Editorial: Baseball’s back, with megadeals and metrics, strikeouts and maybe more empty seats

  • Second baseman Dave Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles pleads his case before "Judge" Frank Robinson as the team holds its Kangaroo Court in the locker room Aug. 15, 1969 in Baltimore, Md. Robinson, wearing a mop head in lieu of a powdered wig, uses his bat to call the court to order, Fines most for $1, are leveled frequently after the team wins and the pot for a post season party now tops $500 shown on Aug. 15, 1969.(AP Photo/WAS)

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The 1 percent strike it ever richer while middle class wages stagnate; the free market is not working as intended; business models are disrupted by the digital revolution; there are worries about labor unrest and a shrinking customer base.

Maybe life really does imitate baseball. Or vice versa.

Welcome to the 2019 Major League Baseball season, which opened last week with two games in Japan between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. The stateside schedule begins Thursday with all 30 teams in action. While we generally do not approve of opening the national pastime’s season on foreign soil, this time it made sense. It gave Japanese fans a chance to bid a fond farewell to Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle outfielder who began his brilliant career in his home country before moving to the U.S. in 2001 and becoming one of the game’s brightest stars. Ichiro retired after the second game of the series and began the mandatory five-year waiting period for eligibility for election to the Hall of Fame, which in his case is a mere formality.

And speaking of overseas, MLB will go on the road to Europe this year for the first time, when Sparta and Athens (that is, New York and Boston) renew their ancient hostilities in London in late June. Presumably, The Show will go on whatever happens with Brexit.

The offseason was punctuated by three stars in their prime, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout, signing megadeals with, respectively, the Phillies, the Padres and the Angels. Harper got a 13-year, $330 million contract from Philadelphia; Machado, a 10-year, $300 million deal from San Diego; and Trout, a 12-year, $430 million agreement with Los Angeles. Whether all that money is sufficient to buy happiness remains to be seen. Harper will be laboring in a city where the baseball critics are as discerning, demanding and demoralizing as anywhere in the land. Machado is joining a team with a load of developing young talent but a long history of abject failure. And for all his considerable prowess at the plate and in the field, Trout has been to the postseason on only one occasion so far in his seven-year career, and that might not change anytime soon.

The players union and other observers have been quick to point out that those lucrative contacts were negotiated while the free-agent market for older players remained sluggish for the second year in a row. Several talented and experienced big leaguers were without jobs deep into spring training, and several others settled for short-term, bargain-basement contracts. In fact, the average big league salary went down in 2018 for the first time in 14 years, to a little over $4 million a year.

One explanation for this situation is that the statistical revolution that has swept baseball in recent years leads teams to assign less value to older players, whose decline in production can be sliced and diced and demonstrated by a host of new metrics. Teams are increasingly casting their lot with youngsters, who are cheaper and under club control for six years before reaching free agency.

That in turn results in some teams being less competitive in the short term. In fact, eight teams lost at least 95 games last year, a record. The fans seem to have taken note, as attendance declined by more than 3 million in 2018, dropping below 70 million for the first time since 2003.

Either that, or they were sick and tired of seeing batters swing and miss. For the first time in major league history, there were more strikeouts than hits in a season, another probable result of statistical analysis. As defensive positioning has become more sophisticated and more potential hits are flagged down by fielders, batters have concluded that their best chance is to hit the ball out of the ballpark. Swinging for the fences and striking out go hand in hand.

Despite all this, and the sport’s well-documented problem in appealing to the younger demographic with its phone-based attention span, New England fans have good reason to savor the new season. The Red Sox, coming off a magical championship run, and the talent-laden Yankees figure to wage hand-to-hand — or perhaps arm-to-arm and bat-to-bat — combat all season long, with a good chance that they will meet again in the playoffs in October.

Should old acquaintance be forgot as we ring in the new year, we sadly note that the estimable Frank Robinson died during the offseason at the age of 83. Playing for 21 seasons between the mid-’50s and the mid-’70s, mostly for the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, he was the only player to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues. He also won the triple crown in 1966, hit 586 home runs on his way to first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame, and became the first black manager in the big leagues.

The legendarily intense Robinson also presided over the Orioles’ kangaroo court, the tribunal before which players who have transgressed against baseball’s unwritten laws on and off the field — by, for instance, missing a sign, fraternizing with the enemy, or failing to hustle on the base paths — are good-naturedly arraigned and summarily held accountable. No doubt he was summoned to the judicial bench because his teammates recognized that Robinson was tough but fair, demanding excellence and effort from all, and from no one more than himself. We’d like to think that if there’s a kangaroo court in the Great Beyond, Chief Justice Robinson will be presiding for eternity.