Major League Baseball hits the all-star break trying to figure out how to keep people interested in the product.
And, no, that’s not just a Toronto thing.
Attendance is down, questions are being asked about the way the game is actually being played – nuts and bolts issues as opposed to stuff at the edges – and the American League races are essentially done, except for which 100-plus win team will finish second in the AL East.
It is a strangely disconcerting time for the game, because there are reasons to be excited. Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is having the best season we’ve seen in our lifetime – the excellent Tom Verducci takes a deep dive for Trout in this upcoming article – and hits the break joining Jeff Bagwell (1999) as the only Major League player with 25 home runs, 75 walks and 10 steals before the all-star game. Yet he’s doing so with a team that flies way under the national radar, making him in some ways the personification of a sport that seems to have lost momentum.
To that end, George F. Will, baseball fan and longtime Washington Post columnist, suggested in a recent dispatch that all will be well with the game if baseball lets the free market take care of it. Will was talking about commissioner Rob Manfred’s musings about legislating against defensive shifts – essentially making the point I’ve made frequently with my Baseball Central cohort Kevin Barker, that the folks in uniform need to figure this out and if it comes down to the next generation of hitters, so be it. And the new generation is something else. Shohei Ohtani of the Angels has been limited to less than 44 games and nine pitching starts, but he has tantalized. Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees‘ Gleyber Torres and Miguel Adujar have all whetted the appetite of those awaiting Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
So there is some good: the Boston Red Sox and Yankees are back with a vengeance and while this has to scare the hell out of any Blue Jays fan, I’m sorry: the overall health of the game is better and, frankly, more fun when these two teams go at it hammer and tong. The Yankees, in particular, are built for the long haul, their ETA pushed up so much and their team so young and cost-efficient that they could be bystanders in this winter’s big free-agent market, let Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign elsewhere, and at worst be co-favourites in the East.
In fact, an optimist would point out that with the greatest free-agent class in the history of the game due to come free this winter, the fact that big-market clubs have found cost-effective success might actually help disperse talent. There is a chance that teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants could end up with Harper or Machado. The trickle-down effect – luxury tax issues could free up other players – might help mid-market teams.
Still, attendance is on pace to fall by over 3.8 million, the largest single-season drop in a decade (the Blue Jays have accounted for a decrease of 523,106 on their own through 49 home dates) and don’t count on an exciting AL race to gin it up. It will be down, then, to the National League to provide some type of finishing kick. There are 14 1/2 games separating the team with the worst record in the league (San Diego Padres) from the last wild card. Ten teams are over .500 with the largest gap between second and first place just 2 1/2 games – that being in the NL Central, where the Chicago Cubs are leading the Milwaukee Brewers. Seven teams are within six games of the final wild card.
There are eight teams over .500 in the AL, but three of them are playing at a staggering .600 clip.The Oakland Athletics are the only team within six games of the final wild card – they’re three back. There are a whole lot of teams playing for nothing, then, and that should frankly be more of an issue than silliness about restricting defensive shifts or wasting an inordinate amount of time worrying about how Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash is using his pitchers.
What remains to be seen is the degree of the actual revenue hit from attendance. Baseball is no longer as much of a hostage to in-stadium revenue as it once was, thanks to regional sports networks and online revenue. In the Blue Jays case, an increase in ticket prices might offset the hit of an attendance decrease. But as we settle back for the Home Run Derby and Midsummer Classic, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tangible, emerging issues in this and other markets.
NOW TWEET THIS
In which we celebrate Marcus Stroman (?) … take a trip to Lourdes … give out an A’s for managing … and remember the wonder of Cliff Pennington.
• I wasn’t there, but Marcus Stroman’s reported expletive-laden assessment of the Blue Jays hasn’t changed my opinion of him: the only reason he hasn’t been traded yet is Aaron Sanchez’s health #timesup
• He’s on the concussion DL now, but that double-play deke Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., had a hand in on Saturday makes me want to see him play every day #ballplayer
• The A’s Bob Melvin has been the best manager in either league, with a team that has won 20 of 25 and could be a player for J.A. Happ. They’re tough late in the game: 38-0 when leading after seven innings, the only Major league team to do so. No team has scored as many runs in the eighth and ninth #darkhorse
• I’m not a fan of saying a team needs to make a trade, but the Brewers need to make a trade. The NL Central is there for the taking, never mind a wild-card spot, and Milwaukee lost six in a row leading into the break and has Eric Thames and Ryan Braun on the DL #timesawasting
• Since May 3, the Yankees and Red Sox have had at least a share of the Majors’ two best records on 71 of 74 days #dominance
• Every time I watch the All-Star Futures Game, I wonder why baseball doesn’t figure out a way to meld it and the Home Run Derby in prime time on Monday night? Even play a five or seven-inning game … #slamdunk
• Indians’ Yan Gomes found out he was an all-star as he came to the plate Saturday. Gomes was traded by the Blue Jays with Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers days after Aviles was acquired for John Farrell #nightmare
• Remember Cliff Pennington? The utility infielder was acquired from the Diamondbacks by the Blue Jays in 2015 for Dawel Lugo – a third baseman now with the Detroit Tigers organization who started for the World Team in Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game #oops
• Few players filled out a Canadian national team jersey as well as Toronto’s Gareth Morgan, a six-foot-four outfielder who was a second-round pick (74th overall) by the Mariners in 2014 but who has a staggering 154 strikeouts in 242 at-bats at single-A this season #inexactscience
In a baseball season where what’s old often seems new again, I can think of no more fitting replacement for fired St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny than Joe Girardi, the brush-cut former Yankees bench boss. After all, the Cardinals fired Joe Torre as manager in 1995 and the next season he led the Yankees to their first of four World Series wins in a five-year span and six appearances in eight. The Cardinals are a strange team, considered to be among the most conservative organizations, and there have been whispers throughout the game that the ’old school’ environment of the clubhouse sometimes brings out the worst in players.
A failure to communicate was given as one of the reasons the Yankees fired Girardi: but failure to communicate in a market like New York is one thing. The St. Louis market is another. Girardi is friends with Cardinals president John Mozeliak, going back to their days with the Colorado Rockies in 1993-95 when Mozeliak started working in baseball as a batting practice pitcher. Friend Bob Nightengale of USA Today wonders if Mark McGwire wouldn’t be a candidate and, man, would that be the ultimate career rehabilitation or what?
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon and Baseball Central from Noon-1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. He also co-hosts ‘The Lede,’ a podcast with Stephen Brunt.