Analyzing the “baseball is boring” stigma

What people will remember about new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’€™s first Hot Take is the relatively unimportant threat to take away our defensive shifts, but more important was the implicit subtext of it: Baseball is pretty boring. The Boringness is a threat to the game. It’€™s such a threat that even a few lost hits per week is something to take action on. The commissioner is saying (or, at least, subtexting) that.

There’€™s nothing wrong with acknowledging the flaws in your product and trying to improve them. If PepsiCo hired a new CEO who were to declare that Mountain Dew tastes like paste and might sell better if it didn’€™t, I’€™d give him a Nobel Prize. But if he were to complain that Mountain Dew is fizzy and has caffeine and is too often served cold, he’€™d be kind of a fool. Those are the only reasons to drink bottled paste.

So which is baseball’€™s boringness? I ask this as a fan who is obsessed with the thing, who counts it among the three or four irreplaceable joys in life, and who would change nothing about it besides making it more basebally. To me, much of what makes baseball boring is the equivalent of the fizz and the caffeine.

But I also ask it as somebody who knows what it’€™s like to casually follow a sport. I could name about 20 current NFL football players; I watch about five games a year. I’€™m not sure that the baseball equivalent of me — €”the guy who cares as little for baseball as I do football — €”watches even those five games a year, and that’€™s something a CEO would worry about. Is the sport too boring for the casual fan, and can it be fixed without alienating me? To answer that, we must first look at why baseball is boring.

IT’S SO QUIET

The last time I went to Petco Park, in the eighth inning of a close game I stood up to cheer a crucial batter/pitcher matchup. An usher came by to ask me to please sit down. An extreme example, sure, but baseball is a game with an occasional soundtrack but no score. There’€™s not much noise in anticipation of plays, but only in reaction to plays, which is how half hours can go by without much of an audio spike. It’€™s the only major sport that lulls.

For the casual fan, this is a problem. For the season ticket holder, it’€™s probably necessary. The day-in, day-out relationship we have to baseball relies at least partly on the sport’€™s steady peace, the way it easily transitions from foreground to background without ever demanding too sustained of a sprint from our adrenal glands. Anything more and we’€™d dehydrate.

Cause of Boredom: 5 percent (Note: This and all boredom figures to follow are scientifically generated and absolutely not chosen arbitrarily to make a point.)

THE COMMERCIALS COME AT THE BORING PARTS

Every sport has its commercials. Football has its breaks at the quarters, which are context neutral — €”they might be at an exciting part of the game, or a boring part of the game. And it has its timeouts and two-minute warnings, which often come at the most exciting parts of the game: The timeout is called specifically because the team is driving, a scoring chance needs to be preserved, the clock has become a ticking threat, and so on. Basketball timeouts come because a team is on a run, or because the game is hanging in the balance. In other words: Their commercial breaks are cliffhangers. If they didn’€™t exist, some screenwriter would invent them.

Most baseball commercials, meanwhile, come when the tension has been alleviated. They don’€™t come with two on and two outs; they come 45 seconds later, with none on and no outs. They come when your interest in the in-game scenario is at its lowest, when there is no threat (or promise) present and no threat (or promise) looming. They are, basically, the post-coital cigarettes. They are a boring reminder that you have other things you could be doing now.

Cause of Boredom: 3 percent

MUCH OF WHAT IS DONE IS UNDEREXTRAORDINARY

You could not survive participating for a single moment of live action in a football game. Every one of the 22 men on the field is doing something at every second that is miles beyond our physical comprehension. Basketball and hockey have some aspect of that — €”the always-on aspect — €”and they, along with soccer, produce a constant level of participant fatigue that we can see and appreciate. The entire sports are extraordinary, punctuated by extra-extraordinariness.

But while baseball has many extraordinary acts — €”the pitching of the ball, the hitting of the ball, particularly the hitting of the ball very hard, and often the fielding of the ball — €”it is, what, half things you could more or less do? You could more or less go first to third on a single to right. You could more or less catch a fly ball to straightaway right field. You could more or less catch a throw from the third baseman to first — you could even scoop an errant one, more or less. In other sports, there is a tension in the fact that every single second of live action is one in which a player performing at 95 percent capacity is in danger of getting beat, badly. In baseball, there is no such tension.

