How the World Series opener personified self-aware baseball, the hyper-obsessive game today

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – Game 1 of the World Series introduced the latest apotheosis of self-aware baseball to its widest audience yet Tuesday night. For years, the game has barreled toward this moment in which all of its big-data shrewdness, its deification of efficiency, its obsessive granularity converged in one place. Altogether, they have produced the single largest change to baseball since integration. The question – the one that vexes a sport with an aging audience and a bleeding fan base – is whether this fidelity to winning a game is bad for the game.

On one hand, the players are better than ever. This was evident in so many ways Tuesday. Pitchers throw harder. Hitters marry patience with punishment. Fielders radiate athleticism. As the Boston Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 8-4, the individual matchups, and the victories that each produce, offered an impressive display of baseball skill. Those singular slivers of every game remind that a bat, a ball and 60 feet, 6 inches between them is an unassailable formula.

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Put together, here is what they equaled. Three hours, 52 minutes, a dozen pitchers, two dozen position players, 308 pitches and 24 strikeouts. Or: A long game, a lot of pitchers, a lot of hitters, a lot of pitches and a lot of strikeouts. And while the Red Sox and Dodgers are built for this excess, stockpiling hitters who toil through at-bats and filling their bullpens with a stockpile of live arms, their approaches are not some outlier. This is baseball in 2018, for better or worse.

Calling it self-aware baseball is, admittedly, a touch cheeky. This much is true: Never in the game’s history have teams been so acutely aware, or compulsively interested in, the minutiae of the minutiae of the minutiae. What unfolded during Game 1 was the personification of baseball in 2018. Not because two of the most dominant starting pitchers the game ever has seen, the Red Sox’s Chris Sale and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, were yanked after just four innings apiece. That came on account of neither being especially sharp and their opponents exploiting that.

Tuesday’s game by the numbers: Three hours, 52 minutes, a dozen pitchers, two dozen position players, 308 pitches and 24 strikeouts. (Getty Images)
Tuesday’s game by the numbers: Three hours, 52 minutes, a dozen pitchers, two dozen position players, 308 pitches and 24 strikeouts. (Getty Images)

It was everything that surrounded it. The maneuvering, the parrying, the search for the tiniest little advantage no matter the situation. All of the things that in theory are good and right but turn the game into a crawl. The practitioners of self-aware baseball – everyone in the game, really – are so fixated on gaining these minuscule edges that they either lack awareness of how its changes have affected the game writ large or simply don’t care.

Probably the latter, truth be told, because the evolution toward this incarnation of baseball has happened at a slow enough pace to allow complicity without guilt. The rules of baseball, save for a few small ones, have not changed. The dimensions of the field have not changed. What changed was the desire to leverage knowledge into application. And in that respect, baseball is a smashing success. Smarter did equal better, at least in terms of understanding how to win games. As much as the element of surprise exists and always will inside sports, and baseball in particular is a game that doesn’t always cooperate, front offices ignored the noise and sought the signal.

What they found was a brand-new game.

In Game 1, more than half the pitches were off-speed. Fastball usage fell to an all-time low of 55 percent during the regular season, and in the playoffs, spin is even more in. More than a quarter of Game 1’s pitches were sliders. One of every eight was a curveball. And those pitches arrive faster than ever. Eleven fastballs in Game 1 reached 100 mph. Drop the threshold to 95 mph-plus, and it was 72. Sliders’ radar-gun readings often start with a 9. Velocity, the numbers said, works, so teams started to covet velocity more than ever.

With that spin and speed came an increase in strikeouts, as evidenced by Game 1’s two dozen. For the first time ever, there were more punchouts in a season (41,207) than hits (41,021). Defensive shifting, a bogeyman that commissioner Rob Manfred has considered limiting, feasted on would-be singles. The league-wide batting average cratered to .248 as hitters responded to the difficulty of hard-to-barrel pitches by trying to maximize the damage done when they swing. This tinkering only compounded the lack of balls in play.

Further, the platoon advantages that have existed forever became even greater foci. While it may be a bit dramatic to declare the starting pitcher dead, the Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games this season with what amounted to two regular starters at any given time and the Milwaukee Brewers came within a game of defeating to the Dodgers for the National League pennant by “bullpenning” their way through a postseason. It is enough of a concern that at recent General Managers meetings, a number of prominent executives have wondered whether relief-pitcher usage was sending baseball to a place it did not want to go.

