In an era that seems dominated and obsessed by technology and analytics, there is evidence to suggest baseball has become a victim of one and captive of the other. And at the very least, there is an indirect connection between the two.
Given what the NFL went through during the most recent playoffs, baseball is hardly the lone ranger when it comes to the technology issue. But the reality of the matter is that technology is so good that it's having a major impact, not only on the pace of play but also on the game itself.
Replay has become the bane of all sports -- college basketball in particular has become almost unwatchable with the incessant amount of reviews -- basically because the technology has become too good for its own good. The idea in baseball is to avoid obvious mistakes that could alter the outcome of the game, not to review every bang-bang play, which the spacing of the game provides so beautifully many times during the course of a nine-inning game.
The game shouldn't have to stop because a camera is sophisticated enough to catch the act of a finger or a foot losing contact with a base for the amount of time it takes to blink an eye. If it takes longer than 15 seconds to determine the outcome, the evidence isn't irrefutable, so why should it be challengeable?
The system would be better served if baseball reverted to its old rules, banning access to information provided by electronic equipment. In other words, do away with the "replay coach" and require all challenges to be made the same way they are on the field -- with the naked eye, not a slow-motion replay.
Cameras have become an important tool when it comes to strategy and correcting obvious mistakes, but when they take away the human element the game loses an integral factor. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made no secret of the fact that pace of play and length of game are the two most vital items on his bucket list, so here's a suggestion free of charge: eliminate any electronic assistance in challenging calls on the field, forcing teams to make their challenges the same way umpires make the calls, based on what they see.
One positive thing the replay system has done is eliminate those long, drawn-out protests on the field, many of which were followed by somebody's ejection, which only complicated matters. Remember all those arguments Earl Weaver didn't win? Well, believe me, he was wrong well more than half the time, and 75 percent might even be a low number.
But the real problem now is we can come up with video evidence to show when a mistake was made. That is all well and good, but why not make the challengers lodge their protests the same way they are made on the field -- in real time. In other words, if it's too close to call, it's too close to challenge and let's just play ball.
So, you wonder, what does that have to do with analytics? And the answer, of course, is nothing. But that's not to say that cameras aren't involved, because in fact they seem to be involved with just about everything in baseball these days.
Years ago law enforcement officials discovered they could count the freckles on your face with a camera capturing the speed of your car -- running at 60 mph. It's taken a while, but baseball most definitely has caught up with that kind of technology, with cameras that can reveal the number of times a baseball spins from a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches while traveling 80-100 mph.
And, of course, it's the use of cameras that record the direction of every ball that comes off a bat, which of course dictates the defensive strategy, which eventually led all 30 major league teams to use the dreaded shift, which in turn has led to a disproportionate number of home runs and strikeouts. The frustration of not being able to hit the ball through defenses that are aligned to a player's individual past performances has led hitters to attempt to compensate by going over the shift.
Which, of course, has led hitters to adopt launch angles of varying degrees, which in turn has led to an alarming increase in strikeouts (baseball had more strikeouts than hits last year). In years past, a pitcher giving up a home run would explain that he "just got one up a little," but now, with the advent of hitters using uppercut swings, analytics suggest the best way to a strikeout, and success, is to throw to the upper portion of the strike zone, a theory unheard of as recently as 10 years ago.
The shift has had such a dramatic effect on the game that there are many, mostly left-handed hitters, who would like to see it outlawed. And many of those running the game tend to agree -- and that's not even the most alarming possibility.
Some of the other suggestions to "fix" the game's lagging offensive numbers include lowering the mound (again) from its current 10-inch height -- and even a more dramatic thought of moving the pitcher's mound back from its longtime traditional 60 feet, 6 inches.
Technology is a wonderful thing, but if discussions about tweaking the game's dimensions get serious, it might be time to wonder if too good isn't too much.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 252: March 2019
Originally published March 15, 2019