MIAMI – Baseball is flourishing, healthier and wealthier than ever before, increasingly more popular with its customers and profitable for its players and owners.
Baseball is dying, drowning under a flood of strikeouts and pitching changes, slowly but steadily inching toward a cliff of boredom and paralysis.
Whatever scenario you want to indulge in, your view was represented in Miami last week, where the sport’s best players and most powerful executives gathered to celebrate and/or eulogize the sport they love. It really was a remarkable dissonance, with some citing record revenue, and others lamenting the length of games and loss of market share to football and basketball.
Even the events themselves demonstrated the different interpretations: The Home Run Derby on Monday, a gimmick to further spotlight the game’s best players, was a raucous and prodigious success. But the red-carpet parade through downtown Miami on Tuesday attracted an embarrassingly sparse crowd, and the much quieter All-Star Game included noticeable swaths of empty seats.
Commissioner Rob Manfred held a private question-and-answer session with the game’s beat writers and did nothing to douse rumors that he intends to implement a pitch clock next year, as he is allowed to do under the new collective bargaining agreement, and perhaps limit mound visits or even relief pitchers.
“Our research suggests that the home run is actually a popular play in baseball. Strikeouts, if by a single pitcher, fans really like,” Manfred said. “Where it gets troubling is when there are tons of strikeouts and no action, just a lot of pitching changes. That’s troubling to me.”
Manfred cited the average time of game — 3 hours, 5 minutes this season, up almost 10 minutes from two seasons ago — as a call to action. He clearly believes that fans, particularly young fans, are being turned off by games that drag on because of longer at-bats and more time between pitches.
Yet it was difficult to detect much support for his position — and especially for the notion that umpires will be enforcing pitch-clock violations next spring — in the players’ clubhouses. “They want to rush the players more, when we’re trying to play the game the right way,” said Seattle second baseman Robinson Cano, whose 10th-inning home run won the All-Star Game for the American League 2-1. “But the games are fine. People watch. Why must we change how we play?”
Actually, the game has evolved quite a bit in recent years, just as professional football and basketball have, and for the same reason: Smarter executives are scouring data to identify and implement the most effective way to win. In basketball, the trend has yielded a more up-tempo game that emphasizes three-point shooting and highlights players’ athleticism. In football, analytics have helped free up wide-open passing games and marginalize running backs.
Those evolutions are wildly popular. But in baseball, analytics have emphasized the importance of high-velocity pitching, homers as the primary offensive weapon, and a shrug toward record-breaking strikeout levels. Miguel Sano took part in the All-Star Game, even though he had struck out 120 times — two-thirds of the way to his franchise mark of 178.
“There’s more velocity in the game than ever before, and teams are using the bottom of their roster to rotate a constant corps of fresh arms into the bullpen,” Manfred said. “Defenses shift constantly to gain a greater advantage, and strikeouts are tolerated at a level that they never used to be. … I’m certainly open to the idea that we should take a more aggressive posture to address how the game is played.”
Manfred sounds determined to take action, perhaps drastically so, to speed up the game. It’s not at all clear, especially to the players, that salvation will follow — or is even necessary.
Changes have come to the AL Central as the second half opens. Here’s a look at what’s new:
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Indians: Lonnie Chisenhall’s right calf was still sore after the break, so Cleveland puts its RBI leader and surprise offensive engine on the 10-day disabled list for the third time. Chisenhall’s absence will hamper an inconsistent offense, but the return of Tyler Naquin in his place should shore up the outfield defense.
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Royals: Kansas City, knowing it faces major dismantling this winter, has likely changed from a seller to a buyer with its charge to the top of the division, and its July schedule is soft. The Royals, after watching former closers Greg Holland and Wade Davis pitch for the National League in the All-Star Game, face an awkward problem: They badly need bullpen arms.
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Tigers: The biggest change in Detroit might have been on the field, where a Metallica concert and heavy rain forced emergency turf replacement. “It smells like horse manure,” outfielder J.D. Martinez told mlb.com. But news that Detroit is listening to offers for Justin Verlander and even Michael Fulmer signal big moves ahead.
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White Sox: Trading Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs brought two of the highest-ranked prospects in the minors: outfielder Eloy Jimenez, a top-10 prospect, and righthander Dylan Cease. In dealing Quintana, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the White Sox now own the top farm system in baseball, with seven of the sport’s top 100 prospects.
Byron Buxton’s speed has him tied atop the majors in bunt singles this season, entering the All-Star break.
6 — Byron Buxton, Min
6 — Jarrod Dyson, Sea
6 — Dee Gordon, Mia
5 — Delino DeShields, Tex
5 — Ender Inciarte, Atl
5 — Cesar Hernandez, Phi
Baseball reporters Phil Miller and La Velle E. Neal III will alternate weeks.• firstname.lastname@example.org • Twins blogs: startribune.com/twins