SI Vault
 
GONE CRAZY
TOM VERDUCCI
November 04, 2013
THE CARDINALS AND THE RED SOX BROUGHT THE WEIRD IN THE 109TH FALL CLASSIC, A SERIES FULL OF TENSE GAMES AND NEVER-SEEN-BEFORE ENDINGS. BUT LOOK PAST THE DRAMA AND THE TWO EVENLY MATCHED TEAMS, AND YOU SEE A SPORT IN NEED OF CHANGE. THINK THE DH WAS FUNKY? MAKE WAY FOR THE BONUS AT BAT
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November 04, 2013

Gone Crazy

THE CARDINALS AND THE RED SOX BROUGHT THE WEIRD IN THE 109TH FALL CLASSIC, A SERIES FULL OF TENSE GAMES AND NEVER-SEEN-BEFORE ENDINGS. BUT LOOK PAST THE DRAMA AND THE TWO EVENLY MATCHED TEAMS, AND YOU SEE A SPORT IN NEED OF CHANGE. THINK THE DH WAS FUNKY? MAKE WAY FOR THE BONUS AT BAT

DURING HIS second at bat in Game 4 of the World Series, Red Sox catcher David Ross stepped out of the batter's box and asked home plate umpire Paul Emmel for time. The issue that was giving him pause: Lance Lynn, the Cardinals' starter, was showing the temerity to work quickly.

"The crowd booed me," Ross said later, "but I didn't care. I felt rushed. The last thing I want is to be in the box and feel rushed."

The atmosphere of the 109th World Series could be described in many ways—intense, passionate, noisy—but rarely does rushed enter into the 21st-century baseball conversation. As scoring has declined and pitching has come to dominate the game over the past decade, every pitch carries an intensity that prompts hitters into deep bouts of concentration and routine, as if they're preparing to dive off the cliffs of Acapulco 292 times, which is the average number of pitches in a major league game in 2013. Stylistically, the Red Sox--Cardinals World Series highlighted the drawn-out, low-scoring war of attrition that baseball has become. This keeps the outcome of closely contested games in doubt. At the same time, when you extrapolate the trend of the ball being put in play less frequently, it raises questions about whether—and how—the game needs to be modernized.

The National League champion Cardinals epitomize how young power pitching rules today's game. Throughout the postseason they ran to the mound eight homegrown pitchers between 22 and 26 years old who threw between 95 and 100 miles an hour. Those callow flamethrowers combined to throw 71% of St. Louis's innings through the first 15 games in October while piling up 92 strikeouts in 96 innings. So enriched with pitching is baseball that it was harder to get a hit in the big leagues this year (.253 batting average) or get on base (.318 OBP) than at any time in the 40 years since the designated hitter was adopted.

The American League champion Red Sox are the preeminent countertacticians to this wave of superior pitching: They turn offense into defense. They saw more pitches than any team this season, 158.3 per game. They willingly sign up for strikeouts—they were eighth in baseball in whiffs while blowing past the franchise record—as the tariff for "grinding out at bats" to "run up pitch counts," the highest virtues of hitting as extolled by coaches and the media. Where offenses of great potency once earned such menacing nicknames as Murderers' Row, the Big Red Machine and Harvey's Wallbangers, baseball now aspires to "grinders" when it comes to hitting excellence. Players who make outs return to high fives and fist bumps in the dugout as long as they saw five or more pitches.

To force high pitch counts the Red Sox dictate the pace of the game, which is to say they slow it down so each pitch gets punctilious attention. And so between pitches, Ross steps out; Dustin Pedroia loosens and tightens his batting gloves even if he hasn't swung; Jonny Gomes tugs repeatedly at his gloves, jersey and helmet as if playing charades ("Poison ivy! Hives! Bedbugs?"); David Ortiz spits on his hands and claps them; and Daniel Nava rakes the dirt in the batter's box with his spikes as if tending a Zen garden. Nobody is in a rush. You can practically see the hair in their beards growing.

Nothing happens until the Sox decide it will happen—and even then the result is often ... well, not much. With bad teams, fifth starters and middle relievers weeded out, postseason baseball is an even more refined version of the depressed run-scoring environment created by the wave of young power pitchers. Through 36 postseason games this year, teams hit .231 and combined to score 7.2 runs per game, which equates to the same run production of the 1906 regular season, smack in the Dead Ball era—only with a batting average 16 points lower.

Postseason games in 1906 took an average of two hours, one minute to play. Through four games of the World Series it took an average of 3:27 to wind things up this October. The average time of games not involving the fussy Red Sox was 3:13; their games averaged 3:37. Boston—which was hitting a combined .223 in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series—added 24 minutes of dead time to a postseason game.

Much of the added length in 2013 is due to the mini-docudramas that pass for engagements between pitcher and hitter, many of which end without the ball in play. Nearly one out of every three plate appearances this postseason has ended in a walk or a strikeout (31.5%). Thirty years ago, only about one in four postseason plate appearances ended that way (25.6%), and postseason games were 44 minutes quicker (2:43).

If there is an upside to hits and runs being so hard and long to come by, it is that the Cardinals and the Red Sox provided hours of suspense, with the game outcomes almost always in doubt to the end—the requisite for adding television viewers. For 26 of the 27 innings in Games 2, 3 and 4, no more than two runs separated Boston and St. Louis. Each of those games was decided by one play. The winning run in Game 2 scored in the seventh inning when Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow threw a ball from behind home plate into the leftfield stands. In the bottom of the ninth in Game 3, another Boston player, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, sent a throw from home past third base, which led to third baseman Will Middlebrooks's being charged with the first walk-off obstruction call in World Series history, allowing St. Louis's Allen Craig to score the winning run. In the sixth inning of Game 4, Gomes smashed only the fourth homer of the Series, a three-run shot that broke a 1--1 tie and set up a 4--2 Boston victory that evened the Series.

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