In a recent interview with WEEI.com in Boston, Fox Sports lead broadcaster Joe Buck was asked to address the poor ratings for the 2018 World Series, which were down 25 percent over 2017. This was a bit surprising since the 2018 Series involved two of the most popular teams in baseball in major media markets on both coasts. Buck explained the lower ratings by saying the games were “not that compelling.” That’s a fair opinion, but then Buck goes on to defend his broadcast partner John Smoltz and lay the blame at the feet of the analytic revolution.
In the interview, Buck said:
(John) Smoltz has gone from the darling three years ago to, ‘He hates baseball.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s that he loves the game, and he’s not that (removed) from playing, and he wants to see a certain approach that’s starting to disappear in the game. I’m not sure analytics, launch angle and all of that is producing better baseball. He has said 1 million times to me, because they’re allowing the shift, sluggers say, ‘If I hit the ball on the ground, I’m going to make an out, because everyone is on this side of the field. So I’m going to swing and try to launch the ball out of the ballpark, and we don’t care about strikeouts.’ That might be fine in the regular season, but the better at-bats belonged to the Red Sox, and to me, that’s why they won. They fought to get on base, they went deep into at-bats, and they were able to put the bat on the ball, and get runs. I think that’s always going to help a team win. It might not be the only way, but my God, if putting the bat on the ball and creating action isn’t better than swinging and missing, then I don’t understand it either.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, I’ve made the argument several times that the declining ratings in baseball are as much a result of the fractured marketplace as anything and that ratings for everything on television is down. That MLB is still drawing a significant audience is evidenced by the huge new deal (with a big increase in fees) that Fox Sports signed with MLB a few weeks ago.
Having said that, it is curious that there would be such a drop off in ratings for a World Series involving the Red Sox and Dodgers. And in that sense, Buck is right. The 2018 World Series was a big letdown. The Red Sox established very early in the 2018 season that they were the team to beat and proceeded to make sure that no one did. In the World Series, the Red Sox won four of the five games pretty handily and it rarely seemed like the Dodgers posed any real threat to Boston. Game three was an exception, an 18-inning, 7-hour and 20 minute classic that was enthralling from beginning to end. It was a work of art, albeit one that wasn’t exactly easily accessible to the casual fan. It was a challenging read that required both an appreciation of the rhythms of a long extra-inning game as well as a whole ton of coffee to get through the whole thing. To put it in terms of “prestige television,“ it wasn’t the easily-digestible action between heroes and villains like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. It wasn’t the nostalgia trip of Stranger Things. No, game 3 was more the morally-ambiguous slow burn of Mad Men or The Wire combined with surrealism of Twin Peaks: The Return.
So yeah, the 2018 World Series wasn’t compelling TV. But it’s disappointing to see Buck pile on to the anti-analytics bandwagon. In one sense, he’s defending his broadcast partner. That’s understandable. If John Smoltz had said on the air that the reason the Dodgers had lost was because they’d been eaten by lizard men and replaced with a group of homunculi, then it’s Buck’s job to say that Smoltz offers a unique perspective into the game. I understand why Buck defends Smoltz.
But this focus on blaming “analytics” is getting tiring. First of all, the ratings were down from 2017’s clash with the Astros, and they’re the most analytic-based team around. Secondly, shifting doesn’t really affect the batting average on balls in play very much. In fact, teams are better off not shifting against most batters.
All this blaming of launch angles and shifting and analytics is about one thing: a scapegoat. Yes, there is less action in an MLB game and fewer balls in play than 20 years ago. It’s not MLB teams telling their hitters to strike out more and hit more home runs. No, the biggest reason that strikeouts are way up and hits are way down is that every team in baseball has at least half a dozen pitchers who can throw 95 mph. Twenty years ago, a hard thrower would regularly sit in the 92-94 mph zone. Now, that’s considered bare average. Yes, the increased use of relievers has allowed pitchers to throw harder because they don’t have to pace themselves as much. That’s an analytics thing, I guess. But it’s not because we don’t value hits as much as we used to, because we do. Hitters want to put the ball in play. It’s just not that easy anymore.
As far as Smoltz goes, you can’t say “He loves baseball but only the way he used to play it” and still be honest with your audience. It’s like a 17th Century astronomer saying “I love astronomy, but all this heliocentric stuff is ruining it. Let’s get back to the earth being the center of the universe and then we’ll all enjoy science more.” Knowledge advances and there is no going back. If you can find a new way to win baseball games, you shouldn’t not use it because it offends the aesthetic sensibilities of an old ballplayer.
Also, if the games “aren’t that compelling,” isn’t it the job of the broadcasters to make it more compelling? Sure, there are limits to what a broadcaster can accomplish. But I’m going to say that constantly tearing down the game as it is played today, as Smoltz does (and Buck apparently endorses), is not the way to make the games “more compelling.”
Is the lack of action in MLB games a problem? I’d say it is. We do need to see fewer strikeouts, fewer walks and more balls put into play. We also need to speed up the games. But the root of the problem is that the players are simply too good these days, not the analysts in the back room. (Although they’re good too.)
MLB can do a few things. A pitch clock seems inevitable and it’s a good idea. Beyond cutting down on the dead time between pitches, there is also some evidence that pitchers don’t throw as hard with less time between pitches. MLB could also lower the mound again, like they did when the faced a similar problem in 1968. MLB does need to make some changes to increase the action on the field. Telling batters to hit the ball on the ground like it was 1910 again is not the answer.
So to answer the question in the title of this article, no World Series is boring. But on the relative scale of World Series, yes, the 2018 version was a bit of a snoozer because the Red Sox were that good. I’d also argue that the Red Sox won without the recognizable stars of the past like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Even Dustin Pedroia was only there to cheer. Mookie Betts is a superstar and is going to be a household name one day, but he’s not really all that well-known to the public at large. Yet.
But was the 2018 World Series bad because the players don’t approach the game the way some Hall-of-Famer did in his prime 20 years ago? No, it wasn’t and stop pretending that we can go back to 1998.
(h/t Hardball Talk for pointing to the WEEI piece.)