It was a nippy April night in Toronto, and while hockey fans mourned the Maple Leafs’ disappointing season, baseball fans at Rogers Centre celebrated the beginning of a promising Blue Jays season. Heading into the seventh inning, the Jays led their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, eleven to three.
The Rays were yearning for a spurt of offense to start an unlikely comeback. For a moment, a comeback looked possible. To start the inning, Rays outfielder Tim Beckham clobbered a rather perfunctory first-pitch slider by Toronto reliever Todd Redmond into deep left field. As the ball rocketed towards the outfield wall, fans and commentators in the crowd exhaled collectively, anticipating Beckham’s second home run of the year, and a seven-run Blue Jays lead instead of eight.
Blue Jays left fielder Kevin Pillar was not so quick to give up on the play. Pillar, feet flying across the artificial turf, dashed towards the wall at full-speed, eyes locked on the bit of white leather bound for the left field bleachers. Then, in a moment of sheer athleticism and perfect timing, Pillar continued his stride up the wall, reached high above, and made a sensational grab, robbing Beckham of his homer.
As Pillar casually descended from the stratosphere, ball secured in glove, chaos ensued. Fans in the stadium went nuts. The commentators for both teams were in utter disbelief. Through the fluidity of the Internet, Pillar’s catch instantly went viral, and authorities on baseball were quick to name it the “Catch of the Year.” The catch was trending on Twitter for a couple of hours. Audience members, fans, aficionados, and casual spectators of the sport were left with one question, “How the hell did he do that?”
Well, for the first time ever, Major League Baseball can tell you exactly how the hell Pillar made the catch. Using “Statcast,” an advanced sports analytics system in its inaugural season, the MLB published a video that deconstructed and provided metrics to every aspect of his catch. Apparently, Pillar’s route to catching the ball was not perfect, as he only had a 97.9% “route efficiency.” He also reached a top speed of 15.2 miles per hour, which is just slightly faster than a trot.
The new system, lauded by the MLB, is a neat little gimmick, but that’s exactly what it is: a gimmick. The human awe and wonder of the catch felt lost to the goofy metrics of the speed of Pillar and the ball, the angle of trajectory, and the speed in which the ball left Beckham’s bat. With Statcast’s absurdly detailed new analysis, fans are left with a new question ringing in their heads, “Who cares?”
This new system is not a revolution of the baseball world, no matter how hard the MLB tries to make the case; Statcast is just another milestone in baseball’s continuous process of quantifying, dissecting, and analyzing every aspect of the sport. This quantification process comes as part of a desperate attempt to appeal to its growingly impatient and demanding audience who want highlight-reel plays, quicker game times, greater catches, and analysis that quenches their insatiable desire to understand the intricacies of the game.
Baseball’s need to reinvent itself appears to be an increasingly necessary move. As fans find instant, unlimited entertainment in other forms through the Internet, baseball falls lower and lower on the list of their priorities. For example, in the first two games of the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, broadcasts averaged just around 12.6 million viewers per game; less than twice the combined populations of the metropolitan areas of the contestants’ cities (the San Francisco Bay Area has around five million people; the Kansas City Metropolitan just over two million). The matchup itself was not inherently dull; Kansas City, a Cinderella team making an incredible underdog story, was challenging San Francisco, a dynastic franchise making a bid for its third World Series in three years. The overall fanbase in 2014 was just smaller than it has been in the past. Viewership of the World Series has been steadily decreasing, and has not reached 20 million viewers per game in the past ten years. By contrast, the most watched World Series of all time (the 1978 matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees) averaged over 44 million viewers per game.
Game 1 of the 2014 World Series was the lowest-rated World Series game in history with a TV rating of just 8.0. For context, a 2014 regular season Sunday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers scored a rating of 8.2.
Former baseball viewers are now gravitating towards other sports at an increasing rate. A 2014 poll showed that 35% of Americans claim football as their favorite sport, while merely 14% said the same for baseball.
Why the shift in loyalty of game? The issue has to do with the nature of the game itself. For one, it’s known to be incredibly slow, and it’s getting even slower. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the average length of a baseball game in the MLB’s inaugural year (1920) was just one hour and forty-seven minutes. By 1970, the games’ length had grown to two hours and thirty minutes. In 2014, the average length of a game clocked in at an astounding three hours and two minutes. In a society that boasts constant outlets for quick entertainment, long and rambling baseball games simply cannot compete.
Baseball has also lacked offense. Since the turn of the millennium and the end of the dynamic Steroid Era, nearly all offensive stats have decreased. The average batting average has decreased from .270 to just .249; average runs per game have decreased from 5.14 to 4.07. The casual spectator of the game does not have the knowledge or understanding of the game to appreciate a pitching duel. Casual fans want to watch highlight-reel “web gems” of 500-foot home runs and bases-clearing doubles, not a four hour game which ends 1-0.