Cause of Boredom: 2 percent

THE BEST PLAYERS ARE HARDLY EVER INVOLVED

Realistically, most people can’€™t learn the names and backstories of 750 players in a sport. I knew five players in the Super Bowl; if you were a casual fan, you might have known five players in Game 7 of the World Series. But my four football players were involved in — €”well, two of them were involved in every play except special teams, because they’€™re the quarterbacks. Another, Marshawn Lynch, was involved — €”to the point he held the ball and was mentioned by name — €”in more than 20 percent of all plays, and all five were at least looming threats to be involved on every play. In baseball, the most famous person in the game might bat four times and catch three fly balls. Meanwhile, the most visible player in the game might be unknown even to fantasy junkies. And of course this feeds itself: Andrew McCutchen being rarely visible in his own games keeps Andrew McCutchen from being a household name, anyway.

Cause of Boredom: To a hardcore fan, maybe 1 percent, but to a casual fan 8 percent.

THERE’S VERY LITTLE TO SHOW IN REPLAYS

By which I mean, there are very few plays, where you see a pattern upon second viewing that you didn’€™t see in the first; or where you see a relevant part of the field on second viewing that you couldn’€™t see in the first; or where you see an athletic achievement that brings just as much delight on second viewing as it does in the first. There are some of these last ones — €”the Andrelton Simmonses, the particularly Giffable changeup — but most baseball heroics are a) a home run, which in most cases is just a flyball that lands a little farther than other flyballs did, b) running unimpeded from one base to another, slightly faster (but not obviously faster) than other human adults, or c) a pitch that looks like all the pitcher€’s other pitches but (for various complex reasons difficult to appreciate or capture on film) doesn’€™t get hit.

This matters, of course, because football and baseball have comparable amounts of downtime, but football has endless footage to show and discuss during that downtime. Baseball has close-ups of the manager chewing gum boredly.

Cause of Boredom: 9 percent

THE SCORING IS TOO LOW

Eh. The average MLB game these days involves eight runs scored. The average NFL game involves 6.3 scoring plays — ”touchdowns or field goals. That they call a field goal three points and a touchdown (plus extra point) seven doesn’€™t change the frequency of scoring, and I can’€™t imagine that a universe where Abner Doubleday did invent baseball and he decided to make runs worth four points (or whatever) would provide a more interesting version of the game. We’€™re not that dumb.

Cause of Boredom. <1 percent

BUT THE SCORING IS LOWER THAN WE’RE USED TO

More compelling, though that also suggests that we’€™ll get used to this way of life, too. And, for what it’€™s worth, lower scoring means closer games — €”which at least provide the illusion of more excitement.

Cause of Boredom: 3 percent

GAMES ARE TOO LONG

On average, 20 minutes longer than your go-to — €œthis is pretty good but super boring –€ reference, The English Patient, and not all games are pretty good. Some games are pretty terrible, and they’€™re on average two hours and five minutes longer than your go-to — €œthis is pretty terrible and super boring –€ reference, standing in line at the DMV. They’€™re long, and longness is a common cause of boredom.

But not always! There are two good reasons to make them long. One is that we’€™re, in theory, entertained by them; they are the product, and giving the customer more of the product that he or she wants is generally pro-consumer, moves units, etc. "€œThe rent is too damned high!"€ the guy said, not "€œThe apartment is too damned big."€ Still, this might have started as a feature but become a bug around the 21st century, when entertainment lost any scarcity and brevity became a selling point.

The other is that baseball, on account of its extreme randomness, requires as long as possible to determine a champion. This is why seasons are long (a point we’€™ll refer back to soon enough) and it’€™s why games are long. Further, each game is one of attrition, in which team size is purposefully limited so as to test the endurance of each team’€™s roster. Remember your English teacher telling you how conflict in literature is always Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man or Man vs. Nature? The seventh, eighth and ninth innings are essentially the Nature part of this. The Grind.

Of course, they’€™re also long for bad reasons, or less good reasons, which overlap heavily with the next reason we’€™ll get to.

Cause of Boredom: 4 percent

GAMES ARE TOO SLOW

Rob Arthur made the point on Baseball Prospectus that we talk about time when we usually mean pace. I’€™ll quote what serves as his thesis statement:

For me, it’€™s purely a matter of efficiency. Given that 1) I like baseball, and 2) I possess a limited amount of time to engage in watching baseball, this postulate naturally follows: I want to maximize the amount of quality baseball pleasure I can fit into that limited time. The best parts of baseball to my biased eyes are the parts in which the game is being played, as opposed to the times in which it is effectively paused.

