The Good Life

Baseball At 150: Five Problems

Oct 15, 2019 | By Kenneth Shouler
Baseball At 150: Five Problems

The postseason is here, and the curtain is falling on baseball’s 150th season. Amidst a storm of home runs that would defy any and all meteorological metaphors, a singular confrontation in early August served as a reminder of what is still special about the game.

There it was, playing out in daylight, a classic duel between pitcher and batter. In the ninth inning, New York’s ace reliever Aroldis Chapman, who once threw a pitch 106 miles per hour (the fastest ever measured), was facing Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. After firing seven fastballs and five sliders, Chapman still couldn’t retire the obstinate rookie. On the 13th pitch, a slider low and away, Guerrero tried to pull it and grounded to short to begin a double play.  

That five-minute confrontation returned us, by force of memory, to a bygone era, to a time of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey. As menacing as those sluggers were in their time, the man throwing the ball still owned a decided advantage, reaffirming that old precept: pitching stops hitting.

Sure, you can hit 500 home runs and beyond—the totals of the aforementioned six, each number unsullied by performance-enhancing drugs—but you will face hurlers such as Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan, Ferguson Jenkins and Juan Marichal, probably four games each during the season. Those guys tipped the scales and kept your numbers from orbiting out of control. When baseball is right, it’s a game of failure, wherein even the best hitters succeed only 30 percent of the time.  

The Chapman-Guerrero type standoff was all too rare in this year of unprecedented long balling, which witnessed nearly 1,200 more home runs than in 2018, an astounding 21 percent increase. That’s just one of baseball’s problems. In order of ascending importance, here are the problems baseball ought to fix.

5. Retire Ruth’s number

Baseball ought to retire the number three worn by Babe Ruth, its greatest player. Jackie Robinson, whose historical importance in breaking the color barrier is undisputed, had his number 42 retired for all time. But Robinson isn’t even the greatest second baseman ever, much less the greatest player. Ruth remains, 84 years after his retirement, the most dominant player the game has ever seen and deserves the honor.

When hockey commissioner Gary Bettman made his way to Madison Square Garden for Wayne Gretzky’s retirement celebration in 1999, he wondered what he could do to honor “The Great One.” The answer came easily: he decided that no NHL player would ever wear number 99 ever again.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to have a similar revelation. This is one of those cases where what ought to happen probably won’t happen. Our "woke generation" insists that a morality specific to 2019 is a template that must be applied backwards to times past. This socially constructed and intolerant ethic will never forgive Ruth for his bibulous excesses. The Babe’s overindulgence in wine, women, cigars and song makes him the kind of figure that the powers that be would just as soon forget. If they looked deeper, they would get a glimpse of a life that might change their minds. 

For one, Ruth, born in Baltimore, was considered “incorrigible” by his parents and placed in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a combination reformatory and orphanage. Despite that humble start, he displayed talent as a pitcher but even greater skill as a hitter, so much so that the Red Sox made him a full-time outfielder to get his thunderous bat into the line-up each day. Ruth also loved children, perhaps due to his own upbringing. A familiar 1922 photo shows Ruth, donning a straw hat, swallowed up in a sea of children.

“He was God himself to children,” wrote Paul Gallico. “God with a nose and little piggy eyes, and a big grin, and a fat, black cigar sticking out the side of it.” Despite his forays into the nightlife, which, if brought to light in lurid detail, would make the most righteous disciples of our Me-Too Generation faint on the spot, he did not cheat the game. His insuperable records demonstrate that. But in the moral calculus according to major league baseball, Ruth’s indulgence in a raucous life, during the raucous Roaring Twenties—how dare he!—is somehow worse than their publishing the fatuous home run records of cheaters as if they were official. 

4. Launch angle metrics need to go

In the absence of a trustworthy record book, baseball now has three Statcast metrics that are spewed ad nauseam: launch angle, exit velocity and distance. One hears this macho windbaggery incessantly, especially on games broadcast by the ESPN trio of Alex Rodriguez, Jessica Mendoza and Matt Vasgersian. The three metrics are red herrings, offering a steady backdrop of on-air white noise served up as filler.

