A lot of baseball fans are wondering what happened to the sport.
John Smoltz believes he knows. And he wants to do something about it.
The former Atlanta Braves great will get that chance as a member of the MLB competition committee that is looking into the problems facing the game. By the time spring training comes around next year there could be new rules helping to make baseball great again.
Here’s hoping they start with the universally hated shift.
“I think the shift is single handedly killing the game because now you’ve got everybody lifting the ball over the shift,” Smoltz said. “If you were rewarded for hitting the ball and there was no shift you would have more action. You’d have guys not just basically trying to hit the ball over the fence.”
In a perfect world — and, of course the game has never been perfect — there would also be limits on pitching changes, the way players are put on the disabled list, and a number of other things.
But baseball has always been a slow game to adapt. While other leagues have been proactive in changing rules to stay relevant — especially in the new era of analytics — baseball tends not to change until circumstances finally lead to no other alternative.
That means that, at least for now, we have baseball as it is. And it’s not the sport Smoltz played for 21 years, the game that enshrined the pitcher into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2015.
“The game has gone to a very slow and stagnant pace,” Smoltz said. “It’s going to become unwatchable and I think that’s when you’re going to see both the commissioner and others in Major League Baseball trying to make changes to get the game back to its exciting form.”
Smoltz knows where he’s coming from. He’s not only one of the game’s greatest pitchers — one of only two pitchers to ever have both a 20-game winning season and one with more than 50 saves — he’s also a student of baseball and a broadcaster with both the MLB Network and Fox Sports.
That’s why the conversation co-host Jim Litke and I had with him on the PodcastOne Sports Now podcast this week was so enlightening. Smoltz not only understands the problems of the game from the fan’s perspective, but the player’s too.
He’s worried fans will desert the game, yes. But he’s also worried about players becoming expendable because of analytics, which he believes will not only cost them money but shorten their careers.
Up to now players have largely resisted any changes in the game, secure in the thought they’re getting their share of the cash cow. But that could change, Smoltz says, as they become more aware of what is happening — especially on the pitching side — because of analytics.
“It’s hard pressed for me to think that at the end of the day this is not just a cheaper version of baseball,” he said. “You can operate your team paying guys less and utilizing them in their younger years when they’re not making so much. Burn and churn and just keep shuffling the deck in the bullpen. But in the long term it’s not sustainable.”
Also not sustainable, Smoltz believes, is the blind allegiance to analytics that pervades baseball these days. While information is essential to the game, he said it should never come at the cost of basic baseball wisdom collected over more than a century of playing the game.
That allegiance likely cost the Los Angeles Dodgers a World Series last year. And while the Houston Astros also relied heavily on analytics, manager A.J. Hinch used his gut when it mattered most to put the Astros in a position to succeed.
Smoltz also noted that the most recent World Series winners were teams that put the ball in play and put pressure on the other team’s defense. Those teams went against the current trend of uppercut swings for the fences and pitchers who throw as hard as they can until they can’t throw any more.
“Organizations don’t care (now) if you strike out, they just don’t want you hitting the ball on the ground,” Smoltz said. “All pitchers are trying to throw as hard as they can above the belt. That’s what you’re going to get, swings and misses, strikeouts and homers. Until a team proves me wrong you can’t win the World Series doing that.”
You also can’t win fans either, and who can blame them. Hitters are on a pace this year to strike out more than they get hits, and the average time between balls in play is nearing four minutes.
The Cubs exemplified that this week by scoring just one run in five straight games — and each run was a solo home run. In five games the Cubs had 35 hits — and a whopping 46 strikeouts.
The game needs to change, and fast. Luckily there are people like Smoltz who know ways to do just that.
Hopefully, the rest of baseball is listening.