Baseball Avoided a Lost Season. But Bigger Threats May Lie Ahead.


Baseball did get extensive national publicity in the months before the pandemic — for the Astros’ cheating scandal, in which they used an illegal sign-stealing scheme on their way to winning the 2017 World Series. Manfred was roundly criticized for disciplining no players, but he suspended Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who were then fired by the Astros’ owner, Jim Crane.

Luhnow did not orchestrate the cheating, but some viewed his downfall as an indictment of the team’s analytically driven culture that has spread throughout the game. With so many teams relying heavily on data and video for any marginal advantage, perhaps it was inevitable that some would be tacitly encouraged to cross ethical boundaries.

“I think that’s true,” Minnesota Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said this spring, when asked about that theory. “We’re all competitive at heart and looking for an edge, I guess. Maybe I’m naïve; I try and be who I am with our group, and they’re going to interpret it how they want.”

As teams have increasingly interpreted the numbers to find bargains and avoid costly mistakes, that has undercut the earning power of veterans; their production, in theory, could be replaced by younger, cheaper players.

That trend dismays many players, though most have responded to the analytics wave by giving executives what they want: power pitchers who hunt for strikeouts and disciplined hitters who wait for pitches to drive in the air.

It has had a clear effect on the game itself. M.L.B. set a record for home runs last year — but also for pitches per game. The average number pitches per plate appearance has risen in each of the last four seasons, to 3.93 last year, the most of the 21 seasons tracked by baseball-reference.com.

Accordingly, games lasted an average of 3 hours 10 minutes in 2019, the longest ever.

“They have to do something on the pace of the game,” Duquette said. “It’s absurd. We’re going in the wrong direction, and all of the data suggests that the new fan base talks about how the game is too long.”



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