While we have all been lamenting the fact that John Lackey is now older and possibly broken, what is strange, even for him, was the fact that he gave up way more home runs than expected given a normal decline. And on that same vein, most fans, players, and team personnel have probably surmised that the baseball is “juiced” to the point where it seems anyone can pop a ball up in the air and see it magically become a home run.
There are lots of articles out there now decrying MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred for skirting the issue of the juiced baseball. In some cases, he even deflects the blame from the baseball to bat composition, which really doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons. MLB Players Association lead Tony Clark doesn’t really think much of the juiced ball except to express concern about potential injuries to pitchers (i.e. blisters) caused by the lowered seams or some other aspect of the more recent batches of baseballs. And for the fans, there are some who don’t really care about baseballs entering low-Earth orbit. And if the oohs and aahs of all the fans at Marlins Park (plus those of us at home) during the All-Star festivities were any indication, chicks (and bros, too) still dig the long ball.
From a purely analytical standpoint, hitting a home run is the easiest way to score a run (and in many cases, multiple runs). It makes sense, because the defenders can’t get to the ball, and therefore cannot record an out or potentially throw somebody out on the basepaths. And again, as Aaron Judge and friends showed on Monday night, hitting baseballs really really far is a lot of fun to see.
I think Manfred has a point when he says that fans like home runs. This has resulted in a lot of ballparks moving their fences in to improve offense, an at least theoretical tightening of the strike zone, and teams seeming to eschew contact hitters for a bigger power stroke. The logic becomes, if a guy can hit 30+ bombs, who cares if he’s striking out 175 times or more? In a modern game where pitchers throw harder, defenses play smarter with shifts and positioning, and it gets harder to generate offense, having more home runs is an easy fix.
But while the occasional pitchers’ duel is fun (especially when there is an opportunity for a 20-strikeout game, or a no-hitter, or even a perfect game), I don’t think the casual fan pays to see sluggers flail through pitches several times a game. Defensive highlights are fun, and for us purists, so are great pitching performances, but like many other sports, fans come for the plays on offense. There is so much more to offense than home runs, which gets into the whole argument about whether it’s smarter to play long ball versus small ball.
I think the problem arises when just about every player seems to be hitting home runs, as I alluded to above, and as a causality, changes their approach to not only improve power, but also increase strikeouts. We have been harping on pace of play issues for a while now, which may one day prove to be an issue that saps excitement for the sport. Without appealing to new fans, it’s difficult to determine the shelf life of what is now a very lucrative sport. Even if the home run rate has skyrocketed, the shifting and the strikeouts have created larger lulls in the action. This might mean more fans are bored, especially if they’re not hardcore baseball nuts like us.
Short of banning the defensive shifts and making pitchers throw from flat ground, it makes sense for MLB to at least enforce the rule book strike zone. The Commish has stated the baseball is constructed within established parameters, and since MLB seems to be able to do whatever they want in that regard, I guess there’s not much we can do there. But if the player concerns (particularly from the pitchers) are heard, then maybe MLB explores tightening up baseball construction standards.
I have been coaching high school baseball for the past four years, and the lack of outfield fencing makes for some exciting plays. I instruct my players to try their best not only to hit the ball hard, but to hit it on a line, because without fences, they can run the bases until the fielders actually get to the ball. In my view, those are the most exciting plays, where a ball is delivered down the lines or into the gap, and the baserunners chug along until the defense hits the cutoff man. Home runs are great, too, but the uncertainty of a play that does not fall into the three true outcomes increases the excitement level and keeps the fans engaged. Is there a way for MLB to generate more of those types of plays? Who knows…but while we can concede the awesomeness of home runs, anything else that can increase the excitement level can’t be all bad.
Maybe keep the balls just somewhat juiced to keep the defenses honest, but tell players that every now and then, it’s okay to just go with the pitch and see what happens. Excitement is good.