Not to overdramatize the current, declining state of Major League Baseball, but with strikeouts on the rise, rampant cheating taking a hatchet to whatever sense of integrity the game has left (the foreign substance epidemic, as it continues to unfold, is emerging as the spiritual successor to baseball’s much-maligned Steroid Era), velocity-obsessed pitchers who have no idea where their next fastball is headed, a growing disconnect between owners and players that will almost certainly result in a heated labor dispute this offseason and disgracefully underpaid minor-leaguers eating whatever this is supposed to be, MLB, in many ways, is in a fight for its life.
Many of the obstacles MLB faces are institutional in nature, but others are philosophical including an increased reliance on home runs. That change in mindset has birthed dozens of unintended consequences, ranging from dangerously low contact rates (a development that has made the sport almost unwatchable to the casual fan) to the critically endangered art of baserunning, a forgotten relic of a time when traits like fundamentals and situational awareness actually meant something.
In a lengthy profile for ESPN, veteran journalist Tim Kurkjian lamented the collapse of baserunning as a legitimate “crisis" in desperate need of addressing. “The players today are spectacularly talented—bigger, stronger, faster and better than ever. They overpower the sport with their amazing physical gifts, yet too many of them have no instincts for the game,” opined Kurkjian, who says baserunning has never been worse in his 41 years covering the sport. “They have no feel for the game. They have less of an idea and an understanding of how to play the game than any time I can remember.”
MLB’s feast-or-famine, swing-for-the-fences-at-all-costs aesthetic, it would seem, has come at the great expense of baserunning with players continually freezing in big moments, costing their teams with embarrassing brain cramps on the bases. “Baserunning is terrible today,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, agreeing with Kurkjian’s analysis. “The two things we need the most work on is outfielders throwing and baserunning. Baserunning is just horrible.”
From Justin Turner inexplicably passing teammate Cody Bellinger while retreating to first base (costing the Dodgers a home run in the process) to Luke Voit short-circuiting on an infield fly rule (a gaffe so inexcusable that Yankees skipper Aaron Boone felt obligated to apologize to the three announcers who called the game for ESPN), the league is littered with clueless baserunners self-destructing like never before. “It’s gotten a little lazy,” admitted Kris Bryant, a former NL MVP and apparently one of the few players left who still believes baserunning matters. “There are a handful of games every year that are won solely on baserunning.”
Buck Showalter has become similarly disillusioned by what’s happened to baserunning, an overlooked facet of the game the former Yankees and Orioles manager describes as a “necessary evil. “Baserunning is the ultimate team play. If you don't run the bases well, you are selfish,” expressed Showalter. “We have lost the shame of the strikeout in the game. We are losing the shame of bad baserunning.”
It’s easy to pin the blame on players, who are paid millions upon millions to have at least a fundamental understanding of the sport they’re playing, but Kurkjian is willing to point a finger elsewhere, demanding coaches at every level take some accountability for the mess they’ve created. “The industry, infatuated with home runs being the primary way to score runs in today's game, has de-emphasized baserunning. It hasn't taught it very well,” wrote Kurkjian, eulogizing another once-prominent aspect of the game that’s been weeded out in pursuit of home runs. “It has taken one of the most exciting and most critical parts of the game and devalued it. In doing so, it has turned baseball into a slower game, one base at a time. It has become a game that, at times, can be spectacularly boring.”