Can baseball make a comeback?

With strikeouts piling up, scoring plummeting, attendance falling and games often descending into all-or-not...

Posted: Oct 20, 2018 1:29 PM
Updated: Oct 20, 2018 1:29 PM

With strikeouts piling up, scoring plummeting, attendance falling and games often descending into all-or-nothing bores, it's no wonder that some people are calling for radical change to baseball.

The sport faced a similar challenge 50 years ago, dogged by a scoring depression and lagging fan interest. In response, baseball's rules committee lowered the pitcher's mound 5 inches and tightened the strike zone, making it harder for pitchers to dominate the game. That sparked more scoring the next season — and more exciting games for fans.

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If those fixes could breathe new life into the sport then, there's no reason a similar strategy wouldn't work now.

Today, infield shifts — where teams load three players on one side of the infield — are gobbling up hits and forcing hitters to obsess over launch angles to lift balls over the infield and into the seats. So, a good place to start would be requiring two infielders on each side of second base, spreading them out in a traditional defensive alignment.

Lowering the pitcher's mound also worked in 1968, and it's worth considering dropping it some more to help reduce the elevation advantage that pitchers have, especially in today's era of often overmatched hitters facing down 100 mph+ pitches. And a pitch clock, requiring pitchers to throw to the batter within 20 seconds, could move things along, squeezing some dead air out of games.

This year's playoffs have featured some exciting matchups, but oftentimes teams have suffered through collective slumps that have become endemic in the sport. In the National League, the Colorado Rockies scored a total of two runs in three games as they were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers, while the Atlanta Braves got shut out twice in their four-game series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over in the American League, the Cleveland Indians managed just six runs in three games in a losing effort to the Houston Astros. And those were among the best-hitting teams in baseball.

The 1968 season was known as the "Year of the Pitcher," when pitching was so dominant that Carl Yastrzemski was the only player in the American League with a batting average over .300, the standard for excellence in hitting. Pitcher Bob Gibson led the National League with a 1.12 earned run average (ERA), the best since the Deadball era (an ERA under 3.00 is generally considered very good). Attendance fell for the second straight season and many people wrote off the sport as too boring, especially compared to faster-paced ones. Marshall McLuhan declared, "Baseball is doomed. It is a dying sport."

Today, the sport is at a crossroads again, with strikeouts outnumbering hits this year for the first time, and too many plays ending in the dreaded "three true outcomes" -- strikeouts, walks and home runs -- where there's no action on the field. Baseball's leaders recognize that change is needed, and hopefully they will follow through as their predecessors did a half-century ago.

The '68 season was truly the ice age of modern baseball. MLB players combined to hit just .237, the worst in baseball history, and seven teams batted .230 or lower. (By comparison, this year's collective batting average was .248.) The New York Yankees hit a baseball-worst .214 and still managed to have a winning season. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw six consecutive shutouts and broke Walter Johnson's 55-year-old record by tossing 58 and two-thirds consecutive scoreless innings.

Drysdale was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game, which the National League won by a typical 1968 score of 1-0. The sport's best hitters managed just eight hits that night while striking out 20 times.

Baseball drew barely 14,000 fans a game that season, and even some of the players' family members were yawning at the lack of action, as the Washington Post described that summer:

"I think everyone would like to see more of the spectacular things you used to see in baseball: the base stealing, the arguments with the umpire, people screaming, 'throw the bums out,'" said Liz Peterson, wife of Washington outfielder Cap Peterson, who stole just two bases that year while batting .204. "That's when the game is fun."

A lot of people today would like to see more base stealing, which has gone out of fashion, along with other exciting plays on the decline as players too often swing for the fences. Former player and manager Dusty Baker, who broke into the majors in '68, spoke for many when he told Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic:

"The game is getting so slow. And it's not exciting. What happened to the triple? Scoring from first on a double or a long single, running 3-2. I think the game is going to come back. It has to come back."

Ted Williams made a similar prediction after baseball enacted changes to the sport in December 1968. Williams took over as manager of the Washington Senators the next season, and at spring training that year, a young reporter named Ira Berkow asked him: "Is Baseball doomed?"

Williams replied: "There's no question about it, baseball is not as popular as it was 10 years ago. But games go in cycles. Baseball is down now, but it'll come back." And of course, that proved to be true, but it took some corrective action to make it happen.

By midsummer 1969, Sports Illustrated declared that Baseball Booms Again. That season featured the Miracle Mets winning the World Series, and a minor miracle in Washington, where Williams led the second Washington Senators franchise to its only winning season.

Across baseball, runs increased and strikeouts waned, increasing action, just as the owners had wanted. Now, we need that same upswing.

Purists might object to tinkering with the sport, but isn't the more radical change continuing down a sclerotic path where more and more of the action is no action? Baseball can be an exciting game, and there's nothing wrong with the national pastime that some extra balls in the gap, stolen bases, and movement on the bases can't fix.

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