Boom or bust as homers, strikeouts dominate diamond
WASHINGTON (AP) — Boom or bust. This is what baseball has become — and that has owners worried.
"It's just kind of what it is: home runs and strikeouts," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling said.
Stripling had just given up 10th-inning home runs on consecutive pitches to Houston's Alex Bregman and George Springer on a night players combined for 10 longballs , nearly double the previous All-Star record.
Last fall, you may remember, the Dodgers and Astros totaled 25 home runs in the World Series , four more than had ever been hit before in a Fall Classic.
"It's extremely tough to manufacture hits these days, especially with the shift," Stripling said after the American League's 8-6 win Tuesday night. "I certainly understand that's where the game's going, and so I think this game encapsulated that."
It took until the 344th pitch for a run to be driven in on something other than a homer, Michael Brantley's tack-on sacrifice fly that boosted the AL's lead to 8-5. Joey Votto added the final home run in the bottom half, four more than the previous All-Star mark.
"Everybody's throwing 97 to 100," Washington ace Max Scherzer, the NL starter, said in a reference to pitch velocity. "You're not going to string three hits together like that. So everybody's just swinging for the fence."
Hours earlier, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was expressing alarm. Strikeouts (24,537) are on track to surpass hits (24,314) for the first time and are likely to set a record for the 12th straight season. This year's average of 17.0 per game is up from 12.6 in 2005. The current big league batting average of .247 would be the lowest since 1972.
And the average of 2.28 homers per game is just below the record 2.51 set last year.
"Standard operation nowadays, right? We're going to homer-and-punch-out as an industry," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who led the AL to victory. There's a great love affair with both results."
Among 90 plate appearances, 44 ended in a home run, strikeout (25) or walk (nine), at 48.9 percent the highest in All-Star history, according to STATS.
"I don't really want to see guys shorten up and slap the ball around the infield just to avoid a strikeout. That doesn't excite me," said Colorado's Charlie Blackmon, who won the NL batting title last year while hitting 37 home runs. "I don't mind strikeouts. That doesn't mean I want guys swinging way out of the zone, but it doesn't bother me."
Many cite shifts as the cause of the, well, big shift in offense, transforming groundballs that once were hits into outs. There have been 20,587 shifts on balls in play, according to Baseball Info Solutions. That projects to a full-season total of 34,668 — up 29.8 percent from last year and an increase from 6,882 for the entire 2013 season.
"There is a growing consensus or maybe even better an existing consensus among ownership that we need to have a really serious conversation about making some changes to the way the game is being played," Manfred said. "We are not at the point where I can articulate for you what particular rule changes might get serious consideration. I can tell you the issues that concern people: I think that the period of time between putting balls in play, the number of strikeouts, to a lesser extent the number of home runs, the significance of the shift and what it's done to the game, the use of relief pitchers and the way starting pitchers are going to be used."
When it comes to change, players are Luddites. Union head Tony Clark maintained his members are "stewards of the game" and are resistant to tinkering with the rules for fear of unintended consequences.
"We may get to a point where those coming to the ballpark or have an interest in coming to the ballpark for whatever reason aren't 100 percent certain that what they are seeing is the type of game that they want to see," Clark said.
Home runs bring the crowd to its feet, especially by the home team. Think back to the 1998 Nike advertisement with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, titled "Chicks Dig the Long Ball." The Yankees' Aaron Judge started the All-Star Game barrage with a second-inning solo shot off Scherzer.
"I know the fans enjoy seeing these homers," Judge said.