Take Us Out Of The Bore Game?

It’s major league baseball’s opening day, and I couldn’t be more excited,  Appropriately, one of the first two games of a rare opening day where all 30 teams are scheduled will be at Yankee Stadium, whose original iteration  across the Bronx’s River Avenue first opened 100 years ago.  The teams that will play, the Giants and Yankees, once shared the Polo Grounds, two of three teams that played in New York–in a sport whose footprint extended no farther west nor South than St. Louis.  Leading the Yankees’ offense today will be their new captain, and $40M a year earner, Aaron Judge, who last year broke the American League–and team–records respectfully set by Roger Maris and, before that, Babe Ruth.

Indeed, the existence of Yankee Stadium is homage to the impact Ruth made on the game.  It was called “The House That Ruth Built”, as the Yankee star who owned the sport and American culture  had shattered the all-time home run record when he was acquired by the Yankees three years earlier.  In his last year with the Red Sox, Ruth had already broken the sport’s record with 29.  Two years later, he more than doubled it.  And Ruth’s mercurial rise was concurrent with the rolling out of radio, and radio’s popularity was driven largely by its coverage, especially in New York, where the Giants and Yankees were two of three teams–19% of ALL teams, in a footprint that at the time extended no farther South nor West than St. Louis.  My grandfathers would talk excitedly of that era, and my dad was a passionate Brooklyn Dodger fan during an era where all three New York teams were successful.  That success, in a New York-centered media world, helped drive television itself.  Games were initially covered on NBC, which owned RCA, which sold television sets.  You could walk almost anywhere in a city and see TVs in storefront windows, which during big events like the World Series were always tuned to the game, which always took place in the afternoon.  Milton Berle may have been credited with more sales of sets, but, believe me, many of those purchases occurred in stores where baseball games were the catnip on the screen.

I am exceptionally passionate about the game because I am of an age where the sport seemed more engaging and exciting, and when it was arguably more important to sports fans in general.  My nephew was born in the 21st century and started out a baseball fan, I dare say with some of my urging.  But he’s an internet-era guy who quickly lost interest as he matured, and I know he’s far more excited about the impending NBA playoffs than he is opening day,  When he confessed his indifference to me, he shrugged his shoulders and said “It’s just too damn boring”.  And, apparently, he’s not alone.

Data that was compiled several yeara ago by Sports Business Journal underscores these generational diffeences starkly.  At the time, MLB TV viewing had a median age of 57, a full 15 years older  than the NBA and seven years older than the NFL, which has a much larger audience.  It hasn’t gotten much better.  And media may indeed have played a role in this.  When the World Series was cancelled in 1994, there was a desperation among owners to find a way to get people back to caring.  Cal Ripken, Jr,’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak helped out, but the next year also saw a new, upstart network, FOX, take over as the game’s national broadcast network.   Home runs worked for radio, so the assumption was they’d be great for TV.  FOX was instrumental in hyping and covering the pursuit of Ruth and Maris’ all-time records during the summer of 1998, where Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, representing two storied National League heartland teams, engaged in a two-pronged assault not seen since the days of Maris and Mickey Mantle.  FOX loved baseball so much, they actually bought their own team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  25 summers ago, the very same year that the Sosa-McGwire chase occurred, FOX traded the Dodgers’ star young catcher, Mike Piazza, away in a contract dispute, at the time to the then World Champion Florida Marlins.   Three years larer, McGwire’s record was shattered by the controversial but captivating Barry Bonds, with FOX reaping the benefits of that pursuit.  Ratings are a quantitative business, as we know.

But as baseball fans now know, all of that proved to be a sham.  Steroids were proven to be the driver behind those record-breaking season.  Piazza’s trade was to the then-champion Florida Marlins was later revealed to be an opportunistic media play for ownership rights to the Marlins’ cable network at a time when its ownership was dumping its assets, and ultimately the players that won that unlikely title.  A generation of players grew up home run obsessed, eventually producing a game where “true outcome” results increased.  In an insightful piece published a few years back by Russee Fassom of Bat Flips and Nerds opening day, the rise of the combination of home runs, walks and strikeouts as the end result of plays was documented to be on a disturbing upward climb:

The amount of plays in a game involving the 7 infielders and outfielders is decreasing as has been for a long time.

