NEW YORK — Major League Baseball attendance is headed to its lowest average in 15 years. And it’s not only because of the historically bad weather that’s plagued the first third of the season.
Strikeouts exceeded hits in a full calendar month for the first time in April and are on track to do so again in May. Five teams are on pace to lose 100 or more games in the same season for the first time.
Yet, there are trends Major League Baseball views as positive: New pace rules have cut the average time of a nine-inning game by five minutes, mound trips have dropped dramatically and home runs have receded from last year’s record level.
"We’ve got a long way to go," baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "We’re relatively early in the season still and it has been an aberrational part of a season."
Heading into the weekend, the average attendance of 27,207 was down 6 per cent from 28,931 on the Friday before Memorial Day last season. Last year’s final average of 30,042 was the second straight drop, and if this season’s trendline continues MLB would finish below 30,000 for the first time since the 2003 figure of 28,013.
Awful weather is part of the cause: There have been 35 postponements this year, four shy of last season’s total. Manfred said 35 games that did go on were played in temperatures under 40 degrees at first pitch.
"The weather has been historically difficult for us," he said.
Yet, there are troublesome signs beyond the weather, related to a club’s competitiveness — and perceptions of a team’s prospects heading into the season.
Among the teams experiencing drops in home average attendance compared with the day before the holiday weekend last year were Miami (21,641 to 10,603), Toronto (36,869 to 27,707), Baltimore (27,992 to 19,404), Detroit (27,699 to 19,837), Pittsburgh (23,727 to 16,497), Kansas City (26,154 to 19,757), the Chicago White Sox (20,864 to 15,987), Texas (31,940 to 27,198), Cincinnati (21,681 to 17,848) and Cleveland (20,780 to 17,630).
Teams with notable increases were World Series champion Houston (27,609 to 35,556), Milwaukee (28,346 to 32,353), the New York Yankees (36,280 to 40,271) and Arizona (22,649 to 25,638).
Drops include several franchises that have gone into a rebuilding cycle: the Marlins, Tigers, Pirates, White Sox and Reds. When teams jettison stars and media focuses on a perceived lack of competitiveness, ticket sales often fall.
"I would say the weather has been the overriding factor but certainly the negative publicity surrounding some teams as played a part, as well," Manfred said. "I think it’s clear that publicity suggesting a lack of competitiveness by a team is really problematic in terms of attendance."
The players’ association filed a grievance on Feb. 23 accusing Miami, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay of failing to appropriately spend revenue-sharing money. No hearing has yet been scheduled in the case.
"Think about Tony Clark, the teams he was (referring) to," Manfred said, referring to the union head. "Oakland’s above .500, Pittsburgh’s played great, quite frankly Tampa’s played OK in a really rough division. So you get into this cycle where through public comments people are doing damage to clubs that actually turn out to be OK."
The players’ association called Manfred’s comments "unfortunate and at best misleading."
"Competitive integrity is, and always has been, the cornerstone of Major League Baseball and we will continue to talk about it when it is threatened," the union said in a statement.
Baltimore, the White Sox, Cincinnati. Kansas City and Miami are on track to lose 100 games or more. The only season in which more than three teams lost 100 was 2002, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, when Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay all reached triple digits in defeats.
At the same time, management worries about on-field trends, such as the rise in strikeouts.
There were 6,656 strikeouts and 6,360 hits in April, according to Elias. The previous low differential was in April 2017, when there were 138 more hits than strikeouts. Through Saturday, there were 5,882 strikeouts and 5,742 hits in May.
Average home runs per game, which rose to 2.31 in 2016 and a record 2.51 last season, have dropped to 2.26 from 2.43 at a similar point last year.
"I think that a lot of us in the game are watching the way we’re playing very, very closely, everything from fewer hits, more strikeouts, more times between balls in play," Manfred said. "These are trends that are not new. They’ve been a little more pronounced this year, perhaps in part because of the weather, but it is something that we’re watching, and there increased conversation in the industry about being more aggressive beyond just pace of play in terms of managing the way the game is being played on the field."
Still, there is much MLB is happy about. Rookies Shohei Ohtani, Gleyber Torres and Ronald Acuna Jr. have excited fans, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could make his debut with Toronto later this season.
With restrictions on trips to the mound, the average time of a nine-inning game has dropped from a record 3 hours, 5 minutes to 3:00. And the average mound trips without a pitching change has fallen from 7.41 last year to 3.98 this season.
"The most important thing for us given the last two years is not going the other direction," Manfred said. "Not only did we stem that tide, we’ve cut a few minutes off. And I think that’s positive. It’s not huge, but it’s positive."