Neither Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale made it out of the fifth inning in Game 1 of the World Series. (AP)
Neither Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale made it out of the fifth inning in Game 1 of the World Series. (AP)

Nothing was done. No rules on the number of pitchers a team can use or the number of batters a reliever must face. And so in Game 1, Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts moved and countermoved with a ferocity not exactly unseen in the game’s annals. It’s simply more commonplace now than ever. Just five years ago when the Red Sox won the World Series, relief pitchers threw 14,977 of MLB’s 43,653 1/3 innings – about 34.3 percent. This season, it was 17,428 1/3 of 43,489 – slightly over 40 percent.

Only once, in that 2013 World Series, did the teams add up to 12 pitchers used. Never did they exceed 300 pitches. Not once did they reach 24 strikeouts. It was self-aware baseball, sure, but more the first generation. This is Version 2.0, and its practitioners find joy in it because they want to win a World Series and recognize that data and information – the kind that had Roberts empty his bench using pinch hitters by the seventh inning – gild that path.

Consider the bottom of the seventh. Boston led, 5-4. Roberts called on right-handed reliever Pedro Báez to work around a leadoff double. Baez struck out Mitch Moreland, a lefty whom Cora had inserted as his No. 3 hitter. Roberts intentionally walked cleanup hitter J.D. Martinez. Báez struck out Xander Bogaerts. With left-hander Rafael Devers awaiting, Roberts lifted Báez, even after his impressive work, and inserted lefty Alex Wood. Cora answered by pinch hitting Eduardo Núñez, who golfed an 84-mph curveball from Wood – a ball placed almost precisely where it should have been – just over the Green Monster in left field. Roberts thought he had an advantage with Wood against Devers or Núñez. He lost anyway. Self-aware baseball isn’t infallible.

“I love it,” Cora said. “It’s a challenge. They’re going to mix and match. They’re going to pinch hit, they’re going to bring their relievers. And you know how I say I hate managing the other team, but actually you have to manage them and see who they have, and where they’re going to come in, and when is going to be the point that the matchup is going to benefit us.”

Roberts concurred: “You look at both rosters, there’s a lot of depth, and you look at the position players on both sides, grinding at-bats, and both teams have the ability to work pitch counts and get pitch counts higher, so you’re going to have to go to the pen and play matchups.”

Once upon a time, this strategy had a derisive name: overmanaging. Not anymore. This is managing, period. It is far less of a reliance on hunches and devotion to data. It is a willingness to subvert what one believes he knows for what he knows to believe. Calling it robotic or obsequious is not fair. Only someone who relishes ignorance would criticize someone for learning more about his craft.

Where self-aware baseball becomes most difficult to stomach is in its unintended consequences. Statcast, the radar-and-camera tracking system that introduced the game to exit-velocity and launch-angle readings off the bat, and delivered to-the-RPM spin rates for every pitch thrown, was like replacing self-aware baseball’s Ford with a Ferrari. The ability to understand performance, tinker, iterate and correct was exponentially greater. As that happened, the margins for error, already razor thin, shrunk even more.

And so players, knowing the need to focus was greater than ever, took more time to do so. The time between pitches has ballooned to more than 24 seconds, and when there are 297 pitches per game – the biggest number ever, thanks to 3.9 pitches seen per plate appearance, also an all-time high – those add up. If MLB were to institute a 20-second pitch clock and hold players to it, that would, in theory, at this year’s pace and pitches per game, have shaved 19 minutes, 48 seconds. For games that on average run 3 hours, 4 minutes, that haircut would have made for the fastest games since 1985.

And maybe, in practice, it doesn’t work like that. Maybe players figure out new ways to stall or hitters see even more pitches. Baseball does that. The game endures, the game tugs between progress and regression, the game laughs as all of us fools that love it wonder exactly where it will go next.

What’s clear is that four-hour World Series games that don’t have high drama aren’t exactly digestible for a young generation that craves entertainment delivering constant hits of dopamine and oxytocin. That’s not exactly baseball, and that’s certainly not self-aware baseball, which is a shame, because the underpinning of the latter – that every single decision in a game is capable of sinking you, so don’t screw up – is inherently exciting.

So far, it just hasn’t played that way. Game 1 was merely a prelude for what the remainder of the 2018 season will look like: long games and a lot of pitchers and a lot of hitters and a lot of pitches and a lot of strikeouts. The 2018 World Series, the Red Sox and the Dodgers, self-aware baseball distilled to its essence.

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