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Can Baseball Survive the Computer Age?

Can Baseball Survive the Computer Age?

America’s most conservative team sport is instituting significant changes in an effort to sustain its popular appeal.

Michael Mandelbaum

Evelyn Waugh, the dyspeptic, curmudgeonly, politically reactionary English novelist of the middle of the last century, once declared that he would no longer vote for the Conservative Party because, during its time in office, it had failed to set the clock back by a single second. By contrast, Americans, in many ways the most future-oriented of people, do have one way of recapturing the past: the game of baseball.

Played as it is in a pastoral setting composed of grass and dirt and,  unlike other team sports, historically disdaining the use of a clock, the game evokes the bygone age when most people lived on farms rather than cities. A latter-day Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep in, say, 1910 and awoke today would find most aspects of American life bewilderingly different but baseball reassuringly familiar. Indeed, the sport has explicitly rejected technological progress: a few Major League baseball teams adopted artificial turf for their playing fields but ultimately reverted to natural grass. Aluminum bats are in widespread use elsewhere but at the Major League level the teams employ only the original wood.

Yet in the 2023 season, which begins on March 30, Major League baseball will undergo its own version of a revolution. The games will include new rules that will change the way it is played.

Those charged with supervising baseball have made these changes in response to a growing problem. Over the last four decades, baseball has become slower: games take longer to complete than in the past and have come to have less and less of the action that appeals to spectators. At root, professional baseball, in which the players are paid and the owners seek profits, is a form of entertainment. Over the years it has become steadily less entertaining and less popular. A continuation of this trend would jeopardize its continued existence, at least as a prominent part of American life.

The impending changes thus demonstrate two features of modern society that are far broader than the sport itself: the recurrent need for individuals, organizations, and even entire countries to adapt in order to flourish in new circumstances; and, because of one particular cause of baseball’s declining popularity, the way that new technology can create the need for adaptation.

Baseball’s difficulties have more than one source: a leisurely pace is built into it, attention spans are evidently shorter now than in 1910, and other forms of entertainment, including other sports, now compete for that attention. Among the causes of its decline, however, is the advent of computers.

Baseball generates a large volume of data, involving the performances of pitchers, batters, and fielders. Computers have made possible the large-scale collection and sophisticated analysis of that data. The body of analysis that has emerged–known as sabermetrics, after the initials of the organization of baseball analysts, the Society of American Baseball Research–has shown that some of the conventional wisdom of the pre-computer age about how best to win baseball games was wrong. The new knowledge led to teams to introduce changes in strategy that, unintentionally, have made the game less entertaining.

Sabermetrics demonstrated that extra-base hits–doubles that place the batter on second base, triples that send him to third base, and home runs that record a run for his team–are more valuable than had been understood and singles, the most common hit, less valuable for the purpose of winning games. Consequently, batters began to gear the way they swing at pitches to maximize the chances of extra-base hits. Their adjustments, however, also increased the chances of missing the pitch entirely. Consequently, strikeouts, in which the batter returns to the bench without putting the ball in play, increased, which reduced the action–and thus the most entertaining part­–of the game. Sabermetrics also showed walks–four pitches outside the strike zone as the result of which the batter goes to first base–to have greater value than teams’ strategies had reflected. Batters thus increasingly aimed to earn more walks, which led to more pitches, which in turn prolonged games without adding any interesting or exciting action.

The new analysis also confirmed that pitchers tend to become less effective the longer they pitch in a game. Accordingly, teams began to use more and more pitchers per game, which also has lengthened the time the games take to play. In addition, for almost all of the sport’s history, teams deployed their fielders in a standard, more or less symmetrical way, with two on either side of second base. Computer analysis has provided precise assessments of where individual batters tend to hit the ball when they do make contact with it. In response to this information, in a tactic that became known as the “shift,” teams repositioned their defenders for each batter, often putting three fielders on the side to the field to which that batter usually hit the ball. This cut down on the number of safe hits, which, again, has diminished the action of the game. Here, too, applied science, the result of technological advance, has made baseball less entertaining.

Finally, sabermetrics showed that one of the most exciting parts of the game, the stolen base–in which a runner dashes from one base to the next while the pitcher delivers the ball, with the aim of arriving before the catcher’s throw reaches the fielder who can tag the runner out–does not contribute to winning games unless a very high percentage of base stealing attempts end in success. Consequently, the number of stolen base attempts has dropped sharply, further depleting baseball of exciting moments.

The three new rules that will begin this year represent modest efforts to counteract these trends. To reduce the length of the games, Major League Baseball has decreed that pitchers must deliver each pitch within 15 seconds in some cases, and 20 seconds in others, after completing the previous one. This will shorten the game. In addition, by giving the pitcher’s arm less time to recover from the exertion of throwing a baseball at more than 90 miles per hour, this rule will, it is expected, give an advantage to the batter and result in more action, more safe hits by which runners reach a base, more scoring, and thus more entertainment. Increasing the number of safe hits is also the aim of the second rule, which prohibits shifts, requiring that the defending team have two players on either side of second base when a pitch is delivered. The third rule enlarges the size of the bases, enhancing the incentive for base-stealing by increasing the chances of success.

While the new rules respond to changes in the game triggered by changes in technology, another prospective alteration in the game actually incorporates technology unavailable in 1910 into what happens on the field of play. Since the nineteenth century a human official–the umpire–has stood behind the batter and the catcher and decided whether a pitch at which the batter does not swing falls within the strike zone, defined vertically as the distance between the batter’s chest and knees and horizontally as the width of home plate, and thus counts as a strike, or outside it, and is deemed a ball. It is now entirely possible to make that determination electronically, and therefore impersonally. The Major Leagues already use cameras to review some decisions on the field, as do football and basketball.

An electronic system for determining balls and strikes would not only enhance reliability–umpires do make mistakes–it would also make it easier to decrease the size of the strike zone. In that case, batters would hit the ball, and record safe hits, more often, again creating more spectator-friendly action on the field. An “electronic umpire” would represent the most sweeping, significant, and radical use of modern technology in any team sport; and it would become a part of the most traditional and conservative of them.

Forms of entertainment, like empires and great private companies, rise and fall. In 1910, when our latter-day Rip Van Winkle might have gone to sleep and when baseball was by far America’s most popular spectator sport, stage plays and novels held central positions in American culture. Both have since declined sharply in cultural importance. Can baseball avoid their fate? The impact on the game of the new rules, and the public’s reaction to it between now and the end of October, when the baseball season ends, will begin to answer that question.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, and the author of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do (2004).

Image: Washington Nationals right fielder Juan Soto (22) taking a swing in a game against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park in Washington D.C., April 24, 2022. (Photo by All-Pro Reels)