How to reclaim strategy and tactics in the big leagues

Baseball is in the doldrums, and the powers that be have no real clue why.  Thinking the game slow, they came up with the wave-him-to-first walk.  They limit the number of visits to the mound and time the visits.  Batboys are required to have two bats ready for every hitter in case one breaks his bat on a foul ball.

Thinking the game boring, they sought to induce excitement with more scoring.  This particular part of the war on boring goes back 50 years, to the unbelievable 1968 season, when Bob Gibson's ERA was 1.12 and Denny McClain won 31 games.  The mound came down.  Fences came in.  Bat handles got skinnier.  Designated hitters came into being, at least in the American League.

For a while, things seemed better.  For a couple of decades, players improved themselves by hard work in the gym, making themselves more fit, hence better athletes, hence better baseball players.  Then came PEDs.  Home run races thrilled fans for awhile, but revulsion with PEDs resulted in a backlash.  It's been pretty much downhill ever since.

This season, for the first time ever, fans saw more strikeouts than hits.  Talk about boring.  And hitters seem to go into prolonged slumps.  Baltimore's Chris Davis just finished the worst hitting season in MLB history at .168.  His is perhaps the most egregious case, but it's far from the only one.  None of the diddling with rules or messing with biology has improved the product.

I suggest they've been going about it the wrong way.

In my youth, in the sixties, there were still star players who didn't try to hit homers.  Rod Carew, Nellie Fox, Harvey Kuenn, Eddie Yost, Maury Wills – guys who beat you in other ways by getting on, stealing a base, and coming home on a suicide squeeze.  Yost specialized in walking.  Wills gave us back the art of the stolen base.  Along with bunting, Carew specialized in stealing home.

Few things compare for excitement to the stolen base.  With today's cameras, we get to see just how bang-bang so many plays are in the big leagues.  We get to see the athleticism of the players avoiding a tag in mid-slide, the quickness of the baseman catching the ball and applying the tag, the positioning of the umpire so he can best see what's going on.  Even then, as the cameras show, he often doesn't get it right.  That's just how close these plays can be and how incredibly skilled these players are.

Both students of the game and more visceral fans thoroughly appreciate that kind of heady, athletic play, and it has all but disappeared as managers go to station-to-station play and hitters to the knob for the long ball.  Choking up for the single is seldom seen anymore.

It all, I submit, has to do with the strike zone.  The shrunken strike zone hurts baseball.

Back in the day, the strike zone was shoulders to knees.  Then it became letters to top of knees.  Today, as we see by the superimposed box that the networks obligingly put there to help us gripe about umpires, the strike zone is belt to top of knees. That puts it right where most hitters' power is.  There aren't many with the shoulder strength to hit one out of the park on a high fastball.  Most can't even get around on a high fastball.  That used to be the power pitcher's main weapon.

But they took it away.

If you've ever swung a bat at a thrown ball, the urge to hit it as far as you can is well nigh irresistible.  When you don't have to worry about pitches at the letters being called strikes, you're free to swing hard at pitches in the power zone.  Players once knew they'd just strike out if they didn't protect the plate, so they shortened up on the bat and tried to "hit 'em where they ain't."  That was Wee Willie Keeler's formulation and Rod Carew's career.

To be sure, a handful of really smart players still hit that way.  Tony Gwynn was one of the last true students of the art of hitting.  Home runs by Gwynn were almost accidents; the story was told of him being mad at himself for hitting a walk-off homer because that wasn't what he had been trying to do.  After the game, he went to a batting cage and worked for hours to get his swing the way he wanted it.  Wade Boggs was another such hitter.

Swinging from the heels yields strikeouts, and strikeouts prolong the game.  It takes a minimum of three pitches to get somebody out on strikes.  Most hitters foul off one or two, and most pitchers throw a ball or two.  Posit one two-strike foul and one ball per at-bat, and it's five pitches per hitter.  Not only does he then usually strike out, but nothing else is going on.  It's the pitcher and the hitter.  Everybody else yawns in place.

Putting the strike zone back to letter to knees motivates hitters to choke up and poke rather than swing for the fences.  They have a better chance of putting the ball in play.  The true sluggers keep on swinging for the fences, but big-leaguers are paid to hit, not to strike out, and most hitters would settle for singles over long outs.  Or strikeouts.

Something else would also drastically reduce strikeouts: move the fences out so that only real sluggers could reach those distances regularly.  That would also add more triples and inside-the-park home runs with close plays at third and home.  Players would have to shorten swings, choke up on the bat, and seek holes in the defense again.  Despite analytics, maybe even with their help, baseball could return to strategy and tactics and get away from nuclear bombs.

And the games would be interesting again.

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