Baseball is better than ever

Celebrate the past, but as the calendar flips to '19, MLB is tough to top

December 20th, 2018

With detectable disdain and ruthless specificity, the Hall of Famer grouses about the state of the game.
The livelier ball, he argues, is creating higher home run rates. Pitchers are fragile. Stolen-base totals are shrinking. Managers aren't shrewd. Too many "joke teams" are collected at the bottom of the standings. Baseball, he insists, is but a shadow of its former self, and the best players of this time could not compete with the best players of his time.
Is this a recent Twitter tirade? Some Facebook fuming? A sports radio rant?
This is Ty Cobb. In an article from 1952. Cobb's lamentations to Life magazine all sound pretty familiar, don't they? Be it the crotchety veterans who abhor anything that came after them or the fans longing for the days when they were younger and the grass was greener and the sport was some spotless Shangri-la, it's not unusual for people to beatify baseball's past by bashing its present.
Nor is it uncommon for others to accede to the equally problematic -- and played-out -- premise that baseball is some unchanging institution. The game both benefits and suffers from its illusion of immutability, the delectable yet debunkable feeling that an observer imported from another time -- say, Cobb's time -- would be bewildered and disoriented in virtually every aspect of modern American life and yet still feel right at home if plunked down in a seat at the ol' ballgame.
As the country has evolved, baseball has moved right along with it -- addressing itself, correcting itself, refreshing itself.
And as the calendar flips to 2019, it is better than ever.
Yeah, I said it.
While there's nothing wrong with nostalgia, there's nothing worse than not appreciating what you have. Contrary to what any frustrated fuddy-duddy might try to tell you, the training, the tactics, the technology, and, yes, the talent in today's game is all, as a function of human progress, better than before. Many of the pastime's perceived "problems" are actually attributable -- weirdly -- to this improvement.
It is true, for instance, that MLB keeps breaking its own season-long strikeout record and that 2018 was the first season with more strikeouts than hits. Not only are .400 hitters like Cobb extinct but even .300 hitters are becoming an endangered species.

Are those issues emanating from inferior approaches at the plate, a generation totally neglecting Ted Williams' splendid science?
Or are they products of the prevalence of what we'll refer to here, for lack of a more sophisticated and scientific term, sick stuff?
Look, I can get as cranky about two-strike approaches as the next guy, but let's not ignore why so many guys are getting into two-strike counts in the first place. Fastball velocities have generally trended upward for as long as we've had the ability to track them, sliders and curveballs with majestic movement are increasingly in vogue, and soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera's cutter is the "gift from God" that keeps giving, with imitations abound.
Bullpens these days are devastatingly deep. The Rays, to grab an example at random, have a guy named who offsets his 99-mph fastball with a slider that has 12-6 movement and a splitter that seems to defy physics with its late downward dive. He struck out nearly one-third of opposing batters this season, and, you likely wouldn't rank him among the top 100 pitchers in baseball.

How would a pitcher like this have fared in Cobb's time?
As my colleague Mike Petriello joked at one point this season, they would have burned Stanek at the stake.
Baseball's better now in so many respects, and not just because is playing it (though that helps). The power prowess we've seen from the likes of , , and is an antidote to the eras when a sub-.400 slugging percentage was the middle-infield standard. and Juan Soto were the latest in what's been a wonderful wave of flourishing freshmen, adding to an overwhelming assemblage of young talent. Defenders are rangier, front offices are smarter, managers operate off intellect, not instinct.
And if a sport's present pull can be measured by the theatrical quality of its biggest bouts, well, I feel pretty comfortable submitting Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Game 5 of the 2017 World Series and Game 3 of the 2018 World Series to the committee for review.

So by all means, celebrate baseball's past. Let the sport fulfill its romantic role of unifying you with your inner child and any idyllic images, invented or otherwise, you have stored from the days of yore.
Just don't make the error Cobb did in assuming that the game in front of you is any lesser.
You might miss the good old days as they are happening.