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No runs, no hits, no action

May 17, 2014, 2:38 PM EDT

Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers

Baseball is often called a slow-moving game … but it does change fast. It barely seems like yesterday when people seemed convinced that all the long home runs and the shrinking strike zone and steroid-infused barrage of scoring was on the verge of ruining baseball. And now, nobody’s scoring runs and everybody’s striking out. The epidemics change. But there always seems to be an epidemic in baseball.

Friday night there were six shutouts in baseball. Six. In 1996, that was like a month’s worth. There have been 96 shutouts in baseball already this year and we’re barely a quarter way into the season. At this pace, there would be close to 400 shutouts in total. That would be a Major League record.

Most shutouts in a season:

2014: 376 (pace)

1915: 359

1972: 357

1914: 357

1968: 339

Now, obviously, there are many more teams now than there were in 1915 or 1972, so it’s not a fair comparison — it’s like comparing a running back’s 1,500 yard season in a 16-game schedule to, say, Jim Brown’s 1958 season, when he rushed for 1,527 yards in only 12 games. Still, shutouts are up even from last year, and last year teams threw 331 shutouts, the most in the four decades.

Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto has gone 10 consecutive starts now — going back to last season — where he has pitched at least seven innings and given up five hits or less, two runs or less. That’s the longest such streak in the last 100 years. Texas’ Martin Perez has already had a 29-inning scoreless streak; St. Lous’ Adam Wainwright had a 24-inning one. It’s early but there are 11 starters — ELEVEN– averaging 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings. Last year there were two. There have never been more than five.

On the other side, the Kansas City Royals are on pace to hit 65 homers this year … that would be the fewest for any team in almost 30 years (going back to the 1986 Cardinals). Perhaps even more shocking, the Texas Rangers — who have hit more home runs since 2000 than any team except the Yankees — are barely on pace to hit 100 homers this year. You have undoubtedly heard all of the strikeout talk — hitters are striking out more than ever before and, consequentially, hitting for a lower batting average than any season in 40 years.

Of course, it’s easy to get irrationally swayed by the first 40 games of a season. The hot weather has not yet arrived, and hot weather tends to bring offense. Also, let’s be honest, pitchers seem to be breaking down at an alarming rate; by the end of the year I might be pitching for the Braves. Offense would pick up then.

This week, I had someone in baseball offer an elegant theory about what’s happening in baseball. His theory goes something like this:

1. Pitchers are overthrowing like crazy because 100 mph fastballs are the way to the big leagues and stardom.

2. Hitters are striking out like crazy because they’re facing more 100 mph pitches than ever.

3. Pitchers are breaking down because arms — except the most freakish of arms — cannot sustain the tension of throwing 100 mph.*

This seems too simple to me, too pat, and it goes off premises that might not even be true (are pitchers breaking down more than ever or are we just recognizing and treating pitching injuries in a different way)? But it’s pretty clear that something is happening in baseball. And, to be honest, it is something that I don’t think is good for the game.

Well, wait: I’m not  bothered by the lack of scoring. Baseball goes in cycles — as mentioned, it was only a few years ago that people griped that there was too much scoring in baseball. Offense will come back around again, and pitching will come around after that, and offense will come around after that. The seasons turn.

I’m also not too bothered by the rash of strikeouts. Again: I think the game will adjust and self-correct. Strikeouts kept going up and up as hitters started swinging more and more for doubles and home runs — the strikeout spike strike began in 1994, exactly when offense took off.

Take a look:

1970: 5.75 Ks per game

1974: 5.01 Ks per game

1978: 4.77 Ks per game

1982: 5.04 Ks per game

1986: 5.87 Ks per game

1990: 5.67 Ks per game

1994: 6.18 Ks per game

1998: 6.56 Ks per game

2002: 6.47 Ks per game

2006: 6.52 Ks per game

2010: 7.06 Ks per game

2014: 7.85 Ks per game

See that? For 30 years or so, from 1963 to 1993, the strikeout rate stayed about the same — always less than six per game. But with the explosion in offense came a new way of hitting. Batters realized that a strike out wasn’t usually a more costly out than anything else, sometimes it was even a LESS costly out. Batters struck out 150 times a season and 200 times a season and it just didn’t matter because if you hit a lot of home runs and walked a lot you are still a very valuable hitter. Jim Thome and Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn and Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez and even Alex Rodriguez became the standard-bearers of a whole different philosophy of hitting.

As long as that was an effective way to score runs, batters would keep swinging for fences rather than contact. But we’re seeing more and more that it isn’t working. Home runs are down, walks are down, and without those two outcomes you are left with a lot of strikeouts and not a lot of offense. I think baseball will adjust and making contact will make a comeback in the game.

But there is something about the way baseball is being played now that is bothersome. It’s kind of hard to put into words but, generally speaking, I think baseball has lost its rhythm. Runs are way down … but games are taking longer to play than ever before. The point here is not to be the latest to yammer about how long baseball games take to play — a brisk, beautifully played three hour game is one of life’s great pleasures — but instead to yammer about how baseball seems have lost its cadence. The game is supposed to be leisurely, but these days it’s positively stagnant.

There are numbers that show this; according to Fangraphs “Pace” — which generally measures the number of seconds it takes for a pitcher to make a pitch — it took pitches 21.8 seconds per pitch in 2007. That is way, way too long. But this year the pace is a full second higher. Relievers tend to take longer than starters. High-level situations tend to take longer than low leverage situation. Hitters take forever between pitches — Troy Tulowitzki seems to be singlehandedly trying to make the game unwatchable: Pitchers facing Tulowitzki are averaging 27.6 seconds per pitch, a full five seconds above average. The game is  grinding to a halt.

