It’s just April. Because this is baseball, that is an entirely reasonable explanation for the problem. And so, too, is the weather, the nasty, Mother Nature-must-be-pissed-at-someone sort of frigid that canceled half a dozen more games Sunday afternoon and is threatening to set records for postponements.
And yet one look at the numbers across Major League Baseball shows a grim landscape. Not in home runs (which are down) or strikeouts (which are up) but attendance. Which isn’t just down – it is down precipitously, enough that one league official expressed concern that this isn’t simply a manifestation of the weather but something deeper and more troublesome for the game.
“I’m worried,” he said. “The tanking scares me.”
Inside front offices all spring, officials wondered whether the significant number of teams that neither spent in free agency nor harbored realistic notions of contention would have a tangible, negative effect on fans attending games. And while, yes, it is April, and, yes, it certainly is frickin’ freezing in here, Mr. Bigglesworth, and, yes, it is a small sample of games, the disintegration of crowd size around the game is alarming enough to track.
Compared to last season at this juncture, the Boston Red Sox are down about 2,500 fans a game. For the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it’s nearly 5,000. The Cleveland Indians’ average crowd has dropped more than 5,000, the Texas Rangers’ more than 7,000 and the Pittsburgh Pirates more than 7,500. The Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals each are in the 8,000-fan range, and the Miami Marlins are pushing 10,000. The most severe is the Baltimore Orioles, who have played six games at home and are at almost 16,000 fewer per.
Even if some are obviously weather-related, the numbers are nevertheless staggering. The average crowd of 27,532 over the 221 MLB games played this season is about 2,700 fans per game lower than last year through the same point. Over the course of a full season, that would amount to a drop of more than 6.5 million fans.
Now, the last time the league suffered through an April with more postponements than this was 2007. Over the first 225 games that season, the average crowd was 29,888. By the end of the year, that number leaped to 32,704 per game for a total of more than 79.5 million, still the largest attendance figure in the game’s history.
Perhaps this April is merely a blip, and crowds will fill stadiums all summer, and the rest-of-the-year-vs.-April attendance jumps by nearly 3,000 as it did back in ’07, and all is well. Except last year, attendance actually was higher in April than the rest of the season. In the previous four years, the April-to-later jump averaged fewer than 500 fans per game. A fortuitous bump may not be in the offing.
Attendance has stayed fairly stable since the boom of the late 2000s waned. For the eight-year stretch leading into 2017, it fluctuated between 73 million and 75 million a year. In 2017, it sunk below the 73 million-fan mark for the first time since 2002. So while …
1. Major League Baseball pushes the $10 billion mark in annual revenue and is shrinking the amount it funnels to players, a dip in attendance would sound an alarm for a sport whose health depends on the success of its parochialism. Baseball, like politics, is a local game, and for every city that loses fans, it wants others to gain.
So it could quite rightfully point to Houston’s year-over-year gain of more than 10,000 per game or Seattle jumping 5,000-plus or Arizona or Milwaukee – dome, dome, warm, dome. And it could, and probably will, say that all you need is good weather for April baseball to thrive. And that may well be true. Problem is, the season started in March this year, and April has been nasty, too, and no obvious solution to the weather problem exists.
Play most of April in warm-weather cities? The cold-weather teams will be salty they never host a game on Opening Day – not to mention tired of being on the road after six weeks of spring training – and the warm-weather ones will be disappointed to waste home games in April when warm summer days are better moneymakers.
Push back the start of the season? Sure! And wind up with a World Series that runs even deeper into November than it already does? Playoff expansion, plus four extra off-days the players negotiated into the last collective-bargaining agreement, has made late March the new normal.
Doubleheaders? Well, yeah. That actually sounds pretty smart. Two a month in May, June, July and August, to capture the out-of-school crowd. Hold them on Tuesday, among the two lowest-attended days of the week, and do so after a mandatory Monday off-day. Take those eight days it saves and shave them off the front and back of the calendar.
This would be perfect if both the owners and players weren’t against it. Owners hate it because doubleheaders typically mean less revenue. Players despise the long days. Both are reasonable reactions, even if the league could market and monetize the doubleheaders and the players could negotiate something like two or three extra players that could be used for them.
These sorts of ideas gain traction only in the years when the weather stinks, which is a shame, because it shouldn’t take a series of bad events to plan in service of fans. Fresh ideas with ancillary benefits sound pretty decent in lieu of something unrealistic, like having …
2. Gerrit Cole start every game. It would be nice for every city to get to root for a starting pitcher with 36 strikeouts in 21 innings. The 10 hits and four walks aren’t bad, either. As if the defending-champion Astros needed something else to go right, their No. 4 starter has been the best pitcher in baseball.
Yes, he’s got some competition from teammates Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton, plus Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw and Dylan Bundy and Corey Kluber and Jose Berríos and Noah Syndergaard and, wow, there’s been quite a bit of good pitching over these first four turns through the rotation. Cole’s has been especially enjoyable to watch because of yet another Astros transformation.
