Column: On the back of an enthralling Red Sox season, why are we talking about fixing baseball?

Fenway Park (Rick Dikeman / Wikimedia Commons)

By Miguel Hernández Mercado
BU News Service

The Red Sox are now on the World Series. It’s a joyous time in Boston. But the MLB playoff season is not only a time to enjoy some of the best baseball of the year, it’s also a time to look back at the regular season and at the state of baseball.

I’ll focus on the latter.

A lifelong baseball fan, I can’t help but be worried about some of the suggestions that have been made on how to improve baseball. Hasn’t this Red Sox season been captivating enough? The idea that baseball needs improving or fixing rattles me.

It’s true that baseball has a reputation for being a slow game. In an era of ubiquitous entertainment, instant gratification and short attention spans, baseball games are sometimes considered too long.

It’s also true that the trends of recent games are not helping fight this reputation. The number of strikeouts is rising to the point that this season was the first in MLB’s history with more strikeouts than hits.

Home runs and walks are also going up, resulting in a rise in the share of outcomes where fielders are not involved. USA Today’s columnist Bob Nightengale noted with alarm earlier in the season that 34 percent of plate appearances had resulted in such outcomes. He said the game was thus “devoid of action.”

Here are some of the suggestions that have been offered by alarmists like Nightengale:

Former MLB pitcher Jim Kaat suggested shortening games to seven innings. “Seven is the new nine,” he said last May.

Earlier this year, ESPN’s Buster Olney floated the idea of limiting the number of pitchers that can come in per game.

MLB’s Commissioner, Rob Manfred, is open to abolishing defensive shifts.

I’d like to address MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, or anyone else involved in these decisions: Please, don’t ruin baseball.

The seven-inning game idea is just silly. After the season of the many strikeouts, this would give pitchers even more dominance.

It’s a proven baseball fact that pitchers are less effective each time they go through the batting order.

In a seven-inning game, starters would need to dominate only for four or five innings. Then, out would come the flame-throwing relievers, of which fewer would be needed, leading to better relievers all-around. In short, pitchers would dominate.

Bullpen games would become easier to pull off and thus more popular. The starting pitcher might disappear as we know him.

It would change the game too much for it to be worth it. It’s already something of a shame that starting pitchers don’t throw as many complete games anymore.

The complete game is one of the most beautiful and impressive parts of baseball. There’s something about the utter dominance and consistency required to pull it off.

If the games where shortened, baseball fans would never see a nine-inning shutout again. That would be a shame.

It’s already rare enough. Pitch-limits and reliever-love have made it so.

As a Red Sox fan, one of my favorite games this season was Rick Porcello’s one-hit, zero-walk, 86-pitch, nine-inning masterpiece against the Yankees.

He faced 28 batters. The last 21 failed in order. I don’t want to resign myself to never see a pitching performance like that again.

Abolishing the shift would also be anti-baseball.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Hitters adapt to the way they’re being pitched.  Pitchers adapt when they’re being too predictable. Managers and coaches learn which relievers are better suited for each situation.

These small adjustments made over a season—or even over multiple seasons—define baseball and are present in every facet of the game. In defense, they’re there in the form of defensive shifts. Although these have been a part of the game for a long time, the rise of data and analytics have made them more prevalent.

Teams know how to position themselves, not just for every game situation, but also for every hitter. Abolishing the shift—the argument goes—would boost offense and make the game more entertaining.

Many hitters have complained about the shift. Albert Pujols, for one, has called himself a victim.

“Look at the balls that I’m hitting up the middle, especially this year,” Pujols said to ESPN this year. “Out of those 30 or 40 or 50 balls, give me 25 hits. Add those 25 hits to my .250 batting average, I’d be hitting like .290.”

But why shouldn’t hitters that fail to adapt to shifts be penalized? David Ortiz was one of the most shifted-on players and look at what he did—especially at the end of his career when everyone knew what he could do.

The shift was popularized in the 1940s by Cleveland Indians’ player-manager Lou Boudreau to stop Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. It didn’t stop him.

It’s also extremely fun to watch hitters beat the shift. Here’s a video of then-Yankee Robinson Cano bunting against the shift for a double at Fenway Park.

Abolishing shifts would simply take part of the strategy out of the game. It would also add an absurd rigidity to defensive positioning that could be hard to enforce.

In short, don’t abolish the shift. Let hitters adapt.

Finally, let’s consider Buster Olney’s suggestion of a four-pitcher limit for each team per-game. On the face of it, I don’t think it’s a bad idea.

Today’s teams are definitely addicted to relief pitching. As Olney pointed out, pitchers-per-team-per-game were up to 4.25 at that point of the 2018 season, from 3.46 in 1998 and 2.75 in 1988.

The limit would also most likely decrease that concerning number of strikeouts. By decreasing the number of pitching changes, you also decrease the number of favorable pitching matchups.

But how is this supposed to fix baseball or make it better? It might make the games more exciting by boosting offense in the later innings but more offense also means longer games.

It could also result in pitchers staying in the game for longer than they should. It would be an ugly sight if a pitcher has to get shelled for batters on end on a day when he obviously doesn’t have it—just because the manager isn’t allowed to take him out.

This is why you don’t fix what isn’t broken.

Olney’s suggestion is an arbitrary extra restriction only thrown out there because he’s operating under the assumption that baseball needs improving.

To be clear, I do think baseball benefits from minor tweaks here and there. Rules that were recently implemented prohibiting runners from assaulting catchers and second basemen as they slide into bases were long overdue.

One of baseball’s best young players in 2011, catcher Buster Posey, suffered a broken leg from an unnecessarily aggressive slide at home plate that could be more adequately called a tackle.

Baseball is not immune to minor modifications. But to think baseball in 2018 is so generally unexciting that it needs drastic changes is just a personal failure.

Did you miss one of the most exciting teams in Red Sox history?

Weren’t you exhilarated with rookie-sensation Shohei Ohtani, the first two-way star since Babe Ruth?

Weren’t you heartbroken when you found out Ohtani was going through Tommy John’s surgery?

Mike Trout continued to play at unfairly high levels.  Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres were Yankee rookies that assured baseball will be fine in New York for years to come.

The National League division races were so close that they needed two tiebreaker games.

As long as players like Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor are around—which they should be for years to come—baseball is exciting.

 Those suggestions for improving baseball are not meant to please you, the real baseball fan who appreciates all this. They come from worries about baseball’s marketability to new fans.

But baseball’s fanbase is healthy. The MLB doesn’t need to be bigger than the NFL or the NBA to survive. MLB’s audience is hardly niche as it is.

The alarmists saying baseball needs fixing are, in essence, trying to tailor the game for the fans it doesn’t have yet, rather than focusing on the fans that do watch it tdoday.

I say the latter know better about what’s good for the game. In today’s baseball, there is much more to be excited about than to be worried about.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Boston University News Service.

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