The Phillies are Built to Last

There was a certain satisfaction in watching last night’s Phillies win. The Boston Red Sox are certainly not one of my favorite teams, but they are baseball’s best team this year. The Phillies dropped a tough 2-1 battle on Tuesday, but managed to split the season series with a team that should easily top 100 wins. Boston may very well have this year’s AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, but the Phillies didn’t back down from them in any of the four games, in either park. Down 3-0 on Wednesday night, facing a sweep, they fought back and won 7-4. That is a satisfying win.

When you look at the Phillies line-up, you aren’t overwhelmed. Nobody is going to hit .300 in this line-up. It’s highly unlikely anyone hits 40 homers. Rhys Hoskins is probably the only guy that drives in 100 runs, or probably hits 30 homers. They’re a bottom of the league team in batting average. What do they do well? They take a lot of pitches. Their on-base percentages are deceptively good. They’ll probably have six or seven guys hit 20 homers or more. They hit well later in the game. It’s not that they have nothing going here, but they’re not a line-up that impresses you much.

The Phillies are a good team because they can pitch. Aaron Nola has been outstanding. Jake Arrieta has been way better than some fans give him credit for. While they’re inconsistent, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez have all dominated at times, in a season where they all made tremendous leaps forward. The bullpen has become deceptively strong as the season rolls along. This team has pitched it’s way into contention, despite relative youth and inexperience, and one of the worst defensive clubs in baseball.

And yet, despite all of those positives, I’m not sure they will win the division. They are two games back of Atlanta for the first time since the virtual beginning of Summer. Atlanta has a young, ready for prime time offense. They’re beating up on bad teams better than the Phillies right now. Atlanta’s doesn’t seem like the same level as the Phillies, but they’ve done a more than admirable job, and the numbers are way closer than you think. Who wins this division probably comes down to whether Atlanta’s starting pitching or Philadelphia’s offense is better- assuming Washington is who they look like at this point.

In the long run though, the Phillies are poised to dominate the NL East. If you were to ask me what I’d rather have to improve in free agency- starting pitching or offense- I’d take offense every time. We’re coming up on a major off-season, with major available bats like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper on the market, and the Phillies are well-positioned to make monster bids on both. Other than the often-injured Clayton Kershaw, there are less available game-changing arms on the market, and they will be very expensive. Atlanta simply doesn’t have the kind of money the Phillies do either, whether to extend contracts to their own players or free agents.

Even if the Phillies third through fifth starters don’t all solve their consistency issues, the Phillies have a dominating AAA staff that is cruising through the International League, and Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina waiting in the wings to eventually fill in here. The Phillies will not need to dive into the expensive starting pitching market as much as Atlanta and others will. They will be able to spend in free agency to fill in their 2019 line-up, and trade from their depth of pitching to get more bats. With their deep pockets, the Phillies can build a sustained winner. The NL East is going to hate this group for a long time.

Baseball is Fine

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.

Dear @MLB: Impeach Rob Manfred for his “Pace of Play” Initiatives

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I don’t go to baseball games to see how fast they can be finished. No one does, really. I spend thousands of dollars going to 40 some professional games a year, and I do so because I enjoy it. I enjoy being outside. I enjoy the thinking aspect of the game. I enjoy the game itself. Yes, a game lasts three hours. It’s not a game that lends itself to instant gratification. It’s a game that takes time, requires thought, and generally lends itself to the strategically inclined. It’s a game of inches, adjustments, and patience. Baseball fans like all of this stuff. They also enjoy kicking back in their seat, with a cold beer in their hand, and watching the game. It’s what we pay for.

Apparently Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t think that’s the case, or more likely, takes us for granted. In his efforts to bring more marginal fans into the stadiums and watching the TV’s, Manfred is hellbent of making baseball more timely. He thinks baseball needs to improve it’s pace of play to be more interesting. He thinks that baseball can somehow emulate the pace of play in other sports, sports like the NBA that are basically built for constant action. What he thinks is basically incorrect.

Manfred’s latest brilliant idea, limiting the number of mound visits a catcher can make, is idiotic. He has floated equally silly ideas about how many pitching changes a team can make in an inning, and putting a base-runner at second base to start innings during extra-inning games. The goal? Less stoppages. More action. A faster game. He thinks this will bring more fans to the sport in 2018. He essentially is saying society is too ADHD for baseball.

The NFL would serve as a good model for why Manfred’s plans are doomed from the start. The NFL’s best efforts to appeal to the casual fan in recent years have left them with egg on their face. From their attempts to have it both ways on national anthem kneeling, to their attempts to “get tough” on off field behavior, to their feeble attempts at addressing head injuries, to their completely inept inability to define what a catch is, the NFL’s attempts at change have left them actually with lower ratings than ever before. Is this because their efforts to protect their players and combat domestic violence were wrong? Of course not. It’s because these attempts at doing the right thing, at changing a league’s identity, are not going to bring new people into the game, by and large. You do that through enhancing the experience for fans in attendance, and creating more compelling television for the fan watching at home. One could simply look at the NBA’s recent success with these things and see that.

People who don’t watch baseball now are not likely to start watching baseball because you speed up the game. People who find baseball boring aren’t going to come over because of rule changes. They’re going to come over because the game is compelling TV. You have a game that is going global, who has compelling stars like Jose Altuve, Clayton Kershaw, and Giancarlo Stanton, and an in-game experience for the fans at the game that is enjoyable and relaxing. Changing the identity of the game to chase people who don’t like baseball now is going to leave Rob Manfred every bit as unpopular with the fans as Roger Goodell is with NFL fans. It’s also not going to work- kind of like the NFL’s recent decisions haven’t. Market what we love, don’t chase people who don’t. That’s the formula for success, and Manfred should understand that or get lost.