But you don’t need numbers to see this. You can see if in every single game. Baseball — with batters constantly stepping out of the box, with pitchers taking sabaticals between pitches, with managers and pitching coaches calling every bleeping pitch and five relievers every game preparing for each pitch like it’s their Bar Mitzvah … is just a lot less fun to watch. When offense was dominating the game, the slow pace a little bit easer to take. Lots of runs were being scored. Every batter was dangerous. There was tension filling the empty spaces. Now, though, with pitching on top, the empty spaces are just that … empty spaces. Nothing used to make me happier than sitting in front of the television at night and just switching from game to game or, even better, settling in for a random Brewers-Padres or A’s-Blue Jays game.

Now? I find myself switching to the Golf Channel to get action. It’s come to that.

There’s always an interesting tug-of-war going on in professional sports. On the one hand, you have the interest of the team. They need to win. They need to win to keep fan interest high. They need to win to satisfy their bosses. They need to win for job security, for monetary reasons, for sense of themselves. And so, in general, they play the game to win and not for any other reason.

And then you have the interst of the fans. They need an interesting game. They need a game that feels fair and feels exciting and provides enough enjoyment and fun to make all the money and time and trouble spent seem worthwhile.

Those two interests often clash. Not always. Fans can enjoy watching their own team win ugly. But often the teams efforts to win creates a much less enjoyable game. In hockey a few years ago, teams — particularly the New Jersey Devils — began to use the neutral zone trap to limit scoring. It was very effective. It also made hockey almost unwatchable. From what I understand the NHL made some subtle changes (they called penalties like interference more often) and not-subtle changes (they lifted the ban on the two-line pass) to make the game more fun for the fans. And it is more fun now.

Pat Riley began a similar trend in the NBA when he got his New York Knicks to play a bruising, ponderous style. It sort of worked — the Knicks won 50-plus games ever year under Riley — but it was impossibly boring basketball for everyone but Knicks fans. And scoring went way down and down and down in the NBA. Again the league stepped in with a few small rules changes and by calling the game bit more tightly which took away some of the advantages of that grueling style.

I’m not saying baseball needs to change rules to make the games move at a better pace. In fact, I know they don’t. There’s one on the books already that would do the job. In fact, there are two.

Major League Baseball Rule 8.04

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call Ball. The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

The intent of the rule is to avoid unnecessary delays. The umpire shal insist that the catcher return the ball promptly to the pitcher, and the pitcher take his position on the rummber promptly. Obvious delay by the pitcher should instantly be penalized by the umpire. Get that? TWELVE seconds.

And, the other rule:

Major League Baseball Rule 6:02

The batter shall take his position in the batters box promptly when it is his time at bat. (b) The batter shall not leave his position in the batters box after the pitcher comes to the Set Position or srarts his windup.

(1) The batters shall keep at least one foot in the batters box throughout the batters time at bat, unless of the following exceptions applies:

(i) The batter swings at a pitch;

(ii) The batter is forced out of the batters box by a pitch;

(iii) A member of either team requests and is granted Time;

(iv) A defensive player attempts a play on a runner at any base;

(v) The batter feints a bunt

(vi) A wild pitch or passed ball occurs

(vii) The pitchers leaves the dirt area of the pitching mound after receiving the ball; or

(viii) The catcher leaves the catcher’s box to give defensive signals.

If the batter intentionally leaves the batters box and delays play, and none of the exceptions listed in Rule 6.02 applies the umpire shall award a strike without the pitcher having to deliver a pitch. The umpire shall award additional strikes without the pitcher having to deliver the pitch if the batter remains outside the batters box and further delays play.

That 6:02 rule is long and dreary — I only included part of it — but the point is clear. Batters are supposed to stay in the box. Pitchers are supposed to pitch quickly. That is in the rulebook because baseball people could see, long ago, that players will have a natural tendency to slow down the game. The pitcher wants the hitter to wait. The hitter wants the pitcher to wait. The pitcher wants to deeply consider what the next pitch should be. The hitter wants to get himself into a zen state of mind. If they could play baseball by post, they would.

But it’s a spectator sport, and so they put in these rules to make sure that the players did not ruin the rhythm of baseball. And then, they ignored the rules and let the players ruin the rhythm of baseball.

By rules already on the books, each pitch should probably be delivered 10 seconds faster. Games, by rule, should be taking 45 or 50 less minutes without losing one bit of action. I have a weird theory that probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone else that some of the arm problems of pitchers relates to the painfully slow pace of play. Pitchers load up for every pitch like it is 2-and-2 to Harvey Kuenn with a perfect game on the line. I think throwing 100 pitches today, with all that delay time between and with each pitch analyzed and scrutinized and disected, is a whole lot different from 1975, when pitchers would just bleeping get the ball and pitch it.

Then again, that theory might just be me wanting to believe that if they sped up the baseball so that flowed again every single problem would disappear — in and out of baseball. I know that’s not true. But I do believe that a brisker game would be so much more fun to watch. The lack of runs doesn’t bother me. I’ll take a 2-1 baseball game any day — but not if it’s a three and a half hour 2-1 baseball game where I spend most of the evening watching major league baseball players do absolutely nothing.

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