On the first Sunday night in August, the Washington Nationals were going down in defeat on national television. Down by three and with a runner on second, Bryce Harper, the eventual unanimous choice for National League MVP came to bat against Noah Syndergaard, the 22-year-old flame-throwing rookie for the New York Mets. He was making 100-mph look easy and effortless on this night, but Harper was unlike any hitter in baseball this past season. He could make any pitcher look pedestrian with one well-timed swing. But on his 109th pitch of the night and with Harper sitting on two strikes, Syndergaard did what he does best. He threw the gas.
Down but in the zone, 99 mph, swing and a miss. The Nationals would lose and soon relinquished sole possession of first place to the Mets, who would go on to win the division, knock off the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the Divisional Series, the Chicago Cubs in the Championship Series and come within a few breaks of besting the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. And they got that far because of Syndergaard and his fastball…and Matt Harvey’s fastball…and Jacob deGrom’s fastball. In fact, according to Daren Willman’s invaluable Baseball Savant site, we know that the Mets threw a modern-day record 4,948 regular-season pitches that were 95 mph or faster, which was a full 40 percent more than the next-closest team (none other than Kansas City, their World Series foe). And even just that trio of Harvey, Syndergaard and deGrom threw more regular-season fastballs than the Royals’ collection of pitchers combined.
It was little surprise that the two hardest-throwing staffs met for baseball’s ultimate prize, as this entire 2015 MLB season had seemingly been themed around speed, not just in the actual movement of the ball but in all aspects of the game. Starting in Spring Training, one of the major initiatives coming in was about “pace of play,” or hastening the on-field action whenever possible. For this trial season, that revolved primarily around batters not stepping out of the box after every pitch and timing pitching changes as well as the breaks between innings. The result? A shaving of six minutes off the average time of a MLB game. There’s more that baseball can and will do – the institution of a 20-second pitch clock in the upper minor leagues more than doubled the time shaved off by the pros – but the early returns are promising. And maybe six minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but sit where you are for six minutes doing absolutely nothing and see if that doesn’t feel interminable. When you’re talking about fans investing three hours a pop per game, every nip and tuck helps.
One thing that did noticeably slow down MLB games was the constant replay review that would take three, four, perhaps five minutes to adjudicate, and that’s not even taking into account the slow-down tactics managers will employ to see if they even want to issue a challenge. To help quicken that part of the game, MLB is opening a brand-new replay center in San Francisco in time for the 2016 season. Headquartered in the West Coast offices of MLB Advanced Media – the same broadband entity responsible for getting MLB.TV streamed to your mobile device – the idea is to keep more eyes on more games at a time so that when plays are challenged, the process is sped up to the point where it’s merely a blip in the flow of the game and not a sleep-inducing, channel-changing exercise in boredom.
And the bottom-line result of this speed? Baseball is printing money faster than it ever has in its existence. According to Forbes, revenues for MLB are at the $9.5 billion level and could potentially crack $10 billion by the end of fiscal year 2016. Additionally, as Forbes notes, the top 10 seasons for attendance in MLB history have all come in the last 10 years. And with MLB Advanced Media spinning out part of its video-streaming business into what will be known as BAM Tech, the sport is well positioned to bring in more money than any of the 30 owners could’ve ever conceived. Baseball salaries are again on the upswing, though the players’ share of the revenue pie is lower than it’s been in years.
Yes, much of baseball’s success is about speed, but it’s also about evolving, itself often an agonizingly slow process. Credit, in that case, to new commissioner Rob Manfred for allowing the game to grow and adapt into what it’s become. Granted, he still needs to move faster on some of the sport’s off-field issues – Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman have both been recently accused of domestic violence against women and should both be issued lengthy suspensions to show this will not be tolerated in any way – but baseball is generally moving in the right direction, and at a blinding pace. That’s in the form of a Syndergaard fastball or the game loading on your smartphone or the salary of your team’s most important slugger.
Baseball is dying? Baseball – in the blink of an eye – has never been more alive.