Malcolm On Base: Bad changes to baseball, a nod to Jabari Blash, love for the Clemente Bridge

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. Change is good; change is bad

From pitch clocks to potentially giving each team a baserunner to open an extra inning, Major League Baseball has been raising almost constant debate on how to speed up games and make them more exciting to people (often these two things are connected). This is borne out of a need to not be a dinosaur – baseball knows younger people don’t watch the sport, and it’s trying hard to entice kids to get interested.

One of the more ridiculous ideas came via Rich Eisen, who on his radio show said there are at least whispers about a change to the ninth inning: the trailing team can choose whoever it wants to bat for those first three spots of the inning. Yes, that means if the Nationals are down by two and the bottom of the order is scheduled to hit, they can instead go with a lineup of Rendon, Murphy and Harper. Now, this seems extremely far fetched and nowhere near concrete, so don’t get upset yet, but the fact that this has even been floated is worrisome.

I know change is necessary, but when it comes to baseball I can be more a traditionalist than others. I don’t like the designated hitter (I grew up in a National League city). I’m not a big fan of interleague, though I tolerate it. I think Major League Baseball has a few too many teams; it was pretty much perfect before 1993 with 26 clubs. I do think the game is too slow, so I agree that Major League Baseball needs to step in to change that, whether it be instituting a pitch clock, limiting mound visits, disciplining hitters that linger too long, or a combination of those things.

But when it comes to drawing younger viewers or making the sport more entertaining, there are some wildly bad ideas coming out there, which would completely alter the both the strategy and drama of the game. If the league really did pass a measure allowing trailing teams to hit whoever it wanted in the ninth inning, we’d see changes in roster construction (teams may opt to prefer three-true-types players, or may stock up on high-leverage relievers) and pay scale (those ninth inning hitters would be able to command even more money, as would the pitchers asked to face them), plus we’d be interrupting the natural flow, handing fans the argument that they could potentially sit out the first eight innings and simply tune into the ninth. It’s not unlike the argument people use in choosing when to watch the National Basketball Association, which has tried to clean up the slowness of a game’s final two minutes, a period when stars can take over and attempt multiple plays that drag over a real 10 to 15 minutes.

The NBA’s final two minute problem is simply an extension of its natural gameplay, while MLB would be shoehorning a perceived fix into place, changing how the game is played. That’s bad.

I don’t know how executives are crafting these ideas, but I wonder if they’re doing two pretty obvious things when researching them: Are they asking themselves what drew them to baseball? And are they talking to children?

In addressing the former question, I think about how I became drawn to the game. Baseball always spoke to me over football, basketball and hockey, and for a variety of reasons, but primarily the ballparks were all different, there seemed to be an endless number of things that could happen in a baseball game, and it allowed me to enjoy the sunshine and warm weather. Also, it was accessible. My dad would take me to several games each season; as I grew older, I’d attend games with my friends and their families. Sometimes I’d go with youth groups.

Then the Phillies moved to Citizens Bank Park and prices seemed to skyrocket overnight. Once the team became competitive it seemed impossible to get a cheap ticket. Now, you have to bet on the secondary market to get an affordable ticket, and even then, you’re making a last-minute decision most of the time. On top of that, parking and food and drink cost too much. Families can cut back on the food and drink, but teams aren’t very good at informing people about their outside food and drink regulations, plus the rules are often vast and confusing. There’s little people can do about parking, especially if they don’t live in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia or San Francisco, where public transportation is abundant.

So a family baseball outing may cost at least $100; a kid in a middle- or lower-class family isn’t attending more than two or three baseball games per season. And even that’s a stretch. This continues to be the real problem: Baseball games cost too much money.

Minor league games are more affordable, sure, but unless you live in the general vicinity of the team, you’re not able to easily follow up on that team, since if it has a television deal, it’s likely with a hyper-local television network. And if there’s one thing kids need, it’s follow up. They can enjoy an activity in the moment, but if there’s no follow up to keep them interested, they’re going to lose interest.

So what is the answer?

For one, Major League Baseball teams have to find ways to make games more affordable, and we’re not just talking about one-shot deals. For example, the Athletics offer BARTable Rapid Deal Days – $5 games in which tickets are only available online. But this isn’t every game. Part of the joy I found early on as a fan was that I could stroll up to Veterans Stadium on any day and snag a seat for $5. If teams reserved sections that were always rated at a consistently low price point, you might see more families opt to take in live games.

