Baseball is seeing an increase in whiffs, walks, and wallops

Victor Martinez is one of the few big leaguers who rarely strikes out.

Victor Martinez is one of the few big leaguers who rarely strikes out.

No one loved playing baseball more than Mark Fidrych, and there was nobody fans loved to watch more than the Bird. That’s because his innocent enthusiasm for the game was contagious. His games were pure joy.

Nearly 40 years later, it’s hard to imagine that kind of simple joy at a ballpark. Games now are endurance contests. Maybe that’s why stadiums like Comerica Park have Ferris Wheels and merry-go-rounds and other distractions.

When the Bird pitched, he threw pitches over the plate at the knees. Batters had plenty to swing at, but they usually hit the ball into the ground. And he worked quickly. Fidrych’s starts typically lasted around two hours. Today, many games are twice that long.

Baseball has become a war of attrition when it should be a romp in the park. It should be balls soaring, fielders speeding to catch them, and runners scrambling around the bases.

The biggest change in the game in recent years has been the steady rise in what statheads call the “three true outcomes” — walks, strikeouts, and home runs. They’re called “true outcomes” because they’re not influenced by the unpredictable results that occur when a ball is put in play. As every fan knows, when a batter hits a ball, anything can happen: a smash can find a glove, a soft blooper can find a landing spot on the grass, a fielder can make a diving catch, another can bobble an easy grounder, the ball can take a bad hop. These uncanny outcomes are, by and large, what fans pay to see: action on the diamond.

Home runs have increased a little over the last 100 years, settling in during the last decade at around 3% of all plate appearances. The number of walks hasn’t changed much, peaking around 1950 and recently declining a little to about 8%. But strikeouts have increased dramatically. Until 1950, strikeouts and walks occurred at relatively equal rates, but since then, and especially in this century, strikeouts have skyrocketed to the point when they now are more than 20% of all batter outcomes.

Combining all three true outcomes, the bottom line is this: for the first time in baseball history, nearly one in three batters do not put the ball into play. They either walk, whiff, or hit it out of the park.

Why has this occurred? There are more pitchers on big league staffs — twelve or thirteen instead of the customary nine or ten in Fidrych’s day — and more pitchers who throw harder. They try more often to throw breaking balls that fool the batter. They try to hit the corners. They avoid throwing pitches down the middle of the strike zone over the plate. Most rarely “pitch to contact.”

They’re just doing their job — fool the batter as often as possible — and collectively they’re getting better at it.

Batters’ conscious strategy against most starters these days is to try to maximize the number of pitches per at bat in order to elevate the pitch count and get into the other team’s bullpen as early as possible. In fact, batters earn praise for a “good at-bat” that lasts seven or more pitches even if they end up making an out. But it’s not fun to watch.

There are more pitches in a game, longer at-bats, more plate appearances ending in a strikeout, and more pitching changes (because managers are careful not to overwork their pitchers). Combined, these trends are making games not only longer but duller. Batters putting balls in play and runners trying to take bases while fielders try to catch the ball and throw them out — those events are the essence of enjoyable baseball.

But MLB games now often consist of epic battles between pitcher and batter — and while such mind games can be appreciated on television, where you can more closely observe types and locations of pitches, at the ballpark home plate is only a small and distant portion of the field. Instead of the joy you felt watching a crisp two-hour game with a lot of balls put in play, you’re now treated to a cramped and largely hidden mental chess match between pitcher and batter.

To make this worse, this year’s new replay challenges add to the game’s length — and its tedium. The quest to enlist technology to try to get every call perfect is a vain one and ultimately satisfies no one. It gives television and the past tense primacy over the diamond and the present. Nothing happens during replay; the game stops. The game is stopping far too often anyway, with batters leaving the box, pitchers dawdling. and the offense trying to “lengthen the game.”

Fortunately, the current Detroit Tigers’ team is going in the opposite direction from the rest of MLB. Brad Ausmus is dedicated to an aggressive offense, especially evident in the more exciting way the Tigers are running the bases in 2014. During the first weeks of the season at least, it also seems the club is bucking the overall MLB trend by swinging the bat more aggressively. Through stats of April 26, Tiger batters collectively were last in the league in strikeouts (127) and second-to-last in walks (61). Detroit was putting the ball in play more than any other team except Kansas City — and that’s only because the Royals were last in the league in home runs.

Not that this has made much of a discernible difference. Games are so long that anything under three and a half hours now is considered mercifully short.

All this would have seemed strange to Mark Fidrych. It’s hard to imagine any game these days could ever be as delightful as watching him pitch. His games were a quick visit to pure baseball heaven, whereas today’s games are comparatively an eternity of tedium.