The human mind has no problem coming up with reasons for things. It’s in our nature. These reasons are often wrong or wildly exaggerated or too simplistic … but they tend to be entertaining. And they do lock in. For instance, if you ask why offense skyrocketed in baseball in the 1990s, I suspect most people would say: Steroids. That’s it. One word. There are some pretty compelling reasons to believe that steroids actually played a pretty small role in the offensive explosion. But the steroid reasoning is satisfying to many. The mind, like I say, appreciates satisfying answers.
Well, there are two trends in baseball right now that frankly have me a bit baffled. I keep waiting for some reason to sound compelling and satisfying. But so far, I have not heard one. I’m sure you will have ideas.
The first trend: Hitters are walking less than they have since the mid-to-late 1960s, when pitchers so thoroughly dominated baseball that owners worried the game was becoming obsolete. I’ve had a couple of requests to try and put my data tables into line graphs to make them easier to read. Here’s one of my first efforts to do so.
I honestly do not get it. Think about how many times we heard that the stars in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t walk because they were told not to walk. The lingering image of that time, before the mass population of baseball fans had even heard of on-base percentage, is of players hacking away Steve Garvey style because real men got 200 hits a year and real men drove in runs. When Andre Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame, that was all anyone could talk about: Hey NOBODY walked in those days.
Now we are in the Moneyball age, where everyone knows about the value of the walk and the value of working the pitcher and working the count. And yet, hitters are walking quite a bit LESS now than in the 1970s and 1980s. What gives?
I was talking about this with PosCast partner Michael Schur … and in truth we were stumped. We couldn’t even come up with an even slightly sensible-sounding theory. One might come to mind for you immediately, but we kicked around the possible effects of relief pitching, the rise in strikeouts, perhaps a subtle (or not too subtle) difference in strike zones, the possible impact of catchers framing pitches. But nothing really sounded all that good.
The second trend is actually something I came across while doing something unrelated … did you know that, at this very moment (8:33 a.m. Eastern Friday morning) the bottom SEVEN teams in attendance are all American League teams? That would be the bottom seven. In reverse order:
30. Cleveland. My hometown team is averaging barely 14,000 people a game.
29. Tampa Bay. Bad stadium, bad location, etc.
28. Chicago White Sox. Should pick up, but right now not even averaging 20,000 per game.
27. Kansas City. Small market, frustrated fans.
26. Oakland. Can’t get all the problems into one pithy sentence.
25. Houston. Playing better and might not lose 100 for first time since 2010; not much to build a campaign around.
24. Seattle. Robinson Cano signing didn’t excite people that much.
And then, only then, do we get to the Miami Marlins.
The bottom seven. If you throw in Minnesota and Toronto, the American League has a real shot at having nine of the bottom 10 teams in attendance. And this is not a fluke. Brilliant reader Matthew put together his own line graph which shows that the National League has outdrawn the American League pretty much every year since 1992. and the gap has been pretty sizable the last seven years or so. Let’s see if I can put his chart up here:
Hey, not bad. This is the chartiest post I’ve ever done.
This spread between American League and National League baseball becomes more pronounced the more you think about it. Other than New York, the National League more or less dominates every competitive market. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers are bigger than the Angels. In Chicago, the Cubs are bigger than the White Sox. The Marlins might be a mess, but they draw better than their Florida counterparts in Tampa Bay. There’s no point in even bringing up the San Francisco-Oakland relationship. The Cardinals dominate Missouri, the Reds draw double what of what Cleveland gets. Washington outdrew Baltimore last year and they’re about tied this year.
What gives? Of course the first theory that comes to mind revolves around the designated hitter. On Twitter, which is sort of the great American repository for theories, gut reactions and instant reasons, people batted away at the DH, which is fine with me. But I don’t think the DH has anything at all to do with this. Having grown up in an American League town after the DH was put in place I can tell you, as a fan, you don’t even think about it. You watch the baseball you are given.
ESPN’s smart baseball guy David Schoenfield wonders if length of game could play a role in this. Last time I checked, the average American League game was roughly 10 to 15 minutes longer than the average National League game — I suspect that still holds. The American League games are just slower paced which is strange because there are more pitching changes in the National League. I do wonder if there is a sense that American League baseball is glacial, and that has some impact on families going to the movies instead of the ballgame. I’ve heard people in Kansas City say they would like to go to a Royals game on a Friday night to catch the fireworks afterward; but the games are so long they just can’t wait all night for them.
On Twitter, I saw some theories about bad weather affecting AL baseball more than NL (Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, etc). Maybe. There is a theory that American League teams — other than the Yankees and, to an extent, the Red Sox — are just not good draws on the road. The numbers certainly back that up this year: The bottom TEN road averages are all in American League.
One theory I have thought about involves rivalries. The National League is FILLED with rivalries — Cubs-Cardinals, Giants-Dodgers, Mets-Phillies along with some heated secondary or developing rivalries like Cubs-Mets, Cardinals-Reds, Atlanta-Washington and so on.
But the American League? Obviously there’s Yankees-Reds Sox. And then … what? One thing that has interested me is how stubbornly resistant the American League Central has been to rivalries. Yeah, sure, if there’s a pennant race involved there will be a little bit of buzz. But generally speaking, does anyone care about Kansas City-Minnesota or Detroit-Chicago or Cleveland-Detroit or Chicago-Minnesota. It’s obvious that people in Kansas City see St. Louis as the Royals’ biggest rival. The American League West doesn’t seem too rivalry driven either — I guess the Angels and Rangers had a little thing going for a few minutes but now … nah.
This leads directly the most compelling theory I’ve heard — originated by the infinitely compelling Joe Sheehan. He asks: “Do you think the 15-year emphasis on NYY and BOS has sucked the air out of the AL in some way?”
I have to tell you: That makes a lot of sense to me. For 20 years or so — and, of course, historically — the Yankees and Red Sox have been wonderful rivals for countless reasons. Over time, though, the Yankees-Red Sox did come to dominate everything about American League ball. They were inescapable. They have won eight World Series since 1996. They had the highest payrolls, they signed the best players, they were on TV more than the Big Bang Theory. Their particular brand of baseball — four hour marathons of patience and power and intensity — came to represent how the game was played.
And, honestly, I do wonder if other American League teams just fell by the wayside. The Los Angeles Angels have been able to hold their own (being in Los Angeles) and they are on pace to draw three million again. But in Kansas City, in Cleveland, in Tampa Bay, in Oakland, in Toronto, in Minnesota, maybe it felt like they weren’t REALLY part of things. I think there could be some effect here.
Or … maybe not. It could just be a statistical fluke of timing combined with the National League having more great baseball markets (Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco) than the American League. I don’t know.
Here is something I do know: A line graph of the Superman movies: