By Sam Bennett
It’s no secret to any sports fan in America, especially baseball fans, that America’s national pastime is slowly dying. Over the past decade, average attendance at games has decreased by over 4,000 people. Viewership of the world series has been on a steady, incremental decline over the same period. The average age of major league baseball game watchers is at a staggering 57 years old. It has become abundantly clear that if major league baseball does not change its ways to incorporate a greater audience, it will continue to die. America’s national pastime will be past its time as a major sport in the country.
So why has a game so beloved in this country been left by the wayside by so many younger, and even older fans. There are a couple possible explanations that I would like to explore. The first is not a surprise for anyone that has been following the game, especially over the first few games of the 2021 season. The games are just simply too long. Attention spans of Americans have only decreased, while the length of games has increased. While the average game in 2008 was an average of 2 hours and 50 minutes long, in 2020, games were nearly 3 hours and 10 minutes, and, if early signs are correct, that number will increase once again in 2021. So what is the problem. Why has the length of games increased by 20 minutes? It’s not like there has been an increase in innings, so based on the rules, there should not really be that drastic of a time change. But there are a few statistical changes that have occurred over the years that help explain the time shift. Firstly, there is the increase in pitching changes, as managers and teams have continued to utilize advanced statistics to their advantage. However, since each team uses about one more pitcher per game than they did in 2008, there comes the cost of about 10 additional minutes that a fan has to sit through, whether that be commercials at home, or nothing at the stadium. Next comes the amount of pitches that a player sees in a plate appearance. Since 2008, that number has risen almost 0.2 pitches per plate appearance. That may not seem like much, but extrapolate that to the average of 77 plate appearances per game, you are looking at an increase of over 6 minutes. And on the same note, the time between pitches increased by 2.3 seconds from 2007-2017 (latest data I could find), which considering the over 300 pitches thrown in the average game, you get another plus or minus 10 minutes. Then when you finally add on minor changes over time that sometimes increase game time, such as managerial reviews (which can take multiple minutes), it’s easy to see why the time of games has increased.
The second explanation as to why people are not watching anymore is the fact that a lot of the time, nothing is happening. And I’m not talking about the time in between pitches or when the batter is stepping into the box. If you have been watching or listening to baseball or sports media over the past few days, you may have heard the number 36%. That is the percentage of plate appearances that end in either a walk, a strikeout, or a homerun. This percentage, 36, represents the amount of plate appearances in a game where the ball is not even put in play. In my opinion, baseball is a game of tension, and release. When a man is on second with two outs in the ninth inning, the game is at its most exciting because everyone in the stadium knows that a hit gives the runner a chance to score, or even more exciting, be thrown out at home by a laser from the outfield. There is great tension in that moment, and that is the most enjoyable part of the game. The pitcher and batter are both under immense stress, and the audience can feel that and is invested. Even in the first inning, when there are men on first and third with one out, there is great tension because the batter could either score the man at third, or end the inning with a ground ball. Sure, the home run is exciting in the moment, but if you really think about it, is it the home runs that are the most enjoyable part of the game? Or is it the double into the right field gap and watching the runner at first try his best to give his team the lead, and Mike Trout trying to laser him down at home? For me, the answer is easy. These three outcomes, especially the strikeout and the home run, provide no tension, all release. The walk, while nothing really happens, is important because it gets men on base, which can lead to great moments. So, going back to that 36% number, not only does nothing happen on the field, but it takes away from the possibility of much better things happening.
There are some rule changes that could be pretty easily implemented to address my previous points, a few of which are already being considered, but need to be implemented ASAP so that baseball can rise once again (Baseball purists, this is a warning to look away).
- The first is the pitching change problem, which the MLB is already trying to solve with its new rule that pitchers have to face at least 3 batters, or finish an inning. Though the sample size is small, this hasn’t really changed anything thus far into the 2021 season, as so far, the pitchers per game is up from 2020. One change that I think would drastically improve this problem is a mid inning pitching change cap. While this is a radical idea, it would definitely keep the numbers down. This rule would make it so each team could have a maximum of 2 mid-inning pitching changes per game, barring injury. Instead of being able to change pitchers mid inning multiple times, slowing down the game tremendously, this change could provide for quicker games and possibly less pitchers overall.
- The next issue that could be addressed is the time between pitches, which the MLB has already come up with a solution for, but has postponed past the 2021 season. This is the pitch clock of 20 seconds. I can’t really come up with a better solution alone, so good job MLB.
- The next rule change is probably the most controversial, and it encompasses the issue of pitches per plate appearance and the lack of action during games (walks, strikeouts, home runs). This is the forced extermination of the infield shift. Besides being possibly the most egregious sight on a baseball field, it is one of the main culprits for the walk/strikeout/homer game. Because some players have extreme difficulty hitting to the opposite field, players shift to one side of the infield. And instead of trying to learn to hit to the opposite field, the baseball world has agreed that these hitters should instead just try to hit home runs or try to work a walk. The worst example of the shift was one I saw a few days ago when I went to Yankee stadium. The Blue Jays placed their third baseman in left field, and made it so there were 4 outfielders, and three men on the first base side of the infield. So, there was no value in hitting the ball anywhere to the outfield. Not to mention how against classic baseball this is, it was the most boring plate appearance all day, because the only possible outcomes were home run, strikeout, walk, or bunt single. To abolish the infield shift, I would implement a rule stating that there must be 2 players on each side of the infield, and they have to be on the infield, not in the outfield grass. This would make it much more desirable to hit a ball in play, bringing baseball back to its former tension filled glory.
While these ideas are all moderately to severely radical, they are necessary changes to bring back the game that our country as a whole has fallen out of love with. And to the baseball purists, it’s well time that the game adapts to the younger generation and is able to survive long into the future. Maybe then, and only then, baseball will once again become America’s national pastime.