Now that the madness of March is behind us with the NCAA tournament and, hopefully, the last snowfall things of the past, it’s time for the boys of summer to get their game back into the spotlight. With last fall’s thrilling World Series still fresh in the minds of many fans, the new season opened last weekend with the reigning league champions, the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers, again favored by many to face each other again this fall.
Not that they won’t have a number of worthy adversaries who will make a return to the Fall Classic anything but automatic. In the American League, the Astros will have the perennial near-miss Seattle Mariners aiming at them and the rejuvenated formerly Anaheim, now Los Angeles (but still really Anaheim), Angels (with Japan’s Shohei Ohtani, the first potential two-way player since Babe Ruth, garnering a lot of attention) also hoping to make some noise. Assuming the Astros repeat as AL West Division winners, they will then face a gauntlet similar to last year’s playoff matchups with the still dominant Cleveland Indians likely repeating as Central Division champs and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees (with two 50+ home run hitters—Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge—in their lineup) the likely challengers in the AL East.
The Dodgers made few changes in the off-season, essentially choosing to stick with the roster that led the majors in regular season wins (104). They don’t figure to win that many games this year, as the competition has improved, but they still should win their division (over strong competition from the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies). But the class of the league might be the Washington Nationals, who should again dominant the NL east. And if not them, then the Chicago Cubs also should be back, perhaps stronger even than when they won it all in 2016.
The opening series of the season, over the Easter weekend, didn’t reveal all that much, even though fans were either excited or disappointed (or, in the case of the Dodgers, a little of both) by the early performances of their teams. As anyone who seriously follows the game knows, it’s a long season, and the team that starts out hot might finish last (or at least cool off considerably), while a team that starts cold, might win it all (or at least be better than mediocre by season’s end). Hitters go through slumps, pitchers suffer tired arms (or worse), trades are made, rookies are called up from the minors, sudden injuries to key players drastically change a team’s prospects, and guys no one expected to be anything special suddenly reveal far greater talent than they were projected to display.
And for those many reasons, pre-season prognostications are rarely of much value. (Although, occasionally, they can be absolutely prescient, as was Sports Illustrated’s much bally-hooed prediction in the summer of 2014 that the Houston Astros would be the World Series champs in 2017. That prediction was based on the wealth of talent the Astros had waiting in the wings three years before they won it all last fall.) If I were forced to select the World Series teams for 2018, I’d go with the Yankees and Nationals, but I wouldn’t put any money on it. (I’d love to predict a return appearance by the Dodgers, but they are likely to see some regression in key players—Bellinger, Taylor, maybe even Kershaw, who is now, egads, 30 years old—and the competition figures to be tougher.)
The game is either (depending on who is talking about it) in great shape or in some degree of trouble. Attendance continues to grow, and the resurgence of the Yankees is always good for the game, whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em. Home runs are up, which attracts more interest. And the MLB network provides 24/7 coverage to make up for the loss of newspaper print devoted to the games.
On the downside, management is obsessed with the length of games. This concern is misguided, but it is leading to alterations in the way the game is played. This year the alteration of note is the newly-imposed rule that limits the number of times a pitcher can be “visited” at the mound to six per game. A “visit” occurs whenever any player or coach or manager goes to the mound for any reason. Thus, catchers (the prime “culprit”) will no longer be able to trot out as often as they like to check with their pitcher on things like signs or tactics to be used for a pinch hitter or whether to intentionally walk a hitter to face the next guy in the lineup.
This change in the “pace of the game” is baseball’s latest attempt to shorten the games. Last year’s change was the automatic intentional walk (pitchers are no longer required to throw four pitches that are clearly not meant to be hit; now they just motion the hitter to first base, and the batter takes his base). That change probably saved about a minute on average per game (intentional walks aren’t all that common, anyway).
This year’s change will probably save a couple of more minutes a game. The goal seems to be to bring the average time of games down to around two hours and 45 minutes (it’s currently around 3 hours and five minutes). Why is it necessary to shorten the games? Presumably the answer is because fans like shorter games. But that answer misses the point. Fans don’t like shorter games; they like more exciting games.
Case in point: my son attended a game at Dodger Stadium last weekend with some friends. The Dodgers were playing their arch rivals, the Giants, and the stadium was packed (over 50,000). The game was a classic pitchers’ duel, with both teams limited to one hit through the first eight innings. (The Giants won it, 1-0, when Joe Panik hit a home run in the top of the ninth.) The time of the game was two hours and 23 minutes. When I asked my son if he and his friends enjoyed the game, he replied that they did not. “Boring,” he said, adding that casual fans, which his friends are, don’t appreciate a pitchers’ duel.
What baseball really suffers from in terms of this misguided attention to the length of games is its comparison to football, which is the far more popular sport in the twenty-first century. But football games are actually longer (on average) than baseball games. (They run around 3 hours and ten minutes.) Those extra minutes don’t seem to make football less popular.
Fans like action, and football provides it on almost every play in one form or another. Baseball, on the other hand, features any number of plays (pitches) where nothing appreciable happens. A batter may swing and miss, or hit a meaningless foul ball, or not even swing at all.
In other words, it’s the nature of the game that makes baseball less popular than football. I am confident that my son and his friends would have enjoyed the game they attended a whole lot more if the final score was 10-9 (especially if the Dodgers had won) instead of 1-0, even if the game had lasted a full hour longer than the one they saw.
Baseball isn’t suffering from games that are too long. If it’s suffering at all, it’s from the lack of constant action that the NFL provides. But management will continue to obsess about the length of games. A pitch clock is the next likely move we’ll see to shorten games. And when it is implemented, games will be shorter by another minute or so, and my son and his friends will still find a pitchers’ duel boring.
Baseball is a great sport. For over a century, it was America’s sport. Now it has become international in scope, even if it is the second (or third) favorite sport in the U.S. (Basketball is also up there in popularity, notwithstanding its excessively long season that now stretches from October to June.) But baseball isn’t for everybody. And it doesn’t have to be. A pitchers’ duel can be as exciting to a true fan as a chess match can be to a fan of that game. A high scoring game can also be exciting. But what is really great about baseball is that every game is unique unto itself, as is every season.
And a new one has just begun.