Cole is throwing his fastball at a career-low rate, 53 percent, down from 60 percent last season. His slider and curveball now combine for nearly 40 percent of his pitches – and the slider in particular has renewed emphasis. Of the 64 sliders Cole has thrown, 21 have landed in the dirt and away to right-handed hitters. Seven have induced swings and misses. “He’s really finishing the slider,” said one scout who has seen Cole this season.
Cole isn’t going full-blown Astros, as his high-fastball percentage actually has dropped, even as his spin rate on the pitch has increased. Theoretically, that would make high fastballs more effective, as higher spin rates mean the ball drops less and has a rising effect. Whatever he’s doing, he ought continue: Batters are hitting .059 against Cole’s fastball, with 17 strikeouts on it in 34 at-bats. His only shortcoming has been the home run, with three solo shots accounting for each of the runs he has allowed.
Minute Maid Park isn’t exactly the easiest place to be a flyball pitcher, and Cole’s groundball rate of 22.9 percent is the lowest in the major leagues. It’s a fairly similar profile, actually, to
3. Max Scherzer, who may be the only pitcher having a better start to the season than Cole. Scherzer’s 38 strikeouts lead the major leagues. His 27 innings are best in the National League, just two-thirds of an inning behind Oakland’s Sean Manaea for tops across both leagues. He barely ever walks anyone. Hitters rarely square him up. And … of course he’s got a new pitch.
Well, it’s not entirely new. Scherzer has thrown a cut fastball before. Last year, according to the indispensable team at PitchInfo, Scherzer threw his cutter about 4.2 percent of the time and his slider close to 25 percent. In his four starts this season, the cutter has jumped to more than 16 percent and the slider slid to 11.3 percent.
Scherzer uses them in quite obvious ways, too: He throws the cutter around 88 mph exclusively to left-handed hitters. It was his fifth-most frequently used pitch to them last year; this year it’s second only to the fastball. Scherzer’s slider, on the other hand, is a touch slower at 85 mph and a weapon he utilizes liberally against right-handed hitters to complement his fastball.
Though newly unsheathed, the cutter has been an effective pitch so far and a testament not just to Scherzer’s physical mastery but his desire, even at 33, to better himself. His desire to learn is manifest, his capacity to do so just as obvious. Two straight Cy Youngs and three in five years weren’t enough for Scherzer. Neither were four pitches. He could’ve easily gone the route of …
4. Josh Hader, practically perfected two pitches and struck out the world with them. Between his fastball and slider, Hader has a chance to be a strikeout machine on the level of Aroldis Chapman, Billy Wagner and Andrew Miller, the patron saints of left-handed punchouts.
In his scintillating debut last season, Hader struck out 12.84 batters per nine. Only seven lefty relievers ever had posted a better rate. It’s also piddling compared to this year, when Hader has recorded 22 of his 29 outs via the strikeout – a rate of 20.48 per nine. He has appeared in six games this year and hasn’t struck out fewer than three in any. In his last outing, a two-inning save against the Mets, Hader struck out the first five hitters he faced, all swinging.
With the fastball sitting around 93 mph and the slider 82, his stuff is more Miller than Chapman and Wagner. And that’s how manager Craig Counsell is using him – more as a fireman than a traditional closer. With Corey Knebel out, that could change, though Counsell well understands the value of a strikeout machine, particularly in an era when …
5. Aaron Judge can strike out 30 percent of the time and make a strong case for MVP. He’s doing it again this year, albeit with a slightly lower whiff rate (25.8 percent) and an even more overwhelming offensive onslaught.
Lost in Judge’s monumental power is the quality of his eye. Judge is swinging at just 37.9 percent of pitches thrown at him this season, even though nearly a quarter of those he has seen have been his flaw as recently as last postseason: the slider. Judge adjusted, and on 15 balls in play against sliders this year, he is hitting .600 – 9 for 15, with six singles and three doubles. It’s a staggering improvement and the sort that could flip the scouting report on Judge – particularly with his swing-and-miss tendencies this year on changeups.
If this is the new Judge – the guy with the biggest raw power in the game slashing .340/.470/.566 and eliminating weak spots – then his ceiling is even higher than imagined. It’s also proof that even the best hitters can become entirely new versions of themselves, as …
6. Robinson Cano is proving this season. For a soon-to-be-26-year-old like Judge that’s one thing. At 35, Cano is entirely different, which makes his 2018 perhaps most remarkable of all.
For his entire career, Cano has been a free swinger. It has behooved him. Among the eight All-Star Games, the career average of .305 and the paucity of second basemen in the Hall of Fame, Cano has a good shot at going to Cooperstown in spite of a career on-base percentage of .355. Which is due, of course, to that swinging. Cano hacked at 52 percent of the pitches he saw last year, 51.3 percent over his career. The low total: 49.2 percent.
So how to explain this year, when Cano is swinging at only 38.3 percent of pitches thrown and has a 22 percent walk rate – more than three times his career average? “I’m really trying to wait for good pitches,” he said last week. “It’s taken me a long time, but I understand that I know the zone and if I get my pitch, I’ll hit it hard.”