So while nine innings are necessary, and 18-plus commercial breaks are necessary, and 75 or so baseball plays per game is desirable, the stuff in between isn’€™t. This would include some of the things a pitch clock and related fixes might combat (pitchers taking too long between pitches, batters stepping out, catchers going to the mound, coaches going to the mound) and some of the things that are more specific to the modern era (pitcher changes) and some other things that we’€™ll get to in a different section.

Feature or bug? Depends on two questions: 1) Do players do these things because they make the players better (clearing head, thinking through strategy, pacing self) or help gain a competitive edge (freezing opponents, disrupting their routines, etc.)?; and 2) What makes athletic achievement interesting, the achievement itself or the restrictions that make that achievement more difficult? If the former, we’€™d say any freedom that allows players to be better is a benefit, and justifies some cost. But all sports have restrictions that limit achievement, including baseball (you can’€™t use a metal bat, you can’€™t use steroids, you can’€™t let your best hitter bat nine times in a row, etc.), and it is in those restrictions that a sport becomes something more interesting that, say, sprinting.

Roundabout way of saying: No, the batter stepping out of the box is probably not important and is not part of baseball’€™s appeal.

Cause of Boredom: 8 percent

AN AESTHETIC MISMATCH

In which wasting 0-2 pitches, working the count, trying to freeze the runner on first, etc. — €”really, pitching for a strikeout or batting for a walk — €”is non-frivolous pace-wasting. Shaving a half a pitch off the average plate appearance would not only save 15 or so minutes per game, but would create more things that look nice (basehits, fast running, throws from the corner, Andrelton Simmons) and fewer that are, to many eyes, boring (Ks, BBs). But changing rules to do so would overrule the natural inclinations of baseball strategy. Somebody smart defended a defensive-shift prohibition by saying fans want to see Mike Trout and McCutchen play, not the GMs. But rules changes that dramatically change strategy options are even more problematic: Fans want to see Trout and McCutchen play, not the commissioner’€™s office.

Cause of Boredom: 4 percent

THE RULES THEMSELVES ARE UNINTUITIVE 

What are they even trying to do in baseball, you know? What’€™s the metaphor? You can learn the rules in time, and appreciate the nuances with effort, but you’€™ll never understand the central metaphor of the sport, if there is one. Football, meanwhile, and every other territory-intrusion game, is as clear as can be: We’€™re playing war. And every young boy loves playing war. At best — €”at best — €”you could argue that baseball’€™s metaphor is cops and robbers, and it’€™s a strain.

Cause of Boredom: 1 percent

WE’RE CONSTANTLY TOLD HOW AWFUL IT IS

Not just in columns like this one, written by noted baseball obsessive Sam Miller, but in comments like Manfred’€™s, and by everybody involved in baseball who has ever looked at the sport and seen something to be fixed by rules changes and league interventions. By everybody who sees not a $7 billion industry, but a game that’€™s too slow, too boring, not as good as it used to be, never as good as it was when they were kids. After 100 years of this, you’€™d think some people might just be convinced.

Cause of Boredom: 2 percent

THERE ARE TOO MANY GAMES

The biggie. The great appeal of baseball — €”the way it’€™s there for you every day, the way it evolves like a marriage from a crush to a commitment to a lifetime of shared memories that link your history and its history into a swirl of comfortable nostalgic — €”is also its most hideous feature. One hundred and sixty-two games. So many games; so many empty seats to fill and so many hours of advertisements to sell. So little importance on any single game, and so little time to think about and talk about any individual event. So hard to feel part of it if you’€™re not really a part of it; so few entry points for the casual fan. It’€™s like trying to start watching Doctor Who from the beginning, all 813 episodes, now. You’€™d probably love it, but you can forgive the guy who stares at that pile of seasons and thinks, "€œI’€™m actually pretty busy right now."

Cause of Boredom: 50 percent

Ultimately, this is the one that creates the divide between the devoted fan and the casual. The devoted wants 500 hours of his or her time taken up, and will love it in its most natural, organically derived competitive state; the casual wants something to drop in on for an immediate Sports Jolt. That ain’€™t baseball, at least not the baseball that is, implicitly, a test of endurance — €”their endurance, and ours. Someday a commissioner might cut the season down dramatically, and then we can really freak out (or rejoice, depending). Until then, it’€™s just trimming the edges and complaining that there’€™s a lawn.