So how can baseball reinvent itself to appeal to a greater audience? The answer, the MLB has found, is to reinvent the entire nature of the game, and adapt it to an increasingly impatient and technology-oriented audience.
The first major change made to baseball at the start of the 2015 season was the implementation of new “pace of game” rules in minor league theaters. Clocks have been added to all minor league parks, which serve a variety of purposes; they now give pitchers just 20 seconds to throw their pitch after receiving the ball. If they exceed their time limit, the pitch is called a ball. On the opposite end of the pitch, batters are required to keep one foot in the batter’s box during their at-bat (with a few exceptions), thus eliminating the player’s routine of taking lengthy strolls around the plate between pitches. Other changes include decreasing the time between innings to just 2:30 minutes and allowing just three visits to the pitcher’s mound per game. Some of these changes have also been applied to major league games, such as mandating clocks between innings and prohibiting batters from leaving the batter’s box between swings (failure to comply results in a small fine).
The results of these new rules in minor league games have been noticeable, but not significant. According to MLB.com, the average length of games with the full set of new rules has decreased by about 12 minutes. Major league games, following a partial set of the new rules, have decreased 10 minutes.
While the pace-of-play rules have cut down on the meandering slowness of the game, the rules have drawn heavy criticism from baseball officials, fans, and players alike. Jon Lester, the ace pitcher of the Chicago Cubs, disagrees with the new rules, and fears their jump into the major leagues in the coming seasons. “If you [use a pitch clock] you take the beauty out of the game,” he said at a Cubs convention in January. “There’s such a cat-and-mouse game as far as messing up hitters’ timing, messing up pitchers’ timing. Different things that fans and people that have never played this game don’t understand. I feel like if you do add a clock, it just takes all the beauty away from the game. I think you’re going down a path you don’t want to go down.”
Lester makes a compelling point, asking how baseball should be observed. For over a century, baseball has been celebrated for its rambling pace-of- play and its casual atmosphere.
But modern American fans are not searching for a casual, relaxed sport; they’re looking for a more exciting, dynamic game boasting greater offense to combat the League’s improving pitching. To comply with fans’ demands, the MLB has considered making drastic changes to the sport which would completely alter nature of the play. The MLB rules committee found last year that there was a correlation between a large strike zone and fewer runs scored per game. Thus, they are currently considering changing the definition of the strike zone to make it smaller, forcing pitchers to give batters easier balls to hit. There has also been a growing call for the National League to add a designated hitter to the lineups. A designated hitter would eliminate the requirement that pitchers must bat (long a beloved staple of National League rules), but would also boost offense and extend the baseball careers of players who grow too old to play defense.
But fans don’t just demand a change in the way the game is played; they demand a change in how it is analyzed, too. The brand-new implementation of Statcast in every ballpark has allowed fans to see the game in a new way. However, it also boasts a number of completely useless features which detract viewers from its human aspect and draws them towards a more numerical understanding.
For example, in a matinee game between the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez slammed a line drive back at rookie Arizona pitcher Archie Bradley, hitting Bradley square in the cheek and knocking him to the ground. His injury was horrific; his cheek swelled to the size of a grapefruit. He was dragged off the field and is now on the Disabled List.
However, immediately after the injury, the Rockies’ Twitter was quick to show off their new toy. Using Statcast, they were able to reveal that the ball had left Gonzalez’s bat at 115 miles per hour.
Before, a fan would watch the play and tell his friends that Bradley got hit in the face “really hard.” Now, that fan has the luxury of telling his friends that Bradley got hit in the face “with a ball going 115 miles per hour.” That number is completely meaningless and has no context, and again, removes the element of wonder from the play.
When the ball intersected his face, Archie Bradley probably couldn’t have care whether the ball was traveling at 98 or 115 miles per hour. It was going very sufficiently and painfully fast.
Our culture has an obsession with knowledge. We have so much information available at the touch of our fingertips that we feel like we HAVE to process it all. We also feel like this copious amount of information is universally useful. Now this new craving to assess and quantify everything has finally found its way into America’s pastime. With every awesome play, Statcast provides the ability to pick it apart and dissect it until its just not that awesome anymore.
Baseball purists defend the more traditional way of the game, and criticize the changing face of their favorite sport. The problem is
that the face of the audience is changing too. In this new age of the Internet, fans have an infinite number of ways to entertain themselves, and watching a three hour contest end in a 1-0 victory may not be high on the list to a new generation of potential fans. We live in a society where everything is instant and exciting; we can constantly stimulate our brains with high-octane material with a click of our devices. Just a few decades ago, baseball was just about the sole form of entertainment via media, but now, it has lost that position in American society.
Thus, to keep itself from dying, baseball has recognized its need to reinvent itself, and has taken clear steps towards achieving that goal. Like it or not, America’s sole unique recreational tradition—one that has maintained a fairly consistent face for over a century—is now changing at a rapid rate to match the demands of its increasingly impatient audience.