Since its creation, baseball has always served as a metaphor for our country. In the 20th Century, artists like Norman Rockwell and the creators of the film Field of Dreams used the game to contrast modern, urban obsessions with America’s simple, rural, and more grounded roots. Contemporary America is a long way from those values – and the national pastime is too. Today, baseball is more about power, data, recruiting overseas talent, and total revenue earned than playing the game the old, “right way”. These changes reflect the newer America: an appetite for speed and immediacy, emphasis on increasing power/production, utilizing immigrant labor, and profit maximization. A majority of fans may be happy with the majestic home runs and electrifying strikeouts they witnessed in the 2017 World Series. But, there are some who believe that it is baseball that has lost something fundamental about its essence.
All one has to do to notice it is to compare this World Series with the last one the Los Angeles Dodgers played in versus the Oakland A’s in 1988. Gone are the days when the field manager is the face of management for a baseball organization. When considering the recent firings of the Nationals, Yankees, and Red Sox managers after these men collectively averaged more than 90 wins and made four playoff appearances during the past six seasons, it is clear that managers are expendable. Basically, there isn’t a need for a manager in baseball, as we now conceive of that position, especially at a salary north of a million dollars. It’s become more of a middle-manager job, carrying out the general manager’s directives. In 1988, managers like the A’s Tony La Russa and Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda (with his pitching coach Ron Perranowski) were the public face and brain trust of an organization. Today, teams’ general managers, such as Billy Beane and Theo Epstein are the architects who are intellectual, CEO-types pulling the strings of their managerial puppets. Gone are the days when teams will use “small ball” tactics to scrap for a run or two via sacrifice bunts, moving a runner over to third base with a ground ball to the right side, or getting a runner into scoring position with a stealthily-timed stolen base. In the 1988 World Series players like Walt Weiss, Steve Sax, Glenn Hubbard, Alfredo Griffin, and many more used their diverse skill-set to push runners into scoring position. That series witnessed seven stolen bases and only seven home runs through five games. This year’s fall classic has seen a mere two stolen bases with 22 homers through five games. The recent reliance on sabermetrics and data-driven approach dictates that giving up an out through a sacrifice bunt or a stolen base attempt is simply not worth it when a three-run homer is possible. In Game 6, Dodger lead-off hitter Chris Taylor did not bunt in the bottom of the sixth inning with his team trailing 1-0 with runners on first and second base and no outs. Remarkably, he was given the green light and delivered an RBI double. This would never have happened in 1988.
In 2017, batters instead take ferocious hacks with an upward swing path even with two strikes on them. Contemporary hitters feel no pressure to put the ball in play with two strikes. Now, the goal is to hit long fly balls with impressive exit velocities and launch angles in any count or situation. When Enrique Hernandez smacked a clutch RBI single to the opposite field for the Dodgers during Game 2, it was refreshing but also surprising. In short, hitters are not afraid to strike out, and defenses are taking notice by over-shifting their infielders drastically to the pull-side of the field to stymie these hitters’ single-minded intentions.
Gone are the days of long discussions between manager and umpire in the middle of an inning. Coaches can appeal plays in which umpire calls are quickly overturned and, as a result, there’s much less arguing between manager and umpire. The reliance on technology for instant replay reviews embodies America’s hunger for rapid response and diminishing face-to- face interactions. Television audiences are now shown a rectangular box displaying whether the home plate umpire made a good call and how close the pitcher came to the strike zone. Instant replays from a slew of different camera angles break down every close tag/force play and make the armchair viewer the optimal umpire. Gone are the days when baseball players are overweight and not super-athletes. Other than Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, players in the 1988 World Series were pedestrian-built figures. In today’s game, sprinkled all over the field are players that could conceivably compete in various sports at the NCAA or professional levels. Agile infielders and oversized outfielders who run like gazelles and throw the baseball almost 90 miles an hour from difficult arm and body positions is commonplace. The stereotype and notion that baseball players are not highly-fit athletes has been eradicated. With an influx of the top Hispanic, Japanese, and other foreign-born players, the average MLB player is more of a physical specimen than in years past. This development also highlights a change in the American labor force since 1988, with immigrants replacing many of our domestic workers.
