By Larry Dierker
The 2018 All-Star Game sent my mind reeling. Fourteen runs, thirteen driven in by way of home runs, with twenty-five strikeouts mixed in. All in ten innings. How simplistic in contrast to the sport that arose in nineteenth-century America and grew to be the national pastime, the American passion even. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was the most popular song in the land. Batters seldom struck out and home runs were rare. Most games were played in less than two hours. A quotation I once read kept nagging at me until I found it.
“The Americans have a genius for taking a thing, examining its every part, and developing each part to the utmost. This they have done with the game of rounders, and, from a clumsy, primitive pastime, have so tightened its joints and put such a fine finish on its points that it stands forth a complicated machine of infinite exactitude.” –British writer Angus Evan Abbott, early 1900s
The Dead-Ball Era
Roughly twenty years after Abbott’s observation, baseball emerged from the dead-ball era. A series of developments circa 1920 livened the ball games and changed the theory of scoring. It had been a game of intricate strategies for moving runners one base at a time. During that era, automobiles were thought to be marvels of technology, though you had to crank them by hand to get them started.
Men took to the skies in complicated flying machines. Even in their infancy, airplanes were used to drop bombs in Europe and became deadly weapons during World War One. About that time Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, ushering a new kind of power hitting to baseball, which was perfectly suited for the Roaring Twenties.
The dead-ball era went the way of the horse drawn carriage. The Yankees quit tinkering with joints and points and started swinging for the fences. By the time the Roaring Twenties stumbled into the great depression, the Yankees had started a dynasty. They still played for one run occasionally, but not so often.
The Americans drug their feet about joining the Allies in World War Two. But they were finally forced into action by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They came out blazing in defense, with technology that allowed them to shoot machine guns from airplanes, timing the bullets to fire between the spinning propellers. The infantry still fought it out on the ground like dead-ball players. Even as a fighter pilot and future astronaut John Glenn was engaged in aerial dogfights with Axis pilots, scientists were learning how to split the atom and make a nuclear bomb. When the lumbering B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped one on Hiroshima, Japan, the war ended. From the clumsy primitive bombs that dropped on Germany in the first world war, came the technologically advanced fighter planes of the second world war. But those amazing airplanes were like toy guns compared to the Atom Bomb. Americans weren’t too upset about the way it ended. They were just glad it was over.
Ted Williams was a fighter pilot. But he didn’t inflict near as much damage as Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew did with one big bomb. It occurs to me, that watching baseball when it was a fast-moving game of little ball strategies was more like watching the dogfights in the air. And, at least for me, the fighter pilots were more interesting than the big mushroom cloud that is rising from your local ballpark this summer.
The obvious conclusion is that power wins wars. That is also true in sports. Oddly, the technology evolved from what seemed to be amazingly complex — the car, the airplane, the machine gun, to something that was far more complicated but looked rather primitive — a big-bellied bomber and the portly ten-foot long bomb. The secret was in the science, what modern baseball calls analytics.
If you watch old footage from the World Series in the 1950s, you immediately notice that the players moved at a faster pace between pitches. They also took the field and started playing right away between innings because the commercial timeouts for radio and television were shorter. The whole game looked like it was played on fast-forward.
It has taken over one hundred years and who knows how many megabytes to reduce the complicated machine of infinite exactitude that was dead-ball baseball, into the elegant simplicity of winning games in the twenty-first century by throwing the ball 100 mph and hitting it 500 feet. The empirical results prove that over the course of a long season, playing for the ‘homer’ is the best way to win a championship. Earl Weaver, who won a few of them in Baltimore, was ahead of his time. He said, “two walks and a three-run homer beats “inside baseball” every time.” Of course, he had a great starting rotation and a lot of power hitters.
In every era, pitching has been critical. Even in the steroid era, the best pitchers kept their ERAs below 3.00. But on offense, it seems as if each finely finished part has been dismantled, and what is left is more like a Civil War cannon. Longtime baseball game fans bemoan the loss of strategy, even as sabermetricians prove it’s unwise to employ it. That’s why you don’t see much bunting these days. That’s why base stealing has declined. The hit-and-run play has been an endangered species since the Roaring Twenties. It’s practically extinct now. Most managers are reluctant to give the other team an unearned out when they have a long ball hitter at the plate. And these days even the speedsters who play shortstop and centerfield hit home runs. As a result, the last vestige of a little ball is in the National League, where pitchers still bunt.