Plate-discipline epiphany or not, the change that has Cano slashing .375/.537/.475 may not be sustainable at this level but could be very real. Plate-discipline stats tend to stabilize somewhere between 50 and 100 plate appearances, according to Russell Carleton, and an OBP-centric Cano would be one hell of a way to justify the back half of his contract.
It’s why Freddie Freeman and his 25.4 percent walk rate are so invaluable and Bryce Harper and his 25 percent walk rate can reasonably ask for a contract that starts with a 4 and Joe Mauer and his 22.7 percent walk rate are making the last year of his $184 million deal look good. Plate discipline is also what makes the …
7. Matts Who Play Third Base so intriguing. Matt No. 1 is Matt Chapman. He has been the best player in baseball this year, according to FanGraphs, and third best, per Baseball Reference. Two years ago, when he was striking out nearly 30 percent of the time at Double-A, Chapman looked as much like someone who might not make enough contact to survive in the major leagues as anything.
His glove and power bought him a ticket to the big leagues, and the A’s have been thankful ever since. After piling up nearly three wins above replacement in half a season last year, Chapman’s bat has caught up to his fielding this season. He’s slugging nearly .700 and has chopped his strikeout rate nearly in half, to 16.9 percent.
Matt No. 2 is Matt Davidson. At 27, he is three years older than Chapman. His route to the major leagues was far more circuitous, from first-round pick in 2009 to someone who looked like a 4A guy after being stuck in the minor leagues until he finally cracked the White Sox’s roster last season. His power was obvious. His 165-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio? Well, that was obvious as well.
Already Davidson has drawn nine walks this year, and even if one takes away his three-homer opening day, the trend line is positive and shows that one’s destiny is not always presaged. This is the sort of advice from which the …
8. Miami Marlins could learn. Last week, the Marlins attempted to steer a lawsuit against the club by the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County to federal court by claiming the team as a corporate citizen of the British Virgin Islands. Yes, a team based in Miami that built its stadium using tax dollars from Florida residents had the temerity to make that argument because a corporation that owns a share of the Marlins’ new holding company is supposedly operated out of the BVI.
The ever-enterprising Andy Slater took a little road trip to check it out, and what he unearthed was so very Marlins.
A P.O. Box. It’s perfectly absurd. This entire scenario exists only because the city and county are trying to recoup money from Jeffrey Loria’s sale of the Marlins to the Bruce Sherman-led group. Loria and the team are claiming they don’t owe a cent and would rather move the case to arbitration, something Miami is resisting.
Just another Marlins moment, one being repaid with the lowest attendance in baseball. Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, in the meantime, said he wouldn’t accompany the team to Yankee Stadium starting today, fearful that it would be an “awkward situation.” Going to a place where you are beloved doesn’t seem nearly as awkward as trying to use a laughable legal argument to avoid giving money to taxpayers who were fleeced out of it to begin with, but, hey, he’s the boss. Of the second-worst team in the NL. Who are behind the …
9. Los Angeles Dodgers, the third-worst team in the NL. Between the Dodgers and Washington Nationals, it hasn’t been a good start of the season for teams with aspirations for triple-digit victories.
The Dodgers finally beat the Diamondbacks on Sunday, snapping an 11-game regular-season losing streak to Arizona and moving their record to 5-9 behind a vintage 12-strikeout, no-walk Kershaw performance. The Dodgers haven’t hit. They’ve been a bit unlucky on the pitching side. They’ll be fine.
They are not Tigers awful or Royals awful or Marlins awful or Rays awful or Reds awful. There is a lot of bad product being played around …
10. Major League Baseball these days, and once the weather turns, that is going to be the ultimate test, one that could be the salvation players are seeking: If there is a lack of competitiveness during the 2018 season, will fans notice enough to care and stop showing up at the stadium?
One team that wasn’t mentioned earlier in terms of attendance dips was Philadelphia. Even though the Phillies are a demonstrably better team this year than last, their attendance cratered by nearly 6,500 fans per game over their first six. Why? Last year, the hated Nationals and Mets came to Citizens Bank Park for the first two series. This season, it was Miami and Cincinnati – the latter three games played in 40-degree chills in front of about 20,000 per. Baltimore just finished a three-game series against division rival Toronto in which it drew 26,954 – total.
Again, it was cold, and that matters. Soon enough, baseball will know exactly how much it matters. Every day is another data point, a sign that MLB, after players’ winter of discontent, is doing just fine. Or maybe it will learn that fans are smart enough to understand that a substandard team on TV beats whatever ambiance expensive tickets and overpriced concessions provide.
In a couple months, when the weather has turned, when the sample is big enough, when all of the potential variables are clear, MLB will understand whether this was an anomaly or something about which it should be concerned. Until then, some of the most fascinating numbers in baseball won’t be recorded on the field. They’ll be at the turnstiles.
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