Not exactly breaking news, but Major League Baseball has a problem: not enough action or entertainment. Too many swings and misses and strikeouts. Too many walks. Too much standing around. And not enough batted balls in play to get fielders chasing and base runners sprinting.
I love baseball but the way the game is trending … yawn.
My friend Joe Sheehan, the noted baseball analyst, presented the numbers in a recent newsletter. According to Joe:
- The 2020 season featured the highest strikeout rate, 23.5%, in MLB history. That’s worse than it looks because the DH was used in both leagues, and pitchers batted only 14 times.
- The overall rate of singles (13.6%) plummeted to an all-time low.
- The rate of non-homer extra-base hits dropped to its lowest rate since 1992
- Defensive shifts continued to suppress offense; last season the overall batting average on balls in play was .295, down six points from 2019 and the lowest mark since 1992.
- Sheehan tells us that batters made less contact than ever in 2020.
- Back in 2005, MLB hitters put the ball in play on 73.2 percent of their plate appearances. That rate has steadily decreased over time, and fell to 64.1% in 2020.
- MLB’s overall batting average, .245, was the lowest since 1972.
Even the managers are bored by the trends..
Well, at least some of them are.
MLB managers took time to participate in a series of Zoom conferences with reporters late last week. And here’s a sampling of the best comments…
— Marlins manager Don Mattingly, “I watched a lot of the playoff games after we were eliminated and quite honestly it was a little hard to watch. There was nothing going on. Innings go fast. Strikeout, strikeout, home run, a run. It was hard to watch. It tells me we have got to find a way to make our game move. And I don’t mean play faster games, I mean more action. I think that’s the way that we can create a better game and a better game to watch.”
— “It’s supposed to be about entertainment,” Athletics manager Bob Melvin said.
— Brewers manager Craig Counsell: “I would like to see more action in the game, I guess. I don’t know if I would go as far as to call the game boring, the playoff games especially. But I do think more action. We can get more action into the game. More balls in play. So, if we can get more balls in play then I think different players will be on the field, because it will put a greater emphasis on speed and defense. One will kind of follow the other. But it’s going to take something pretty substantial and pretty big to really get more balls in play, I think. And it’s probably going to take multiple rules changes, not just one thing.”
— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “The fans and people who watch the game value action and not just the strikeout, the homer and the walk — and I do, as well. The question is how do we get there? Is it the ball? Is it the intent of the player? Is it the mound height?”
— Angels manager Joe Maddon agrees. He isn’t pleased with watching baseball drift into inertia. The whiffs, the walks, the homers. The hitters and their launch angles. Pitchers spinning fastballs at the top of the strike zone.
“What are you trying to do here?” Maddon said. “Are you trying to play the game, or try to reduce it to three or four categories that you’re just trying to get players to do?”
Maddon cited analytics as an issue. Players should have all of the information that need to gain an advantage, but don’t turn them into robots.
“We’re clamoring for the real baseball game to resurface, and putting it back in the hands of the athletes,” he said. “Who need to be informed, based on all the information out there, and then they need to be turned loose.”
Many managers said they’re more open-minded to changes that will give the competition more motion and excitement. new rules, experimental rules … anything to quicken the pace. And that’s positive. There’s a growing debate about eliminating defensive shifts — a rule being pitched by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Banning the shift would help open some holes in the defense.
“I think as far as rules go in general, I think we’ve got to continue to be progressive in MLB,” Mattingly said. “We’ve got to continue to put a product out there that people want to see, that has action and continues to hold our attention. So anything that we’re doing as far as rules, I think we have to be open-minded. I watch it in the NFL, you watch the rules change, you watch it in the NBA. The games are going to evolve. Obviously you don’t want to change the core of the game. But I think we have to be open-minded to change, to make this a product that people want to see, also.”
(BTW an appeal from me: You should subscribe to the Sheehan newsletter. He’ll fill your email box with analysis and insights, and his work is a bargain. Go to JoeSheehan.com and get started. The newsletter is a great holiday gift for the baseball fan in your life. Or a gift to yourself.)
READING TIME 5 MINUTES:
With some salary-cap space opened by Alex Steen’s retirement, Pierre LeBrun (The Athletic) is among those who think the Blues are a contender for free-agent forward Mike Hoffman. Another compelling free-agent, center Mikael Granlund, 28, could be in the picture as well. Hoffman, 31, has averaged 28 goals over his last six seasons — and averaged 32.5 goals in two seasons with his most recent team, Florida. Granlund, a center, had 17 goals in 63 games with Nashville last season. Andy Strickland (KFNS, Fox Sports Midwest) tweets “Interest in Mike Hoffman and Mikael Granlund picking up. Some teams, including those who should be considered contenders, are only in position to offer one year.”