Beyond that, it can be hard to retain baseball fandom once its established. It’s easier to follow the NFL because there are 16 games, and they’re on every Sunday. The idea is to set aside time to watch each game, thus, following a team and retaining fandom becomes easy. It’s hard to ask kids to sit and watch 162 baseball games on television, so MLB needs to find other ways to attract attention. Some ideas:

  • MLB Network shows one game every night. This can happen easily, even if it’s just the home team’s feed. This is a way to showcase the biggest stars of the game (Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant) more often, plus in cities where teams aren’t very good, it keeps kids interested in some kind of baseball.
  • Free video feeds of all minor league games. Can’t someone just set up a Facebook Live or Periscope (or pick your MLB partner here) at every minor league park? That’s a start. At some point you get more sophisticated, but the idea here is to keep kids closer to minor league teams hooked on some baseball; plus, maybe there’s a way to promote top prospects?
  • MLB.TV offers free looks into superstar plate appearances and innings. Essentially there’s a list of hitters that, no matter who they play or when, their every plate appearance is free. Then there’s a list of pitchers who, when they’re on the mound, you can watch for free. Viewers would subscribe to that player, and whenever they’re out there, there’s a push notification that’ll connect you to the free feed. It doesn’t even have to be the actual broadcast. Who would be on the list? Let’s say Trout, Judge, Machado, Lindor, Bryant, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale, to start. Maybe you sprinkle in a couple novelty guys (fireballers who get up to 100 mph, super-fast guys). Would regular subscribers be upset about this? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be.

We can get even deeper. Lesser ideas I have include bringing back “Home Run Derby” as a weekly show (just tape an episode between Stanton and Trout when the Angels come to Yankee Stadium) and an initiative to get kids to play stickball, because it’s one of the ways I kept interested in the sport when not watching it live. Organize leagues in cities throughout the country, then bring major leaguers in to play alongside kids (or pitch to kids, or whatever). Honestly, imagine MLB doing a pop-up stickball game in Philly hosted by Rhys Hoskins and special guest Corey Seager.

It’s easy to get carried away with ideas, but at the end of the day, the audience Major League Baseball needs is more than half my age. Executives need to find a way to ask kids how they’d make baseball more exciting. Sure you’ll get some wacky ideas (like, I don’t know, random batting orders in the ninth inning), but I bet most kids will come up with things that can be implemented tomorrow, make perfect sense and won’t mess up the flow or integrity of the sport.

But they have to listen. Or else baseball will have a bigger problem on its hands.

2. A booster for Blash

The Angels made a minor move Wednesday, acquiring Jabari Blash from the Yankees for cash or a player to be named later. The 28-year-old outfielder hasn’t quite lived up to the hype after being a relatively decent Mariners prospect a few years ago.

In 2014 Blash played 37 games for double-A Jackson, hitting .236/.387/.449 with a 17.2% walk rate and 21.5% strikeout rate. Sure the average was low, but Blash had kept up his outstanding discipline while slugging at a decent rate. Then he went to triple-A Tacoma and stumbled the rest of 2014 (.210/.312/.481). He did better his second time around in 2015 (.264/.355/.640, 22 HR), and you’d think he would’ve forced his way into a major league contract for 2016. Not so.

“He has very impressive power and is willing to work a count, but he takes a big hack, swings and misses a lot, and is not going to hit for much of an average at the big league level,” wrote John Sickels at Minor League Ball at the beginning of 2016, after making the Padres opening day roster as a part-time outfielder. The Mariners probably didn’t think he’d translate to the majors, and heck, they had an outfield that included Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz and Franklin Gutierrez, all quite established and, at the very least, contact hitters. The only player you could argue against was Seth Smith, who hit a tepid .248/.330/.443 for the Mariners in 2015, but he was on a free-agent contract and the M’s were coming off an 87-win season, so you can’t necessarily fault Seattle for staying with Smith.

Blash just didn’t find his way in Seattle. Then again, he also didn’t find his way in San Diego, but let’s be honest, that’s not the best park for a guy who lives by power and patience. In 84 plate appearances with San Diego in 2016, Blash put up an astoundingly bad 40.5% strikeout rate with just a .155 ISO. He wasn’t better in 2017, putting up a 33.8% strikeout rate with a .128 ISO in 195 plate appearances. It’s possible that Blash is feeling the stress of a career that isn’t panning out as well as he’d hoped, and maybe he’s pressing more than he should. Or, again, he had to play at Petco Park.

