Verducci: Baseball "better than ever" (really?)

Jeff Zelevansky

Here's the headline of Tom Verducci's latest column for SI.com:

Baseball is back (thank goodness) and it's better than ever (really)

Both sentiments are refreshing; it's good to have baseball, and it's nice to see a baseball writer not pining for the good old days when the grass was greener, the hot dogs were hotter, and the uniforms were uniformer. Supposedly.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Verducci grew up in the 1970s, when the grass wasn't greener, the hot dogs probably weren't real hot, and the uniforms ... well, they were uniform, but many of them were also in violation of any worthwhile principles of esthetics that you'll care to find. I mean, I grew up in the '70s and loved the artificial turf and the nacho cheese and the beltless trousers but ... I wouldn't want to go back, you know? Not for long, anyway.

So yes, baseball might be better than ever. It's just that Verducci never actually says that in the column (and it's quite possible that he didn't write the headline). You know what I found really refreshing, though? This:

One of the great myths about The Steroid Era is that steroids "saved baseball" and made for a great period of huge economic growth. It's baloney. After the great home run race of 1998, per game attendance went down three of the next five years. Take the best per-game attendance in The Steroid Era (1995-2003) and it would be the worst attendance rate of The Testing Era (2004-2012).

--snip--

To an audience craving entertainment, baseball has provided more competitive games. Home runs are great, but having an outcome in doubt is better. The stands empty out in a blowout and stay full for a close game even if the ball never left the yard.

That sounds good, and Verducci does demonstrate that we've seen more close games in recent years than before. Which is exactly what we would expect; given more teams (since 1998) and less scoring (since 2005), we would expect more close games than before (first) expansion and (then) drug-testing. What Verducci doesn't demonstrate is a cause-and-effect relationship between close games and attendance. There were plenty of close games in the Dead Ball Era, but attendance was in the doldrums until hitting took off in the 1920s. There were plenty of close games in the late 1960s, but attendance was in the doldrums until the mound was lowered to help the hitters.

That's simplistic analysis, of course. My point is that these things are tough to figure, and I'm not sure that fans enjoy close games more than home runs. I do. I'll bet Verducci does. I'm just not sure about everyone else.

Anyway, my point is actually to applaud Verducci for busting up the myth that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa somehow saved baseball. They didn't save it any more than Kenesaw Mountain Landis saved it, or Babe Ruth saved it, or Cal Ripken saved it. For a long, long time, baseball's been far too big for anyone to "save" ... or to destroy, for that matter. And the more we realize that the game's far bigger than any one man, the smarter we'll be.

Verducci's column, while it does include a bit of fuzzy math and some correlation without causation, does serve as a pretty solid State of the Game Address. For the most part, it's all good news. This continues to concern me, though:

Hitters never have struck out more often than they do in today's game. The rate of hits per game has dropped six straight years. The average major league hitter has batted .255 each of the past two years. It's only the second time since the DH was adopted in 1973 that hitting has been that bad two consecutive years; the other occasion occurred back in 1988-89. The rate of runs per game hasn't cracked 8.64 three straight years for the first time in two decades.

As I've mentioned a few times, I don't mind the relative lack of scoring. But I will continue to argue that strikeouts, in the end, are not fan-friendly and something really should be done about them.

What do you think? Is baseball better than ever? Could it be even better than better than ever?

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