I sort through piles of NFL notes so you don’t have to: According to BetOnline, the KC Chiefs (9-5) and GB Packers (7-1) are the two favorites to win the Super Bowl … yeah, you could say that not having Tom Brady has slowed the New England offense this season. Brady has 32 TD passes in his first season at Tampa Bay; Cam Newton has five touchdown throws (and 10 INTs) as Brady’s successor in New England. Result: Brady’s Buccaneers (9-5) just locked in their first playoff spot in 13 years, and the Patriots (6-8) have failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. If Bill Belichick doesn’t miss Brady, well, he should. “It’s hard to sustain winning ways in this league. Unfortunately, all good things come to end,” Patriots’ special-teams ace Matthew Slater said after Sunday’s fate-sealing loss at Miami … Chicago has won two straight to move to 7-7, and no one is blasting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He was a bust, right? Not so fast. In six of Trubisky’s seven starts this season the Bears scored 24 or more points. In the seven games started by Nick Foles, the Bears averaged 16.7 points and never scored more than 23 in a game. In his last four starts Trubisky has eight TDs and three INTs and a passer rating of 99.7. Head coach Matt Nagy finally figured it out: Trubisky won’t be an effective QB unless the Bears can run the football; in the last four games they’ve averaged 157 yards on the ground. The Bears scored 69 points during their current two-game win streak.
Make sure to set your DVRs to the MLB Network this Saturday (the 26th) at 7 p.m. central time for “Icons Lost,” an in-depth look at the passing of six all-time greats in the year 2020: Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Al Kaline and Whitey Ford. The latest MLB Network special will feature testimonials from Tim McCarver, Joe Torre and Bob Costas (among others.)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU: Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton is 76. He was a very good pitcher for the Cardinals from 1965 through 1971, making two NL All-Star teams and going 77-62 with a 3.10 ERA. But after being traded to Philadelphia for pitcher Rick Wise in an abrupt ending to a salary dispute, Carlton became a legendary starter for the Phillies — winning four Cy Young awards in 15 seasons. Carlton ranks 11th in MLB history with 319 career wins and is fourth with 4,136 strikeouts … Lonnie Smith is 65 today. The outfielder spent three-plus seasons with the Cardinals until a trade moved him to Kansas City in May, 1985. Smith helped the Cardinals win the 1982 World Series by batting .321 with a .536 slugging percentage in the seven-game triumph over Milwaukee. The player nicknamed “Skates” batted .307 with 69 steals and a league-leading 120 runs scored for the ‘82 Cards.
Yes, I’m still sorting through more NFL notes to save you the trouble: In Philadelphia, benched starting quarterback Carson Wentz has reportedly said he doesn’t want to be a backup. Yeah, well, get over it pal. Despite his early fumbles, which can be fixed, rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts has impressed in his first two starts. He isn’t going anywhere; Hurts is the starter. Period. Wentz has lost confidence after too many interceptions, fumbles and losses. His body language is terrible. Hurts has energized the Iggles. As NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said on Sunday night: “This is a different team with Hurts at quarterback. They play with a lot more passion,” … with Sunday’s win at New Orleans the Chiefs finished the road portion of their schedule at 8-0 … they’re 22-1 in their last 23 games (home, away and playoffs) … KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes is now 9-0 in his career vs. defenses that rank in the league’s top five in fewest points allowed … former Belichick assistants have flopped as NFL head coaches, but Brian Flores is changing that in his second season as HC of the Miami Dolphins. Taking over a rebuild, Flores went 5-11 in his first year closed with two straight wins. That means the Dolphins are 11-5 in their last 16 games including 9-5 this season. A year ago the Dolphins upset the Patriots in New England to knock the Patriots out of a first-round bye heading into the playoffs. This season, the Dolphins killed the Patriots’ fading playoff chances and eliminated them with Sunday’s 22-12 win in Miami.
I’m not buying this premise. You know: the Cardinals will lower the payroll for 2021, in part, to save up and spend big next winter when an impressive collection of talent is eligible to enter the free-agent market. The big names (potentially) include Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, Cubs shortstop Javy Baez, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and free-agent pitchers Max Scherzer (Nationals), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Justin Verlander (Astros), and Noah Syndergaard (Mets.) Some of these names will never make it to free agency; Arenado may decline to opt out of his massive contract following 2021. Kershaw will likely work out a contract extension and retire as a Dodger. And injuries are a factor, more will be known about Verlander, 38, when he tries to return from Tommy John elbow surgery at some point in 2021. And Syndergaard is also rehabbing after elbow surgery. But the Cardinals haven’t thrown down large money for an on-the-market free agent since giving Matt Holliday a seven-year, $120 million deal before the 2010 season. The Cards did offer big money to pitcher David Price and outfielder Jason Heyward but lost out to the Red Sox and Cubs (respectively) in the bidding. They tried to recruit Giancarlo Stanton when the Marlins put him on the market, but Stanton declined to waive his no-trade clause. In all three cases, the Cardinals were fortunate to avoid getting stuck with massive and disappointing contracts. As for next winter, I’m intrigued but skeptical. I think the Cardinals will be more aggressive … but going all-in? And I know that they’ll have $60 million coming off the payroll (at least) for 2022. But I’m still skeptical.