Like all red herrings their purpose is to distract us, in this case from a record book that is irretrievably broken. It’s macho talk, where we learn that the record for “exit velo” on the 2019 “Statcast Leaderboard” was a 120.6 miles per-hour hurting that Giancarlo Stanton put on a pitch. The result? A measly single in late March.

Since Statcast figures date, mercifully, to only 2015, the metrics serve the league office’s goal of exaggerating the present but also serve the dubious purpose of reminding us what baseball has become—a muscle-man contest that mimics the excesses of the game’s midsummer wet dream: the Home Run Derby. 

Besides, haven’t we always known that launch angle, defined as the angle at which the ball leaves the bat, was important to hitting home runs? Call to mind the uppercut swings of Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, or even Ruth. Others, such as Dave Winfield and Hank Aaron, hit frozen ropes. But a homer with greater launch angle or velocity or distance is worth the same as one without: a single run. 

3. Keep marketing simple

Baseball's marketing is amiss. It seems odd, exceedingly odd really, that the commissioner of a major sport should be as nonplussed about marketing his game as Rob Manfred is. A year ago he called out Mike Trout, the consensus choice as the game’s best player, to “engage” more to help his “brand” and the game.

Now a cloyingly sentimental television commercial tells us what we already knew: that Trout, who calls his parents before every game and returns to his small town New Jersey home each off-season, is a great guy.

This oblique effort at selling us baseball by increasing the Q-Rating of the game’s best player should be scrapped. Instead the game should be marketed by citing the skills that make it so difficult to play. No athletes in any sport could come close to perfecting the three skills that comprise baseball excellence: hitting a ball, pitching a ball, and catching one.  

2. Juiced balls are a drag

Home runs being hit at an absurd pace not only change the nature of a game that should be dominated by pitching, but it cheapens the game’s aesthetic. When something happens all the time it ceases to be visually special. While players juicing was made illegal, baseball now has an equivalent—what appears to be a juiced ball.
Some claim the ball is smoother than it once was, and made with lower seams. Even the commissioner admits it has less "drag," thereby enabling it to travel further. Home runs are cheap. It’s not unusual for a team to belt six homers in a single game. Every ball in the air seems to find its way over a fence. The numbers show it.

The 6,776 home runs hit in 2019 are 671 more than the record of 6,105 set in 2017, a percentage difference of 10.99. It gets worse. Last year the Yankees broke the all-time record with 267 home runs as a team. Four teams shattered that mark this year alone: Minnesota with 307, New York with 306, Houston with 288 and the Los Angeles Dodgers with 279.

Since the postseason began on October 1, home run totals are down, typical for the playoffs when only the best teams remain. Those teams have better pitching, so offensive production typically declines.  

1. Tainted record keeping

A corrupt record book, which still retains the statistical markers of cheaters and is still referred to as if it was official by opinion makers and officials, has the effect of normalizing cheating. Baseball's math will be forever undercut as long as it holds to an illusory set of records. The problems of the past—the cheating of the Black Sox in the 1919 World Series, the refusal to integrate until 1947, the indentured servitude of players prior to free agency—have been put behind us. But the stain of steroids lingers like a bad smell, forever polluting the record book. 

Will baseball acknowledge its shortcomings? If history is a guide, the answer is “no.” Why? Think back to Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner from 1992 through 2015. He thus presided over the steroid era for a quarter of a century. In the midst of preternatural, drug-induced feats he would cite baseball’s all-time attendance records and say “We are living in baseball’s Golden Era.” How was Selig rewarded? Inscrutably, with election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. So what will Rob Manfred do about baseball’s home run orgy? He will do nothing to change the script.    

Kenneth Shouler is the author of The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All-Time and Why. He was appointed by major league baseball as one of the panelists to pick the "All-Century Team."

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