There are some good things about Blash. For one, in 2017 he was much better against lefties (.290/.380/.478 with a more manageable 27.8% K rate and less preferred 11.4% BB rate), though in the smaller 2016 sample there was no great difference between the two sides. He also was a better slugger on the road in 2017 (.143 ISO against .110 ISO at home) with a much better K rate (28.2% against 41.2%). Maybe Angel Stadium will help a little (middle of the road with home runs), but he’ll have to get there first, and as of right now there doesn’t seem to be a 25-man roster spot for Blash.

But if one opens, he could get some spot starts against lefties, maybe to spell Kole Calhoun, who hasn’t been bad against the same hand but also hasn’t been great. A better opportunity for a guy like Blash would’ve been with, say, the Reds, as he’s a relatively strong pull hitter who could’ve tested his power at Great American Ball Park and provided passable defense as a bench outfielder. Plus there’s less pressure to perform in Cincinnati, and while Blash hasn’t exactly played for great teams, there wouldn’t be need for him in, say, Boston.

I like players like Blash, who possess plus power and patience, with athletic defensive ability, and can demonstrate those skills at a high level in the minors, but just can’t make the leap to the majors. I’m pulling for him to find his way in 2018, even though it’s hard to see it happening with the Angels. Maybe a lesser team with a good left field power alley will grab him. There’s still hope. I got to believe.

3. Appreciating the Clemente Bridge

Growing up in Philadelphia, I was privileged to have become fascinated with multiple bridges of different shapes and sizes. In Center City Philadelphia is the commanding, ribbon blue Ben Franklin Bridge, a no-nonsense suspension that quickly sends cars from the city to Camden, New Jersey. A bit more south is the more fluid but still dutiful Walt Whitman, a sea green that fades with the constant drab sky of the industrial desert from which it arises.

Far up north is the Burlington-Bristol, a funky truss bridge whose center rises for boats, a span that can stop your day for an hour if you catch the red “STOP.” Back toward the city is the steel-tied arch bridge called the Tacony-Palmyra, colored in peeling grass green and beginning literally feet from a busy residential avenue. Finally, in the neighborhood in which I grew up, is the Betsy Ross Bridge, a misunderstood contemporary with a low truss and wide lanes, gliding folks into suburban New Jersey without pretense.

My favorite span of these is the Ben Franklin since it literally appears at the last second, and when you see it, can take your breath away. Suspensions are meant to be superstars; there’s an entry point for the eyes, and a perfect combination of the linear uniformity of the towers and the sloping catenary majesty of the cables. The road grade of suspension bridges also crest above their rivers like rainbows. I don’t favor the more modern designs that fix dozens of smaller cables onto a single point, because they’re too busy and sharp. Suspension bridges state their purpose cleanly and with maybe a momentary smile.

The Roberto Clemente Bridge, or Sixth Street Bridge, in Pittsburgh is officially considered a suspension bridge, but it’s a pocket suspension bridge symbolic of place. The roadway isn’t very high off the waterline (78 feet of clearance), and the diagonal route of its eye-bar system is tricky to the eye, turning it just a bit more industrial than regal and making it a perfect foil for the manufacturing mettle of Pittsburgh.

Of course, it’s also the bridge that carries visitors to PNC Park, as it spills traffic just beyond the center field entrance. The bridge was named after Clemente in 1998, in part to appease fans who wanted the ballpark itself to be named after the Pirates legend who died in a 1970 plane crash. Today a statue of Clemente rests just beyond the bridge, and from most places in the park you can catch a splendid view of the golden wonder. Sometimes when the sun is really bright the bridge becomes canary. Either way, it’s the most exceptional complement to the ballpark, revealing both a sense of place and purpose. A tall building wouldn’t have worked in its place. A mountain view makes no sense. Bridges are part of the Pennsylvania volume, and especially of Pittsburgh’s own book. It reminds one of steel, of might, and of pocket-sized, put-your-head-down and run at it perfection.

That was Clemente. And that’s his bridge.

4. Plug: The Hardball Times

Today I’m featured at the Hardball Times. My piece is about the baseball “bust” – how we think about the bust and what we should think about instead. I was attracted to this idea after Phillies’ farmhand and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel announced he was stepping away from baseball. Most people wished Appel well, but there was a minority that scorned him for demanding lots of money and wasting it on what’s perceived as a failed minor league career. I think this is unfair and doesn’t offer a nuanced look into what failure is, what’s really going on, and what happens after the playing career ends.

Read the piece if you can; I hope you enjoy it!