BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
13 July 2021
ORLANDO, FL -- Houston Astros’ manager Dusty Baker is what some people might call “a baseball lifer.” He debuted in the major leagues as a 19-year-old with the Atlanta Braves in 1968, and played 19 seasons in the majors.
Currently, he is in his 24th season as a manager, having led the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals, and now the Astros.
All told, the 72-year-old Baker has played in or managed more than 5,600 games in the majors. Safe to say he’s seen a lot of baseball. And, what he sees in the game today isn’t pretty. “It’s unbelievable,” Baker said. “I’m watching games now where no one puts the ball in play for three or four innings.”
“Over the last few years, everybody's trying to hit homers,” he told Associated Press baseball writer Noah Trister. “And if you hit homers you're going to foul back pitches, you're going to swing and miss on balls, there’s very little bunting going on for base hits.”
That is Major League Baseball 2021. Somewhere Earl Weaver, the late, great Hall of Fame manager who led the Baltimore Orioles from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, must be smiling and saying, “See, I told you.” The game of baseball that he loved to manage – home runs, pitching, no stolen bases or hit-and-run plays – is all the rage these days.
Swinging for th
e fences may be the rage among major-league hitters these days, but not so much with the fans. In 2007, MLB total attendance was 79.4 million. In 2012, it declined to 74.8 million. In, 2017, it was 72.6 million. In 2019, it dropped to 68.4 million. That’s a loss of 11 million fans in 12 seasons. That’s not a trend, that’s a big problem.
Major League Baseball does indeed have a problem -- a TTO problem. That’s short for Three True Outcomes. TTOs are home runs, strikeouts, and walks. They are considered “true” because none of the trio requires the involvement of the defense, other than the pitcher and catcher. Which means that seven other players are just standing around.
Baseball’s TTO problem has been growing for years, like a cancer. An excellent article by Adam J. Morris on lonestarball.com measured TTO rates in five-season increments going back 50 years, to 1970. He found that the TTO rate has increased steadily in the past 15 years. In 2005, 27.3 percent of plate appearances ended in one of the TTOs. In 2010, that rate was 29.4 percent; in 2015, 30.7 percent; and in 2020, 36.0 percent. Through the first two months of this season, 36.2 percent of all plate appearances ended in one of the TTOs – a pace that would set a record for the seventh consecutive season.
Think the time spent getting your order at the ballpark concession stand is infuriating? On average, during a game today, almost four minutes passes between when balls are put in play. As someone once said, baseball is meant to be played by nine men, not two.
All of which translates into a lot of standing around by the fielders during a three-hour game, and a lot of increasingly bored fans. Few things get the attention of MLB officials and team owners quicker than fewer fans in the stands. And, if it continues, soon there could be a Fourth True Outcome: boring, “Wake-Me-When-It’s-Over, Time-To-Change-The-Channel” baseball. It could threaten to turn baseball into what many Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s considered soccer to be: a niche sport.
People in the league are sounding the alarm. Today’s game “sometimes is unwatchable,” Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly said during baseball’s virtual team meetings in 2020. “There’s just nothing going on. Innings: strikeout, strikeout, home run. It is hard to watch. It tells me that we have got to find a way to make our game move. I don’t mean play faster games; I mean more action.”
Former Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price agreed. “It’s hard to watch,” he told USA Today. “I’m not just some old guy saying this or saying that everybody has to go back to 1975. But I do think we have to appreciate what the people want to see. It’s not necessarily the bat flips or pitchers screaming at hitters when they strike him out. That may have some value with some of this generation, but the broad picture is we want action. When there’s no action, it’s really easy to flip the channel.”
Exhibit A is the New York Mets’ 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies on April 17 in Denver. Because it was a doubleheader, each game was seven innings. In the opener, 17 of the 21 outs that Mets’ pitchers recorded were by strikeout. During that game, New York starter Jacob deGrom and reliever Edwin Diaz gave up just three hits and one walk. All three of the Rockies runs came on a homer. In seven innings, Colorado batters put only six balls in play.
As Mattingly says, that’s hard to watch.
The Problem With TTOs
People around baseball decry the slow pace of play. It is a problem, too, as even 1-0 and 2-1 games stretch beyond the three-hour mark. But the bigger problem is lack of action, as Mattingly and Price noted.
The Three True Outcomes are a chief culprit. In 2019, on average, there were only 46 balls put into play during a nine-inning game. According to Statcast, through mid-May of this season, just 16.6 percent pitches have been put in play.
The problem with all the resulting down time, especially with strikeouts and walks, is the lack of movement: the dawdling between pitches and between plays by fielders, hitters fiddling with their batting gloves, pitchers trying to get the catcher’s signals, seven defenders with nothing to do. Strikeouts and walks don’t create what our eyes want and the fans pay to see: action in the form of movement by fielders and base runners.
Plus, it doesn’t give players an opportunity to display their world-class skills and athleticism, nor provide the action and excitement demanded by the digital-obsessed younger generation that baseball wants – and needs – to attract.
