Were he alive today, G.K. Chesterton would be writing about baseball. I don’t mean he’d become a sports columnist, though he might have much indeed to say about a game where infinite boundaries between fair and foul intersect at home. Rather, I mean that Major League Baseball’s ongoing identity crisis seems like a paradox straight out of “The Ethics of Elfland.”
Today, Major League teams play baseball better than it has ever been played. Players are stronger, faster, and more skilled, and teams are more intelligently organized and managed. Yet the product of all this collective excellence is too often an unwatchable bore, a plodding grotesque of the lively, invigorating game fans and players actually love. This is the fruit of the Sabermetrics Revolution — the triumph of empirical data analysis over the sport’s once-unquestioned but now debunked conventional wisdom.
Bill James and his fellow sabermetricians spent years as controversial figures on the fringes of the sport. Their unorthodox theories were ignored and ridiculed, right up until teams applied them and started winning. Make no mistake, the sabermetricians were right: about the proper valuation of on-base percentage, the irrelevance of context-dependent stats like pitching wins and runs batted in, and much more. Today, every team in the majors plays Moneyball. They have embraced advanced metrics and filled their front offices with quantitative analysts alongside their scouts. Analytics have changed every part of the industry, from player development to contract negotiation to game strategy.
On the field, this long-overdue commitment to efficiency manifests itself most conspicuously in the prevalence of the so-called “Three True Outcomes” (TTO): strikeouts, bases-on-balls, and home runs. The TTO are increasing all the time and now account for 34 percent of all plate appearances. 2018 will be the 13th consecutive season with a record number of strikeouts. Indeed, strikeouts may soon outnumber hits. Last season, Major League hitters set a record for total home runs — even more than in the steroid era — and may challenge that record again this year.
Transferring so much of baseball’s naturally diffuse action to the small sliver of the diamond between home plate and the pitcher’s mound is grinding the game to a standstill. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci notes, games today are longer (3 hours, 4 minutes — 19 minutes longer than in 1988) and slower (3 minutes and 45 seconds between balls put in play — 41 seconds slower than in 1988) than they have any reason to be.
Thus the Chestertonian paradox: All this progress has left us watching superior athletes play an inferior game.
To his credit, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is aware of the issue. The last few off-seasons have brought welcome discussions of how to increase the MLB’s “pace of play.” But so far, the proposed reforms miss the point. Pitch clocks? Ghost-runners on second base to start extra innings? Banning shifts? Letting managers re-shuffle their batting orders in the ninth inning?
These are not reforms; they’re attempts to make TTO baseball seem less boring. But one-dimensional competition is inherently boring (see the NBA before the shot-clock, or the NHL during the “dead puck era”). True reform must incentivize players to stop playing TTO baseball in the first place, and go back to playing the game as it’s meant to be played.
Therein lies the good news. There is nothing wrong with baseball, as such. The game remains as perfect as it is has ever been. The problem is with Major League Baseball.
Go to a high school or Little League game, and you’ll see. It’s not monotonous. The players aren’t as good, obviously. But in many ways the product on the field is more fun. The game is more diverse, exciting, and unpredictable. When played at all competently, youth baseball is exhilarating.
What’s the difference? There are two big ones. First, while kids are slow and small and make lots of errors, Major Leaguers cover the playing field like a blanket. Big league defenses are constantly improving, and so every year, it gets that much harder for batters to “hit ’em where they ain’t.” Second, most kids can’t hit home runs. They’re not strong enough. By contrast, almost all Major Leaguers can hit home runs, pretty much every time they come to bat.
And so, the quants tell players the efficient thing to do is to try and hit the ball over the defense rather than through it — especially now that teams are shifting to more efficiently attack each individual batter. This is where the TTO are coming from. To hit home runs, you can’t just swing at anything. You have to wait for your pitch, and then swing as hard as you can. That patience leads to balls and walks, and the ferocious swings lead to misses and strikeouts. Both contribute to longer at bats and games, and teams’ increasing reliance on power-armed relief pitchers.
But none of these maladies — the strategic monotony, the strikeouts, the dead time, the constant calls to the bullpen — are the disease. They’re symptoms, like a fever, a signal coming from inside the game itself that something else is wrong. The thing is, TTO baseball does not optimize baseball strategy, full stop. It optimizes baseball strategy when home runs are too easy to hit and the playing field is too easy to defend.
That’s the real problem. Major League ballparks are too small. The players have outgrown them.
In Major League ballparks today, the average distance from home plate to an outfield wall is about 365 feet (332 to left, 404 to center, and 328 to right). It is telling that those dimensions are so close to the minimum allowed under league rules — 325 down the lines and 400 to center. The owners are deliberately making their ballparks almost as small as possible. It is far more than telling — it is screaming — that that minimum-distance rule was written in 1959, when the average MLB player weighed about 185 pounds. Today, the average Major Leaguer weighs 210, and suffice it to say, that extra 25 pounds isn’t fat.
