There was a very long time when I did not watch the NBA. The early 90s Pistons teams brought in a brutality to the game that was hard to watch. Then the Pat Riley-era Knicks perfected that style of basketball and it spread around the league. 78-70 games were not enjoyable entertainment. And in the end, sports are entertainment. They have to be entertaining. In 2004, the NBA made the hand-check a foul, which opened up the game for guards to score. Over the last 17 years, the NBA has once again become a high-flying super fun game to watch. The era of the dominant center has ended, Embiid and Giannis to an extent being exceptions, but it is the game of amazing guards such as Curry and Lillard and of point forwards such as LeBron and Doncic who can do everything. The big men who now dominate tend to be Europeans such as Jokic and Porzingis who can shoot and pass, as well as rebound and play at least some defense. It’s….just a lot of fun to watch and I am excited for the playoffs.
Baseball is in a similar situation to the NBA in the early 2000s. I was a big supporter of analytics when it entered the game. So much of baseball was based on ridiculous outdated ideas held onto like mantras. But there’s not much question now that the success of analytics has led to very bad entertainment value. In a game that already is so old-fashioned that it’s hard to get new fans in an era of video games and social media and highlight plays, this is an existential crisis for it. The new MLB deal with ESPN provides…1 game a week.
There are a variety of problems. Defensive shifts make it impossible to get hits. The Three True Outcomes fanaticism means that other than the occasional home run, nothing happens. The excitement of base stealing is largely dead. Relief pitchers that value speed over anything else–very much including control–makes the pitching styles repetitive, not to mention dangerous to hitters, especially now that the analytics tell everyone to throw up in the zone, right at the hands.
Moreover, some of the changes that MLB has made to try and fix the game have been mixed at best. I do very much support the 3 hitter minimum for relief pitchers. That’s a big win. But the extra innings rule of starting with a runner on second base is clown show stuff and reducing doubleheaders to 7 innings really does change the game in negative ways, though I can see why players would like it. I know there is talk to move the mound back a bit, but color me skeptical that it would matter much.
Last week, ESPN had a forum on how to fix the game with some of its writers. Some of the entries were about labor relations (which isn’t really at the core of the present existential crisis of the game). Others try to get at the more core issues, but only at a superficial level. The diagnosis is easy–the game is boring and slow and baseball management seems to hate the game and the fans. The cure? Well, I don’t know. Banning the shift seems a start, but how do you fix a game where intelligent analysis has shown how to win, even if it is boring?
It’s a real problem.