3 Mariners Takes: Let’s fix baseball — what can MLB do to be more exciting?
If you follow the Seattle Mariners, you want baseball’s future to be in good shape. The thing is, it doesn’t always feel that way these days.
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There are plenty of changes Major League Baseball could employ to improve itself, and to its credit, it has shown in recent years it is open to trying new things. Now, whether or not those new things have worked out is up for debate, and in some cases they maybe tried to remedy a problem that wasn’t really there.
When it comes to how the game is played now, or the ways it’s marketed, or the manners in which it’s available to be enjoyed, we see room for improvement.
In the latest in 710Sports.com’s ongoing Three Mariners Takes series, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer and 710Sports.com’s Brent Stecker and Brandon Gustafson break down the one way they each would fix baseball.
Highlight the game’s exciting young stars.
On the day it was announced Ken Griffey Jr. had taken a job as a special advisor to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, I happened to be a guest on Paul Gallant’s daily show on 710 ESPN Seattle (listen here). Before we got to discussing the latest with the Mariners, Gallant pointed out that it had been a long time since we had seen someone like Griffey in the game and wondered if there was an avenue for baseball to recreate that kind of star power with a young player today like it did with Griffey “back in the day.”
Now, obviously the landscape for baseball has changed drastically since “back in the day,” but marketing its stars seems to be an area where MLB has fallen far short, and as such it’s an area of huge opportunity.
You want to grow the game? You want to make the game more exciting? You want to attract younger viewers? You have some in-house candidates that could provide a big assist. Create your own spotlight and do a better job of putting those stars forward. It could go a long way toward breaking through the popular perception that the game is too old, too slow, too boring.
For years, I prided myself on being strict old school, but I have come to recognize the importance of adaptability and evolution for the sport to survive. So like it or not, baseball’s image needs a shake up. If you are old school and that is tough to swallow, realize that for as old school as Griffey may seem now, what he did back in the 1990s was anything but. To the old schoolers then, the backwards cap was what the bat flip is now.
Griffey showed personality and flair and there is no shortage of that in the game today. Baseball needs to move on, however, from seeing the face of the game as being a buttoned-up Derek Jeter as it was for so many years. Mike Trout may be the best player in the game but he is reluctant to be a superstar. There’s room to promote Trout and others with less flash, but let them share the spotlight with other talented players that want to be in it.
There is an exciting group of young players to highlight – Fernando Tatís Jr. (who the league is putting forward to some extent), Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr., just to name a few. While the tweet from MLB showcasing the Mariners’ talented future outfield was a nice nod to the promise in the upper corner of the world, what more can be done with them if they approach their potential at the big league level?
The future is bright in Seattle. pic.twitter.com/WhJwAKVBgo
— MLB (@MLB) January 29, 2021
While there are considerable challenges to marketing baseball as it is more of a regional sport, make the effort. Perhaps it’s time to turn the focus from pace of play being the path to making baseball more watchable to actually showing people what they are missing. Since 2015, so much effort has been put into trying to shave five minutes off the game, and what have we got? The average time of a nine-inning game has actually increased from 2 hours, 56 minutes in 2015 (the first year measures were put in place) to 3:07 in 2020. Now it was up and down in the years between 2015 and 2020, but I find it hard to believe that shaving three minutes off the game from 2019 to 2020 is going to fix things. Give the people a product on the field they want to watch and they won’t mind the extra few minutes.
The first step, you have got to get them in the door, and MLB has the resources to raise the awareness of what should be seen as its best assets.
Get a grip on the shift.
I never, ever want to be the person who says things need to go back to the way they once were for baseball to be enjoyable. And lucky for me the shift has never been legislated in baseball so this isn’t an argument about the good old days even if the next few paragraphs of me railing against the shift will most assuredly come off like a scene from “Grumpy Old Men” (which is an underrated movie, by the way).
Believe or not, the shift is nothing new. Opponents of the Boston Red Sox would put six defenders on the right side of the field to neutralize Ted Williams in the 1940s. It’s just that teams do it these days to a regularity bordering on compulsive, because with the rise of analytics, the numbers bear out with many hitters that it’s in a defense’s best interest to pack its fielders to the pull side.
Honestly, good for them. There’s nothing in the rulebook that limits how teams situate their seven fielders behind the pitcher, and teams absolutely should be figuring out the best legal ways to get each hitter out. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be something in the rulebook limiting how teams can employ the shift, though. Because as we’ve seen in recent years, the shift isn’t fun. In fact, the shift is *cue Jean-Ralphio meme here* the wooooooooorst.
