Wojo: Baseball stuck in a troubling numbers game

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mike Trout is a popular player, but commissioner Rob Manfred said he'd be an even bigger star if he spent more time marketing himself.

Apparently, it’s Mike Trout’s fault. Baseball’s popularity is shrinking because too many players are swinging too hard and hitting too many home runs and striking out too many times and the game’s brightest stars aren’t recognizable enough or controversial enough.

Hence, it’s on Trout, although it isn’t.

That was the insinuation from commissioner Rob Manfred the other day, when his press conference before the All-Star Game turned into a referendum on the game’s ills. And certainly, baseball has ills, from falling attendance, to sluggish games, to an ever-widening chasm between the few good teams and the batch of bad ones.

I’m not an alarmist about baseball’s future. The game will adjust and shift, and it can begin by limiting the obnoxious defensive shifts. It also needs to add the DH to the National League and alter its ridiculous early season scheduling.

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But it gets alarming when the commissioner is alarmed. Manfred suggested Trout could do more to market himself, and therefore market the game, essentially blaming one of the best players in history for not being more popular.

“I think we could help him make his brand very big,” Manfred said. “But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”

It does take time and effort, but the argument is a cop out. Trout is pleasantly unassuming, does the occasional TV commercial, shows up at the All-Star Game, then retreats to Anaheim to play until October, then disappears. The Angels have made the playoffs once in Trout’s seven seasons, the biggest reason his brand isn’t bigger. After Manfred’s comments, the Angels actually felt compelled to release a statement calling Trout “an exceptional ambassador for the game.”

No fun with numbers

Baseball does a horrible job of building individual brands, figuring it can slap the Yankees and Red Sox on national TV and be done with it. Yet Manfred is taking a thinly veiled shot at the players’ association. There’s restlessness off the field, with players still fuming about the tamped-down free-agent market last offseason, and owners still wrestling with financial (and competitive) inequities between clubs. There’s concern about labor strife when the current CBA expires in 2021.

At least baseball has stopped hiding from its problems. It finally attacked the steroid cheats. It took steps to speed up the game, with clocks and fewer mound visits. All sorts of radical ideas are being discussed, from adding a baserunner in extra innings to limiting the number of relievers a team can use.

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Would it help if the players were more dynamic and free-spirited? I suppose. But the game itself discourages it with its silly “unwritten” rules. If Bryce Harper gets too demonstrative, or a hitter flips a bat too violently after a home run, it bothers some players, even some fans.

There are engaging personalities, if you look. When the Tigers were contending, stars like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez were embraceable. At the All-Star Game, Francisco Lindor and Charlie Blackmon were hilarious when interviewed during the action.

Here’s the issue, as simply as I can say it: It’s the numbers, not the names. It’s the payrolls, not the personalities.

One of baseball’s lasting charms is its obsession with numbers. That’s fine, and I enjoy a good analytics debate as much as anyone, from OBP to SLG to BABIP to ISOP to IHOP to WAR. But players now are so relentlessly defined by numbing numbers, there’s almost a human detachment. And numbers have dramatically changed the game itself.

Why are teams employing so many shifts, with three defenders on one side of the infield? Because the numbers show where a player is likely to hit the ball and a defender is likely to catch it. But just as the NFL, NBA and NHL altered rules when defensive strategy overwhelmed offense, MLB can do the same.

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Why are teams on pace to break the strikeout record for the 12th straight year, and why is the league batting average down to .247, lowest since 1972? Because all the shifts are causing players to swing desperately to try to lift the ball over the defenders and hit home runs.

Why is average attendance below 30,000 for the first time in 16 years? Bad weather didn’t help, but so many teams have tanked and launched rebuilds, there are only a few legitimate contenders.

Why have so many teams tanked and launched rebuilds? Because the numbers — and the Astros’ and Cubs’ success — tell them it’s the cheapest route to get good again.

Limited appeal

Baseball isn’t dumbed down, it’s numbed down. In many ways, this should be a golden era with all the young talent, and indeed, Manfred is talking about expansion. There are incredible hitting and pitching feats, and not all of them are being done by former Tigers. Martinez comes to town this weekend leading the majors in home runs (29) and RBIs (80), but of course, analytics suggested his defense wasn’t good enough, so the Red Sox got him at a relative bargain.

J.D. Martinez

Baseball isn’t dying, please stop with that nonsense. And no, it won’t fall behind soccer in popularity in the U.S. anytime soon. But in a world fixated on stars and celebrities, baseball is star-limiting by nature, and thus less appealing to younger people.

Too often, the sport’s biggest stars don’t play on the biggest stage because an individual player can’t lug a team to the playoffs by himself. LeBron James can. James Harden can. The NBA has its own problem with competitive imbalance, but for all the whining, its postseason is glorified because its stars are magnified.

Same thing with the NFL. Can you imagine a postseason without Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Matthew Stafford? Oops, sorry, but that’s my point. Stafford can’t be transcendent until he does something in the playoffs.

Trout is as big a star, based on the numbers, as any player in any sport. And yet, in a recent ESPN poll of fans, only three baseball players ranked among the nation’s 50 favorite athletes — retired Yankee Derek Jeter, retired Yankee Babe Ruth, and Pete Rose. According to a Gallup poll last year, only 9 percent of Americans call baseball their favorite sport, behind football (37 percent) and basketball (11 percent).

Again, numbers. They can enchant you, they can fool you. Baseball can’t be fooled on this. It has issues, no doubt, but it needs to look in the right places to fix them.