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Show stopper: Baseball analytics make it a whole new game

The game was grinding. Paul Molitor’s wheels were turning.

Two outs, top of seventh, runners on second and third. One of baseball’s best hitters, J.D. Martinez, staring down Twins reliever Trevor Hildenberger.

Molitor scanned a laminated card full of data from the Twins’ analytics department. Each pitcher and opposing batter are assigned a number on a color-coded matchup grid: Green is favorable, yellow neutral, red danger.

With the Twins leading Boston 2-1, Molitor’s gut told him to ride Hildenberger. His card supported his instincts. The Twins shifted an extra infielder to the right side. Didn’t matter. Martinez whiffed for strike three.

That singular snapshot from a 3-hour, 14-minute game June 19 served as a microcosm of Major League Baseball in 2018: Managers armed with volumes of data, analytics driving defensive shifts, bullpen use, and oh yes, another strikeout.

The Grand Old Game, wired with technological enhancements, looks smarter than ever, but it’s wheezing, too. Sophisticated data influence almost every decision, but the results have produced more strikeouts, fewer balls in play and more dead time.

“We are probably in the most dramatic changes in the history of baseball,” said former All-Star infielder Harold Reynolds, an analyst for MLB Network.

The burning question is whether this evolution, or revolution, is good for the game. Baseball has taken bold measures to correct itself before, even in the modern era – lowering the mound 5 inches in 1969, after the “Year of the Pitcher,” when Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA; banning steroids in 2005 after Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and others posted astonishing home run totals.

Now, for the first time in history, a season is on pace to finish with more strikeouts than hits. Batting average has plunged to .247, the lowest since 1972, the year before the American League adopted the DH.

Teams are shifting at least three infielders to one side of second base in 17.3 percent of plate appearances, at least 10 times more frequently than they did seven years ago, helping turn a superstar such as the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper into a .214 hitter.

With massive contracts often tied to home runs, hitters have become fascinated with launch angle and less on putting balls in play. The league produced 6,105 home runs last season, which obliterated the previous record of 5,693 set in 2000 during MLB’s steroid era.

Teams use an average of 4.23 pitchers per game, a league record, up from 2.75 three decades ago. That means less work for starting pitchers and an endless parade of relievers.

In a relentless pursuit of strikeouts, teams are vacuuming action right from the game. The average time between balls put in play this year stands at 3 minutes, 45 seconds, according to Sports Illustrated. That’s 41 more seconds of repeated inactivity than in 1998.

“There’s a couple of big things that are certainly eye-popping,” former Twins manager Tom Kelly said. “Strikeouts are somewhat accepted, bullpen usage and starters only pitching five innings.”

League officials continue searching for ways to speed up the pace, with the average length of a nine-inning game at an even 3 hours entering Saturday.

Perhaps not coincidentally, attendance is on track for its lowest level since 2003. More than 4,100 fewer fans are attending games on average than 10 years ago.


All-Star Game a test

Tuesday’s All-Star Game brings another litmus test. According to Baseball Almanac, last year’s “Midsummer Classic” drew 9.3 million TV viewers, down from 11.3 million in 2014, when it was at Target Field.

One of baseball’s biggest challenges is attracting young fans, especially with all the entertainment options competing for their attention. According to a study of 2017 Nielsen data by Sports Business Journal, the average age of a baseball TV viewer was 57, compared to 42 for the NBA.

Baseball’s lack of action and criticism of the game becoming boring have inspired radical ideas, even from traditionalists.

Twins pitching great Jim Kaat favors a move to seven-inning games.

“I don’t come from a standpoint that the game’s not what it used to be,” Kaat said. “I enjoy the game and my era, but I care for the game, and I hate to see it become what it’s becoming.”

In an interview with the Star Tribune, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called the game “very healthy” and a “great entertainment value for the fan,” chalking up the attendance decline to poor weather across the country in April. But Manfred acknowledged the league is monitoring trends, such as the shrinking numbers of balls in play.

“It is the product of 30 GMs and managers out there, trying to use information to win a few extra games,” he said. “It’s the same goals that have always applied to the game, it’s just people applying a different method of analysis in order to achieve the result they’ve always been trying to achieve.”


Analytics seek an edge

Analytics are the root of this sea change. Baseball decisions have long been based on numbers, but the “Moneyball” era ushered in a revolutionary shift in philosophy under a wave of young general managers who often espouse nontraditional ideas.

The Twins joined that movement two years ago by replacing longtime general manager Terry Ryan with Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, who has beefed up the organization’s infrastructure by hiring dozens of employees, many in the analytics department.

The Twins rank near the top of MLB in defensive shift usage at 28 percent. They utilized one alignment against the Kansas City Royals this past week with third baseman Eduardo Escobar playing deep left field, as part of a four-man outfield, with the three other infielders to the right of second base.

One Twins staffer likened every at-bat to an analytical chess match.

“I like trying to find an edge,” Falvey said. “I think if anything the game will continue to evolve and change at an even more rapid pace than we’ve seen.”

In terms of analytics and implementing creative strategies in operations, Twins President Dave St. Peter said his organization is now “all in, I can assure you that.”

The entire league reflects that mind-set, which has created new trends, some of which frustrate purists who see deterioration in the game.

“The problem that I personally have with analytics is it was designed to add information, not to run the game,” said former Twins pitcher Jack Morris, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this month. “When theories and formulas and those things become more important than your history of knowledge, then I think we’re going backwards.”

