Nevius: Baseball's woes not as dire as might seem

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Baseball’s All-Star break looms, which can only mean one thing. It is time for the annual hand-wringing about the grand old game.

What’s wrong with baseball?

Granted, there are some red flags. As a recent USA Today deep dive noted, average attendance is down about 2,000 a game from this time last year and total attendance is off over 1.8 million.

Strikeouts are epidemic. The same USA Today story projected that this year, for the first time ever, there will be more Ks than hits.

Meanwhile, national television ratings are not good. Even a World Series game ranks well below almost any NFL playoff game.

And then there’s star power. As New Yorker writer Ben McGrath famously asked a couple of years ago, “If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him?”

Probably not.

So I guess we should just close the ballyards and put up soccer goals, right?

Not so fast. There’s still life in the old horsehide and hardwood.

Let’s look at the concerns, beginning with attendance.

Granted, no business wants to see sales decrease. The Giants are off around 2,200 tickets purchased per game. And the poor A’s, despite a surprisingly representative showing in the first half, are down about 3,000.

But put the numbers in perspective. In the early ’90s, teams averaged about 15,000 tickets sold per game.

Today they’re averaging close to twice (27,623) that.

The reason? It’s the ballpark, stupid. Baseball, unlike football, is one sport where the in-person experience is better than watching on a screen. With the well-documented ballpark architectural revolution, fans are coming to the yard to hang out, meander around and sip craft beer.

Baseball’s gotten the memo. Besides the trendy new parks, teams are adding eyeball-attracting innovations.

This year the Angels unveiled a giant video screen that stretches over 9,500 square feet. And that’s only the third-largest in baseball. The replays and instant stats are everywhere. We get a pitch count, “velo” (that’s baseball-speak for velocity) and a hitter’s launch angle. (I was at a game last week and when Hunter Pence grounded out, his launch angle was dutifully noted as “-2.”

More is on the way. There’s talk of “smart” baseballs that can give you more info you didn’t know you needed — like spin rate or time to plate. And wait until you can bet on games on your phone.

As for strikeouts — cue up the old ball coach lamenting the lost art of putting the ball in play — that horse has left the barn.

The USA Today story came up with a cute stat. If you add up strikeouts, walks and home runs, they account for 34 percent of at-bats. So, it said, a third of the time, a fielder is not involved in the play.

I guess that’s a problem.

You can bemoan launch-angle metrics if you’d like, but the numbers are pretty clear. If you put the ball in the air, good things are likely to happen. Maybe not as often, but the good moments can be effective. Arizona has one of the worst team batting averages in baseball, but it leads the NL West.

The TV ratings are a red herring. Baseball doesn’t have a national following. It just doesn’t. And, yes, in some markets, even the World Series might rate a “meh.”

But not if it is your team. Locally, primetime baseball broadcasts are ratings monsters. According to Nielsen Media, in 2017 local broadcasts were “beating the prime time average of all other TV networks in their respective … markets.”

The league is trying to capitalize on that with its “Facebook-only” showings, the reviews for which can be called skeptical at best. The Facebook screen is so cluttered with graphics and random viewer comments that it shrinks the video space. It’s worse on a phone.

“I’ve always wanted to watch my baseball games on a 5.7-inch screen — said no one ever,” was one comment.

As for the poor, low-profile, can’t-get-arrested ballplayers, it is probably true that we wouldn’t recognize Trout, generally considered the best all-around player in the game. But I’ll bet if we spent the day with Madison Bumgarner or Buster Posey we’d find that they get Jimmy Garoppolo’d wherever they go.

Again, that’s the regional nature of the sport. In Atlanta they probably can’t tell one Brandon from another (Belt or Crawford?), but Giants fans can. As the season goes on, they may also find that quiet Joe Panik, for instance, has a sneaky sense of humor.

Fans learn the little quirks of players — A’s outfielder Mark Canha walks up to the plate to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — and it leads them to the team.

Following a ballclub remains one of the enduring pleasures of summer. It’s getting into the car on a weekend and remembering that there’s a game to listen to while you drive.

So sure, there are problems. Baseball’s definitely going to have to attract a younger crowd. And somehow there has to be a way to stream games on portable devices. But it says here the core principles of the game still hold.

Not that fans won’t worry. I found a Gallup Poll that said that of all the major sports, fans overwhelming felt baseball “faces the most serious problems.”

The kicker? The poll was from 2003.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius.

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