For those who grew up when Gene Mauch managed the Phillies in the 1960s, Major League Baseball is a much different game today, one that is mostly absent of “small ball”—suicide squeezes, well-executed hit-and-runs, and the simple sacrifice bunt.
For those who grew up when Dallas Green managed the Phillies to their first World Series title in 1980, the game has much less strategy, many more strikeouts, and a swing-for-the-fences mentality.
For those who grew up when Charlie Manuel managed the Phillies to the 2008 championship, the game has an odd look to it: a runner placed on second base (gasp) to start an inning if extra frames are needed, seven-inning doubleheaders, and a rule that makes relievers face at least three batters or finish an inning.
What in the name of Richie Ashburn has happened to the great game we grew up loving? A game that frequently now takes over three hours to play, and has become too specialized and too stale.
“I try to think of how the game has changed for the better,” former major league pitcher and current Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen said, “and I can’t come up with anything. Under Rob Manfred, the commissioner, and Tony Clark with the players association, I can’t think of one thing that is better. I can certainly point out a lot of bad things.”
Those who study and believe in analytics admit today’s game drags too much, and that improvements can be made. But they say the game isn’t in ruins.
Take Phillies general manager Sam Fuld, for instance, who disagrees with the many fans who say the game doesn’t have much strategy anymore.
Fuld acknowledged there’s a “different type of strategy” used today that wasn’t around when baseball’s popularity soared in the 1960s and 1970s.
A lot of today’s strategy revolves around the matchups between relievers and hitters, as managers, armed with analytics, decide when to make a plethora of pitching moves.
But many of those moves are based on behind-the-scenes stats and don’t get the fans as involved as when they are debating about the merits of, say, a hit-and-run, a stolen base, or a pitchout.
“The strategy you’re seeing now is often information-based,” Fuld said. “The strategy is, ‘How do I sequence my pitches well?’ In terms of managerial strategy, ‘It’s how do I play matchups the best way? How do I use my whole bench in the most optimal fashion?’ It’s a chess match.”
Fuld believes there’s more strategy in today’s game, but conceded “it’s probably less exciting from a fan’s standpoint. Pitching changes aren’t as exciting as hit-and-runs.”
Nor are the ever-present fielding “shifts”—for instance, three fielders on the right side of second base when a lefthanded pull hitter is batting—popular among many fans. They make it more difficult to get runners on base and create action on the base paths.
Fuld pointed out that the shifts can also produce “interesting plays.” As an example, he talked about Bryce Harper bunting to the left side against a shift. “Maybe it’s not necessarily why you bought a ticket—to watch Bryce Harper bunt—but it’s a fun play to see,” Fuld said.
The litany of relief pitchers and the deep counts that Andersen believes are because umpires have smaller strike zones, have slowed the pace of games like never before, contributing to low TV ratings.
“Boring,” Andersen said of today’s game.
An all-time low of 9.8 million people watched last year’s World Series, according to Nielsen Media Research. MLB set its viewership World Series record when 44.3 million watched in 1978.
Head-scratching late starting times prevent kids and working adults from watching.
Those who watch can be excused for yawning.
“Baseball will benefit from a little more action, more balls in play,” said Fuld, who spent eight years as a major-league outfielder. “I think the league is aware of it, and kudos to them for experimenting with different rules that will lead to potential changes on the major-league level.”
Some minor leagues, a branch of MLB, are experimenting with wider bases (15×15 inches to 18×18 inches) in an effort to modestly increase stolen-base attempts and reduce injuries. They have also experimented with not allowing infielders to go beyond the infield dirt.
To people who have watched the game for five decades or longer and loved baseball THE WAY IT USED TO BE, those ideas are mind-boggling.
Andersen, a former reliever who spent six of his 17 major-league seasons with the Phillies, said the lack of fundamentals also turns off viewers. He is perplexed, for instance, with hitters’ inability to advance runners.
“How many times have you seen a runner get to second with nobody out, and how many times have you seen the next hitter TRY to hit the ball to the right side and move the runner? Maybe one percent?” said Andersen, who believes analytics have caused teams to abandon a one-run-at-a-time approach. “I don’t know if the players today even know how to play small ball. I don’t know if they have any concept of it. I don’t know if it’s ever taught or even explained to them in the minor leagues.”
