The remodeled dugouts in Wrigley Field have shifted the sightlines for Cubs manager Joe Maddon as he goes about his work each day. In the old home dugout -- the sanctuary for generations of Cubs, from Ernie Banks to Kerry Wood -- Maddon had an unencumbered view of his third-base coach.
But in the new dugout, Maddon sometimes has to peer around or over a railing to see Brian Butterfield, who is in his first year coaching third for Chicago, and Maddon says he’s still trying to get comfortable in his 2018 spot. And the box for the third-base coach in Wrigley is so close to the dugout that Maddon doesn’t really need to run through a series of elaborate signs, anyway, because he just tells Butterfield, in a stage whisper, what he wants.
"There's almost nothing for me to do [during a game]. You change the pitchers, and you wait for somebody to hit a home run. You're not doing nearly as much stuff as you used to. You don't even think about doing some of that stuff." Longtime MLB manager
There is this, as well: A lot of the plays initiated by the manager -- plays that were once at the heart of the sport -- are disappearing, as the use of analytics continues to develop. When Maddon was asked before Sunday’s game against the Giants about using the hit-and-run, for example, he mentioned he has just a few hitters for whom he would call one.
Maddon is hardly alone in this. “There’s almost nothing for me to do [during a game],” another longtime manager said recently. “You change the pitchers, and you wait for somebody to hit a home run. You’re not doing nearly as much stuff as you used to. You don’t even think about doing some of that stuff.”
Stuff, like the hit-and-run, or the squeeze bunt, or pitchouts, or stolen bases.
The game’s three true outcomes -- the strikeout, the walk, the home run -- have increased exponentially, and like invasive species, they are swallowing other parts of the game.
The number of stolen bases has been in steady decline over the past decade, as these numbers dug out by ESPN’s Sarah Langs show.
MLB steals, year to year:
2018: 749 (on pace for 2,479)
The change is mostly about the game’s growing aversion to risk. In a conversation this spring, the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham talked about how percentages dictate the decisions on whether to run -- and how a stolen-base rate below 80 percent just wasn’t acceptable in the way it used to be. Because of this, some runners are either ordered to stay in place or they don’t really look for opportunities. With offenses around baseball increasingly reliant on home runs, managers often prefer to cut down the risk for outs on the bases. Players such as Jose Altuve have mentioned the heightened risk of injuries when running the bases, and in spring training, Altuve predicted he would not run as much this year, and of course he was right. Altuve came into 2018 with a streak of six consecutive seasons of 30 or more steals, and he has only six so far.
With the threat of baserunners diminished, the number of pitchouts has naturally regressed, too:
2018: 23 (on pace for 74)
The decline in pitchouts is also due to the heightened emphasis on the execution of each pitch, through analytics, and front offices and managers -- or, in many cases, the front offices through their managers -- are very much against the idea of a pitch being intentionally thrown out of the strike zone, because it could swing the ball-strike advantage toward the hitter. “The advantage gained that time when you might guess right and [throw out the] guy at second is more than [squandered] by what you lose if your pitchers repeatedly go to [a count of] 2-1, rather than 1-2,” a National League manager said.
Through studies on the value of each out, there also has been an increasing unwillingness among managers to call for the sacrifice bunt:
2018: 261 (on pace for about 850)
As fewer position players are asked to drop sacrifice bunts, the play probably gets less consideration because fewer players know how to do it. On a Sunday Night Baseball game earlier this season, the Cardinals’ Jedd Gyorko came to the plate in a situation that for years prompted almost an automatic call from the manager for a bunt. Alex Rodriguez mentioned that he believed this to be exactly the right strategy, and heck, even with 696 home runs in his career, the bunt was part of Alex’s repertoire when he played: He had 16 sacrifice bunts, all in his first six years in the majors. Hank Aaron had 21 sac bunts to his credit, Willie Mays 13, Derek Jeter 97.
But bunting wasn’t really a consideration for Gyorko -- just as it is not for a lot of his peers -- because in six years in the majors, he does not have a sacrifice bunt.
Stats LLC tracks hit-and-run attempts, and there continues to be a steady erosion in the prevalence of this play (the numbers are through games of last Saturday), and this year could represent a record low, again:
2018: 495 (on pace for 1,546 -- a tick up over last year)
The explanation for this dip is simple: With more and more hitters compiling strikeouts at a higher rate, a manager would be more reluctant to call for a hit-and-run because there’s now a greater chance for a swing-and-miss and a throw to second -- a greater chance for a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play.
Whether you love the analytics and the alterations to the strategy they have brought or you prefer the small-ball part of baseball, there is no debating this: The game is changing quickly, and dramatically.