In less than two weeks, baseball will hold its first Washington All-Star Game since 1969, when the newly renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium hosted a contest in which Bob Gibson relieved Steve Carlton, in which Ernie Banks pinch-hit for Gibson, in which Roberto Clemente replaced Banks. Seventeen future Hall of Famers graced the District’s ballpark for a rain-delayed Midsummer Classic that featured the best the sport had to offer: Willie McCovey homering twice for the victorious National League, hometown hero Frank Howard countering once for the American League.
That summer, though, was important for baseball for more fundamental reasons than an annual exhibition. When Carlton, then of St. Louis, and his counterpart Mel Stottlemyre of the New York Yankees toed RFK’s rubber to start the matchup, they did so on a mound that was just 10 inches above the playing surface, five inches lower than the previous summer.
If 1968 was the year of the pitcher — and it was, with Gibson’s modern-era record 1.12 ERA cast as the leading data point — 1969 showed that, faced with a crisis, baseball could adjust and fundamentally so.
With the All-Star Game bringing baseball’s focus back to Washington in a way it hasn’t been in nearly half a century, it’s worth reflecting back if only because that’s what’s necessary to move forward. You will hear it in the run-up to and the coverage of the All-Star Game itself: Baseball is in crisis; it needs to fix itself. Being open to radical change must be part of the process.
The issue, right now, is elemental to the game. Hitters have long argued that the most difficult pursuit in all of sports is to hit a pitched baseball. Right now, it’s as if they’re trying to prove that en masse. Their collective batting average through last weekend was .246 — which, if it ended the year as such, would be the lowest mark since 1972 and the second-lowest since that offensive wasteland of 1968.
We can talk all we want about the length of games, and baseball is wise to keep tabs on that aspect of its health. Through last weekend, nine-inning games averaged 2 hours 59 minutes 44 seconds. That’s long, for sure. But it’s also down nearly 5 1/2 minutes from a year ago.
You know what else is down? Attendance, to 28,052 per game, off by more than 6 percent from last year and on track to be the lowest average in 15 years.
There has to be a relationship, then, between how often hitters are able to put balls in play and how willing fans are to pay to watch them try.
Now, ticket-buying trends don’t show up in real time. They settle in. Maybe that makes the attendance number more alarming because the seeds of such a drop-off must have been sown in previous seasons.
But the current reality reflects the trends that lead to waning interest. In 2018, baseball games average 16.75 hits between the two teams. That number didn’t strike me as particularly low. Frame it with the time-of-game data, and it sounds alarming: A baseball game features a hit once every 10 or 11 minutes.
Other stats you probably will hear in state-of-the game assessments as the All-Star Game approaches: Batters are striking out in 22.3 percent of their plate appearances, an all-time high. Fastball velocity averages 93.6 mph, down a tick from last summer’s record (since 2007, when Pitchf/x began measuring stats in all parks) but right in line with the previous two years. And teams are now using 4.23 pitchers per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which would be a record should it hold up.
Put aside the specific numbers, and the conclusion is easy: Fresher, more specialized pitchers throw harder. That causes batters to swing and miss more often. That removes action from the game. The result: Through Monday’s games, major league hitters have produced more strikeouts than hits — which would be a first, should it hold. And it will.
There are potential small-step solutions. Try establishing a minimum of, say, three hitters that a pitcher must face. This would, in theory, make left-handed relievers face some right-handed hitters, potentially increasing offense — particularly in the late innings, when flame-throwing relievers have particularly deadened the game.
But at a larger structural level, the right way to construct and coach a team to win a baseball game doesn’t marry with making an appealing product to watch.
The game and its teams are now run by bright people, people who could be running hedge funds or solving physics problems or exploring space. Instead, they have brought their analytical brains to baseball and applied that manner of thinking to the game.
I love baseball analytics. I recommend a FanGraphs.com membership to anyone who used to flip over baseball cards and study the fine print. Slicing and dicing numbers can be a joy.
But put the numbers in the hands of capable — even brilliant — front-office executives, and the result can be great for teams but detrimental to the game as an entertainment product. The list is endless.
Smartly deployed defensive shifts play to probabilities and help the pitching team record outs, which help that team. But defensive shifts also take away base runners, which decreases the action for the eye to follow. Clever front offices concluded that players should sacrifice contact for power and try to hit the ball in the air more frequently — increasing their “launch angle” — which generates more home runs but decreases sustained rallies and all the subtleties contained within.
Keep going. Smart business executives who are reluctant to overpay for assets prefer to use younger, cheaper players to fill out their rosters, but that leaves out veterans with whom fans have a history, a relationship. A walk is as good as a hit if you’re trying to win a baseball game; if you’re sitting in the stands, it’s not nearly as interesting to watch.
This applies even in — perhaps especially in — team-building. Losing was the right way for the Houston Astros to build a World Series-winning club because it provided them high draft picks that they used wisely and allowed them to trade their established players for prospects that developed more cheaply, meaning they could add established, expensive veterans of their choosing when the time was right.
But the fans who watched the Astros play on the road from 2011 to 2013 — when Houston averaged 108 losses — were punished by having to watch a no-name, noncompetitive outfit whose players were trying but whose front office wasn’t. (Note: This territory isn’t exclusive to Houston. We’re looking at you, 2007-10 Washington Nationals and 2011-14 Chicago Cubs.)
So something has to give, and it has to be more than pitch clocks. Baseball can’t ask its clubs to hire stupid people. The smart people they hire must be asked to identify their role in creating this problem — this game with less action than at any point in a century — and contribute to fixing it.
Back to that 1969 All-Star Game. All those Hall of Famers assembled at RFK, they dealt not only with the lowered mound but with a smaller strike zone — both fundamental adjustments designed to give hitters a better chance. It worked: Teams scored nearly 20 percent more runs per game than they had in 1968.
That’s the kind of radical change the sport needs now, whether it’s minimums for relievers or requirements for defensive alignments or something else entirely. In two weeks, a collection of the game’s most important people will be in Washington talking about it. Let’s hope they embrace it, too.