JUPITER, Fla. — A country exhaled Thursday when baseball owners and players agreed on a five-year deal that ensures the playing of a full 162-game schedule, among numerous items. The Grand Old Game was back, at least from financial and logistical standpoints.
But how Grand will it be, really, on the field?
Check the television feeds or what you see when you’re at Busch Stadium. To many, the baseball game seems to be more a social occasion than a riveting athletic endeavor. People would rather check their cell phones than watch the next pitch, which is apt not to be hit.
Games lasted a record 3 hours 10 minutes last season, which is about the length of an NFL game. But you don’t see nearly as many folks checking their cellphones during a football game for fear they might miss something. Many times in baseball, there isn’t a lot to be missed.
There has been a lot of talk about the three true outcomes — strikeout, walk, home run. Perhaps remarkably, all were down some last season from 2019, the last previous full season played and when all were rampant. Strikeouts were down by an average of 22 per team over a whole season, walks were down by only four and home runs were down by 28 per team. There were 6,776 homers slugged in 2019 and 5,944 last season.
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But team batting averages also were down — at .244 in 2021 compared to .252 in 2019. On-base percentages dipped from .323 to .317, slugging from .435 to .411 and OPS from .758 to .728. And runs scored were well down, too, by nearly a total of 1,500 for the season from 2019 to 2021.
Some of these numbers can be attributed to defensive shifts, which might disappear in 2023. That, however, doesn’t help this season, which might be one of the most important in history from an attendance and interest-level basis.
Cardinals primary owner Bill DeWitt, who is a baseball lifer from the time his father owned the St. Louis Browns and he was the bat boy in the 1950s, knows the game needs some help.
“More balls in play is kind of a key,” he said. “When you’ve got more balls in play, then players with speed have value. Stolen bases have more value.
“I think the games need to be shortened. There needs to be more action. I’m not saying anything that anybody else in the world isn’t.”
New Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol has a legacy to live up to, relative to franchise success, but he also has some thoughts that the game needs to change its pace and excitement level.
“I don’t have a real proposal on how to do that,” he said. “But, especially to a younger audience, (baseball needs) to be able to engage them and get them excited about our sport.”
“Small ball,” or “smaller ball,” could be one manner to do that, and the Cardinals have been better at that than most of their contemporaries. While major-league teams averaged 74 stolen bases in 2021, the Cardinals swiped 89 with only 22 caught stealing. In 2019, they had 116 steals in 145 attempts, versus the major-league average of 76 steals in 104 attempts.
But it doesn’t have to be all about the steal.
“Bunting, hit-and-run, more balls in play,” Marmol said. “The game has gone to homers and strikeouts, which doesn’t make it as exciting. Less balls in play.
“I think some of the stuff we’ve done with the running game — getting more guys in motion, more often than most clubs, brings a level of excitement. Stealing bags is in there.”
Then, there is the term “hitting behind the runner,” which rarely is uttered these days. Basically, with a man at first who has to be held on by the first baseman, that means shooting a single to right field through that hole between the first baseman and second baseman. That sends the runner to third base, in all probability.
“There’s a time and place for all of it,” said Marmol, 35. “When people speak in absolutes of you only draft pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff or guys who only hit homers. … Well, I love it when we strike people out and I love it when we hit homers. But there’s opportunities to strategize — laying down a bunt, hit-and-run, getting a guy in motion.
“We’ve prepared well for the running game. We’re very detailed in when we steal bases, how we steal bases, against who we steal bases. That’s something I think the league has put the brakes on quite a bit. But we’re active in that area.
“So, when you’re asking me about some of the small things, I’m completely open to it at the right time and right place, for sure.”
As bench coach, Marmol often dealt with the Cardinals’ analytics department, which would present printouts of strategies and performance levels. He and former manager Mike Shildt then would have those available for decision-making during games.
Marmol acknowledged that “there’s a higher (analytics) value placed on someone who can drive the ball out of the ballpark. You can touch all four (bases). It makes sense. But how do you use your pieces?
“There’s days when a guy may not be feeling great but, rather than just giving up the at-bat, it’s a great time to put a (baserunner) in motion and hit-and-run. It’s a great time to advance the runner. There’s a human side of understanding your pieces for that specific day and how do I best utilize them?”
Big leaguers are the best in the business but they are not robotic. If you hit them the ball in the field or make them throw it somewhere, they might muff it or throw it away.
“It happens,” said Marmol. “Even at the big-league level, it happens.”
In other words, make the defense make a play.
“No doubt,” he said. “I agree with you.”
We’ll see about all this, of course. Just because the game is back, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Grand.
Photos: Cardinal major-leaguers begin arriving at Jupiter spring training camp