The Game Has Changed, and It’s Not Just the Rules

I’ve been a baseball fan for the better part of 40 years and in that time the game of baseball has evolved. I have to imagine for those of you who’ve been watching even longer the game is barely recognizable.

It’s not all about little rule changes though, in fact the only changes I can tangibly say changed the game drastically were raising the mound and the DH being implemented in both leagues this year.

More than any other factor, athletes changed baseball.

You can get lost thinking all the players are bulked up on steroids but many have done it the right way, just hard work. That’s not to say it isn’t going on, but I simply won’t lump everyone together under one accusation.

All sports have changed if you really think about it, Golf changed because equipment improved so much and one golfer came along who treated himself like an athlete rather than a golfer. Courses that used to challenge everyone suddenly didn’t once others followed in Tiger’s footsteps.

The NFL was overtaken by size and speed and while you remember Jack Lambert being an animal he’d struggle to see over the defensive line in today’s game. Mel Blount was so good they changed the rules to neutralize his ability and almost by the year they continue to make being an NFL Corner the hardest position on the field.

One of the most popular baseball themes is centered on pitching. These guys are soft with their pitch counts. None of these guys can get past the 6th inning. They’re all made of glass. These things and more can be heard on any message board and most broadcast booths in some form or another, but what has really happened here?

It can’t be training, these guys are more monitored and conditioned than ever before, in fact some believe the pitchers being ‘babied’ in and of itself is culprit number one as to what causes the uptick in injuries.

In reality, velocity is the main culprit and everybody wants it. Pitchers who average 96MPH or above have a 27% chance of landing on the IL and nearly 20% will have Tommy John at some point in their career. The use of weighted balls to increase velocity has become normal at even the high school level. The human body is simply not meant to do what pitchers are asking of it, and it makes drafting one all the more frightening.

Sometimes while you’re watching it happen it’s hard to really see the change, but in 2000 the average fastball sat around 88.4MPH, by 2018 it was 92.4MPH, and how could you argue the effectiveness? There is almost a 100 point difference in wOBA from 88-96MPH. That said, it comes with a price.

For the players it means increased chance for injury, for the club it means increased risk for investment, for the fans it means holding your breath every time you see your favorite pitcher so much as make a face.

The injury risk has led to changes in how pitchers are handled. Gone are the days of pitchers routinely going 9 innings and it would have been unheard of to remove a pitcher in the 8th inning of a shutout effort 20 years ago, today fans don’t even blink an eye. It just happened last night to Luis Castillo and think about it, he wasn’t mad, in fact I don’t think anyone even thought it was weird.

Next up are the analytics and extreme shifts. A player like Ozzie Smith wouldn’t be the legend he is if he played today, he certainly wouldn’t have put up the long career he did. Shifts have taken that incredible short stop with range for days and squeezed him between a third baseman and second baseman all piled on the left side of the diamond or patrolling right behind the pitcher while the third baseman becomes the short stop more or less.

Sure there are still nice plays but analytics themselves are designed to make the spectacular less necessary, instead making most contact an average out. Just last night we watched our prized third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes play some excellent short stop didn’t we? None of this is to paint the players as bad, but you just don’t often see a shortstop display the range and arm that used to be a hallmark of the position.

Hitters approaches have changed over the years, as a focus on launch angle has had major impact on home run numbers and on the other end of the spectrum contact numbers. This took over the league for a few seasons, and while I’m nearly positive MLB played with the ball a bit too nothing contributed to the explosion in power numbers more than launch angle. This was implemented to combat the shifts we just talked about, and now that it’s been a couple seasons we’re seeing pitchers combat it with high fastballs.

There was a time in the game when high fastballs would get you DFA’d more often than make you a strikeout machine, but focusing on launch angle has rendered many hitters incapable of catching up with a fastball in the top of the zone. The batters have little choice but to try and catch up to it as the pitch is actually in the strike zone but combined with the added velocity, most don’t stand a chance.

At some point the offense will push back. I just had a conversation with someone who would love to watch Rod Carew take a crack at today’s pitchers because he would exploit the shifts and hit .400. Well, let’s just assume he could hit the 98MPH heat I guess, but there will come a day when players start backing off on the launch angle and taking the single. And I don’t mean the trend of players like Kyle Schwarber dropping a bunt down the third base line, I mean a consistent opposite field approach.

If I’m a batter in today’s game my goal would be to get the opposition to play me straight up as much as possible. Bryan Reynolds had that exact situation in 2019, he could and did hit the ball all over the ball park. This year he and the Pirates focused on increasing his power numbers a bit and it has resulted in strikeout numbers like he’s never put on paper in his entire career and opponents shifting him just like everyone else.

The game has changed in countless ways, numerous times throughout the years but every alteration in philosophy leads to counter strikes. The key to success in an ever evolving game like baseball is to stop following all the trends and start setting them.

If you don’t like what the game has become, wait a couple seasons and check back in, I can’t promise you’ll like what you see but it will most assuredly be different.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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