Keep the strikeouts away

Fewer home runs and more strikeouts? That's hardly a good way to go about improving the game.

Originally Published: August 12, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

At least once in this space, I have written negatively about Sports Illustrated's top baseball writer, Tom Verducci. So it's with great pleasure that I write positively of his article in the August 5 issue that contained "14 other ways to help the game get back on track."

The 15th way -- actually, the first way -- is Verducci's "simple" plan for the players and the owners to agree on a labor deal. The plan didn't seem so simple to me, but those things are above my head so I'll leave the intricacies to Doug Pappas and Andrew Zimbalist and the thousands of other people who understand these things better than I do.

It's Verducci's other 14 ways that piqued my interest, and most of his suggestions sound like good sense to me. I won't belabor those here, because 1) you've probably seen the article; and 2) the people who matter, at the MLB offices in New York, have certainly seen the article.

So instead I'm going to argue with two of Verducci's suggestions ...

9. Create a baseball World Cup tournament
I know I'm swimming upstream on this one, especially considering the great financial riches that some network stands to reap, but I just can't get excited about this idea.

And Verducci himself supplies two of my three reasons, when he writes, "There's nothing like a little nationalism to arouse interest, as the sport of soccer proves every four years."

First of all, it makes me a little sick to my stomach to read someone espousing more nationalism. Isn't there already plenty to go around?

And anyway, soccer's World Cup isn't a great analog. The wonderful thing about the World Cup is that it brings together most of the world's greatest players. We've already got that, though. It's called Major League Baseball, home to somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of the world's greatest baseball players.

Another thing about soccer's World Cup ... those guys play to win. But that's not going to happen in baseball. You can talk about national pride all you want, but the star pitchers in baseball's World Cup would be more worried about their arms than their countries. It's fun to think about Pedro Martinez facing off against Randy Johnson, but how many innings is Pedro going to pitch in March? How many innings would the Red Sox let Pedro pitch?

Of course, that doesn't mean you can't have a World Cup ... but if we don't get to see the best players doing their best, then why should we watch?

11. Give pitchers a chance: Raise the mound
Verducci concludes this entry with, "Who knows? Power pitching could be the next big thing."

Good night nurse, that's the last thing we need. As Bill Lee and Crash Davis both said, "Strikeouts are boring." Sure, they're a kick when Randy Johnson is doing the striking, but don't you think the K would lose its appeal if all the kids were doing it?

The funny thing is, part of Verducci's argument is that fans are tired of home runs, that chicks don't dig the long ball so much any more. Fine, but it's not as if there's a shortage of strikeouts. We're already awash in strikeouts.

Throughout the 1960s, the National League saw between five-and-a-half and six strikeouts per game, peaking at 6.02 K's per game in 1969 (oddly enough, that was the year they lowered the mound).

Strikeouts dropped to roughly 5.5 per game in the mid-1970s, and remained there until the early '80s, when the rate began to rise steadily. It reached 6.00 in 1986, hung around there through the 1993 season ... and then started moving up again. In the space of just eight years, the National League strikeout rate has increased nearly 20 percent, to seven K's per nine innings.

Is this really a trend that we'd like to accelerate? Don't those poor fielders have little enough to do already? Do we really want to see strikeout records fall as often as home-run records?

No, yes, and no. We've already got a sport that's dominated by home runs and strikeouts, and we don't need any more of either. In this writer's opinion, we'd be better off with fewer of both, and there are ways to accomplish such a goal ... but for more on that, you'll have to wait for my ways to get the game back on track.

Though, come to think of it, I'm not sure the game ever got off track.

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