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Baseball is at a crossroads
In 1968, baseball was broken. By the end of that season, the major leagues’ cumulative batting average had dipped to an all-time-low .237 and runs were harder to score than at any time since the Dead Ball Era. Luckily, everyone could identify the problem. They called ’68 “The Year of the Pitcher,” and they decided enough was enough. Starting in ’69, baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 (a flatter angle of delivery is easier to hit) and shrunk the strike zone back to the size it had been six years earlier. Those moves and the arrival of four expansion teams helped restore the pitcher/hitter equilibrium right away.
Half a century later, baseball is broken again. A month into the 2021 season, big-leaguers are batting .233 — even worse than the Year of the Pitcher nadir — and striking out an astonishing 18 times per game on average. That’s about 150 per cent more than in 1968, and it means that roughly a quarter of all plate appearances now end in a whiff. For the fourth year in a row, there are more strikeouts than hits in the average major-league game. And baseball is on pace to set a new record for strikeouts in a 162-game season for the 13th year in a row.
Anyone who tunes into a major-league game these days can see the problem is the same as it was in 1968: the pitchers are simply too good. It used to be that Nolan Ryan was the only guy with a 100 mph fastball. Today, it seems like every team has at least one in their bullpen. There are just too many guys throwing too hard and putting too much wicked movement on the ball for any batter to reasonably expect to make contact on a consistent basis. Every trip to the plate, you’re basically facing the Terminator — Schwarzenegger, not Henke.
The only reason baseball has been able to ignore this problem for so long is the brilliance of modern hitters. Increasingly overmatched by the machines on the mound, they’ve figured out the only logical response: swing for the fences every single time. Hey, you’re probably going to strike out anyway, so may as well shoot for the moon. Hitters have put enormous effort into making this work, building up their bodies and reinventing their swings using cutting-edge principles like optimal planes and launch angles. And, to some extent, it’s paid off. They’re averaging a homer more per game than their poor 1968 counterparts — keeping scoring at an acceptable level.
Problem is, not everybody loves this mutant version of baseball. A sport designed to showcase an array of athletic talents — power at the plate, yes, but also speed on the basepaths, agility in the infield, cannon arms in the outfield — has devolved into a two-man game where everyone but the batter and pitcher (and, OK, the catcher) mostly just stands around watching. Ask a baseball fan what’s wrong with the game today and most will tell you: the ball is never in play.
The people who run baseball are smart enough to understand this. But they’ve taken only half measures to try to improve the game — stuff like the three-batter minimum for pitchers, putting a runner on second base to start extra innings and deadening the ball slightly this year. Clearly, none of it is working. Until baseball addresses the same root problem that plagued it in 1968 — that pitchers are too good — the game won’t be played the way it’s meant to be.
There are signs, though, that the sport might finally do something meaningful about it. Last month, Major League Baseball and one of its affiliated minor leagues, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, announced some experimental rule changes for the 2021 ALPB season. One is another half-measure: teams will lose their designated hitter for the rest of the game after removing their starting pitcher. But the other might be the true path forward: for the second half of the season, the pitching rubber will be moved back a full foot. Next to ordering every pitcher to just take it a little easier out there (obviously not an option), this might be the only real way to give hitters a fair shake — and maybe engineer a 1968-style reset.
Tom Wilson is making people mad again. The consensus dirtiest player in hockey was at it again Monday night. First, he sparked a post-whistle brawl near the Washington net by punching a Ranger who was laying on the ice. Then he whipped helmetless Rangers star Artemi Panarin down, resulting in a lower-body injury that forced Panarin out of the game. Given Wilson’s lengthy rap sheet, many hockey fans expected a suspension. Instead, the NHL slapped him on the wrist with a $5,000 US fine — the maximum allowed, but not nearly enough for those who’d like to see Wilson expelled from the league. Read more about the latest Wilson controversy, see what he did and watch some of his other dangerous moments here.
Canada is hanging on at the women’s curling world championship. After a four-game losing streak, Kerri Einarson’s rink won its second in a row today, crushing last-place Italy 10-4. At 3-5, Canada is a game and a half behind the United States (4-3) for the final spot in the six-team playoffs. Tonight’s matchup with Scotland (4-2) is another crucial one for the Canadians, who have yet to beat a team above them in the current standings. Unfortunately, you can’t watch it because no games are being televised until at least Thursday afternoon after several members of the broadcast crew tested positive for the coronavirus.
Canada won another medal at the Diving World Cup. Today’s bronze by 19-year-old Rylan Wiens in the men’s 10-metre event gave Canada its fourth podium finish of the Olympic test event in Tokyo. China didn’t enter any divers in the men’s 10m, which softened the competition, but two-time world champion and former Olympic bronze medalist Tom Daley of Great Britain competed and won the gold. Over the weekend, Canadians Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay won gold in the women’s 10m synchronized event, Jennifer Abel and Melissa Citrini-Beaulieu took silver in the women’s 3m synchro, and Vincent Riendeau and Nathan Zsombor-Murray grabbed bronze in the men’s 10m synchro. Abel finished fifth in the women’s individual 3m final today, while McKay was attempting to advance to the women’s 10m final. You can watch that live Wednesday at 4:45 a.m. ET here.
May the 4th be with you. On this unofficial holiday for Star Wars fans, here’s a fun fact: Darth Vader competed in the Commonwealth Games. As everyone knows, James Earl Jones voiced the iconic villain, but Star Wars creator George Lucas wanted someone more physically imposing underneath the costume. So that role was filled by Dave Prowse, a 6-foot-6 actor/bodybuilder/weightlifter who represented England in the heavyweight division at the 1962 Commonwealth Games (he didn’t win a medal). If you’re wondering, Prowse is not the man you see when Vader’s mask is finally removed near the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (that’s a different actor). Prowse died in November at the age of 85.
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