Detroit — It happens once, it’s a novelty. When it happens again, then you start to take notice.
And the fact that it keeps happening, night after night, inning after uneventful inning, should be a warning pitch for Major League Baseball.
More than halfway through this season, hitters are on pace for a record number of strikeouts. That total has been rising steadily for the last decade. But it seems to have reached a tipping point this spring. And we saw more strikeouts (6,776) than hits (6,640) in the month of June. The same thing happened in April. Before that? Never. Not once in the history of the game.
So, yes, with all these whiffs at the ballpark — Thursday's Tigers-Rangers game notwithstanding — it’s impossible not to smell something has gone bad.
Now the question is what, if anything, the folks in charge are willing — or able — to do about it.
That’ll be one of the hot topics when commissioner Rob Manfred holds his annual press conference at the All-Star Game later this month in Washington, D.C. But it’s already a daily conversation inside MLB clubhouses, as players and managers confront baseball’s uncomfortable new reality, altered by the prevalence of defensive shifts and analytics-driven emphasis on launch angles and exit velocity.
The league batting average through Wednesday’s games was a paltry .246, the lowest since 1972, and the second-lowest since 1968, the year the Tigers won a World Series and the year pitching dominance prompted an MLB rules panel to lower the mound and shrink the strike zone.
Attendance numbers also are at a 15-year low, and not all of that can be blamed on awful weather in April and May or so many teams opting to rebuild instead of contend. (The A.L. playoff field is essentially set before the All-Star break.)
No, some of it has to be the simple fact that there are fewer balls in play today than at any point in MLB history.
And while Manfred is on record saying he hopes some of these problems are cyclical, “it is something that we're watching,” he told the Associated Press recently, “and there is increased conversation in the industry about being more aggressive beyond just pace of play in terms of managing the way the game is being played on the field."
One way would be to ban the shifts that have become commonplace, with teams overloading one side of the field on nearly one of every five at-bats.
“It’s the theory in baseball now: Lift,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That’s why you play all the shifts. And this lift swing everybody’s got is because they’re playing three and four guys on this side of the field.”
And the unintended consequences don’t really seem to matter, Tigers’ Victor Martinez notes, because teams are willing to live with all the strikeouts.
“Nobody cares about that anymore,” Martinez said. “If you go around the league, people don’t care now. I’ve seen guys hitting .200 or .190, hitting 25 homers with 200 strikeouts and they’re good.”
At that, he shrugs, his smile belying the sarcasm intended. This isn’t good, and most in the game seem to acknowledge as much. So why not do what other sports do and declare the shift an illegal defense?
The NBA refused to let zone defenses gum up its game. Ditto the NHL with neutral-zone traps and interference. Football has spent most of the last two decades making rule changes that favored offense and, by extension, entertainment. Baseball needs to do the same, or it’ll continue to alienate fans, young and old alike.
And don’t stop with the shifts, because teams certainly aren’t.
An emphasis on speeding up play has helped, sure: The average MLB game lasts just under three hours now. But it also includes six or seven pitching changes — often more — and the parade of hard-throwing relievers in the late-innings adds to those strikeout totals while further disrupting the rhythm of the game.
There was an extra-inning game between the Yankees and Cubs last season where more than 45 minutes passed between balls put in play, thanks to all the strikeouts and mound visits and pitching changes.
There’s a way to limit the latter, perhaps with a cap on the number of pitchers a manager is allowed to use in a nine-inning game, which would force starters to make more than two trips through batting order more often.
Or if that's too drastic for some, at least find a way to restrict some of the maddening mid-inning maneuvering, requiring relievers to face a minimum number of batters or finish an inning if they start one out of the bullpen.
As Martinez said Thursday, “Anytime you get a chance to put the ball in play, anything can happen.”
At the moment, that’s not happening nearly enough. And Major League Baseball has to do something, anything, to change it.