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If you’re lamenting, baseball is already evolving

Three articles highlight difficulty in capturing any greater direction the game is taking

New York Mets v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

On the same day Tom Verducci posted a hand-wringing piece about the amount of inaction in a game of baseball, the White Sox and Twins combined to score 16 runs on 28 hits.

Not that it refutes Verducci’s larger point, but that’s probably one reason why baseball is prone to self-flagellation more than any other league. With usually 15 games every day, and few that draw a national audience, it’s difficult to get everybody seeing the same thing. This is what Verducci saw:

The signature game of what baseball has become took place in Milwaukee on June 2. The Dodgers beat the Brewers 2–1 in 12 innings. What may sound like a thriller passed for a tedious revival of a Samuel Beckett play. Instead of waiting for Godot, the plot revolved around waiting for a ball in play.

And that’s true, especially when the postseason rolls around all the pitching staff are better than the ones the White Sox put forward. But there’s something off about the article, and Grant Brisbee summed up the tension well:

Except, hold on. Allow me to posit a wild new theory: Things aren’t nearly as bad or different as they’re made out to be. Not yet. Even if baseball isn’t just in the middle of something temporary and cyclical — probably the likeliest explanation, if history is any guide — we are not drinking a six-pack of soda just yet. There is room for indulgence before we get to gluttony. A soda every other day is tasty, and it doesn’t have to kill you. More dingers are fine. We don’t have a problem yet. We’re fine.

... especially, as Brisbee goes on to point out, that Verducci both treats Cody Bellinger as some inevitability while pining for the sacrifice bunt, a play that often brings innings to crashing halts just the same. Maybe Verducci treats it as action because it’s self-inflicted.

Moreover, it seems like teams are aware of the toll strikeouts take on an offense, at least if the Houston Astros are any indication. From a Wall Street Journal story on the same day:

But even as the once-embarrassing punch-out lost its stigma, the constant stream of hitters slinking back to the dugout bothered Luhnow, the architect of perhaps the sport’s most data-driven organization.

“I saw firsthand the second-order effect of the high-strikeout world, which is the killing [of] the rallies, the not being able to produce those extra runs from guys getting on base,” Luhnow said in a recent interview at Minute Maid Park. “We hit a lot home runs, but it didn’t necessarily help us win that many more ballgames.”

The Astros went from leading the league in strikeouts with a margin of hundreds to leading the league in homers with the league’s lowest strikeout total. It’s not just that Jeff Luhnow acquired players who don’t strike out, but that the players and coaches themselves adapted:

The Astros don’t subscribe to that notion, empowering their players to hack away at the first hittable strike the pitcher offers them. As a result, they see just 3.8 pitches per plate appearance, fifth fewest in baseball. Hinch calls it a “swing-first” attitude, rather than the “take-first” mind-set that some other teams espouse.

To Hinch, the ultra-patient style once so prevalent is an outdated model, and the Astros are at the forefront of a smarter way. Many teams have striven to drive the starter’s pitch count up and force their opponent to turn to the bullpen. Now, with relievers becoming more dominant, “Starters are taken out early, anyway,” Hinch said.

The Astros have the American League’s best record far and away at 48-24. Baseball being a copycat industry like any other, I’m sure you’ll see teams follow their lead the way the Royals made teams reconsider run prevention. That seems to be the thread that led the White Sox to Jake Burger in the first round, as Nick Hosteter said during his midgame broadcast appearance between rounds:

“Big, big, big right handed power. That was the one main thing that attracted us to him. We were very excited to add a third baseman that we feel is going to stay at third base, swing the bat. Low-strikeout guy, high-walk, high OBP, and, like I said, big raw power.”

Not that Houston has the answer for everything. Because 30 teams can’t all follow the same formula, here’s Ben Lindbergh — on the same day as Verducci and the Wall Street Journal — looking at the way Milwaukee is leading the NL Central, even though they didn’t actively hunt for rock bottom the way the Astros and the Cubs did. One reason? They took advantage of their prime position toward the front of the waiver wire, which, hey, Alen Hanson.

It’s good to be aware of trends that are detrimental to the league. Fewer balls in play is a bad idea if it continues unabated, as is a league lopsided by tanking. However, these trends usually only benefit a minority of teams, and after other clubs exhaust themselves chasing unattainable/too-expensive models of success, they’re left to develop their own ways out of their ruts.

Pace of play is the only inherently uninteresting element that teams don’t seem to be evolving out of their collective system. It’s pervasive and persistent enough to require the league to deploy a heavy hand. It shouldn’t affect the way teams do business, and if it does, that’ll be a fascinating development in its own right.