Long, boring and old: Can baseball make a comeback?

It’s time for baseball to make some dramatic rule changes. Attention spans have shortened during the internet age, and the game is rapidly losing younger fans to “more exciting sports” like football and basketball. Surprisingly, as of last season, more than half of all baseball fans were over the age of 50.

As a result, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred seems hell-bent on speeding games up. In recent years, baseball has introduced measures that keep batters in the box and force pitchers to throw more frequently. These changes have some potential – according to Vox, if the average amount of time between pitches were reduced by just three seconds, games would be around 15 minutes shorter. Unfortunately, a lot of these measures aren’t strictly enforced.

To complicate issues, the actual length of play may not be the core problem. As of last season, NFL games were longer than baseball games, and they have more commercial breaks and “dead time” too. In other words, baseball seems to be boring even when things are happening, and it’s easy to see why.

The majority of NFL plays are crucial – after all, you only get four downs before the opponent gets the ball. Moreover, as teams drive down the field, the momentum generally builds up slowly before ending in a touchdown or clutch defensive play. While the NFL does have some boring moments, these plays are relatively brief – take extra points, for example.

Compare this to baseball, where balls and strikes seem to have little outward importance. Even if someone gets to first base, their team isn’t particularly likely to score. To make matters worse, there are only 1.29 baserunners per inning, and more than a third of these baserunners are due to walks.

If quick games were the key to increased excitement, Mark Buehrle would be the most popular player in baseball. Buehrle, a retired pitcher, was dubbed “a one-man baseball-game accelerator” by fivethirtyeight. During his time in the majors, he employed the perfect formula for sped up play: don’t strike out anyone, don’t walk anyone and especially don’t hold onto the ball between pitches.

Here’s the problem: Mark Buehrle isn’t exciting. He’s about as boring as you get.

Baseball’s thrills come from action pitches. A ball hit into the gap is exciting. Strikeouts and homeruns are even better. Ground balls and fly balls can have their moments, but nobody’s favorite play is “strike two.” In other words, to make baseball exciting, Commissioner Manfred would have to drastically alter the rules – potentially changing the very idea of balls and strikes.

Under this hypothetical scenario, a strike would be an out (perhaps aside from foul balls). A ball would be a walk. Pitchers would be forced to attack the strike zone and hitters would be forced to swing. Perhaps innings could have four or five outs rather than three – since this would increase the amount of baserunners.

Such a strange game would no longer really be baseball, but that’s precisely my point. Either baseball has to accept its descent into comparative obscurity, or it can no longer be the national pastime we’ve enjoyed for generations.