Monday, April 28, 2008

That Boring Game of Baseball

While trying to find a few articles to help my younger brother understand the current economic recession, I ran across this post at the Freakonomics blog. The post is another argument about how boring baseball has become, the sort of thing you always read about in the spring. I've found similar articles in newspapers from the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s and earlier, even one in a 1903 Sporting News, if you can believe it.

Dubner's article makes a few assumptions that I find extremely strange. Baseball, according to Dubner, is boring because it's remained unchanged for so long. "Football and basketball may be more innately exciting than baseball," he says, "but just as important, they’ve also changed a lot over the past 40 years. They are full of innovation." Never mind the influx of new, hitter-friendly stadiums, the Designated Hitter rule, inter-league play, expansion, the wild card structure, an influx of young pitching stars from Asia and so on. Also never mind critics of modern football and basketball, who point out how boring and slow those games have become (Dubner has apparently forgotten that the World Series still attracts more viewers than the NBA playoffs). Don't pay attention to the fact that television ratings are down across the board for every single type of program. Furthermore, never mind the fact that football and basketball honestly haven't changed much fundamentally lately. Baseball doesn't change, other sports do, and, as a result, baseball has become a slow sport more fit for the 1960s than today.

It's hard to argue against Dubner's article without directly challenging his faulty assumptions (a technique economists like him are certainly used to). You could argue against every innovation he lists. He quotes an article written by Darren Everson (no relation, despite similar-looking names), which explains new techniques some managers use to liven things up. Dubner lists a few modern managerial techniques, such as having relief players play in the field to avoid baseball's "archaic" single substitution rules (which, naturally, have rendered soccer obsolete across Europe and Asia), putting an infield shift on every hitter, using bullpen pitchers rather than dedicated starters for poor weather games, and having the pitcher hit eighth.

I can see how having your LOOGY play in the field until the next favorable platoon matchup comes up could cut down on dead time while new pitchers warm up, but it obviously could also severely damage a team defensively. If somebody hits a hard line drive out to the pitcher-turned-outfielder, you'll see some awful fielding, more runners on base, and longer innings as a result. The other four innovations have absolutely nothing to do with how long or how sluggishly games are played. Dubner is certain that these changes will "make the game a bit more fluid and fun to watch," but I don't follow his logic. Who wants to watch a relief specialist start a game because there is rain in the forecast? Who wants to see exaggerated infield shifts for every power hitter? Wouldn't that slow the game down even more, not speed it up?

There is, of course, truth to what he's writing. Baseball has slowed down over time, as we all know. I'm not sure what more can be done to speed the game up, other than forcing hitters off the plate and giving them thicker bats (ala Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract.) I guess you could bring back the spitball, which will probably result in more walks, since it's always been considered one of the most difficult pitches to learn. We could build bigger stadiums, but low homerun totals traditionally doesn't do much to draw fans to the park.

We could also improve how the game is broadcast. Of my sports-minded friends, many have commented that baseball is exciting to watch live, but an absolute snooze on television. I'd have to agree, and the FOX/ESPN era has been especially damaging to how the game has been televised (ESPN less so, in my opinion). If we could bring back the sort of game NBC showed America in the 1980s, maybe things would improve.

Still, even the mindless bantering of Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, Joe Morgan and Chip Caray is nothing all that new. Have you ever tried to watch old DVDs of World Series games from 1968 to 1974? Curt Gowdy wasn't exactly Vin Scully, and the announcer accompanying him was rarely any better (with the exception of Harry Caray and Vin Scully, of course). Not every guy is going to be as fun to listen to as Joe Garagiola or Dizzy Dean. Other annoyances, such as incessant close-ups and constant crowd shots, were very much a part of NBC and ABC broadcasts in the 1980s. If you go back to games shown in the 1960s, crowd shots are few and far between, and close-ups even rarer, but you honestly start to miss that sort of thing. It's not exactly clear what baseball should do to improve how games are broadcast.

My solution would be to wait off the slew of "baseball is so boring" articles that come around every spring. Once the pennant races start heating up, and inter-league play provides a distraction from the sleep-inducing NBA playoffs, these articles will disappear.

A good contrast to this article can be found here, where Jayson Stark argues that a lot has changed in baseball over the years.

Oh, and the comments to that blog piece are a waste of time. People are complaining about lack of competitive balance in baseball? Did they forget that the Colorado Rockies went to the playoffs last year for the first time since 1995? Have they missed out on the fact that Tampa Bay and Baltimore are on top of the AL East? Do all these people root for Pittsburgh or what?

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