The phrase “three true outcomes” was coined in 2000 by Rany Jazayerli. “Together, the Three True Outcomes distill the game to its essence,” he wrote, “the battle of pitcher against hitter, free from the distractions of the defense, the distortion of foot speed or the corruption of managerial tactics like the bunt and his wicked brother, the hit-and-run.”

It covers home runs, walks and strikeouts, some of the best early analysis of defensive independent pitching focused on these. They are the only outcomes which the pitcher has full control of. Any thing which lands in the park is dependant on lots of other factors from the defenders and batters. So a true outcome at bat requires no one but the pitcher, the batter and the catcher (if we ignore pickoffs and stealing).

The graph below shows the steady increase over time of the the true outcome in MLB, from 1910 till now, but it has increased even more steeply over the last few years.  The increases in the true outcome percentage for 2016 and 2017 were more than 1% than the previous years which has only happened in row once before in ‘92 and ‘93. Behind this is the fact that home runs, walks and strikeouts in up over the last few years.

Watching a game that involves a growing number of results where no action occurred is, pure and simple, boring.  Even as an engaged fan, I’d fall asleep at stadiums on hot days or nights watching this paint-dry pace.  And on many more nights and days even watching at home.  Imagine how someone of my nephew’s vintage would feel about that.  Imagine how upset those in media–still led by FOX–feel about that, not to mention the age of its audience.

So on this opening day, MLB will unveil a series of sweeping ruie changes specifically designed to find ways to get folks like my enephew back.  There is a pitch clock that will mandate no more than 30 seconds transpire betwen each pitch, limit the number of pickoff attempts, and penalize infractions by either the pitcher or the batter.  Infield shifts designed to limit the potential of batted balls being put in play are no more.  Bases are slightly larger, with the temptation of the stolen base now enhanced.  These were rules that were implemented in the minor leagues with some success, and in spring training the results mirrored those seen there.  The average length of a game was more than 20 minutes less than the average in 2022.   All of this comes on the heels of the controversial continuing of the extra-innings “ghost runner” rule, initially implemented as a COVID precaution during the fanless 2020 sprint, that reduced the number of games going more than 13 innings by almost two-thirds versus the last pre-covid year.  And yes, media is a catalyst there as well.  Media likes games that unfold in a shorter span of time, with less disruption to overall schedules.

And all of this comes at a time when the way to see those games are in flux.  As we’ve covered, the bankruptcy of Diamond Sports, the Sinclair-backed entity that owns the RSN rights to just about half of the sports’ teams, as well as the financial woes of Warner Brothers Discovery, which control wholly or in part the rights of four others, is opening up avenues of opportunity for the sport to take more control of where and how it is viewed.  As the New York Post’s Jared Schwartz reported yesterday, both in venue and look there is sweeping change ahead for that as well as the way it is being played:

Already, Diamond has missed payments to two teams, the Diamondbacks and Padres, per ESPN, triggering a contractual grace period, and is expected to start forfeiting rights to some of its teams’ broadcasts as it attempts to stay afloat.

MLB execs are ready to pounce on that potential opening — one that would help speed the transition to steaming — and don’t see many barrier to success.

“The pure infrastructure is relatively turnkey,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s Chief Operations and Strategy Officer, told Post Sports+ from the league’s New York City offices as it introduced its new technology innovations for fans for the 2023 season. “The back-end technology that we need to deliver games to a consumer is technology we’ve had for decades, and we upgrade and improve every single year. It’s just a matter of capacity.

