It’s the final day of 2017, so it’s a good time to reflect on some of the key points from MLB in 2017, plus my one major moan from the year and some hopes for the future.
For the second consecutive year we were treated to a seven-game classic of a World Series, with the Houston Astros ultimately claiming their first title at the expense of the LA Dodgers. Both teams had spells during the regular season where they looked almost unbeatable, as did the Cleveland Indians who put together a 22-game winning streak on their way to another impressive season.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies were somewhat surprising NL Wild Card winners – the D-Backs had gone 69-93 in an enormously disappointing 2016 the season before, whilst the Rockies last made the play-offs in 2009 – with the Milwaukee Brewers also having a surprisingly competitive season in the senior circuit.
In the American League, everyone kept waiting for the Minnesota Twins’ bubble to burst but they held on to claim the second Wild Card and even though their play-offs amounted to an 8-4 loss to the Yankees simply making the post-season was a turn-up and another example that the two Wild Card set-up gives more teams a chance to compete.
The American League MVP award perfectly highlighted that baseball is a game for everyone, with the diminutive Jose Altuve beating out the hulking Aaron Judge. Both had great seasons and either would have been a worthy winner, but there was something refreshing in the 5ft 6inches Altuve showing size doesn’t always matter. Judge may well have an MVP or two in his future anyway, although the first person he may need to beat is his new teammate: reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton.
Judge had to content himself with the AL Rookie of the Year award, joining the LA Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger as rookie hitters playing for big market teams and making a big name for themselves in their debut seasons.
Long-balls and long games
Judge and Bellinger helped to make 2017 the year of the long-ball. The 6,105 home runs amounted to the most ever hit in a single season, beating the previous mark of 5,963 of 2000. The latter came in the middle of the so-called steroid era where home run totals have come to be seen to be inflated by the use of drugs, so conspiracy theories abound as to whether it’s now the ball that has been juiced.
What we do know is that MLB’s efforts to improve the pace of play are not going well, with the average game time going up once again to a record of just over 3 hours 5 minutes. The World Series showed that classic games can come in different forms and a long game doesn’t necessarily make for a dull one – quite the opposite in some cases – but is is apparent that pitchers and hitters are not paying much attention to the directives from the MLB Commissioner’s Office to get on with things. Expect pitch clocks and more heavy-handed regulation of batters staying in the batter’s box to come soon.
World Baseball Classic
The biggest disappointment of 2017 came in what should have been one of the highlights of the year.
The WBC has been an excellent addition to the baseball landscape in creating an international tournament every four years that includes MLB players and exciting talent from other leagues (most notably Japan, Korea and Cuba). There are arguments for and against its timing, but what can’t be argued is that it adds competitive and enjoyable games at a point when the initial appeal of Spring Training exhibition games wares off.
However, for baseball fans in Britain and many other countries the tournament may as well have not happened.
Whereas in previous years there was a multi-platform approach to the rights that allowed for a WBC online subscription package, in 2017 MLB went down the route of selling exclusive broadcasting rights to individual countries. The result was that in many countries the rights-holder was only interested in showing a small number of games and there was no way for fans to watch virtually all of the tournament.
In our case, BT Sport got the rights and decided to only show the semi-finals and finals. That was a shame but it’s fair enough for BT Sport to balance out the other rights they have in March and better to have some TV coverage than none at all. The issue was that we couldn’t watch any of the other games, despite the fact that BT Sport was not broadcasting them.
Why on earth that was a desirable outcome for MLB is a complete mystery. The revenue generated from the rights likely were peanuts in the general scheme of things. The WBC is designed to be a perfect way to ‘sell’ baseball as it shows the game off in a short tournament format with all of the passion and drama that international competition provides.
Pursuing a rights model that deliberately prevented huge numbers of baseball fans outside the States from watching the tournament was ridiculously counter-productive. We can only hope that they learn a lesson from it and change things up for 2021.
International games and special events
Where MLB ballsed-up with the WBC, they did at least give back by including a range of international games in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement for the next five years, with those scheduled for London naturally capturing the most attention in these parts.
There are two important aspects to this. The first is the obvious one that taking games to countries such as the UK provides a great way to promote the sport, building on what support there is for the sport there already. We saw that with the Hyde Park Home Run event this year and the range of new UK-based blogs, podcasts and social media accounts that have developed since that point.
The second is the benefit this can bring in creating more ‘events’ during the MLB season.
I’ve regularly had comments from Brits over the years that show the daily marathon that is the MLB regular season can be quite intimidating for a newcomer. The NFL is a very different sport, of course, but part of its ability to attract new fans is that there are a relatively small number of games and they have a lot of build-up around them, so that they feel like events.
In MLB, it’s a load of games today, followed by another 15 tomorrow, followed by another 15 etc. That’s part of why us converts love the baseball season, but other than the All-Star game (useful, but limited as an exhibition) and the World Series (I couldn’t count the amount of people over the years I’ve seen get into baseball due to the World Series, only to see the initial enthusiasm lost in the five months before MLB action starts up again) there isn’t anything ‘special’ to give a newcomer a reason to jump on board at any point.
The MLB Little League Classic this year between the St Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have a specific international flavour, but it was a good example of something that I feel MLB needs to do much more of. There is plenty of scope, especially in May, June and August, to have a series that has something different about it in terms of where the game is played. Build it up as an event, make it seem like something a bit special within the regular season, and give people a reason to tune in.
In the UK
It’s been great to see more Twitter accounts and blogs popping up this year bringing UK baseball fans together. The question really is how these can be developed, as the way in which social media can bring like-minded people together can also be a bit misleading in terms of how many people are involved (i.e. we all end up following each other!).
The reality is baseball had a much larger fanbase in the UK 10-15 years ago than it does today simply because of the number of people that watched it on Channel 5. My article confirming the news that Baseball on 5 was coming to an end in March 2009 received over 200 comments long before the days when you could promote posts on Twitter and the like.
Free-to-air coverage, even in the early hours of the morning, makes a huge difference to the reach that a sport can have even in these days where you can watch some games for free online. The latter requires you to have an interest in baseball and make a point to go looking for it. Free-to-air coverage allowed thousands of people to stumble across the sport who otherwise wouldn’t have done so.
A full-time return to free-to-air coverage looks unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we should be pessimistic. The scheduled MLB games in 2019 and 2020 would hopefully get free-to-air coverage in the UK and that would be a good start.
My one realistic – but probably still overly optimistic – hope would be for BT Sport to go beyond their current coverage (which should not be taken for granted) and have one game a week when there was a UK-based studio element to it. This would be similar to what happens with the NFL on Sky and would provide a way to help newcomers get into the sport whilst also be a focal point for the British baseball community. I’ve heard no rumours to suggest such a venture is on the cards, sadly, but we can but hope.