Baseball’s Revolution Draws Misguided Criticism

Though the postseason should be an opportunity for baseball to celebrate transcendent play on the field and attract new fans, the joys of October baseball in 2018 have been consistently marred by the grouchiness of old-school baseball fans.

In many ways, it is a tale as old as time; aging generations cannot help but bemoan changes to the things they once loved, be it baseball or otherwise. This “back in my day” attitude, however, will not help baseball reach younger audiences.

This pattern of frustration among announcers and older former players is troubling. Would a prospective baseball fan become more interested or less interested in the sport if he or she heard announcers constantly criticize the way the game is played today? To whom are these grumpy pundits pandering?

One frequent target for vilification is “the shift,” which adjusts the traditional setup of the infield depending on the tendency of a given batter to pull groundballs. When players hit into the shift, old-school pundits complain that players should be able to adjust. When players beat the shift, these same individuals immediately jump on the opportunity to entirely dismiss the strategy behind the defensive alignment. Pleasing the complainers proves impossible.

In reality, the shift should be seen as a triumph of the advancement of the game. Baseball, historically one of the slowest sports to accept change, embraced statistical analysis and concluded that putting fielders where the ball gets hit would be a good way to get outs: straightforward enough, right? Somehow, though, even logical changes like these infuriate groups of traditionalists who would die defending their conception of the “right way” to play.

The uptick in home runs and strikeouts also draw the ire of those who seemingly look only for opportunities to criticize baseball. It is statistically accurate that there are fewer balls in play per game than there were during other eras, but it seems possible that fans would trade watching routine grounders for home runs 10 times out of 10. 

Sacrifice bunts and slap hitters are not the backbone of what makes baseball special. If MLB wants to encourage a younger generation to embrace the game, emphasizing the players who hit 450-foot home and throw 100-mph fastballs seems like a smart route. In a sports landscape dominated by the fast-paced, high-action play in the NBA and NFL, displays of elite athleticism like the home run and the strikeout are what will excite new fans, not pitchouts and groundball pitchers.

While there is a time and place for these somewhat unexciting plays, they are not the moments that make highlight reels or etch a place into sports history.

With change comes a nostalgia for the “good old days,” and some complaints held by traditionalists are valid. The decline of the stolen base, for example, does not help the game, but on the whole, baseball has morphed into a game that reflects the all-or-nothing mood of a generation.

If these trends go too far, baseball will self-correct, or rule changes could eventually resolve issues, but for now, baseball has become something slightly different, and in some ways, it’s better.