The long off-season is finally winding down. It seems like ages ago that questions of where Matt Holliday and Jason Bay would sign and whether, where and for whom Roy Halladay would be traded first arose. Now spring training is coming to an end and Opening Day is a few days away. The upcoming baseball season will answer many questions. Most will be regarding on the field events. Will the Mariners have improved sufficiently to seriously contend? Can the Red Sox new emphasis on pitching and defense carry them past the Yankees? Will the Phillies become the first National League team to win three pennants in a row since Stan Musial was a young star on the Cardinals.
There are also bigger picture baseball questions which will be answered during the new season. These have less to do with specific players and teams and more to do with the direction of the game more generally.
First, although the steroid era may be coming to an end, steroid scandals are still part of the game. It seems that every spring training or early season is marked by another marquee name being connected to steroids. Last year it was Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, putting a damper on the feel good baseball story of the decade-the Red Sox championship in 2004. The year before it was Alex Rodriguez, who had previously carried the hopes of winning back the all time home run record from a known steroid user.. In previous years it has been Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and others. So far this spring, while there have been lingering investigation around Rodriguez and others, no new name has surfaced regarding steroid use. If we make it through 2010 without any more major stars being found to have used performance enhancing drugs, we may in fact have genuinely turned a corner on the steroid era. If we learn that another major star has been using steroids, particularly one who has been portrayed is clean, which is certainly possible, MLB will be shown to still not be taking the issue seriously enough and still deeply in denial about the problem.
Second, because the New York Yankees won the World Series last year, concern about the role of money in baseball and the lack of parity seemed to be stronger this off-season than in other recent ones. However, the competitive balance in baseball is more complex than might seem the case at first glance. While the Yankees won their second World Series of the decade and went to the playoffs in nine of the decade’s ten years, eight teams won the World Series and 13 different teams played in the World Series over that period of time. The expanded playoff system has, while not without its drawbacks, meant that more teams are in contention and indeed get to play in the post-season than ever before. The short post-season series bring and the role of luck mean that most teams that make the post-season at least have a chance of winning a championship. This is significant because in the last three years alone, fourteen different teams have made the post-season. There are seven teams, however, the Blue Jays, Orioles, Royals, Nationals, Reds, Pirates and Padres, who have not appeared in the post-season at all during the last decade, but even with the expanded playoffs, it is not that unusual to have a few teams who remain out of contention for ten or more years. These teams failures cannot be entirely attributed to low payrolls. Nonetheless, baseball has done little to address the perceived lack of parity which has made it difficult for teams in the smallest markets. If the Yankees repeat as World Series winners, the pressure to do something about this will be substantial. How baseball responds to that pressure will could have a major impact on the future of the game.
Third, one of the best developments in baseball for fans everywhere in recent years has been the latest group of great young starting pitchers. Pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and others have helped keep the game exciting in recent years. Some of these pitchers will go on to great careers; others will, unfortunately, succumb to injuries or lose their stuff at a young age. That is the nature of pitching. However, these pitchers are among the first cohort to make it to stardom at a time when pitch counts and strategies for developing young pitchers are part of the lexicon of ordinary fans. The dangers of damaging young arms have never been more public or a more popular topic of discussion and analysis than now. The most public display of this phenomenon has been the Yankees handling of Joba Chamberlain whose future seems in jeopardy, not due to injury but due to mismanagement. Chamberlain’s implosion can be attributed to overuse or to heavy reliance on pitch counts, making him something of a Rorschach test for fans. The future of the current cadre of top young pitchers will strongly influence theories of pitcher usage and how young pitchers should be developed. In the next few years we may see strategies of limiting pitch counts harden even more so that they become as stringent as current views of managing a bullpen, or, if pitchers on limited pitch counts get hurt or, like Chamberlain, fail to produce, there may be a backlash.
Fourth, the offensive explosion of the late 1990s and early part of this century seems to have peaked. In the NL runs per game have been going steadily downward since 2006; and last year saw the fewest runs per game since 1992. In the AL, the peak was between 1994 and 2004 with runs per game declining since 2005. Accordingly, pitching, defense and even speed have made something of a comeback. The off-season saw a number of teams including the Red Sox, who are often on the cutting edge of this kind of thing, move to emphasize pitching, and more strikingly, defense. The question for 2010 is how the pendulum will swing. Will we see a return to bunting, base stealing and defensive specialists-middle infielders who aren’t expected to hit much and are in the lineup for their bats? If the Red Sox beat out the Yankees this year, or if the Mariners win their division, other teams may copy this strategy, leading to a real break from the power hitting which dominated the last 10-15 years.
Fifth, will baseball do anything to shorten the length of games? While the length of games has been creeping upwards for decades, the 2009 post-season saw this issue become more prominent than ever. If concerns continue, baseball will have to do something. While the games are often too long, and things like conferences on the mound and multiple pitching changes in the same inning are not exactly the kind of thing that fans pay to see or that keep casual fans from switching the channel, baseball needs to be careful about how they seek to shorten the game. The easiest way to shorten the game would be to change the rules to strengthen pitching and weaken offenses. Expanding the strike zone would increase the pace of games, but fans who appreciate offense would lose interest. Similarly, reducing trips to the mound or pitching changes would most likely help offenses which would…lengthen the times of games. Shortening the length of games may be important, but finding simple ways to do it that are not laden with other consequences will not be easy.
Most of these issues will not be definitively resolved in 2010, but some clues will emerge. If, for example, more teams begin keeping players around for their glove, or if baseball makes it through the year without a top star being linked to steroids, we will be moving towards another new era in the game’s history.