The game is still played with the pitchers’ mound 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, the bases 90 feet apart, three outs per half inning and nine innings in a regulation game.
Those are about the only constants resembling the game of baseball as we once knew it.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon is the latest to express his fury at the baseball gods, but he’s at a decided disadvantage as opposed to the rest of disgruntled baseball lifers across the nation.
He is required to sit and watch these games.
But as for the likes of Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage, all-time hit king Pete Rose, and former World Series champion manager Lou Piniella, they certainly have a choice.
They can change the channel.
“I can’t watch these games anymore,’’ Gossage said. “It’s not baseball. It’s unwatchable. A lot of the strategy of the game, the beauty of the game, it’s all gone.
“It’s like a video game now. It’s home run derby with their (expletive) launch angle every night.’’
And if the changes to the way the game is played – more home runs, shifts, strikeouts – weren’t startling enough, Major League Baseball is experimenting with new technology and drastic rule changes in the independent Atlantic League, namely using an automated system to call balls and strikes.
These trials in the Atlantic League are part of a larger shift in the game. A new era of analytical baseball, where everything is measured, quantified and optimized by raw, heartless numbers
There’s more knowledge and information than ever before, which is relished in the industry, but critics say it’s sucked the heart and soul out of the game.
“All anybody wants to do is launch the ball,’’ Piniella said. “They’re making the ballparks smaller, the balls tighter, and all we’re seeing is home runs.
“There are no hit-and-runs. No stolen bases. Nothing.
“I managed 3,400 games in the big leagues, and never once did I put on a full shift on anybody. Not once. And I think I won a few games without having to shift.’’
Said Rose, who produced 4,256 hits and struck out 100 times only once in 24 seasons: “It’s home run derby every night, and if that’s what they want, that’s what they’re going to get. But they have to understand something … Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. But attendance is down. I didn’t go to Harvard or one of those Ivy League schools, but that’s not a good thing.’’
League-wide attendance is down about 800,000 compared with the same point last year. The final 2018 attendance – 69.7 million – was MLB’s lowest figure since 2003.
It’s not just the bad teams, either. The first-place New York Yankees are on pace to see about 160,000 fewer fans walk through the gates compared to last year.
And you can’t blame the players; it’s the philosophies being taught all the way down to Little League these days.
“Just go to Twitter and search ‘hitting guru,’ ” Maddon told reporters last week, “and find out all these different people making money these days. They’re making it too complicated, and it’s really sad. I grew up as a hitting coach, and I taught hitting a certain way. And I still think it’s germane to the way you should hit today. …
“I’ve seen some of the videos that they’re selling online, that parents are paying for. Wow. They’re just promoting the strikeout. That’s all they’re doing.’’
For the 12th consecutive season, hitters are on pace to break the strikeout record with 42,607 – 1,400 more than last year.
This year, 36% of all plate appearances have resulted in a strikeout, homer, walk or hit-by-pitch.
“We’re seeing all kind of guys who can hit home runs,’’ Rose said, “but they can’t hit.’’
Of course, that dovetails with the record home run rate this season. Entering Sunday, the league was on pace for 6,823 homers, more than 700 above the record set in 2017.
“Most of the guys that go up to the plate just try to hit home runs.’’’ said Phillies hitting coach Charlie Manuel, 75, hired last week. The old school coach led the Phillies to a World Series as the manager in 2008 and was brought back in a desperate effort to shake things up and save the team’s season.
In the past two weeks, three rookies – Mike Yastrzemski of the Giants, Aristides Aquino of the Reds and Yordan Alvarez of the Astros – have hit three home runs in a game.
Never before had more than two rookies accomplished the feat in the same season.
Aquino set a big-league record with 11 home runs in his first 17 games.
Are we even supposed to get excited anymore?
And as the new generation of executives, scouts and coaches gains a foothold around the league, baseball experience – or lack thereof – has become a concern to those who have spent nearly their whole lives in the game.
“Where does experience factor in to teach these kids?” one high-ranking executive told USA TODAY Sports. “Why are we phasing those guys out? We’re not hiring guys with experience anymore, but guys who can read spreadsheets.’’
The executive spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his comments.
Said Gossage: “They got it so an [expletive] coming off the street who doesn’t even know what a damn baseball is can manage our sport. It’s like rotisserie baseball. These [expletives] won their rotisserie leagues at Harvard and all of those [expletive] schools and now they’re general [expletive] managers.”
Meanwhile, look around the other leagues. Is there a greater NBA coach today than 70-year-old Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs? Who’s better than 67-year-old Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots? Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, 72, continues to get it done. And of course, 67-year-old football coach Nick Saban keeps rolling at Alabama.
It doesn’t seem like anybody is trying to run those guys out.
“This is a game that sustained itself for over 100 years,’’ Gossage said, “and you don’t think those damn executives knew what the [bleep] they were doing?
“The knowledge you learned in this game was passing the torch. Well, there’s no one passing it anymore. You can’t pass it when they don’t want it.’’