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Home runs are slowly killing baseball, and something needs to be done

Sluggers such as Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell are driving balls out of ballparks at an alarming rate. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

CLEVELAND — Put the home run aside for now, because it is not only the most likely way to score in baseball, but also the most Neanderthal, and it’s eating the game alive. We know home runs are coming at a record pace, and that fact was Topic A, B and Z for the sport’s leaders and its best players during All-Star Game festivities here. The blame, everyone here has decided, isn’t at the feet of the powerful players who are launching those baseballs into the stands. It’s on the baseball itself.

“The elephant in the room is: Yes, the ball is different,” Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “. . . That needs to be addressed from MLB’s side — and what they plan to do about it, and how they foresee the future of the baseball and its role in the home run.”

That’s important, for sure, and Commissioner Rob Manfred spent part of Tuesday assuring various parties that the league is endeavoring to better understand — and, eventually, fix — the issue.

But in discussing the homer and only the homer, we’re forgetting what’s lost when balls fly over fences rather than off them. Yes, Tuesday night’s All-Star Game featured just a couple of them, solo shots by Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and Texas’s Joey Gallo in the American League’s 4-3 win. But these days, that’s an outlier. If the home run isn’t reined in, it will eat the single and the triple. It has already devoured the bunt, has nibbled at the double play and is having an effect on the stolen base.

Do the math: If more plate appearances are ending in home runs — and, of course, strikeouts, headed for a record for the 12th straight year and with 23 in the All-Star Game fitting right in — then there’s a lower percentage of at-bats that can end in everything else. Viscerally, it feels as if there’s less action in a baseball game. Statistically, it’s undeniable.

Commissioner: MLB didn’t intentionally ‘juice’ balls to increase home runs

Take the single. It’s basic, bland, rarely GIF-worthy. But it’s essential. Two decades ago, major league games averaged nearly 12.5 singles between the two teams. This year, that rate is down to 10.7 per game — the lowest since baseball’s last expansion in 1998.

Who cares if each team averages roughly one fewer single per night than it once did? Well, think about how much depends on the simple base hit. Without the single, there’s not the excitement of a runner going from first to third — with a potential play at the bag. Without the single, there are fewer opportunities for an outfielder to gun down a runner trying to score from second. Give me those full-on sprints over 180 feet, with the potential for either a run or an out, rather than a slow jog around the bases any day.

So many other basic baseball plays — plays that involve action not just from the pitcher and hitter, but from multiple defenders and base runners — are following right along, gasping for air. Major league hitters are on pace to slash the fewest triples, ground into the fewest double plays, sacrifice bunt less frequently and attempt to steal less often than at any point in the past two decades.

I’m not here to defend, say, the bunt, because by now we have all been schooled on the inefficiency of giving up an out for a base. But the point is: On any of those plays, something is happening. Put them all simultaneously at a generational low, and there’s just less going on over the course of a random game that’s trying to hold your interest.

The Nationals’ final game before the break is a perfect example, both of how the homer can make the game stale and how those dwindling plays can make it absolutely enthralling. On Sunday at Nationals Park, Washington took a 2-0 lead over the Kansas City Royals on solo homers by Brian Dozier and Victor Robles. Patrick Corbin pitched well. But for seven innings, the game was, frankly, boring.

Every night is a Home Run Derby in Major League Baseball this season

The eighth, then, became the best version of baseball. The Royals tied the score with a single, a stolen base, a soft two-out single that scored a runner from second and a wallop of a double that scored a runner all the way from first. The Nationals came back with Anthony Rendon’s double that left a charging Adam Eaton tearing around from first, flinging his body to the ground Pete Rose-style as he slid across the plate with the lead run. Two batters later, Howie Kendrick drove in the insurance runs with a double of his own, this one not only scoring Rendon but also Juan Soto all the way from first, his helmet flying off his head as he dug around third.

Right there, in one frame, are all the elements that make baseball compelling: speed, strategy, risk management and wild, 270-foot trips around the bases. It’s no coincidence the home run was absent. The home run provides none of that.

“A lot more hitters are selling out for home runs, so strikeouts are up, home runs are up,” Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona said. “It’s kind of all or nothing at times.”

Which gets back to Scherzer’s elephant in the room, an elephant that was pointed at and picked apart during open discussions with the game’s stars here. In May, one general manager told me, “These baseballs are a joke,” and it’s now an open one. MLB has since acknowledged that an independent scientific study of the game’s basic equipment showed not that the balls are harder, but that, for some reason, they’re creating less drag.

“We see lower and lower exit [velocities, measuring the speed off the bat] that are going for home runs,” Scherzer said. “That’s why players want answers. That’s why this is MLB’s problem.”

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Justin Verlander, the American League’s starting pitcher Tuesday night and Scherzer’s former teammate with the Detroit Tigers, went further than saying it’s MLB’s problem. In an interview with ESPN on Monday, he said MLB intentionally changed the ball because it wanted more homers. Manfred flatly refuted that Tuesday.

“Baseball has done nothing, given no direction, for an alteration in the baseball,” the commissioner said.

Fine. What it needs to do, and fast, is give direction to alter it back. If drag is down, increase the drag. To me, this is a more significant problem than the pace or length of the games. If games take three hours but are filled with action, people will watch. If they’re lulled to sleep sitting back and waiting for a bomb, well, that’s easier to turn off.

It’s not that home runs, by themselves, are boring. It’s that right now they’re out of balance with the rest of the game. Bit by bit, they’re gobbling up so many of the other plays that can make this sport riveting.

“I think that’s what makes baseball great — there’s so many different ways to play it,” Scherzer said.

There were, when the ball was normal. Right now, it’s not. Let this All-Star Game be the moment when everyone agreed: Fix the baseball not so much to kill the home run, but to bring back the fascinating little plays that make the game more interesting.

Read more:

Power pitching beats power hitting in MLB All-Star Game that breaks the mold

Pete Alonso wins Home Run Derby after Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Joc Pederson put on a show

Josh Bell, Pirates all-star and Home Run Derby contestant, put it all together in the first half

Anthony Rendon skipped the All-Star Game, but it’s getting harder for him to avoid the spotlight

The Nats are surging, but their eighth-inning problem hasn’t gone away

Max Scherzer’s celebration of a walk-off that wasn’t proves it: Baseball is fun again in D.C.