Who'd have thought it: we're nearing the middle of August and the Milwaukee Brewers are still playing meaningful baseball.
This is usually the time of year when sports pages segue from horsehide to pigskin, especially around here where any story with the slightest tinge of green and gold goes above the fold. This year, the Packers are certainly getting their annual due but the Brewers remain top of mind as they battle for the National League Central.
And the locals are responding: the average Miller Park crowd is 30,545 and overall attendance is 80,000 ahead of last season. The meaningfulness of the games is certainly a factor--winning remains the best way to put butts in seats.
But what about the quality of the product? Sure, you're leaving satisfied if the Brewers put up a "W", but what about the games themselves? Do they go too long? Do you find your mind wandering as the 8th inning rolls around and you've entering your fourth hour of "action'? Is there enough going on between the lines to keep you engaged?
The Washington Post says, "baseball faces an existential crisis" amid a rise in walks, strikeouts and home runs, with numbers proving that the game has never seen fewer balls put into play--the essence of what most fans would consider "action". Balls in play and pace of play are often cited by MLB overlords as topics of concern, since they are big factors in length of games, a problem in some circles amid the groiwing shortness in our collective attention spans.
If any team's picture should accompany the Post piece, it should be that of the Brewers. They lead the bigs in whiffs and are tied for sixth in round-trippers--they're fourth in the National League but trail the leading Nationals by just five home runs.
A team that lives on the long ball dies when it goes away, and that's been the Crew's story since the All Star break. Milwaukee is 9-16 since the midsummer classic, falling out of first in the division while struggling to score, averaging just over three runs a game. Manager Craig Counsell seems comfortable with a squad that won't hit in bunches and doesn't embrace the concept of station-to-station play, his decision not to bunt in the late going of Sunday's eventual loss to the Rays being a prime example.
He's not alone. The number of major league hitters who homered, walked or struck out in the course of games this season is up to 33.4%, the most ever. "Never in history," the Post says, "has the sport so seen fewer put balls in play." It's even more pronounced when bullpens take over, serving up fireballer after fireballer with cheese topping 95 miles per hour. Hitters now gun for the fences and don't care if they strike out in the process, what with defensive shifts that make it even harder to hit 'em where they ain't. They're more selective, waiting for the right pitch to mash and willing to take more of the in hopes of earing a base on balls. That means more pitchers per batter, longer waits between pitches and thus, longer games: three hours five minutes on the average this season by the Post's calculations. That's five minutes longer than last year, a full half-hour longer on average than 35 years ago when the Brewers won the A-L pennant in '82. The number of pitches per game this season--297--is another all time high and is 30 more than in 1988. That alone, the paper says, is adding about 12 minutes to the average contest (figuring roughly 24 seconds between tosses). Throw in the growing number of mound visits between pitchers and catchers and, well, you can see why it's a solid idea to bring a seat cushion to the yard with you.
Is this the game fans want? Some say sure, so long as it's their reliever recording the K's and their slugger reaching beyond the fences. Others want a return to the game we grew up with, one with pitchers serving up fewer offerings at lower speeds, faster at-bats with more sacrifice bunts and balls in play. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive--sure, you can lean on the long-ball but, when the game is late and tight, what's wrong with moving runners over with a productive AB instead of mindlessly flailing away and stranding guys? 95 mph fastballs are fine, but aren't the most effective pitchers the ones who match that kind of gas with knee-buckling off-speed stuff and ball movement?
It's wonky, seam-head stuff to be sure, and not really an issue if your club is winning. The NBA survived the onset of "isolation" play, and the NHL had to deal with the "neutral zone trap" era. Fans of teams that win employing such boring techniques don't mind--a "W" is a "W" no matter how you get it--and the Miller Park turnstiles show length of games and the frequency of home team K's aren't keeping fans away. A few Bernie Brewer trips down the slide between all those walks back to the dugout with a bat on the shoulder go a long way, especially if the game ends with yet another mascot journey down the yellow chute after the last out. And winning is the metric that matters, the one by which fans decide how much of their attention they'll pay to the home team, and how many dollars they'll spend to watch same in person. Of the 12 teams showing attendance gains so far this season, only two sport losing records, and one of those (the Braves) took the wraps off a new stadium.
Winning is the best marketing strategy, and everyone--not just "chicks"--dig the long ball. That's why victories and "taters" spark fireworks at Miller Park, and sacrifice bunts don't.