“Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection,” Red Smith.
As much as it pains me to say, Red was wrong. And I’m a guy who once had a conversation with his ghost.
To be fair, in Red’s day, there was no reason to believe his comment was inaccurate. But as the game we both love has developed, it’s quite obvious that the balance is simply off, at least at the big league level.
Hitters in MLB have discovered something in the last 10 years. Swinging hard, every time, is the best course of action. Choking up or cutting down the swing with two strikes to put the ball in play is no longer the operating philosophy in a big league batter’s box. If you’re going to offer at a pitch, then don’t hold anything back. Once an approach reserved only for sluggers, both the undisciplined Kingman types and the patient Thomes, this philosophy is now common across the major leagues.
And, quite frankly, it works. Hitting the ball hard is simply the best way to success. Defenses are too good and too smart to simply hope that getting wood on the ball will pay off often enough.
In a vacuum, the at bat that ends with a swing and miss is still less valuable than one that results with the ball in play. Even accounting for the occasional double play, the opportunity for a flare to left or an infield hit, a miscue by the shortstop or even an advancement out tilts in favor of BIP vs. strikeout.
But those aren’t the only two options. Swinging hard and connecting produces hard contact, which is more likely to result in singles, doubles, triples and homers. And when you swing and miss, as will often happen, the batter often gets another chance to swing again, or to reach ball four.
Yet this is, in one sense, wrong. If hitting the ball hard is the best outcome when you swing, then swinging and missing should be the worst. And not only is this true on a philosophical level, it’s also accurate on an aesthetic one. Something we all knew in little league is just as true for MLB: The game is better when the ball is in play.
So how do we fix this? How do we get out of this all or nothing approach and get back to a more balanced game? You’ll read many suggestions, including but not limited to adjusting the strike zone (bigger or smaller), adjusting the batter’s boxes, making the bat handles thicker and, of course, making the ballparks bigger.
The latter two suggestions should help cut down on homers. But I’m not sure any of those things really change the equation when it comes to approach. It will still make sense to swing as hard as possible, even if the outcome is less likely to be four bases.
What needs to happen, to alter outcomes, is to increase the gap between putting the ball and play and failing to do so. Swinging and missing must hold a larger penalty than it does now. And the only way I think can truly achieve that is to adjust the distance between the bases, cutting the gap down to 87 feet or even lower.
If you reduce the distance, infielders will have no choice but to move in a few steps to counteract that, as the current depth would result in too many infield hits. If the infielders are playing closer to home, it will lead to more ground balls and line drives getting through. You’ll also see more balls dropping behind them, as the gap between the infielders and outfielders shouldn’t decrease (ideally, you’d pair the change in distances with the deeper fences, to truly maximize the value of the ball in play, and player speed would become a more important commodity).
Now, changing the distances between the bases would be a major shift in the sport, and I would advise that other efforts be taken before tinkering with Red’s Ideal. I’m just not sure any of those other changes will produce the desired effect.