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Murph: The case against the new home-run-or-bust brand of baseball

Times I like the word “true”: 

— Season 1 of “True Detective”. 

— When the deep-voiced narrator on the old “Dragnet” told us, “the story you are about to hear is true.”

— The smooth and undeniable hook of Spandau Ballet’s “True”, a jam so worthy that PM Dawn had to lay down some tracks over it. Shout out Cristina Applegate. 

Here’s a time I don’t necessarily enjoy the word true: 

Baseball’s true outcomes.

You know the deal by now. Baseball slowly, and then rapidly, embraced the surge towards accepting, and encouraging, and then teaching hitters to make their mission to produce one of the three true outcomes:

— A base on balls

— A home run

— A strikeout

That’s it.

Anything else? You’re not with the cool kids.

If you’d like to do a deeper dive into how this all happened, I found this outstanding piece on which traces the origin of “three true outcomes”, or TTO, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s a great read, really. Much deeper than a Jock Blog, and gives you the history, which started as a chat room joke about Rob Deer in the 1990s, into today’s game: Come back to the dugout with your strikeout shield, or on it.

There’s a lot of good stuff in there. For example, the all time TTO guy in baseball history was not Rob Deer. It was Babe Ruth! So, there’s a pretty good defense of embracing the TTO, for sure. If the greatest player in the game’s history took TTO to the next level, maybe every player should aspire to it.

And yet, why does baseball feel like a lesser game now? Maybe too much of a TTO is not necessarily a good thing? 

In the piece, you can see how the strikeout rate has risen dramatically, and in turn, the length of at-bats as players work towards a K or a BB. Longer at-bats, of course, lead to longer games. And as the piece suggests, longer games have perhaps played a role in declining attendance, and by extension TV ratings, and even by further extension, the interest and attention of our nation’s youth.

That would be a case, I’d argue, against the TTO.

Now we watch the 2020 postseason unfold into one long TTO-Fest. You don’t believe me?

— In the 2020 postseason, we are motoring along at an all-time record 38.7% TTO rate. That’s higher than last year’s postseason record TTO rate of 38%, and both are up from the 2020 regular season record rate of 36%.

It was only back in the year 2012 when the TTO rate exceeded 30% for the first time.

(Shout out to the non-TTO World Series champs that year. Take a bow Ryan Vogelsong, Buster Posey, Sergio Romo, Hunter Pence and the rest.)

— ESPN producer Paul Hembekides unearthed this shocker: in the 2020 postseason, hitters are homering at the same rate as Willie McCovey’s career rate, and striking batters out at the same rate as Roger Clemens’ career rate. Spoiler alert: these players aren’t McCovey/Clemens caliber.

Holy TTO, Batman.

It’s all by way of saying: I find this brand of baseball to be not as fully immersive and soul-enriching as the baseball of just 10 years ago, when Bruce Bochy’s band of pitchers and defenders and situational hitters lit a city’s heart on fire. 

This is not an argument against home runs. I love home runs, as I was just saying to Travis Ishikawa, Mike Morse, Juan Uribe, Benito Santiago and Brian Johnson — authors of some of my favorite home runs of all time. 

Difference is, each of those home runs provided its historical oomph because it was not a common occurrence; home runs in those times provided spontaneous history, not rote expectation.

I wound up in a Twitter give-and-take with some of the young’uns out there, who were basically telling this Gen X’er: If it’s too loud, you’re too old. 

Fair enough. That’s their prerogative. But not all revolutions are good things, as I was just saying to the ghost of Joe Stalin. The loss of situational tension when a single can change a game, the de-emphasis on the art of baserunning, the disappearing thrill of defense as fewer and fewer balls are put in play (on Wednesday, the Yankees fanned 18 times, and put 14 balls in play), the fading cases where the intellect of a chess match in an at-bat plays out, as a hitter tries to put a ball in play to the right side . . .  it’s tough to lose these things.

Perhaps baseball’s evolution to a more scientific plane has resulted in a lesser game?

Or, as John Wooden once said, “there can be no progress without change; however, not all change is progress.”

Then again, I can hear the retort from the TTO crowd: What? You want me to listen to some dead guy? 

True story.


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