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Can Baseball Survive In The Digital Age?


When Rob Manfred took the reigns as Major League Baseball’s commissioner in early 2015, he entered the office fully aware of the game’s challenges: declining participation in youth baseball, underrepresentation of African Americans in the league, and a fan base more likely to suffer from male pattern baldness than do fans in any other sport.

Manfred quickly identified the pace of play as one of the reasons for the proliferation of these problems. The average game during the 2016 MLB season clocked in at three hours and four minutes, a length the commissioner believes is driving away fans from the ballpark. To this end, Manfred has been proactive in implementing and proposing rule changes to reduce the length of games.

In late February, the MLB player’s union agreed to abolish the four-pitch intentional walk and make it automatic. But this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Other potential rule changes include widening the strike zone, banning the infield shift, limiting the number of mound visits, and, in one of the more controversial proposals, starting each half-inning of extras with a runner on second base.

These modifications of the game’s fabric might do more harm than good. Not only could the proposed rule changes upset its current fan base, but shaving a few minutes off the average game time might do little to win the attention of non-fans. Baseball, after all, is a game of leisure and requires a state of mind that is becoming increasingly incompatible with the technologically saturated spirit of our age.

We May Be Too Distraction-Addicted for Baseball

Ross Douthat in a column for the New York Times, says we are a people enslaved to the Internet: “Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.”

Our smartphones have become appendages of our bodies and constantly demand our attention while distracting us from what Douthat calls “the traditional graces of existence–your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art.” With revolutionary gusto, he calls for an Internet temperance movement as we have proven ourselves incapable of using it within reasonable limits.

This culture of pixel addiction perpetuated by the omnipresence of high-speed Internet undermines, more so than any other sport, the nature of baseball. As a game which consists of more inaction than action, the dopamine-dependent synapses of our brain deem it anathema.

For the player, this inactivity is largely an illusion. The pitcher and catcher are in a constant state of motion while their teammates in the field are, with the help of advanced scouting reports, constantly repositioning themselves to be in the best possible position to react if the ball is hit towards them.

For the spectator, the game’s slow-paced nature is highly conducive to conversation. Strikes and balls and routine plays allow spectators to converse with family, friends, and the strangers sitting next to them. These conversations are only interrupted by the occasional home run, defensive highlight, bathroom break, or visit to the concession stand. Although the spectators in the stands are mostly unified in their desire for a home team victory, the game being played on the field is just one aspect of the atmosphere that can make an afternoon at the ballpark enjoyable.

But if what Douthat says is true—that technology has hardwired our brains for constant sensory activity and eroded our ability to interact as social creatures—then baseball might be in trouble. It doesn’t take a social scientist to observe the encroachment of technology in our daily lives, and baseball games are no exception.

Next time you visit a ballpark, take a look around. It is almost a guarantee that half the spectators, if not more, are using their smartphones at any given point, transporting themselves from the reality of the ballpark experience to wherever the Pandora’s box of virtuality might take them. And these are people who pay to get in the ballpark!

The Internet Also Allows Deeper Ways to Geek On Baseball

In a response to Douthat’s column, Michael Dougherty, writing for The Week, affirms Douthat’s prognosis, writing that the Internet has altered our habits and led to increased social and political polarization. Instead of simply resisting the Internet, however, Dougherty says we should omit unnecessary distractions and instead find older forms of social networking worthy of our time. He cites his desire of learning a language and his love of older keyboards as avenues that led him to the discovery of robust and knowledgeable hobby communities on the Internet. By harnessing the power of online communities, innovation in the real world, both personal and societal, becomes a possibility.

Dougherty writes: “In other words, one way out of the internet addiction is to go through it. Find an ambition that you’ve left on the shelf for too long, and suddenly your scrolling on the internet moves quickly from a mere distraction to a compulsion to try something new.”

Interestingly, baseball has experienced such innovation through the revolutionary ascent of sabermetrics. In what began with a few theories from a nighttime security officer at a pork and beans cannery in the 1970s and first broke ground in the baseball establishment with the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s (as documented in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book, “Moneyball”), sabermetrics has quickly become the residing paradigm of the game. Entire departments in each of the league’s 30 teams are devoted to crunching numbers and analyzing data sets in an effort to find hidden value and give their team a competitive advantage.

The field of sabermetrics has continued to flourish, thanks, in large part, to the installation of a pair of high-speed camera systems in all 30 major league stadiums. PITCHf/x was first used in the 2006 postseason and can monitor the speed and trajectories of pitched balls while Statcast debuted in 2015 and can monitor the launch angles and exit velocities of batted balls, the route efficiency of outfielders chasing down a fly ball, and the top speed of a base runner rounding the base paths. Access to this information provides additional metrics by which baseball management can evaluate its players and opponents.

This data is not only available to MLB teams, it is accessible to anybody with an Internet connection. Armed with this advanced information, baseball websites such as Fangraphs are leading the charge in sabermetric analysis. Many of its former writers have landed jobs in analytics departments for MLB teams, where their research informs the general manager’s decisions.

Therein lies the irony: advancements in digital technology are helping front offices place a superior product on the field while distracting consumers from the product they’re fielding.

The potency of technological advancements is a double-edged sword. It is a problem that society at large is grappling with, but that might specifically endanger the pastoral roots of baseball. I don’t know the answer to baseball’s aging fan base (although I do have some theories), but I do know rule changes that tinker with the fabric of the game will do more to upset current fans than attract new ones.

If Rob Manfred thinks shaving a few minutes off the average game time will suddenly cause people to rush to the ballpark, then he needs to turn off his smartphone, close his Internet tabs, and open his eyes to the reality of our technologically addicted cultural climate.