I’m still sorting through NFL notes and doing it for you: After losing three of four and looking lethargic on offense, the Seattle Seahawks have perked up for wins in four of their last four games, including two in a row as they prepare to host the LA Rams. The difference? The offensive line has tightened up its pass protection; Russell Wilson hasn’t been sacked in his last two games. Believe it or not, that had never happened before — going two straight without being sacked — in Wilson’s nine NFL seasons. The Seattle defense has allowed an average of only 14.6 points in the last five games, and the Seahawks (10-4) have grabbed the NFC West lead away from the Rams (9-5) … speaking of the Rams, you probably noticed that they managed to lose to the 0-13 NY Jets on Sunday. Rams head coach Sean McVay called it “embarrassing,” … don’t look now but ancient but feisty Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers has led the way during the team’s 7-2 surge. At 10-4, the Colts have caught the Tennessee Titans (10-4) in the race for first place in the AFC South. In going 7-2, Rivers has completed 67 percent of his throws for 18 touchdowns and four INTS for a passer rating of 103.6. And the Colts have won four of those seven games by less than a touchdown. Rivers, 39, is in his 17th NFL season. And it looks Ol’ Man Rivers will be asked back for an 18th season, and his second at Indy.
THIS DAY IN STL PRO SPORTS HISTORY:
— In 1995 Anheuser-Busch agreed to sell the St. Louis Cardinals for $150 million to a local investment group that includes Bill DeWitt Jr. To say the least, this was a positive development. When DeWitt and partners purchased the franchise, the Cardinals were stuck in a streak of eight consecutive seasons without making the playoffs — and they had losing records in four of the eight years. In 25 seasons under DeWitt’s leadership the Cardinals have qualified for the playoffs 15 times, won two World Series, four NL pennants. The Cards also have the most postseason wins (69) by a National League team since 2000. Only the New York Yankees (80) have more postseason victories over that time. The DeWitt Cardinals have appeared in the NLCS 11 times overall, and they’ve competed in 10 NLCS during the past 21 years.
— In 1996 Blues golden-boy winger Brett Hull reached 500 goals in his NHL career and did in style with his 26th NHL career hat trick in a 7-4 win over the LA Kings. Hull and father Bobby Hull became the first and only father/son combo to each bag 500 career goals. The Hall of Famers combined for 1,351 career NHL goals: 741 by Brett, and 610 for Bobby. For what it’s worth Bobby Hull also scored 303 goals in seven World Hockey Association seasons for Winnipeg.
— In 2011, the Cardinals signed free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal for $26 million to help fill the void created when Albert Pujols signed a 10-year contract with the Angels. In two seasons (2012-13) for the Cardinals, Beltran averaged 28 homers, 90 RBIs and was 27 percent above the league average offensively. In 29 games over two postseasons as a Cardinal, Beltran batted .306 with a .571 slug, 982 OPS and 21 RBIs.
— Also: on this day in 2015 The Cardinals signed free-agent starting pitcher Mike Leake to a five-year deal worth $80 million. This didn’t go so well; Leake went 16-24 with a 4.46 ERA in less than two full seasons before the Cardinals traded him to Seattle in a salary-dump deal made late in the 2017 season … in 1980 the Cardinals released outfielder Bobby Bonds, who batted only .203 with a .621 OPS in his one season in St. Louis.
AS OTHERS SEE US:
ESPN hockey columnist Emily Kaplan looked at each NHL team’s “Best” and “Worst” player contracts, Here’s what Kaplan had to say about the Blues:
Best: defenseman Colton Parayko, 27. He’s on a five-year, $27.5 million contract at an annual average salary of $5.5 million that expires after the 2021-2022 season. “The Blues parted ways with captain Alex Pietrangelo this offseason, leaving Parayko as the team’s new No. 1 defenseman,” Kaplan wrote. “St. Louis is getting incredible value on this stage of Parayko’s contract, a five-year, $27.5 million deal that he inked in 2017 coming off his entry-level contract. Parayko seems to get better each season, playing a career-high 23 minutes per game in 2019-20.”
As for the worst? Kaplan cited defenseman Justin Faulk, 28, who received a seven-year, $45.5 million not-trade deal as part of the Carolina-STL trade before the start of the 2019-2020 season. The contract kicks in this year, and Faulk is due an average of $6.5 million annually through 2026-2027. “Faulk’s first season in St. Louis wasn’t smooth,” Kaplan wrote. “Typically a consistent offensive contributor, he recorded only 16 points in 69 games while not looking totally dominant defensively. What’s more, Faulk’s extension essentially made it impossible for Pietrangelo to re-sign with St. Louis, and things ended in a messy divorce between the longtime captain and the club.”
Thanks for reading The Bernie Bits … my labor of love for you…
You can catch Bernie’s talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. Or hear it via podcast at 590TheFan.com