Someday in the not-too-distant future when big-league baseball is played with more action again, when hitters put the ball in play more than they strike out and the game becomes more entertaining once more, Corey Kluber’s no-hitter last week may well be remembered as something of a tipping point for change.
After all, who doesn’t love a no-hitter, right? Well, as it turns out, apparently a lot of people when there are six of them — seven if you count Madison Bumgarner’s unofficial seven-inning no-no — before Memorial Day.
Even for ice cream lovers there can be such a thing as too much Haagen-Dazs.
For a few seasons now there has been an undercurrent of grumbling around baseball about the increase in strikeouts and the lack of offense in the game, but Kluber’s no-hitter prompted public commentary from big names in the sport that raised the issue to a whole new level.
First, it was a future Hall of Fame pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, telling reporters that too many no-hitters, “Is probably not good for the game. Fans want to see some hits, I get that, and some action, and not so many people striking out.”
Then, it was Don Mattingly, the former Yankee MVP and now Marlins manager, who said the words that surely hit commissioner Rob Manfred like an Aroldis Chapman fastball in the ribs. Noting that the increase in strikeouts and lack of contact started years ago with analytic-driven changes in swings and offensive philosophy, Mattingly said the issue has been building for years, and with all the no-hitters, “We’re at a point where it’s getting much more attention because it’s just a game that sometimes is unwatchable.”
Unwatchable, he said. This from a guy known as Donnie Baseball, for goodness sake.
Within 24 hours, the industry was buzzing with reaction, much of it from scouts and executives who were thrilled that someone with such a high profile said what they can’t say — at least not publicly without consequence.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people who are glad a guy like Mattingly said that,” one scout told me. “He’s a high-character guy who everybody respects, so his words carry some weight. It’s not like he said anything that I don’t hear on a daily basis from people in our business, but now it’s out there and I have to believe it will help force changes of some kind.
“I think they were going to happen anyway, because nobody likes what they’re seeing and Manfred is worried about losing younger fans. But maybe this will help cut through some of the BS.”
Buck Showalter, who once managed Mattingly with the Yankees and now works as an analyst for YES and MLB Network, believes his former player made it harder for anyone to pretend baseball doesn’t have a problem these days.
“Donnie loves the game and, remember, he’s a guy who didn’t strike out hardly at all (41 K’s during his 1985 MVP season),” Showalter said by phone on Friday. “What he’s talking about is, if you don’t realize that the way the game is being played is hurting the entertainment value, you’re not very smart.”
The root of the conflict is the way the incorporation of analytics has changed hitting over the last several years, with the emphasis on swinging for the fences at the expense of contact, while also de-emphasizing small-ball strategy that might lead to what the math essentially deems as unnecessary outs.
Combine that with technology — high-speed cameras, etc. — that helped make pitching more difficult to hit than ever, and the result has been annual increases in strikeouts. Meanwhile, the advent of defensive shifting has further depressed offense to the point where the batting average for all teams is a collective .234, the lowest in MLB history.
So, while the use of analytics may be a more efficient formula for winning, games that revolve mostly around strikeouts and walks make the product less pleasing to the eye.
“I’m not going to throw analytics under the bus,” Showalter said, “but you can tell me all the math and I’ll tell you the hit-and-run play is entertaining. Stealing a base is entertaining. Bunting for a hit is entertaining. The game needs to be entertaining for the fans.”
The decision-makers at MLB seem to understand the issue. When Theo Epstein stepped down as Cubs’ president after last season, he admitted the use of analytics had made big-league baseball less aesthetically pleasing, noting in particular that the athleticism of the players wasn’t being showcased enough.
And since then, Epstein has been hired by MLB to look into potential changes in that regard, many of which are being experimented with in the minors this season.
But everyone agrees there is no easy fix, especially now that players for years have been taught the launch-angle style of hitting that maximizes power but also assures more swings and misses, especially as pitchers have learned to combat the approach by attacking hitters up in the strike zone with high velocity.
Still, the logical starting point seems obvious: Ban defensive shifts that have closed off the traditional holes in the infield and added to the reason hitters go for broke, trying to hit the ball over the shift rather than through it.
“I hope you’ll see that in some form, maybe as early as next season,” one team exec said. “I think the commissioner is for it, but the problem is the players’ union has to recognize the issues we’re talking about and embrace changes. Only there’s so much acrimony going into the negotiations (for a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season) that it’s impossible to predict what might actually get done.
“But there’s no doubt shifting has had a dramatic effect on hitting. If you force teams to play infielders on the dirt, two on each side of second base, maybe guys will go back to trying to hit line drives or just making contact, and they won’t be striking out as much. For lefthanded hitters, especially, it would make a huge difference.”
Showalter says he’s in favor of at least a modified version of banning shift.
“Something that will help get hitters back to being rewarded for making contact,” he said.
None of that is happening this season, however. And for all the talk about baseball’s entertainment value, as one scout said, “Hitters are going to keep swinging for the fences because it’s the way they’ve been taught for years. A bunch of no-hitters won’t change that. There’s no shame in striking out anymore, and for a lot of hitters, this is all they know.”
Which means the strikeouts will keep coming, and chances are more no-hitters are likely to be thrown, perhaps breaking the single-season record of eight soon enough.
Yet, as the evidence in the aftermath of Kluber’s gem suggests, they almost surely won’t be appreciated quite the way they once were.