Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Next Baseball Era?

What has characterized baseball throughout its 150-plus years has been the separation of eras. For example, much of the early 1900s was called the "Dead Ball Era" because of the abundance of "small ball" that took place, lack of power, overall, as well as the dimensions of ballparks, which were much larger than they are today. In contrast, around the turn of the 21st century, balls were flying out of ballparks at an unprecedented rate, as dimensions were much smaller, the ball was juiced, and players themselves were "juicing."

Now that baseballs are being stored in humidors prior to games and there is extensive testing taking place in attempts to eliminate performance-enhancing supplements from being used, what era - and, more specifically, what characteristics of that particular era - will baseball embark upon next?

Before we delve into what will characterize the unknown era in which we appear to be beginning, we must delve back into eras past, and what constituted those time periods.

19th Century Era - 1876 - 1900

This era consisted of rules which were drastically different than those used today. Bases on balls typically required more pitches, pitching distances were much smaller, home plate was shaped differently, and starting pitchers almost exclusively finished all of their games. Also, foul balls were not strikes. Power during this era was almost nonexistent, and the National League was rivaled only by the American Association and, briefly, the Union Association and Players League.

Dead Ball Era - 1901 - 1919

The American League joined the National League to form Major League Baseball. The Federal League also existed for a short period of time. Home runs and runs, overall, were scarce. Pitchers at often times doctored the baseball and much "small ball" - bunting and stealing bases - was used. Ballpark dimensions were enormous.

Lively Ball Era - 1920 - 1941

Pitchers were banned from using trick pitches or altering baseballs with foreign substances. During this period, home runs and batting average skyrocketed. Starting pitchers did not even complete 50 percent of their games, and baseball played under the lights - or at night - was introduced. Games began to be broadcast on radio and television.

Integration Era - 1942 - 1960

Many players from the Negro Leagues were recruited to Major League Baseball. Jackie Robinson, whose number 42 is now retired throughout baseball, became a monumentous and influential figure, as he broke the color barrier. This era was characterized slightly more by pitching than the Lively Ball Era, although home runs continued to rise as ballpark dimensions were shortened. Starting pitchers completed slightly over one-third of their games.

Expansion Era - 1961 - 1976

Offensive output declined significantly as the strike zone was decreased. Several new teams, including our Kansas City Royals, emerged during this era. Each league split into two divisions and pitching began to dominate as the pitching mound was lowered. The American League adopted the designated hitter, and starting pitchers completed roughly 25 percent of their games.

Free Agency Era - 1977 - 1993

Players began to have the right to become Free Agents after their sixth Major League season, and players began to move more often from team to team. Player salaries also skyrocketed. The era consisted of much parity, as many teams - especially during the 1980s - went to the postseason and won the World Series. Artificial turf fields became prevalent among a handful of teams, and starting pitchers completed much fewer of their games. Offensively, small ball was implemented more often.

Long Ball Era - 1994 - 2005

Baseball became bigger, as players began to use illegal performance-enhancing supplements. Home runs and strikeouts skyrocketed as ballpark dimensions shortened yet further. The league was split into three divisions, with a Wild Card team from each league making the playoffs every season. Interleague play was instituted, and pitching strategy became much more specialized, as starters rarely completed their games, and set-up roles and the single inning closers role in the bullpen were introduced.

What era will we embark upon - or have we embarked upon - for roughly the middle to later part of this decade? Home runs and extra base hits have certainly decreased and performance-enhancing supplements are now, for the most part, banned in baseball. In my opinion, this era will comprise of fewer and fewer home runs hit, but little to no implementation of the "small ball" that dominated much of the Dead Ball and Free Agency eras. Teams will not hit-and-run, bunt, or steal as even often as during the Live Ball Era. Instead, players will continue to sacrifice strikeouts for walks. Home runs will not be eliminated entirely, as league leaders will probably still hit around 35 to 40 in a single season. Players' careers - notably, those of position players - will not last nearly as long as players do not artificially defy their age progressions.

Statistics will be further implemented in this era as the influence from books such as Moneyball (Michael Lewis) will continue to be profound. Notably, definitive defensive statistics - better than those like range factor, error total, and fielding percentage - will arrive, and teams will jump on them almost universally like they did with the new-found significance of on-base percentage in the early 2000s. Managers will be far more creative with their usage of relief pitchers, as the closers' role will expand to two or more innings, and closers - by roughly 2015 - will begin to toss multiple innings routinely, and will be used for roughly 100 innings in a particular season.

Doubles and triples will increase, and teams will continue to operate by the old strategy of defense up the middle and power on the corners. Baseball will become more of a worldwide sport, as players from non-traditional baseball continents such as Europe and Asia will enter the big leagues at even greater numbers. Organizations will exercise talent-building abroad, and might set up institutions in other locations than Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Also, unfortunately in the eyes of Royals fans, baseball will continue to demonstrate a lack of parity, as large-market teams will continue to rule the roost more often than not as the Players' Union dominates the business aspect of the game. As a result, no league expansion will take place, and the structure of the league will remain nearly identical. The designated hitter will finally be implemented in the National League at the end of the era, much to the dismay of baseball traditionalist fans. The arrival of blogs will continue to revolutionize the game, and sabermetrics instituted by these blogs will become much more influential and widely understood by the majority of even the most casual of baseball fans. Individual teams will celebrate their beautiful new ballparks or relics, as each ballclub will likely have their "ideal" ballpark to call home by 2015. (The Rays, Marlins, Athletics, and Twins are currently in the works on new ballparks, which will likely be completed by then). Attendance will drop because of economic conditions, which could last for several more years, and prices at ballparks will drop in terms of value.

As far as implications for our Royals, this era, economically, promises more of the same, as the budget will likely be no greater than that of an average mid-market team for most years. However, the dimensions of Kauffman Stadium will play into our advantage as fewer and fewer longballs are hit throughout the league. Fortunately, salaries will likely finally even out as economic conditions become worse. (No, I'm not an economic expert, as this is pure rational-thinking speculation). The new ballpark will yield dividends, as resentment toward not building a ballpark downtown wanes, and communities east of Kansas City - notably, those in Lee's Summit and communities east of Johnson County - like those in Downtown K.C. - emerge yet further.

We know the Longball Era (R.I.P.) did not exactly treat Kansas City well, as many of its elements - like the offensive explosion - seemingly bypassed the team entirely, as Steve Balboni's rather dubious home run record of 36 set in 1985 still stands. (I never would have thought, in 1998, as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were dueling it out at an unprecedented power pace, that I could still say that in 2009). Hopefully, this new era will be characterized by much winning in the nation's heartland, as the Royals become perennial contenders, or at least competitors.

No comments: