NEW YORK — By this time nobody has to tell the Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred, his game is in trouble, although you could hardly tell some 15 miles away from his Manhattan office where, at Citi Field, the Mets have been playing some very entertaining baseball of late — with real starting pitchers and in front of real crowds of 30,000-plus.
The Mets’ plus 110,000 (and counting) over 2018 notwithstanding, the overall MLB attendance figures as we head into September are grim. For the fourth straight year, MLB attendance will be down (already over one million), with 14 teams experiencing declines from last year. Of those, there are the usual suspects, Miami, Cleveland and Toronto, but what has to be most alarming for Manfred are the declines being experienced by four of the best teams in baseball — the Yankees (171,000), Astros (94,000), Cubs (59,000) and Nationals (241,000).
In the Yankees’ case, most of that decline can be attributed to early in the year. They’re still packing them in 40,000 a game, more than any other team except the Dodgers, and have reported 11 sellouts, but between the tanking Blue Jays and dreadful Orioles — and even the Red Sox’s fall from the heights — there have been few compelling games in the AL East. Players Union chief Tony Clark touched on that a couple of months ago when he said: “A lot of (the attendance decline) comes down to competition. Fans want to know teams are doing everything they can to compete for a championship every year. I see every empty seat as a missed opportunity.”
If nothing else, it’s symptomatic of the whole industry. There’s no getting around that every year now, fewer and fewer fans are going to baseball games. Back in May, Manfred, while expressing his concern, placed much of the blame on the secondary ticket market cutting into season ticket sales.
Trust us, Mr. Commissioner, the problem is much more deep-rooted for these reasons:
1) There are just not enough really good teams in baseball and there are too many bad (tanking) teams, which has resulted in only two genuine pennant races up ’til now — the AL and NL Central. We’ll see what happens in the NL East, but, for the most part, the other division races have been foregone conclusions since early July. Actually, the most exciting race in baseball right now is the NL wild card between the Nationals, Phillies and Mets. It’s no secret why the Phillies are enjoying the biggest attendance increase in baseball (483,000) after team owner John Middleton spent $473 million to improve the team last winter on Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura & Co. But the Nationals’ decline of over 240,000 is troubling, especially since, in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, they have two natural gate attraction starting pitchers.
2) Once the most exciting element of baseball, the home run has actually become boring, sucking all the action out of the game as it has. According to the Elias Bureau, home runs have accounted for 45.4% of the game’s runs this year, which is a record. A point of comparison: Home runs accounted for an average of roughly 36% of runs from 1999-2014. From there, the percentage began to shoot up dramatically, not coincidental to the analytics emphasis on upper cut swings, launch angles and exit velo. Once again, home runs and strikeouts are on pace to set new highs this year — in both cases by a long shot — and baseball is also on pace to have more strikeouts than hits for the second straight year. Of course, a major factor in the home run explosion, at least this year, is the balls themselves. At the All-Star Game in Cleveland, Manfred insisted the baseballs were not juiced, but admitted he had no explanation for the findings of a committee of professors in 2018 — who specialized in physics and mathematics — that said the balls had less “drag.” But considering baseball owns the Rawlings Co. which manufactures the baseballs, no explanation is unacceptable. Clearly something happened here with the manufacturing process and MLB and Rawlings had better find out what and get it corrected. The games have become a joke.
3) The emasculation of starting pitchers has led to longer, more boring games and the disappearance of compelling matchups (think: Tom Seaver vs. Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax vs. Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez vs. David Cone, Greg Maddux vs. Curt Schilling) that were almost guaranteed to put an extra 10,000 in the seats. Nowadays, even when you do get a rare matchup of aces, what’s the point when you know neither one of them will be around much after six innings with both likely to end up with no-decisions? Presently, starting pitchers’ innings-per-start percentage is at 5.3 — the lowest ever for the third straight year — and it’s going to continue to go even lower, inevitably dropping below 5.0 as more and more teams, in the absence of quality starting pitchers, resort to “openers” to get them through the games.
“This, to me, is maybe the biggest problem we face in baseball today,” said a prominent former GM who asked for anonymity because he still works in the game. “We have to get back to developing starting pitching, and by that I mean, starting pitchers that go deep into games. The analytics have totally discouraged this with the over-emphasis on velocity and match-ups. It starts in the minor leagues, where we put them on pitch counts the moment we sign them. They’re never allowed to learn how to pitch out of trouble and they don’t develop their secondary pitches. Too often today, we sign these kids who throw hard and after a couple of years convert them into relievers to take advantage of their velocity. In my opinion, we should go back to four-man rotations in the minor leagues and give these kids more innings, not less.”
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