With much of the baseball industry descending upon Washington over the next few days for the 89th All-Star Game – and the first in the nation’s capital in 49 years – you will be hearing plenty about all that is ailing, or is perceived to be ailing, the sport.
The all-star break is an opportunity to take stock of the game’s health and its trends (last year’s prevailing theme was the record-setting pace of home runs), and at this moment, most people would agree the game is not in a good place. An attendance drop of six percent from a year ago tells you all you need to know.
We have written about these ills many times in this space. We have used the phrase “existential crisis” to describe what is confronting the sport, as Commissioner Rob Manfred walks the thin line between pushing changes to improve the on-field product and honoring a rule book that has remained virtually unchanged for nearly a century and a half.
We have asked players and industry insiders if they think the game is “broken,” and have duly noted the ones who say no.
“It’s hard to say when you’re in it that the sport is broken,” Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw said recently. “It still feels like baseball to me.”
With that in mind, and because the All-Star Game is, above all, a celebration of the best the sport has to offer – namely, the greatest players in the world – we will use this space today to highlight those things the sport still has going for it, the things that still make you show up, tune in and get on your feet.
Then maybe tomorrow, we’ll get back to the crisis coverage.
Mike Trout: Someday, we will speak of having seen him – as we will again Tuesday night at Nationals Park – the same way our parents did of Willie Mays and our grandparents of Babe Ruth.
At 26 years old, with a higher career wins above replacement (WAR) than Harmon Killebrew, Yogi Berra or Hank Greenberg – and judging from this year’s numbers (on pace for 43 homers and a 1.075 OPS entering the weekend), still getting better – Trout is without peer in today’s game and has entered the discussion of the greatest players ever, alongside Ruth, Mays, Barry Bonds and perhaps a few others.
The question of why the Los Angeles Angels center fielder isn’t a bigger national celebrity – on the magnitude of the most popular NFL and NBA players – is a pertinent one, and brings into question baseball’s team-first culture, Trout’s unassuming personality and perhaps the sport’s failures in marketing. But for now, and especially Tuesday night, just enjoy the opportunity to watch him.
Red Sox-Yankees: You may roll your eyes and say you don’t care, and that you actually are disgusted by the media’s saturation coverage of the battle between the two AL East behemoths, but the television ratings suggest you’re lying. Face it: The sport is better when its two most storied rivals are squaring off with something on the line.
And the Yankees and Red Sox have never had a duel quite like this. With Boston on pace for 113 wins and New York on pace for 107, they own two of the three best records in the sport and still face each other 10 more times in the second half.
While both teams almost certainly will make the playoffs, each is still highly motivated to edge out the other for the division title and thus avoid the coin-flip proposition of a single-elimination wild-card game, most likely against Seattle Mariners ace James Paxton.
Labor Peace: It hasn’t always been pretty, and this spring’s vitriol over a slow-moving and perhaps shrinking free-agent market threatened to devolve into outright war, but baseball is now in its 23rd straight season without a work stoppage, during which time the other three major North American sports have endured a total of six.
We expect to hear from Manfred and union chief Tony Clark during all-star week, and while there are signs that the era of labor peace may not last through the next round of bargaining, that doesn’t come until after the 2021 season.
The Bright Side: League-wide batting averages (.247 entering the weekend) at a 46-year low and strikeout rates (17.0 per game) at an all-time high may not be what anyone wants to see. But there are some tantalizing side effects, such as the preponderance of no-hitters (three of them in the first half) – as well as the drama of countless near no-hitters — and starting pitchers striking out 15 or more in a game (four times in the first half), including a Max Scherzer gem of 15 K’s in just 6 1/3 innings in May.
That’s already more no-hitters than in 2016 and 2017 combined, and as many individual 15-strikeout games as every other year in this decade except 2015 and 2016.
Unfortunately, the trend towards shorter starts and deeper bullpens means most no-hitters and high-strikeout games will be combined efforts — which is not nearly as exciting.
Max Scherzer: Every five days – including, one presumes, the start of Tuesday night’s All-Star Game — we witness greatness. The Washington Nationals’ ace is not only the best pitcher on the planet at this moment, but he is striking out batters (12.2 per nine innings), limiting runners (.899 WHIP) and keeping opponents off the scoreboard (2.41 ERA) at career-best rates, and is on his way, should he keep it up, to a fourth Cy Young Award. If Trout is this generation’s Ruth or Bonds, Scherzer is its Walter Johnson or Roger Clemens.
Chris Davis: Just as Trout’s march up the list of game’s all-time greats is made more delightful by the rich and deep history he is upending, so is Davis’s plummet to depths no one has seen made more morbidly fascinating. Simply put, the Orioles’ first baseman is having one of the worst seasons in baseball history – and it is difficult to look away.
His .156 batting average entering the weekend was the lowest in history for a player who qualified for the batting title — 23 points lower than Rob Deer’s 1991 record (equaled by Dan Uggla in 2013) – and he is on pace for a WAR of minus-4.0, a level to which only one player, Jerry Royster in 1977, has ever sunk. That essentially means he is worth four fewer wins over the course of a season than a random Class AAA call-up.
He’s also under contract to the Orioles for four more seasons after this one, at $23 million per year.