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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Is baseball's style of play killing attendance?

| Thursday, June 21, 2018, 9:26 p.m.
Like it or not, Gregory Polanco remains the Pirates' best power option, and he is starting to snap out of a season-long funk.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Like it or not, Gregory Polanco remains the Pirates' best power option, and he is starting to snap out of a season-long funk.

USA Today posted a story this week projecting that we will see more strikeouts than base hits in the 2018 Major League Baseball season.

That's never happened over the course of a full MLB campaign before.

I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle if he ever thought he'd see this happen.

"Ten years ago, no. Three years ago, maybe. Last year, probably," Hurdle said. "The game is running a course."

That number was just one of many in a piece authored by Bob Nightengale that should make eyes pop for any baseball fan.

• Players are striking out more than at any time, 22.5 percent of all plate appearances.

• On Tuesday, 41 position players in lineups leaguewide were batting .200 or below.

• Players strike out, walk or hit home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So for more than a third of every game, there's not a fielder involved in the action.

• Sports Illustrated chipped in with this one: The average time between balls put in play is "a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds."

Hurdle chimed in with a stat of his own.

"It's less than 18 minutes of actual activity within an average three-hour game," Hurdle said. "But that doesn't scare me off. I love the game. I'm just finding different things I love."

Nightengale drew a connection between this brand of play and fan disinterest. He points out average attendance across the league is at a low point since 1996.

I'd suggest the length of a season and the length of games is a bigger deal. But, yeah. All that.

What about the players, though?

It's their game.

Do they think this K-BB-HR-or-nothing trend has gone too far?

"I've felt that way for a little while. I like the older style of baseball. People going for base hits," Pirates pitcher Steven Brault said. "It's a little more exciting when people go for doubles and triples instead of trotting around the bases.

"In basketball, you are seeing more three-pointers shot, right? It's just a quicker way to put points on the board. I get it. But I don't love it."

Some have advanced the notion that the stigma of striking out is dead.

In Little League, if you struck out, you felt shame. But now, the analytics experts say strikeouts aren't so bad because the "risk/reward" of a strikeout versus lifting a ball — with the all-important "exit velocity" and "launch angle" — is worth it.

"As a kid, if you struck out, you were mad," Pirates All-Star Josh Harrison said. "But as you get older, you understand. You see your favorite players do it at the highest level.

"You still get frustrated, though. It's a lonely walk back to the dugout. It's an out nobody had to make a play on."

Hurdle admitted that the organizations themselves are partially responsible for the trend, that it's not just an "evolution of the game" discussion.

"We've created some of this within our industry," Hurdle said. "What's important in arbitration. What gets paid. What we are paying attention to. Some of it, we've got our fingerprints on."

Arizona's first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said that point from Hurdle bleeds into roster construction.

"Teams want pitchers with strikeouts. Strikeout are valued really high," Goldschmidt said.

But then he also went on to point out the irony of how much teams claim to love pitch efficiency.

"A pitcher could get an eight- or nine-pitch strikeout. But is that better than getting first-pitch ground ball with weak contact?" he wondered.

He's right. It's quite an inconsistency, isn't it?

Goldschmidt is a five-time All-Star. Yet he admits he's as much a part the trend as anyone.

The numbers back up Goldschmidt's point.

Of Goldschmidt's 314 plate appearances this year, 148 of them have ended in a walk, strikeout or home run. That's 47 percent, well above the record-high league average.

Among National League hitters he is sixth, first and fourth respectively in those categories.

"I don't know a hitter who is content with striking out," Goldschmidt continued. "I hate (striking out) as much as anyone. But I still do it at a decently high rate. You do everything you can to pull the ball in play. With pitchers throwing 100 and have 92 miles-per-hour sliders, that's not easy to do.

"More ground balls are outs than ever before. It's just less advantageous than it used to be to put the ball in play. Teams are putting a huge priority on defense."

The old Nike commercial was "chicks dig the long ball." If they still do, based on attendance, maybe not as much.

And no one seems enthralled with the walks and strikeouts at all.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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