Sheehan: Combating Baseball’s Three Biggest Challenges In The 2020s

Image credit: (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

At the start of the 2010s, the Astros were terrible, the Cubs hadn’t won a pennant since World War II, the Yankees hadn’t gone a decade without winning one since the 1910s. The game’s biggest controversies were about which players had used sports drugs, with Barry Bonds’ career just ended, Mark McGwire lolling about the lower reaches of the Hall of Fame ballot, and Manny Ramirez coming off a 50-game suspension. “Tanking” was an NBA problem, not a Major League Baseball one, and “shifts” were something you saw at hockey games.

In the last 10 years, baseball changed more than it did in the 40 years prior. Pitchers, aided by technologies we couldn’t imagine at the start of the decade, honed their skills to a fine point. Hitters abandoned 100 years of teaching in an effort to become machines dedicated to pulling the ball hard and in the air. Defenses countered with alignments pulled from the ’85 Bears playbook. Successive Collective Bargaining Agreements, along with explosive growth in national revenues, changed the fundamental relationship between a team’s on-field success and its financial success.

As the 2020s begin, we don’t talk about drugs as much, except around Hall voting time. The Billy Goat curse has been retired. The Astros may still be terrible, but in an entirely different way than they were 10 years ago. My 9-year-old, tragically, has never seen her Yankees in a World Series. The challenges baseball faces at the dawn of a new decade are different than any before, and they may require the kind of radical, forward thinking that has never been a strength of our game’s leaders.

Front and center is the way the game is played. The slow, steady increase in strikeouts over time accelerated sharply in the 2010s. In 2009, 18.1 percent of plate appearances ended in a strikeout, about 1.5 percent more than in 1999, which had a rate about 1.5 percent more than in 1989, etc. By 2019, however, that jumped to 23.1 percent, a leap of 5 percent in 10 years. Coupled with the highest home run rate ever and a relatively high walk rate, action has been sucked out of a baseball game.

In 2019, 35 percent of plate appearances ended without the fielders getting involved, up from 29 percent in 2009.

This bleeds into everything. In 2019, there were more strikeouts than hits for a second straight year. There were fewer singles than in any non-strike season since 1991, when there were four fewer teams. There were just 2,280 stolen bases, the fewest in a non-strike season since 1973, when there were 10 fewer teams. Baseball, a game originally designed around throwing, running and catching, is being reduced to schoolyard stickball games in which all you have are pitchers and batters.

So baseball’s first challenge in the 2020s is putting more baseball back into the baseball game. This may require changing the dimensions of the field, such as moving the mound back; taking an active role in the way the ball itself plays; or setting roster rules and game rules to encourage teams to select for endurance rather than velocity. The game on the field is stagnant, a victim of the incredible talents of the players playing it. Bringing it back into balance has to be the top priority.

“Balance” of course, has been a watchword for years. MLB, and team owners, have cited “competitive balance” in negotiating a series of changes to the business side of the enterprise, such as caps on international spending and on draft bonuses; increased sharing of local revenues; and penalties imposed on teams whose payrolls rise past a certain point. Those rules have produced the least competitive league since 1954, per research by Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur. In 2019, four teams won 100 games and four lost 100; that total of eight “100s” is the highest in baseball history. Fans have noticed: Attendance continues to slide, with the biggest drops coming in cities where teams have gone into deep rebuilds.

The combination of aggressive local revenue sharing, increased national revenues, and successful deals like the sale of MLB Advanced Media’s BAMtech to Disney, have made it possible for teams to make money regardless of how well their team does on the field. That’s subsidized the successful longterm rebuilding projects in Houston and Chicago, while encouraging a third of the league to follow the Astros and Cubs down that path. At the other end, high-revenue teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have also become development monsters, combining money and brains to separate themselves even while lowering payroll in recent seasons.

Baseball’s second challenge in the 2020s is to make the game more competitive. “Competitive balance” has to be more than a weapon for reducing labor costs. The idea that every team should compete in every season is silly, but when a third of the league in most years isn’t trying to win at all—and able to do so while still turning a profit—the model is broken. Tying revenue sharing disbursements, or even draft picks, to team performance over time is one idea. Rethinking the entire model to encourage more competition, however, is a better one. Baseball’s most competitive period ever, 1979 to 1993, featured a mostly free market for talent and limited revenue sharing. There’s a lesson there.

Finally, there’s legal gambling. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law that limited legal gambling on sports to Nevada, setting off a wave of state-level legalization. In less than two years since, a dozen states have joined Nevada, in whole or in part, and a dozen more will do so in the near future. Baseball, of course, has the original sin of the 1919 World Series, thrown by the White Sox, the signature sports-betting scandal. That weighs heavily on any choices MLB makes.

The third challenge is how baseball can balance its history with the new gambling landscape. Can baseball be both a family-friendly game, be America’s pastime, and also grow a new segment of the audience so as to access the billions of dollars pouring into the legal-gambling space?

Baseball has become an $11 billion global monolith over the last 10 years, but that business success has masked some underlying problems. Over the next 10 years, baseball has to make its game more lively, make its league more competitive, and integrate legal wagering into its ecosystem. How MLB negotiates these issues will determine its success over the next decade.

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