That's right I said it. Baseball is boring. It's not as boring as football or the NBA regular season, but it's definitely in a bit of funk over the last few years. Baseball maven, Joe Sheehan put his finger on it last year (or was it two years ago?) when he wrote about the great scourge that is making baseball boring, the lack of balls in play. 2016 marked an all-time low for the percentage of balls in play at 67%. It also was a high ( I didn't look to see if it was an all-time high in this case) in the percentage of strikeouts, at 20.8%. Add walks into that mix, 8% and you have about a third of all at bats confined to the game of catch between pitcher and catcher.
Strikeouts can be exciting, even a walk can generate applause. But over the course of a season, on a Thursday night in July, consistent stretches of nothingness are a bit hard to take. For the sake of comparison, let's go with the first year I really paid attention to baseball, 1984. The Detroit Tigers were a powerhouse team that started off 35-5, just a steamroller. That year, 75% of at bats put the ball in play. Walks were the same at 8%, but strikeouts were only 13% of at bats. Over the course of 30+ years, the action on the field has been reduced by 12%. To split hairs, yes strikeouts are part of the action, but it means a lot less fielding, running and jumping. The athletic aspect of the game is falling off. If the trend were to continue, and I hope there is a floor at some point, in about 2044, when I hope to be still be watching baseball in my seventies, the ball will be in play only about half the time, 55%. That would be unbearable.
Is there a fix to this downward trend? I'm not sure. If I remember Sheehan's piece correctly, he argued that a better called strike zone would, ironically help. Batters wouldn't be at the mercy of the inferior eyesight of a human umpire, so pitches now called strikes, would be out of the zone. I wonder, however, if this would lead to more walks instead of more balls in play. The nature of many teams now is to milk the at bat, wear a pitcher down, get the right pitch. If the strike zone becomes perfectly managed, will it just slow the game even further, making it even more boring? Time will tell. Let's hope we don't go much lower.