Taking a look at ‘America’s Pastime’

Sports leaders of all stripes tinker with how to make their particular sport more attractive to the general populace. The game of baseball has been around for a long time, and those in charge continually think about ways to increase interest in it.

Major League Baseball (MLB) is unusual among the sports world in that it allows its two leagues – American and National – to play by one significantly different rule – the designated hitter.

The bragging point for baseball has always been the absence of a clock. Time never runs out on a team like it does in football and basketball. Opportunity may run out, but there’s no clock that runs down to 0:00. Each team gets 27 outs, and each team has an equal opportunity to see who can score the most runs.

It’s hard to come back from a large deficit in football or basketball because the clock runs out. But because there’s no clock in baseball, sometimes a team scores six or more runs in the 8th or 9th inning to win a game.

For all of baseball’s strengths, not everything is hunky-dory. For the first time in baseball history, there were more strikeouts than base hits in 2018. Hitters struck out 41,207 times last season against 41,020 hits.

Last year, 22.3 percent of all plate appearances ended in a strikeout, the highest rate in baseball history. In fact, MLB has set a new record-high strikeout rate in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and a new record in 2019 wouldn’t come as a big surprise.

Mike Axisa, writing for CBSsports.com, said MLB is concerned about the continued increase of strikeouts. MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre said, “To me, the excitement of baseball, to watch the game and manage the game, is to have enough balls in play, and we don’t have enough balls in play.

“We need to put the ball in play more.

“Everyone is throwing 98-99 mph, everyone is trying to strike people out … it is all a concern to me.

“That is when the game is going to pick up pace, when we dare hitters to hit the ball as opposed to trying to get them to miss the ball.”

Why is there an increase in strikeouts? Axisa suggests one reason is that hitters have embraced the launch angle.

Another is that teams have a better understanding of things like spin rate and pitch sequencing today than they did even five years ago. Axisa writes that so many analytical advances have benefited pitchers, while hitters haven’t gotten as much help.

There are likely a variety of reasons the average attendance fell 4% in 2018, but the lack of action most certainly is one of them. For the first time since 2003, fewer than 70 million fans showed up to the ballpark.

As for alternatives, MLB and the independent Atlantic League recently announced a three-year partnership in which MLB will essentially use the Atlantic as a laboratory. They will test all sorts of rule and equipment changes. Among them – moving the mound back two feet.

Axisa wrote: “To me, moving the mound back to 62 feet, 6 inches has potentially enormous ramifications, including a possible increase in injury risk. There’s a reason MLB wants this tested out in an independent league before subjecting their players and prospects to it. Lowering the mound, which MLB did back in 1969 is another possible solution, though that is not on the testing schedule.”

MLB could do something else drastic, such as go to four strikes for a strikeout, but that seems unlikely. Can you imagine singing, “For it’s one, two, three, four strikes you’re out, at the ol’ ballgame?” Not only that, but it would almost certainly add to the length of the game.

It would help if batters would try to put the ball in play more, but hitting the occasional home run is more appealing and pays better than slapping the ball around the yard.

If players and owners want to continue to rake in the dough, it’s in their best interest and for the good of the game to come up with an answer for what ails it.

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