Baseball concluded a fascinating season when a historically great team from one of the sport’s best markets beat a ratings-generating outfit from Los Angeles after dispatching two 100-win teams.
The game is so good right now that occasionally football fans check the scores at halftime.
The tug-of-war between baseball and football for American hearts, minds, eyeballs and clicks ended long ago, with football dragging baseball along like a tin can behind a wedding limousine.
What changed this year is that football began winning the taste war on merit.
With rules that enhance offense and quarterback health, the NFL is the most consistently thrilling sport in America.
With rules that anger traditionalists and repel undecideds, baseball may have reached its nadir as a form of entertainment.
What’s strange about the descent is that as baseball’s front-office IQs rise, the game’s Q score plummets.
This isn’t about ratings, necessarily. The NFL is built to win the ratings war, and popularity is not always a measure of worth.
Baseball’s problem is that it is going backward while the NFL is surviving some of its problems and solving others. Some of football’s biggest hits may make you cringe, but at least you’re willing to watch in the first place.
Baseball is becoming unwatchable, and it’s the fault of the nerds who run the teams.
Analytics can give a team an edge and dull an entire league.
Take the shift. Teams always have been willing to shade their fielders toward areas where the ball is most likely to be hit. Baseball’s nerds have taken that quality idea and turned it into shifts that displace fielders and punish star hitters for smashing line drives to areas that have yielded hits for 150 years.
The shift may help a team win, but it’s not good for the game. It depresses offense and tempts 250-pound sluggers to bunt.
Take pitcher specialization. Team A may give itself an edge by using six relievers for one batter each, but doing so makes the average sports fan turn to something more interesting, like DVRed weather reports.
Pitcher specialization also imbalances the 25-man roster, meaning there are fewer pinch-hitters available for late-inning situations. In my day, and Tom Kelly’s, you could spend the middle innings anticipating where your team’s great pinch-hitter might bat. Today, Randy Bush has been replaced by a lefthanded specialist who faces four batters a week. You know, whatshisname.
The modern hitting approach produces home runs, but also an immense number of strikeouts, walks and long at-bats. The ball is rarely in play, meaning the game’s most beautiful moments — the running catch, the diving stop, the triple to the gap — occur less frequently.
Games are longer and yet contain less action. Going to a baseball game these days is like going to see The Rock in an action movie and having him pause every five minutes to read Hamlet soliloquies.
This was a fascinating baseball season for those not forced to watch the Twins. The Red Sox, Astros and Yankees won 100 games. The Indians, A’s, Braves, Brewers and Rays were intriguing, but you knew if you wanted to watch a random baseball game on a weeknight you might not see the end of it, not if you had to be up before noon the next day.
Meanwhile, the NFL has learned to protect its most valuable and watchable players and has produced an explosion of scoring and offensive innovation.
Baseball, like football, needs to adapt to the times. Here are my proposals to improve the game:
• No more mound visits unless the manager is removing the pitcher from the game.
• Limit each team to 10 active pitchers each day. Allow a three-pitcher taxi squad so a fresh pitcher can replace a worn-out pitcher on game day, and allow the taxi squad pitchers to contribute in extra-inning games. Limiting the number of active pitchers would discourage the use of “openers.”
• Require every pitcher to face at least two batters. This would lessen specialization and speed up games.
• Outlaw the change-of-position defensive shift.
• Use a robot to call strikes and have the on-field umpire carry a video screen so reviews take less time.
Wake up, baseball. If Roger Stinking Goodell can preside over an improved game, what are you waiting for?