Steve Sailer has a post up on a topic that interests me. How to improve baseball. He makes two excellent points, one I’ve made myself and one I never considered. The former is the role of steroids and its impact on the development of players. The latter is the playing surface. Lots of people have talked about the shrinking parks for aesthetics, but no one ever talks about the turf. The baseball field has become softer and slower over the last few decades.
First a word on PED’s. Steroids did not just make for more homeruns. It warped the game and we’re still suffering the effects. A pitcher is not just throwing a ball or even working a hitter. A pitcher works the lineup. Even at the highest level, there are batters in the lineup a pitcher knows he can master. A top of the rotation pitcher usually can dominate the bottom of the order. He may also own a guy or two in the top of the order.
Let’s say I’m looking at a lineup where I have to be careful with the #1, #3,#4 and #5 hitters. The rest are guys I know I can go after. Two things are true. One is I will usually be able to work around these guys because I know I will have quick outs before or after them. Like the first inning, there will be at least one other inning where I face the meat of the order, but otherwise I can use their weak hitters against their better hitters.
The other thing that is true is the pitcher will have innings where he can attack the strike zone and get quick outs. Those weak hitters will have to swing and swing at pitches of his choosing, Pile up a few quick innings and all of a sudden your starter can get into the late innings. Quick innings also mean the pitcher is fresh when the top of the lineup comes around the second and third time. Pitchers are vulnerable in their first ten and last ten pitches. It’s why they warm-up so much.
Steroids altered this dynamic. It turned the bottom of the order guys into threats. The guys with warning track power suddenly became home run hitters. Guys who we’re low average guys because they could not handle certain parts of the strike zone were suddenly able to get around on everything. Stacking more power in the lineup also afforded more protection to the better hitters. All of a sudden the #5 hitter has a big bat behind him.
The pitcher is now faced with a meat of the order scenario in every inning. He has fewer breaks in the lineup so he has to finesse every hitter in the lineup. The hitters are not dumb so they start working the pitch count too. It should be noted that this skill developed in the steroid era. All of a sudden guys not juiced up found value in working every at bat to a dozen pitches. Johnny Gomes is in the bigs primarily because he is a dozen pitch at-bat.
Once pitch counts soared, the use of the bullpen soared. In the 70’s and 80’s you had middle relief and closers. A closer was often a two inning guy. Today we have specialists for the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, along with a closer. Steroids warped the very structure of the game and we are still feeling the effects. It does appear to be healing as testing beats back the drug dealers. The culture of the sport appears to be changing as there is a real shame attached to using.
Now, the idea in Steve’s post that is most striking is the playing surface. Those old concrete and turf stadiums were like playing on a parking lot. Fly balls would bounce off the turf into the stands on a regular basis. Slap-hitting speedsters would practice putting the ball in the gaps. What is today a single could be a triple in the old parks. The reason is the ball would shoot through the gap to the warning track. Of course, those infield chops could also scoot through into the outfield, while today they are just groundouts.
Speed used to be a much bigger part of the game when the surface was fast. The trade-off for the pitchers was that the parks were enormous compared to what we see today. Yankee Stadium had a 460 foot center-field wall. Today it is 410 feet. Tiger Stadium had a 467 foot center field. These were grass parks. The turf parks had similar dimensions and they had those rock hard surfaces. You could not play outfield in Kansas City or Cincinnati unless you could cover a lot of ground.
Was the game better back then? That’s debatable. Steve tends to think his childhood was the peak of western civilization so he naturally calls the 70’s the best baseball in history. The lack of fans in the seats suggest otherwise. Fans like the new parks and they like seeing humans play on grass. It’s why the new football fields use revolutionary turf that is so much like grass, fans barely notice it. Anyone who has walked a modern NFL field will tell you the new turf is better than grass.
I do think he is onto something. The turf has taken speed out of the game or at least reduced its value too much. Making the outfields a little faster would go a long way toward bringing speed back into the game. The concern is the health of the players. Those rock hard surfaces were murder on the knees. As a teen I played some ball on those surfaces and it was brutal. You hurt all over the next day. Professionals who played back then would talk about how it shortened careers.
That said, modern grounds keeping techniques can make the surface fast, without making it hard. As Steve points out, they do it with golf courses and in cricket. You could also use FieldTurf, which is super fast for runners, but very generous on the knees and ankles. Changing the composition of the outfields to make them faster and maybe pushing the walls back in places would open up the game to speed again.
The big area for improvement is in the pace of the game. In the modern world four hours is too much to ask of fans. Three hours is the upper limit. It is why football is focused on that number for their game times. No sport is better at maximizing the television audience than the NFL. They know three hours is the most you can ask from the fan. Baseball is right around three hours now, but that’s at a 19th century pace.
I think baseball needs to set 2.5 hours as the target. Basketball is at two hours and twenty minutes these days. Hockey is coming in at 2.5 hours for an NHL game. These are action sports so there is plenty to keep the fan interested. Baseball is intentionally slow paced and that is a big part of its appeal. It is why baseball radio broadcasts are so profitable for teams. Baseball makes for great background to a cookout. Still, the games need to be shorter to appeal to the modern fan.
Pitchers want to work quickly, but hitters are trained to slow them down. The pitchers then play around with their pace to mess with the hitter. Instead, I’d like to see the umps call the hitter into the box and he remains there until the ump says otherwise. If he steps out, the pitcher is free to pitch. The hitter can wander around scratching his balls, if he likes, but the pitcher is then free to groove as many pitches over the plate.
The other thing that would speed up the game is calling the high strike again. When the strike zone was letter high, hard throwers had an edge. Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan knew they could work that part of the strike zone. That meant more strikes and more swings. Faster at-bats meant faster innings and faster games. Jim Palmer built a hall of fame career on throwing strikes. His best pitch was a 90-mph fastball up in the strike zone. Today, that’s a ball.
Speed up the game and bring speed back into the game and you probably adjust baseball to the times without altering the game in a big way. Fewer home runs would be replaced with more extra base hits and more stolen bases. Fans want action and there’s not much more tension than when a speedster is on first or rounding third trying to score. Packing it into 2.5 hours makes it work for TV.