear that baseball is going through a new cycle. We are now experiencing the “era of the home run;” or, better stated, we are now experiencing the “era of the attempted home run.” Never before in baseball’s 173-year history has there been a greater infatuation with attempting to hit home runs. Seemingly, every hitter, middle infielders through corner outfielders, now swings as hard as he can, on every pitch, regardless of the count, in an attempt to clear the fences. “Launch angle” and “exit velocity” have replaced “getting the ball in play,” “hitting up the middle,” “hitting behind the runner,” and “the two strike approach” in the baseball lexicon. This new philosophy is changing the way the game is being played and changing the way in which players are evaluated and valued … and not for the better. To my way of thinking, it is making for a far less exciting and far less enjoyable game for the fans.
Although I like to see home runs as much as the next baseball enthusiast, I do not enjoy a static game, devoid of action. I do not enjoy simply waiting for the mere potential of a “three-run homer.” Home runs are increasing, but so too are strikeouts … at an alarming rate. There were 41,207 strikeouts last year, an increase of over 1,100 strikeouts from the year before. As baseball’s analytic proponents preached the “lift and launch” swing on every pitch, regardless of the count, teams averaged 8.87 strikeouts per game in 2018. This totaled nearly one strikeout for each half inning played. There were 188 more strikeouts than there were hits this past year. Batting averages dipped a startling 7 percent from what they were just one year ago.
A “super star” is now defined as someone like Bryce Harper, who hits 34 home runs, but also has a .249 batting average and strikes out 169 times a season. Giancarlo Stanton struck out 211 times this year. Aaron Judge struck out eight times in a double-header. In 1941, Joe DiMaggio struck out 13 times during the entire season.
Lost in this new era of “swing for the fences” are many of the nuances, subtleties, strategies and skills that make baseball so enjoyable to watch. I want to see more movement again. I want to see bunting and stealing, more moving the runner over, hitting behind the runner, hitting to the opposite field (thereby eliminating shifts) and the taking of the extra base. I want to see triples again!
When pitcher after pitcher is able to now consistently throw 94-plus mph, it is far easier to score a run(s) by putting together two singles and a stolen base than it is to swing as hard as one can on every pitch in hopes of hitting a baseball close to 400 feet.
How does a pitcher beat this popular, new swing philosophy? This can be done by simply pounding fastballs up in the strike zone. The “lift and launch” swing, with its exaggerated upward bat delivery angle, makes it almost impossible to “square up” a baseball that is delivered at or above the letters … just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I have always believed in (and this goes for all sports) putting the pressure on the defense, forcing defensive players to do what does not come easily or naturally. This constant pressure creates action and momentum and can be demoralizing to the opposition. The result provides the best and most entertaining experience for the fans.
All is not lost, however. The future of baseball is bright. There is a host of very young and very exciting up-and-coming players who can all run, throw, play defense, and hit for average as well as for power, including: Ronald Acuna, Mookie Betts, George Springer and Juan Sotto.
As I stated earlier, this “new era” is a cycle. The pendulum will surely swing back, and, when it does, the Whitey Herzogs of the baseball world will rest easy again … and we will all have a better game.
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