Baseball is broken – but there might be a way to fix it
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Baseball is at a crossroads
In 1968, baseball was broken. By the end of that season, the major league cumulative batting average had dropped to an all-time low .237 and runs were harder to score than at any time since the Dead Ball era. Fortunately, everyone was able to identify the problem. They called 68 “the year of the pitcher,” and they decided that was enough. Starting at 69, baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 (a flatter delivery angle is easier to hit) and brought the hitting zone down to its size six years earlier. These moves and the arrival of four expansion teams helped immediately restore the pitcher / batter balance.
Half a century later, baseball is broken again. A month into the 2021 season, the big players are beating .233 – even worse than the pitcher’s nadir of the year – and hitting 18 times per game on average. This is about 150 percent more than in 1968, and that means that about a quarter of all plaque appearances now end in an odor. For the fourth year in a row, there are more strikeouts than hits in the major league average game. And baseball is on track to set a new strikeout record in a 162-game season for the 13th consecutive year.
Anyone who logs into a major league game these days can see that the problem is the same as in 1968: the pitchers are just too good. Previously, Nolan Ryan was the only one with a 100 mph fastball. Today, it seems that every team has at least one in their enclosure. There are just too many guys throwing too hard and putting too many mean moves on the ball for a hitter to reasonably expect to make consistent contact. On every trip to the plate, you’re basically facing the Terminator – Schwarzenegger, not Henke.
The only reason baseball has been able to ignore this problem for so long is the brilliance of modern hitters. Increasingly overwhelmed by the machines on the mound, they found the only logical answer: swinging for the fences every time. Hey, you’re probably going to strike anyway, so you might as well aim for the moon. Batters have gone to great lengths to do this work, build their bodies and reinvent their swings using cutting edge principles such as optimal shots and pitch angles. And, to some extent, it paid off. They average one more homerun per game than their poor 1968 counterparts, which keeps the score at an acceptable level.
The problem is, not everyone likes this mutant version of baseball. A sport designed to showcase a range of athletic talents – power at home, yes, but also speed on the basepaths, agility in the infield, cannon arms in the outfield – has evolved into a two-player game where everyone except the batter and the pitcher (and, okay, the catcher) mainly stands watching. Ask a baseball fan what’s wrong with the game today and most will tell you: the ball is never in play.
The people who run baseball are smart enough to understand this. But they’ve only taken half measures to try and improve the game – things like pitching the three-hitter minimum, putting a runner on second to start extra innings and cushioning the ball slightly this year. Obviously, none of this is working. Until baseball tackles the same fundamental problem that plagued it in 1968 – that pitchers are too good – the game will not be played as it should.
There are signs, however, that the sport may finally be doing something meaningful about it. Last month, Major League Baseball and one of its affiliated minor leagues, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, announced experimental rule changes for the 2021 ALPB season. One is another half-measure: teams will lose their designated hitter for the remainder of the game after removing their starting pitcher. But the other could be the real way forward: for the second half of the season, the launch rubber will be set back a full foot. As well as ordering each pitcher to take things a little easier (obviously not an option), this might be the only real way to give hitters a healthy dose – and possibly create a 1968-style reset.
Tom Wilson is driving people crazy again. The dirtiest hockey player in consensus was back on the game Monday night. First, he started a scuffle after the whistle near the Washington net by hitting a Ranger who was lying on the ice. Then he knocked off helmetless Rangers star Artemi Panarin, resulting in a lower body injury that forced Panarin out of the game. Given Wilson’s long rap sheet, many hockey fans expected a suspension. Instead, the NHL slapped him on the wrist with a fine of US $ 5,000 – the maximum allowed, but not enough for those who would like to see Wilson kicked out of the league. Learn more about the latest Wilson controversy, see what he did, and watch some of his other dangerous moments here.
Canada clings to the World Women’s Curling Championship. After a four-game losing streak, Kerri Einarson’s ice rink won its second in a row today, crushing Italy in last place 10-4. At 3-5, Canada is a game and a half behind the United States (4-3) for last place in the six-team playoffs. Tonight’s game with Scotland (4-2) is another crucial game for the Canadians, who have yet to beat a team above them in the current standings. Unfortunately, you can’t watch it because no game shows until at least Thursday afternoon after several members of the broadcast team tested positive for the coronavirus.
Canada won another medal at the Diving World Cup. Today’s bronze medal by 19-year-old Rylan Wiens in the men’s 10-meter event gave Canada its fourth podium in the Olympic test event in Tokyo. China did not register any diver in the men’s 10m, which softened the competition, but two-time world champion and former Olympic bronze medalist Tom Daley of Great Britain competed and won the gold medal. Over the weekend, Canadians Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay won gold in the women’s 10m synchronized, Jennifer Abel and Melissa Citrini-Beaulieu won silver in the women’s 3m synchro, and Vincent Riendeau and Nathan Zsombor-Murray won bronze in the men’s 10m synchro. Abel was fifth in the women’s 3m individual final today, while McKay tried to advance to the women’s 10m final. You can watch it live Wednesday at 4:45 a.m. ET here.
May the 4 be with you. On this unofficial holiday for Star Wars fans, here’s a fun fact: Darth Vader participated in the Commonwealth Games. As everyone knows, James Earl Jones voiced the iconic villain, but Star Wars creator George Lucas wanted someone more physically imposing under the costume. So that role was played by Dave Prowse, a 6ft 6in actor / bodybuilder / weightlifter who represented England in the heavyweight division at the 1962 Commonwealth Games (he did not win a medal). If you’re wondering, Prowse isn’t the man you see when Vader’s mask was finally removed in the late 1983s. Return of the Jedi (he’s a different actor). Prowse died in November at the age of 85.
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