“I think there’s a separate question of: If we all of a sudden have a lot of local fans coming into our products and looking for content, they’re gonna want to see more around their local team, their favorite team, so we’d lean into that even more than what we’re already doing, creating access for fans to access their favorite or local team. The question is really more around presentation and delivery than the actual infrastructure components.”

Marinek has data to support what he perceives as opportunity for fans closer to my nephew’s age to be influenced.  As Anthony Castrovince of MLB. com reported last fall, digital consumption and engagement is growing:

The average age of subscribers to MLB.TV has decreased from 48 to 44 since 2018, with subscription numbers growing between 8-10 percent, year over year.

• The age range of 13-34 accounts for 95 percent of the audience for MLB Originals, which is consumed primarily through YouTube. And for Celebrity Sluggers, 79 percent of views came from viewers under the age of 35.   

• On YouTube, 46 percent of all MLB views came from viewers under the age of 35, compared to 35 percent of YouTube’s overall global viewership coming from viewers under the age of 35. Furthermore, 50 percent of MLB hours watched came from viewers under 35.

• Nearly half (47 percent) of the YouTube Game of the Week’s viewers are under the age of 35. Other games have been streamed for the first time this year on NBC’s Peacock and Apple TV+ to further reach the so-called “digital native” audience that has cut the cord.

And Marinak is bullish that impending evolution of the coverage itself will be embraced by that desired younger audience, as he related to Schwartz:

Eliminating some of the blocks that we’ve had around territories and delivering the consumer an integrated experience is a positive,” Marinak said. “The idea that you can go to one place and get access to your content, I think, is great for the fans. Whether that will happen, when that will happen, how that will happen, it’s just impossible to know what that looks like.“MLB wants to change the way the game is consumed.

For now, that effort revolves around its MLB Ballpark app, which will introduce new game-tracking features, such as a 3D rendering. With the help of high-frame-rate cameras newly installed in all 30 ballparks, users will be able to explore a model that recreates plays from a myriad of angles across the field.

In addition, fans will be able to use bat tracking, which illustrates where on the bat hitters made contact, as well as a plethora of stats in the augmented Gameday mode that provides users with bat speed and pitch-by-pitch information such as spin rate, break, velocity, and more.

For commissioner Rob Manfred, this is a crossroads.  He has been castigated by older baseball purists for these changes,  and is instrumental in the sport’s land grab opportunity to take back more direct control of its product.  Unlike his predecessor, Bud Selig, he’s a lawyer and businessman, not an owner.  Under Selig’s watch, the Hail Mary reaction, driven largely by media demand, eventually helped lose a great deal of my nephew’s generation.  Technology is at least providing some belief that there’s a chance to reverse that.

I know plenty of folks of my generation who don’t like Manfred much.  True baseball fans even younger aren’t embracing him much these days either.  I have to admit I despise the ghost runner rule; fo me, the more innings, the better.  Especially if I fall asleep, as there’s that much more of a chance I’ll catch the ending.  But I’m also aware enough of the reality of the challenge that Manfred faces.  So I’m grudgingly embracing these changes as necessary, and therefore you know damn well I’m gonna have baseball as my soundtrack as I did on my transistor radio decades ago this sumner, even if my phone is now what I have as my source.

And may I add to any young ‘un who Manfred is courting that all these bells, whistles and video advancements might attract–try switching the alternate feed of radio audio.  Baseball on the radio is how this all started, back in the first Roaring Twenties.  It’s how I consume it, and if there’s a time lapse, hell, multitask and listen.  You might be surprised how entertaining listening versus watching can be, particularly if there’s less down time.

I also know I’m a baseball evangelist.  So I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll listen in the way my grandfathers were hooked and I’ll eagerly look forward to how I pray my nephew’s eventual kids might someday look back upon.  I sure hope he might come back enough for me to talk about all of this with him.  For those of you with sons or daughters, or even nieces and nephews, and especially those of you with living parents, who can share the excitement of today:  Happy Opening Day.  It’s time once again to PLAY ball.

Until next time…


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