MLB’s rise in strikeouts reminds of baseball’s decline

Baseball was my first love. I spent countless summer afternoons playing in the backyard with my older brother. We’d pitch to each other, simulating the day’s games, even batting righty or lefty in accordance with the teams’ batting orders. Baseball will forever hold a special place in my heart. I will always feel a certain romance playing catch or watching an extra-innings game in October. But for me, the sport has lost its preeminence.

Its slippage in my life is mirrored by its falling popularity among the public at large. According to a January Gallup poll, only nine percent of Americans— the lowest percentage ever—claim baseball as their favorite sport. Major League Baseball (MLB) is still profitable thanks to fat TV deals and the enduring appeal of going to games, but it’s a sport whose average fan, according to the Sports Business Journal, is 57 years old. Baseball has not grabbed the younger generations. My hometown Little League league—a vibrant 12-team league when I played—has shriveled to just two teams.

Baseball isn’t dead, but it’s dying. The nascent MLB season has already shown us why.

Last week, Yahoo Sports’ MLB columnist Jeff Passan made the case that the baseball has plunged into a “Strikeout Era.” The numbers he cites certainly back him up. As of last week, batters were on track to strike out 43,163 times this season, easily passing the record of 40,104 set last year, and in a completely different stratosphere from where the game was 10 years ago, when hitters struck out just 32,884 times (Yahoo, “10 Degrees: MLB’s enormous attendance drop due to bad weather or something far worse for baseball?” 4.16.2018).

What’s driving this new strikeout era? In short, analytics. Analytics are increasingly pushing hitters to prioritize home runs, exposing themselves to the strikeout. Teams are increasingly turning to their bullpens, bringing in hard-throwing relievers and even “specialists” to get just one batter.

More strikeouts means fewer balls put into play. Fewer balls put into play means fewer hits, fewer web gems, fewer baserunners. More and more, the game centers the duel between the pitcher and hitter, which might be exciting for pitching nerds but certainly isn’t for the casual or new fan. It is a trend toward even less action for a sport already commonly considered to be short on action.

The growing strikeout rate is a red flag because it’s a problem at the heart of the sport. The game itself is evolving in a less fan-friendly direction.

Strikeouts aren’t the only dilemma the MLB faces. The game has a habit of muting personality with its archaic unwritten rules (prohibitions on bat flips, strikeout celebrations, etc.). Relatedly, the league has struggled to find stars. Yet problems like this can be fixed. Already this season, the duo of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in New York and the arrival of Shohei Ohtani in Los Angeles make the league feel more marketable.

Professional sports leagues are businesses, so they’ll always look to address problems in an effort to build a better product for their consumers. For example, the MLB has tried to speed up the pace of play by limiting mound visits and installing a pitch clock. But some problems just can’t be solved. The pace-of-play initiatives have trimmed no more than a few minutes off of games. Baseball is at its heart a slow, cerebral game, often low on action (at least to the inexperienced eye), and made even more so by the analytics of this modern age. You can’t change the DNA of baseball.

Baseball’s demise is written in its own code. I can’t tell you how quickly baseball’s dying, but it’s dying. We should be okay with that.

Fans tend to view sports as sacred, fixed entities, but evolution is inevitable. The athletes change, the training methods change, the related health and safety knowledge changes, the rules must change. Perhaps most importantly, the cultures around them change. Sports are not artifacts, but living, breathing, evolving bodies. Evolution implies death. At the professional level, sports are businesses, not immune to creative destruction. We can (and will) fight to protect the sports we love in the form that we know them, but at the end of the day we must accept their evolution and eventual demise. The continued rise of the strikeout brings us another reminder of baseball’s mortality.

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