Adam Jones, a five-time All-Star outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, disagrees with doom-and-gloom sentiments.

“It’s a completely [different] game than it was when I first got up here 12 years ago, but I still love it,” he said. “It’s still awesome. All this other stuff is just noise.”

Molitor falls in the middle as an old-school manager who has embraced new analytics.

He keeps a binder on his desk that contains reams of data points, spray charts and other statistical breakdowns of that series opponent.

“This is just taking it to another level,” he said. “It’s much more specific.”

Added Falvey, “We’re constantly challenging ourselves to find new information that will help us.”


Shifts go mainstream

Defensive shifting has become a standard tactic across the league thanks to deep-dive analysis. Many hitters have struggled to adjust to different alignments, including stars such as Harper, a six-time All-Star at age 25.

The impact of hits being taken away by shifts has spurred calls for MLB to enact rules that ban or limit shifting. Kansas City manager Ned Yost said he would like to see shifts outlawed, yet his team employs a shift at the second-highest rate in MLB (31.2 percent).

Former Twins shortstop Roy Smalley is opposed to any shift restrictions, arguing it’s incumbent on hitters to make adjustments.

“We have the best hitters supposedly in the world, and they keep hitting the ball into the shift,” he said. “Figure out how to just roll the ball over there and you’ve got a base hit. No, we don’t want to make them do that. We better move everybody out of their way so they can get the hits that they’re used to. Just philosophically, I’m scratching my head saying ‘That’s crazy.’ ” Reynolds described hitters’ inability to adjust to shifts as generational “selfishness.”

“I say selfish because everybody is looking to hit home runs,” Reynolds said. “Front offices have been a big part of this, too. They want to pay guys for home runs. … I think we’re really at a crossroads.”


Spin on strikeouts

One might argue it’s a crisis in regard to strikeouts. Roughly 22 percent of plate appearances result in a strikeout this season. The rate was 17.5 percent 10 years ago.

Several factors are to blame for that increase, including tougher pitching (faster velocity and more breaking pitches thrown), an obsession with home runs, changes in swings to maximize launch angle and hitters abandoning the old modified approach with two strikes.

Attitudes have changed, too. Striking out simply doesn’t carry the same stigma as it once did.

“Now we celebrate strikeouts,” former Twins All-Star outfielder Torii Hunter said. “We tell them that it doesn’t matter, so we’ve got guys with high strikeouts.”

Morris was equally blunt about the impact of high strikeout frequency.

“I think it’s killing the game,” he said. “Strikeouts have always been important when they mean something. They don’t mean anything when a guy tries to strike out 27 guys and ends up leaving the game in the fourth inning because he has 110 pitches.”

Bullpen role expanding

That’s another fundamental change, quick hooks for starting pitchers. The Royals turbocharged a movement toward bullpen dominance with their template for winning a World Series title in 2015. They relied on a trio of flamethrowers to lock down games after the sixth inning.

Teams have tried to copy that blueprint, putting a premium on high-velocity relievers to fill specialty roles. In 2007, only three MLB relievers averaged 96 miles per hour on their fastball. Last season, that number swelled to 47 relievers (minimum 20 innings), according to FanGraphs.

Bullpens are no longer the province of failed starters. Now, they are loaded with high-velocity strikeout artists.

“The old-school mentality is, let’s get the [starter’s] pitch count up and get to the bullpen,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “It’s not like that anymore. A lot of times it’s like, let’s keep this guy in.”

The Tampa Bay Rays ripped up the traditional model completely with an experiment this season. They turned closer Sergio Romo into an “opener,” having him start five games before handing the ball off by the second inning.

The bullpen arms race has lowered the workload standard for starting pitchers. Not surprisingly, pitchers of previous generations are not enamored with this change.

“I used to go to a game to see two pitchers. They’re called starters,” Morris lamented. “Now I’m blessed to see 14 pitchers. Seven on seven.”

Baseball’s current conundrum is whether to keep letting the game run its natural course, or change the rules to inject more action into the game.

St. Peter studies fan engagement thoroughly as Twins president. He doesn’t believe the length of games is a “huge detriment” for those who attend in person because going to a major league ballpark is still an experience for many fans. He noted that the average time of games is not drastically different from 15 years ago, when it was 2:46.

“I think we as an industry have created this perception that our games last 4 hours,” St. Peter said. “Some do, but guess what, some last 2 hours and 20 minutes. Not to suggest it’s not an issue, but I think there’s a perception that it’s worse than it really is.”

The lack of action seems more concerning with the effect it’s having on even avid, longtime fans.

Brandon Miller is a 56-year-old fan from St. Paul, Minn. He has attended 10 to 15 Twins games every season since 1982. He sees “incredible” talent in MLB now, but he preferred it when sacrifices, stolen bases and hit-and-run were regularly part of the game. The slow pace now occasionally will cause him to leave games early “to beat boredom.”

“I don’t want to sound like a crabby old guy,” he said. “Obviously I still go to a lot of games. It’s just easier for me now to just get up and leave.”

Smalley recalled essays that former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti wrote about the “pastoral nature and flow of the game.” He misses that romantic part.

“Do I like the way the game is going?” Smalley asked. “I love the caliber of athletes that the game is getting. Baseball is getting really great athletes again. But we’re going to lose, ultimately, if we don’t at least get back to the speed of the Bart Giamatti days when it actually was nice to watch a ballgame in that rhythm.”

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Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor ponders his lineup in the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn. (Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor ponders his lineup in the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn. (Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

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