Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy recently wrote that baseball’s sky is falling. He’s not alone in that common take. It seems that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred agrees. They argue the game is too slow, analytics are changing the game, that there are too many bad teams, that the game lacks faces. On each point, their arguments come off flat though.
Is a baseball game too slow? The average baseball game is about three hours and five minutes, which may very well be too long for someone with the attention span of my younger dog. For comparison though, Sunday football games kick off at 1pm, and the second NFL game of the day typically kicks off at just after 4pm, or about three hours later. That’s better than the prime time games, which go longer because of commercials. It’s worth noting that an NFL game is 60 minutes in length, meaning two-thirds of the time I’m watching the Eagles, I’m getting some non-action garbage. NBA and NHL games tend to stay a little under three hours, but feature a similar ratio of game to non-game time. Despite all of the discussion of baseball’s pace of play, they objectively don’t have a problem here that every other sport has- Americans can’t pay attention to something for three hours.
There is no doubt that analytics have changed baseball, and particularly play-by-play outcomes within baseball. Defensive “shifts” of player positioning around the diamond have decreased the number of base hits in a game, something Phillies fans saw all too much in the Ryan Howard era. The increasing refinement of relief pitching has hurt offenses as well, as there are now specialists to get every kind of hitter now. Hitters are refining their swings to increase their “exit-velocity” and “launch angle,” in part because it’s harder to hit a baseball past defenders anymore. It seems like analytics have changed everything, in part because they do. Do we really want to “dumb down” the game though to decrease strikeouts and home runs? Is the game really more interesting because we have more singles sneaking through the hole? I’m very skeptical that analytics are what is hurting baseball.
There are some terrible baseball teams in Baltimore, Kansas City, Miami, and Texas, just as New York had two rotten NFL teams last year, the Cleveland Browns are perpetual garbage, and the Brooklyn Nets are among probably a dozen NBA teams in purgatory. Sports are going to have bad teams. Baseball is no different. The mega-markets- New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, San Francisco, and Phoenix- all are enjoying seasons where they have teams in contention, which is good for the sport’s economics. The thing is, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Seattle, and Cleveland are all small market teams that are in contention too. Kansas City won a World Series three years ago. Pittsburgh has been in the post-season recently. New York and Chicago have teams having lousy seasons right now too. Baseball doesn’t have a particular problem with competitive imbalance, at least not beyond any other sport’s issues.
Does baseball lack “faces” to market? Shaughnessy seems to imply that baseball needs a “flat Earth” moron like Kyrie Irving to make headlines. Perhaps baseball needs LeBron James type figures leaving their teams in shambles every four years to find the next greener pastures, or Kevin Durant taking the easiest way possible to a title, but I disagree. No, Mike Trout is not one to make headlines with his mouth, but is that necessary? Is Bryce Harper not interesting enough? Obviously the face of the game has changed a bit, the brand is more global now, and maybe that has left some people without stars to latch on to. I’m not sure baseball, or really anyone, needs ball players to start talking about a flat Earth though to be interesting.
Baseball certainly has some issues, I don’t disagree with that. Games are unaffordable for most families- my Phillies seats cost $45, a beer is running around $13, and the cheapest food is $10, and that’s after the gas to drive there and $18 to park. Most Americans simply don’t have that kind of disposable income anymore. While I generally support the idea of guaranteed contracts, teams have been getting themselves stuck in bad contracts with aging players that are past their primes. I could go either way on banning defensive “shifts,” though I think that’s a dangerous direction for the game. Prime time and playoff games start too late for most people, let alone kids, to watch. I could go on with my list of changes to the game, but I don’t think the game is broken. I’ve gone to 26 professional games this season because baseball and the beach are really the only two uses I have for the Summer.
Baseball’s real problems are not the ones being cited by Dan Shaughnessy or Commissioner Rob Manfred. Baseball hurt itself by trying to compete with the NFL business model. Baseball is being hurt by a segment of fans with a low attention span. Baseball needs to be family-economic friendly. Baseball needs to not let franchises get themselves in over-leveraged holes, like Miami, or in decrepit situations like Oakland and Tampa Bay. Baseball needs to stop chasing marginal fans who can’t pay attention to a whole game.
What baseball doesn’t need is “flat Earthers” slapping singles to right-field in two hour games. Just saying.