It’s not just that teams are using the shift in the hopes that the ball will be hit into it. It also becomes the pitcher’s job to pitch in a way that forces the batter to hit into the shift. And that is the real problem I have long had with all of this. We’re cutting the game off at its knees, preventing all manners of exciting things that can happen because the league has decided there’s nothing wrong with putting a middle infielder in shallow right field.
Here’s the series of events the shift creates. Batter shows a tendency to pull the ball. Defenses begin shifting to their pull side. For pitchers then to succeed, they have to pitch to the shift, which means focusing on the inner half of the plate in order to make the hitter hit the ball into the shift. Batter starts making more outs than before, and since pitchers are pitching them inside so much, their best chance for success isn’t to become a better all-around hitter – because they’re not getting many strikes that can effectively be hit up the middle or to the opposite field — but to try to jerk as many home runs to their pull side as possible, because one thing you can’t do in baseball is put a fielder in the stands. That usually equates to more strikeouts, which equals less balls in play, which equals less excitement.
Got all that? Well, there’s a correlation to how tedious that was to read and how not fun it is to watch play out on the diamond.
There’s a reason the NBA has an illegal defense rule preventing defenders from camping out in the key for more than three seconds. It’s to keep the game opened up. And while it sounds a bit counterintuitive when you say it out loud, the way to open up baseball is to put limits on how teams play defense. Make it so two fielders have to be on each side of the infield. That’s really all it takes. It still allows defenses to be strategic based on hitter’s tendencies, and it prevents coaching staffs, pitchers and fielders from colluding against every single hitter. Collusion is illegal – like, everywhere. You can look it up.
We teach kids who are learning the game to “hit ’em where they ain’t,” but now the best of the best get to the big leagues and they either have to inside-out bloopers to the opposite field or take aim for the Hit It Here Cafe to find “where they ain’t.” That’s not fun. I’m a firm believer that if something isn’t fun, don’t do it. If your game isn’t fun, Major League Baseball, people are going to stop watching it. You know we have YouTube now, right?
Baseball needs to be more accessible to play and watch.
Baseball has a two-part accessibility problem. The first part involves the act of playing the game.
I love baseball. I love golf. But what I’m about to say isn’t a compliment for either.
Baseball has trended into golf territory.
What I mean by that is unless you and your family have some extra money, you may not be able to afford the necessary gear.
I played baseball growing up. It was my sport through my sophomore year of college, and from when I was about 10 until I turned 20, I played it basically year-round.
On my travel teams in high school as well as when I was in college, we were basically on our own financially aside from uniforms and baseballs. Bats? That’s a few hundred. Glove? Same thing, maybe a little less. Batting gloves? That’s another $30-50. Oh, and if you’re a catcher? That’s a pretty penny for all the necessary gear plus a specialized glove.
Some youth leagues are able to provide a decent amount of gear like team bats and things of that nature, but you’ve still got some gear you’ve got to buy on your own. After a certain age, and even early on due to registration costs and chipping in for equipment, it’s hard for some families to pay for their children to play the game. It’s a lot easier – and cheaper – to play football or basketball when sometimes all you need are sneakers or cleats while the team can provide the rest.
Want baseball to be set up for the future? The game needs help at the youngest stage so more and more kids can play the game and make it their sport. Also, stop forcing girls to choose between baseball and softball at such an early age. It’s a game for everyone, so treat it that way.
Now, in terms of viewing, we know that TV revenue is a huge part of what drives profits for MLB and teams. The issue is, a lot of that is tied to cable television.
We as a society are moving away from cable, however, as more streaming services become available. MLB has a streaming service of their own, but if you want to watch your local team play, it’s likely blacked out due the team and their network partner having regional rights to their games.
That means that if a Seattle-based family can’t afford to pay for a cable package that includes the local network but could afford MLB’s streaming service, they couldn’t watch the Mariners but could watch the Cubs. As a kid in Seattle, are you really as interested in the Cubs as you are in your local team? Probably not, so you’d be less inclined to watch the game.
Baseball isn’t in some sort of crisis in terms of lack of players or the future being grim, but it’s definitely being passed by other sports starting at a young age. Allowing more access for kids and their families to be able to play and watch the game will go a long way in promoting this wonderful sport to future generations.
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