Summer means baseball. But the national pastime has been slowly losing fans over the last decade or so. It’s evident in Little League, where recruiting enough players to form a network now often involves several towns instead of just one. It’s evident at Major League games, where stadium seats sit empty most of the season.
Some say the game doesn’t have enough action to hold the interest of modern sports fans. Baseball aficionados disagree, but even so, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is watching the stats—in the stands and on the field. To make matters worse, the start of the 2018 season carried a whiff of offense for the first full month. What was it? The sound of a swing and a miss, and a swing and a miss, and a swing and a miss.
Majors-level baseball may be suffering from too many really good pitchers—resulting in too many strikeouts at the plate—resulting in bored fans in the stands. At the end of April, attendance was down 9.1 percent from the previous year.
When you say, “Take me out to the ball game,” do you want to see a game of long balls—or a game of long walks back to the dugout? That depends on who you’re pulling for, obviously. But how many strike-outs is too many to keep a game alive? And for a career-minded player, is the risk of a strikeout worth passing over a solid base hit to try for that out-of-the-park home run?
Batters today are aware that the camera is always on them. They may hold out for the homer instead of focusing on a team-building on-base hit. The glory of running the bases solo to the crowd’s ovation is tempting. (See God’s opinion of vainglory in Proverbs 25:27 and John 12:43.) But it may exceed the love of the game—which was built on advancing one another with well-placed line drives, bunts, or even sacrifice flies. The goal was moving someone from base to base, sometimes just one humble bag at a time.
For the month of April, strikeouts in MLB exceeded hits for the first time in the entire history of the sport—nearly 150 years! There were 6,656 strikeouts and 6,360 hits in April. The previous low hit-to-strikeout differential was in April 2017. There were only 138 more hits than strikeouts then, but the scale had not yet tipped.
Commissioner Manfred is cautiously watching, hoping the pace picks up as the season progresses. “One month is a rather small sample and we are hoping that the phenomenon of strikeouts exceeding hits is an anomaly that will not persist,” he said in an email.
Home runs—the big crowd pleaser—have dipped slightly from last year’s record level early in the season, while strikeouts have achieved record-setting increases for each of the last 10 consecutive seasons. That suggests a trend toward stronger bullpens—but where are the sluggers to go head-to-head against the hurlers? Scouts and managers will have to find a balance if baseball is going to keep filling the seats and selling the Crackerjacks.
“Everyone wants more action,” says Hall of Famer and Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor. He adds that it’s rare for fans to want to “see pitchers go for 25 strikeouts.”
Colorado Rockies manager—and former MLB pitcher—Bud Black predicts a necessary scouting shift. “I think you will see in time a correction in amateur baseball where putting the ball in play will become more of a priority” than stocking up on heat-hurling southpaws for the pitcher’s mound.
History remembers the greats who connected with the ball. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio never struck out more than 39 times in any season. Already this year, dozens of big hitters have watched scores of strikes zip past them into catchers’ mitts and heard the dreaded, “Yerrrrrr OUT!” over their shoulders.
Former New York Yankees slugger and current Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly thinks players today learn to seek glory without feeling a cost for failure. “Maybe we’re accepting the strikeout now. We’re accepting it in high school and college and Little League,” says the player nicknamed “The Hit Man.” Mattingly’s strikeout high was only 43 in a season of 640 at-bats. “It’s really different from when I first came up. It was embarrassing to strike out.”