I had a sense of these things when I managed the Astros from 1997 – 2001. We did run a lot, even though I knew we were probably no more than break even on the runs we created and the ones we lost. We ran to put more pressure on the pitcher, hoping he would rush and make a pitch that we could hit for extra bases. Some fans thought I was a wizard because we hit and ran so effectively. The fact is, we almost never used that play. All of our fast runners had a green light to run unless they were given a “no steal” sign. All the power hitters were instructed not to take a fat pitch to let a teammate steal. They ended up getting a lot of hits when runners were on the move. Not the same as hitting and running. More like running and hitting.
There is no longer any effort to choke up on the bat up and get the ball in play with two strikes. There is no longer any shame in striking out. That’s part of the strikeout epidemic. The other part is the number of pitchers who can throw in the 100-mph range. Many of the hard-throwing pitchers I see these days would not have been in the major leagues years ago. They’re too wild. Back then most pitchers tried to get ground balls with low pitches. Even then most pitchers threw up and in against power hitters up because most of them had uppercut swings. But now, almost every hitter has an uppercut swing. The hitters are stronger now, but they don’t necessarily have better hand-eye coordination. It all boils down to more home runs and more strikeouts.
In this fury of long ball lust, which teams are actually winning? The teams with the best pitching, as usual. Ranked in order of team ERA, they are the Astros, the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Brewers. The Cubs, Braves, and Phillies are all above average. In fact, the only winning teams with average pitching are the Indians and the Mariners.
With all the home runs and strikeouts, there isn’t as much fielding, which is a shame because some of the most gifted fielders I’ve ever seen playing in the major leagues right now! That’s a lot of inaction. This is what many fans deplore. But, they don’t mind it so much in Boston, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles. What fans really like is seeing their home team win, no matter how they do it.
Years ago, even the home run hitters walked more often than they struck out. Not anymore. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio never struck out as much as they walked. Willie Mays was about even. Barry Bonds struck out more than he walked in his first three major league seasons and never did it again. Mark McGwire walked a lot but struck out more. Bryce Harper strikes out a lot more than any of them and his team doesn’t care because he does so much damage when he hits the ball. Some balls that he doesn’t even hit that well still clear the fences.
The antidote to good hitting is good pitching. There is no way to compare all these hitters because they all faced different pitchers. In general, you could say that Mays faced more hard-throwing pitchers than Williams. And you can say without a doubt that Harper faces more hard throwers than Bonds did. Radar guns have proven that. Baseball game analytics have also proven that you will score more runs per game by swinging for the fences, strikeouts be damned.
Why would a power hitter try to tap a grounder to second with a teammate on second and nobody out, when he could hit a two-run homer? He wouldn’t. And in failing, he might strike out. That’s when you may hear fans that are still keeping a scorecard complain, “If he’d just shorten up and advance the runner, we could score without even getting another hit.” I know, I know. But the metrics will prevail over the course of the season. “But I’m talking about this game, not the whole season. This guy we’re facing is tough. One run might be the difference.”
This is what I’m hearing. Too much power, not enough finesse. “What are we supposed to watch while we wait for the next home run?”
Another recent strategy that comes from computer analysis is defensive shifts that contain pull hitters, which includes most modern hitters. The shifts have been in vogue long enough now prove their effectiveness. Batting averages have declined while homers have soared. There is no shift for the home run. So home runs are up, hits are down, and strikeouts are up.
My guess is that none of this bothers casual fans and young fans –the fans that make up the future of the game. You never see anyone keeping score at the ballpark these days. You can get the box score on your phone in a jiffy. And if you’re looking at your phone when the home run is hit, you may hear the crowd and look up in time to see the tail end of it, and then watch three or four replays of it between innings.
It’s still a great pastime. But it passes more time and includes less action. In the meantime, DiamonVision screens and cell phones fill in the gaps. It’s been almost a hundred years since the demise of the dead-ball era. The game is much faster now – and slower.