Blame It On…
Ten years ago, the league batted .255. Through the end of June, MLB batters were hitting .238, slightly above the record low .236 in 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher.”
Blame it on analytics; blame it on infield shifts that have emphasized, particularly for left-handed hitters, exit velocity and launch angle to hit balls over those alignments; blame it on the parade of high-octane relief pitchers; blame it on a swing-for-the-fences mentality; and blame it on the decline of “small ball” (hit-and-run, stolen bases, bunting). But, whatever the reason, it’s hard to get a hit these days.
A decade ago, a player who batted .240 was considered a bench player, a good-glove, no-hit guy. Now, he’s a starter and considered an above average hitter. Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino is going to this year’s All-Star Game – and he has a .198 batting average (though, he also has 19 homers).
A homer-or-bust mentality, unorthodox defenses, no bunting, and no stolen bases – it’s as if Major League Baseball is turning into recreational, slow-pitch softball, but with more athleticism and without the beer.
Adam Morris’ study that we mentioned earlier showed that the main reason for the increase in TTOs: the rise in strikeouts. In 2005, the league strikeout rate was 16.45 percent of plate appearances, in 2015 it was 20.39 percent, last season it was 23.44 percent, and this year it’s around 24.1 percent.
As Jesse Rogers of espn.com points out, that 24 percent is close to the career strikeout rates of two guys named Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. So, as Rogers notes, every pitcher in the league now is performing close to two of the greatest strikeout artists in MLB history.
One probably doesn’t need to convince the Atlanta Braves. On July 11, Miami starter Pablo Lopez struck out the first nine Braves’ batters he faced, setting an MLB record.
Welcome to Land of the K’s
When a batter steps to the plate today he is more likely to strike out than to get a hit. Matter of fact, in games played through the first week of June, only four MLB teams had more hits than strikeouts. It continues a trend over the last three seasons in which the number of strikeouts league-wide exceeded the number of base hits.
It is interesting that while teams make strikeouts a big part of their defense, clubs willingly overlook their own batters whiffing as a price to pay for an emphasis on slugging.
For years, managers and pitching coaches prized control hurlers who pitched-to-contact: make as few pitches as you can to retire batters and pitch longer into games. Now, teams want strikeouts, staffs filled with swing-and-miss guys. Throw as hard as you can for as long as you can, then turn it over to the bullpen.
Pitching for five innings (the minimum required for a starter to get credit for a victory) has become known as “five and dive.” It’s become more throwing than the art of pitching. In today’s game, “K” (strikeout) is King.
“You see deGrom – you see guys go out and punch out 14,15 (batters), you’re like, OK, it’s not that big of a deal anymore,” said Mattingly, who never whiffed more than 43 times in a season during his 14 years as a player. “It seems like teams are striking out 12, 15 times a night, and that’s just normal.”
In 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher,” two starting pitchers – Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell – averaged a strikeout an inning. Through the end of May this season, 39 starters were averaging 9 K’s a game.
“It’s a direct correlation between pitching now and pitching as (recently) as five years ago,” then-Miami Marlins infielder Neil Walker told Gabe Lacques in a USA Today story in 2019. “Even five years ago, pitching staffs had contact guys, sinker-slider guys. They wanted the ball put into play. Now, velocities are way up, the pitching philosophies are much different – it’s pitch to the top of the zone with fastballs, with as much velocity as you hope a guy has, and put you away with breaking balls.”
Striking out 100 times in a season used to be a hitter’s embarrassment. In 2019, 153 players struck out at least 100 times. Now it’s considered a fair price to pay “to slug,” in baseball parlance, and strikeouts are seen as no worse than any other out for a batter.
Look back at some of the game’s great sluggers in the 1950s and ‘60s: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Ted Williams: all of them finished their careers with at least 1,700 more hits than strikeouts – and Musial was a plus-2,934. In today’s game, those numbers increasingly are being reversed. What used to be seen as a failure is now just a shrug of the shoulders.
“Years ago, guys striking out 150 more times didn’t stay on their clubs long,” former manager Buck Showalter told Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, “but today players are learning you can make more money striking out a ton of times as long you hit homers. There’s no shame in striking out any more. Until players get penalized for striking out, not putting the ball in play with a runner on third and (less than) two outs, the game will continue as it’s going.”
What are the solutions?
So, what’s the answer for a more action-oriented game with more offense? In an accompanying story, we look at some ideas, including a ban on infield shifts, reducing the strike zone, and lowering and even moving back the pitching mound.
Whatever changes baseball adopts, they won’t result in a quick fix. Teams will still emphasize launch angle to try to defeat radical infield shifts, and sabermetric worshippers will continue their mantra that the risk-reward of trying to “slug” beats trying to string base hits together.
“This started 15, 16 years ago with the swing changes and the philosophy changes, and the analytics,” Mattingly noted. So, “it’s going to take a while” before the game frees itself from the tentacles of the Three True Outcomes.
The question is, Will Major League Baseball be just a niche sport by then?
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.