It is this physical asymmetry between ballplayer and ballpark that has warped baseball’s competitive incentives away from the game we’ve always known and toward the grim efficiency of the TTO. Keeping the fields the same size all these years while players got stronger and faster was like letting older and older teenagers continue to play on Little League fields.
Given the ubiquity of the TTO approach today, we know that 365 feet is not far enough.
But, we also know that, somewhere beyond 365 feet — 385 feet? 395? 410? — there is a tipping point at which Home Run Derby would become inefficient. Move the fences to that distance, and the fever would break. Offenses and defenses would scrap the TTO approach and work out a new strategic equilibrium. To fans, this process would present itself as a captivating and virtuous cycle.
First, most hitters would stop trying to hit home runs. They would intuit — and the quants would insist — that the fences are just too deep to swing for in most counts and game situations. True sluggers would still swing from their heels, and thank goodness! But everyone else, most of the time, would channel their inner Tony Gwynn and swing with less force and more precision, and be rewarded for it, because …
Second, in our new enlarged outfields, the wider gaps between defenders would create more space for base hits, more room “where they ain’t.” More bloops and Texas Leaguers would drop in for singles. Many of today’s singles would be stretched into doubles. Line drives in the power allies and corners would no longer be unfairly limited to stand-up doubles. Another 30 feet in those gaps would yield game-redefining increases in triples, inside-the-park home runs, and thrilling outfield-assisted putouts thwarting attempts of same.
Third, larger outfields would increase the cost of defensive shifting. Right now, if teams overload the right side of the diamond, a clever hitter who punches the ball weakly to the left side can only hope to get a single out of it. But if the left fielder in our new cavernous outfield starts the play 250 feet away from the shortstop, that slap single may easily become a slap double. Especially in an environment of more contact hitting, that prospect would pull defenses back toward their traditional — and aesthetically felicitous — positioning.
Fourth, deeper fences would lower the risks of pitching the ball over the plate. Today pitchers have to max out their effort on every pitch and aim almost exclusively for the corners because center-cut strikes are so easily hit out of the ballpark. But larger outfields would increase pitchers’ margin for error and hopefully mitigate the recent explosion of pitcher injuries. To most batters, pitches over the middle of the plate would only end up as singles or doubles — or outs, if they’re hit it in the air. The increase in base hits and multi-hit rallies would make free passes more costly, so more pitchers would pitch to contact.
Fifth, as bigger fields make home runs harder to come by and base hits easier, they will also make strikeouts less tolerable for offenses. Once again made wary of strike three, newly contact-minded hitters would swing more freely earlier in the count, especially if pitchers are more generous with their strikes (see above). All of a sudden, the logic of Little League — “Just put the ball in play and good things will happen” — will have purchase in big league lineups again.
To recap, large-enough outfields would change Major League Baseball by making it more like actual baseball again. Overnight, we would see a game with fewer but more meaningful home runs, and a massive increase in triples and inside-the-park homers, which are more fun anyway. There would be more hits and more rallies. At bats would be shorter because pitchers would throw more hittable strikes and hitters would swing with more control, earlier in the count — an economizing of pitch counts and arm stress that would help reverse the soul-crushing trend of ever-more pitching changes. There would be fewer walks and strikeouts, more defense, and less time between balls hit in play, leading to shorter, crisper, more action-packed games.
Major League Baseball would move again.
Now, I’m not advocating a Luddite return to the dead-ball era. Far from it. I want Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge swinging for the fences, just as larger-than-life sluggers like Reggie Jackson or Harmon Killebrew have always done. Every lineup should have one or two of those guys, just not seven. When even utility infielders swing like Rob Deer, true power hitting is degraded.
But give the dead-ball era some due. Those hitters couldn’t clear fences because the ball wasn’t as hard or tightly wound. But they did perfect a slashing, dashing style of play that captured the country’s imagination — and still can, as proved by the steroid-era superstardom of Ichiro Suzuki. Larger fields would turn baseball’s clock forward, not backward. They would enable the game to transcend both the inefficiency of the past and the tedium of the present by unleashing a pent-up supply of athleticism now hemmed in by undersized ballparks. On both sides of the ball, speed and creativity would eclipse raw power.
Imagine taking the best of Ty Cobb-style and Ted Williams-style offense — players like Jackie Robinson or Willie McGee or, at his best, Bryce Harper, offer an ideal composite. Imagine more pitchers evoking Greg Maddux or Jim Palmer rather than today’s all-or-nothing, “fascist” flame-throwers. Add in even more 21st century defensive excellence, and present it all on a canvas large enough to accommodate unprecedented athleticism, adventure, and strategic diversity. We’re talking about the most exciting baseball anyone has ever seen (or at least since the end of the Negro Leagues).
Like the ghostly Black Sox from Field of Dreams, a new Golden Age of Baseball is waiting, just beyond the outfield grass, for ballparks big enough to call home. If we build them, it will come.