Gone are the days when players/teams focus on fundamentals. This drive for physical prowess comes at a cost. With an emphasis on sheer talent, power, throwing velocity, and speed, basic baseball mechanics are frequently neglected. Outfielder throws to proper bases and infielder cutoff man alignment has been highly ineffective. Botched pick-off plays and run-downs have hurt teams’ chances for victory and made them look in desperate need of practice. Throughout the playoffs, catcher blocking technique and the ability to receive cut-off throws for tag plays at home plate has been terribly flawed. Catchers Mike Scioscia and Rick Dempsey from the 1988 series were heralded for their defensive abilities and high baseball IQs, not offensive production. The teams of today don’t seek out such players. Instead, the hunt for five tool, first-pitch-swinging Dominican and Puerto Rican players is the trend.
Gone are the days when pitchers feature a diverse arsenal of pitches and try to clip corners of the strike zone using craft and guile. Lance McCullers Jr. threw a remarkable 23 consecutive curveballs to help seal the Astros’ victory in the ALCS’ championship game over the Yankees. Astros’ reliever Brad Peacock exclusively featured 96 mph fastballs throughout the strike zone for his 3-2/3 inning save in World Series Game 3. Other than changing hitter eye levels within an at-bat, the “art of pitching” has disappeared and been replaced by power arms aspiring to throw 100 mph and scouting reports of how to attack specific batters. Gone are the days when a starting pitcher is expected to throw half the game or more. The question is: why would a baseball team have starting pitchers? The analytics now make it clear that batters hit all pitchers significantly better the third time or more through a lineup. From an economic standpoint, it is wasteful to have starting pitchers if: (a) they get paid an order of magnitude more than other pitchers; (b) there are enough lesser pitchers who can be just as effective going through an order the first time; (c) the costs of possible arm injury continues to rise, as pitchers throw ever harder/faster and the revenue for victories rise.
The fashion in which teams use their bullpens has transformed immensely in recent years. Managers prefer to remove their starting pitcher early in the game so they can plug in their recipe-for-success blueprint with earmarked, specialist pitchers lined up to come in for their assigned inning of work. Dodger manager Dave Roberts pulled starter Rich Hill after 60 pitches and four successful innings in Game 2, and then again in Game 6, after 58 pitches and 4-2/3 solid innings. This never would have happened in 1988, as coaches would ride their horses, such as Orel Hershiser and Dave Stewart, to start and go deep into games whenever possible. It is possible that, in the not-too-distant future, we will see pitching staffs broken into a series of “four-inning” pitchers, “two-three-inning” pitchers, closers, and one-out specialists. However, no “starting pitchers”, as we now know them, will exist, especially in post-season play. Ultimately, all pitchers may be interchangeable. All of this change is being put on display in the playoffs, when the stakes are high enough that teams do away with conventional wisdom and do their absolute best to win. With the exception of Justin Verlander, these starting pitchers are running through lineups no more than twice, and turning the ball over to other talented pitchers – some of whom were once starters. Brandon Morrow has been the epitome of this fact for the Dodgers – pitching in all six games. As these pitchers have been thrust into these new roles and dealing with extreme fatigue, the relief pitching has been anything but a relief for managers. Major League Baseball’s modernized style and approach to the game cleverly allows it to squeeze untapped pockets of revenue. More pitching changes, for example, produce more commercial breaks, including the newly unveiled six second, split-screen advertisements. More home runs and strikeouts deliver both more excitement to the average fan and more fixed-focus on real and electronically projected backstop and wall advertisements. Greater and more focused viewership, in turn, supercharges sales of merchandise and sponsorships. In the language of analytics that now dominates not just baseball but the board rooms of Amazon and Apple, and our virtually-driven modern economy, the customer feedback cycle is targeted, productive, synergistic and growing. It all adds up to a seemingly winning formula. And, yet, as elites and established institutions in the USA have recently learned, overall success does not guarantee a healthy underlying social fabric. Just as in the larger society it draws from, baseball might want look out that all that winning does not inadvertently leave something essential of itself behind.
By Darren Gurney, Washington University in St. Louis
Coach Gurney has been coaching high school and college baseball for the past 25 years and is the founder/director of the Rising Star Baseball Camp in New Rochelle, NY which teaches players ages 4-15. He has coached over twenty players who were selected in the MLB Draft or that have gone on to play professional baseball. In 2011, Coaches Choice published his instructional baseball book, Covering All the Bases, which received rave reviews from The NY Times, Collegiate Baseball, and various professional athletes.