Baseball has a talent for letting its drama and foibles overwhelm its public image. Everyone's talking about A-Rod, not the resurgence of once moribund franchises like the Royals and Pirates, or the amazing feats of Miguel Cabrera, who is on his way to being one of the all time greats. Compare this to the NFL. Aaron Hernandez is accused of murder -a crime slightly more heinous than injecting steroids- but conversation in the football world is much more centered on the field than off. Some of this might have to do with the weird and outdated expectations of purity among baseballers representing the sainted National Past-Time.
Be that as it may, the current A-Rod saga (and Ryan Braun sideshow) is merely the last, strained coda of baseball's Steroid Era. Of course, plenty of players are still juicing and will continue to do so, but the way baseball is played has definitively changed, and that has benefitted certain teams and hurt others. For evidence, look no further than the Kansas City Royals. At the start of the 2012 season, I wrote a long piece about their epic futility over the last twenty years, and there seemed to be little hope of a rebound. This year they are winning and in contention for a possible play-off spot. They are also winning in ways that pre-steroid era teams won. As a great piece at Grantland demonstrates, the key to this team's success has been pitching assisted by stellar defense. It certainly hasn't been home runs, since the Royals have only hit 84 this season, the lowest total in the American League.
This Royals team reminds me of the Cardinals of the 1980s, who were one of the top squads of the era, but hit few homers. Now that the Steroids Era is over and pitching is ascendant (just look at the number of no-hitters in recent years), pitching, fielding, and base-running are much more important components of the game. This Royals team has weaknesses, but their strengths are strengths that play to the trends in the game. Even Kaufman Stadium itself symbolizes their throwback methodology. The Royals play in a big, pitcher-friendly park of the kind totally foreign to the homer-friendly bandboxes built around the league in the 1990s and early 2000s.
It's not just the Royals, either. The Pirates, a team perhaps even more perennially disappointing to their faithful for the past two decades, are leading their division with a similar model. They rank 11th in the National League in runs scored, but first in ERA. The Dodgers, who are just killing their competition right now, are ranked 12th in home runs in the National League. Of course, there are teams like the Braves who are winning with the long ball, but the contours of the game have made other paths to winning easier. Sluggers like Miguel Cabrera still stalk the earth, but the best player in the senior circuit just might be the Pirates' Andrew McCutcheon, a great all-around player who can hit for modest power, high average, steal bases, and patrol center field.
All of this means that the average baseball game is more exciting and interesting than it was fifteen years ago at the heigh of homer mania. Daring base running and stellar fielding are great things to watch. Fewer homers makes them that much more exciting when they happen. On a more personal note, the Mets are rebuilding their team around strong pitching and timely hitting, and the success of the Pirates and Royals gives me hope for my newly adopted squad. The fact that the shift in the game has led to longtime doormats getting back into contention and shaking things up is reason enough to welcome it.