Andersen said a lot of general managers “coming out of higher-academic colleges”—he was not referring to anyone in particular—have altered the game for the worse. “They never played on the professional level, but they’re very good at video baseball, and it just seems to me that they’re trying to turn baseball into video baseball,” he said. “That’s all they know. They weren’t good enough to go any further, so it’s like, ‘Let’s play the game the way I know how to play it.’ Like on a video game. And on a video game, all you’re trying to do is hit home runs and strike guys out. There’s no strategy in the game anymore and that’s what is disappointing to me.
“And if they go with the universal DH”—which has been discussed—“what little strategy is left in the National League will be gone,” he said.
Dan Baker, the Phillies’ public-address announcer since 1972, has been following the team since 1954, when his father took him from his home in Mt. Ephraim, N.J., to Connie Mack Stadium.
He was more diplomatic than Andersen when he talked about the state of today’s game.
“It’s hard to say if it’s better or worse than it used to be,” Baker said. “It’s changed. I think sometimes Old Heads say it was better when we grew up—which is kind of the way I think—and they think you’re not progressive enough or you’re not changing with the times. So I don’t necessarily assess whether it’s better or worse.”
“I still love baseball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “And I still love going to the ballpark, and it really energizes me. I love the game. I love the atmosphere; it’s more relaxed than some of the other sports. The same principles apply, and I still think the team with the better pitching is going to win. It’s still exciting to see a triple. You still appreciate a really good defensive play. We did back in the day and we still do.”
Baker conceded he misses the little things teams used to do to produce runs and wins.
“You almost never see a sacrifice bunt anymore,” he said, “and stolen bases are way down.”
“There are times when a sacrifice bunt or giving yourself up to advance a runner is beneficial,” Fuld said. “These instances are less frequent than what intuition told us before we had access to this kind of information.”
Andersen said players don’t spend enough time working on fundamentals or talking about the game.
“If players today would spend as much time talking to each other about how to play the game instead of working on their dances for when they do hit a home run, they would probably be better able to play the game the right way,” Andersen said.
An abundance of players now have a home-run-or-nothing approach, and it’s fair to wonder if that is healthy for the game. Will it generate enough fan interest that the next generation of fans will still be coming to ballparks? Or is more old-school, “small ball” needed to make fans feel more involved in the game as they analyze every critical move managers make?
The hitters’ approach to hitting has changed drastically. Few choke up with two strikes and just try to make contact. They swing from the heels, even with two strikes. A homer is shown on the TV highlight shows; punching an opposite-field single is not.
As a result of that approach, strikeouts are up. Way up.
“I’m just so frustrated with the game today,” Andersen said. “The game has been so good to me for so many things, and I don’t want to see it going backwards and losing people, losing fans.”
Heading into June, teams were striking out, on average, nine times a game. That means in a typical game, there were 18 strikeouts between the two teams. That number was 14 strikeouts per game in 2010, 13 per game in 2000, 11 per game in 1990, and about 10 per game in 1980, 1970 and 1960.
The specialization of relief pitchers over the decades has contributed greatly to the increase in strikeouts. And lower batting averages.
When the Phils won their first World Series in 1980, major-league teams compiled a .265 batting average. This year, the league average was at .234 entering June. (The Phillies were hitting .233 at the time.)
Andersen is befuddled by seven-inning doubleheaders and having a runner on second to start all extra-inning games.
Fuld thinks the extra-inning rule takes some of the stress away from pitching staffs, and that the man-on-second rule reduces the likelihood of long extra-inning games “that can really wrench your pitching staff. … It’s not what we’re accustomed to, but as we try to protect players and protect workload, I can see where you would be a fan of it, at least from an organizational and front-office standpoint.”
Andersen is not a fan of either rule.
“It has a Little League feel to me,” he said. “If we’re going to do that, why not just go to coach-pitch.”
The more Andersen talked, the more exasperated he sounded about today’s game.
“And they’re talking about moving the mound back a foot and a half? Really?” he said. “… How many arm injuries do you think they’re going to have to deal with if they try doing that?”
There was anguish in his voice as he talked about relatively new rules that don’t allow baserunners to break up a double play by throwing their bodies into an oncoming infielder, and don’t permit catchers to block the plate.
“Maybe it’s just because I’m old-school,” Andersen said of the changes he feels have hurt the game. “I get fired up by this. It drives me nuts!”
You’re not alone, LA.