It's been a rough half-decade for the guardians of the baseball galaxy.
Attendance is on pace to drop for the sixth straight year, something that has not happened since at least before World War II. As of Thursday, per-game attendance was down 3.8 percent from 2017, the largest single-year dip since the economy plopped into the sewer in 2008.
The development has prompted plenty of inward looking by the great pastime's national consciousness: members of the academy, the sporting press, and management itself. After initially chalking up the decline to a cool, rainy spring, Commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged in June that Major League Baseball was "concerned that there's something more to it than the weather."
Our fair city has not been exempt from the hand-wringing. With the Phillies a game out of a playoff spot in the National League race, this week's three-game series against the Nationals drew an average of just 21,500 fans, the lowest since a mid-June series against the Rockies and the second-lowest since early May. A Tuesday showdown between Aaron Nola and fellow Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer was played before a ballpark that was literally half empty.
So, what gives?
Three theories are worth some investigation
1. It's the pace of play, ding-dongs.
In the national conversation, this has been figured as the primary culprit, and it is easy to see why. This is the third straight season in which the average nine-inning ballgame has reached three hours in duration. In 2007 and 2008, when attendance reached an all-time high, the average game lasted 2:55. Last year, games took 10 minutes longer, despite new rules that had been instituted to address the issue. This year, the pace has quickened a bit, but it still takes an average of three hours to play nine.
While baseball has focused on speeding up the time between pitches, the results suggest that it might not be possible to nickel-and-dime our way to a swifter game. Instead, the issue that needs to be addressed is the pitchers themselves. That is, the sheer quantity of them.
Case in point: the aforementioned game featuring Scherzer and Nola. What started as a showcase of two of the National League's preeminent pitchers devolved into a 300-foot conga line from the center-field bullpens to the mound. The Phillies and Nationals combined to use eight relievers to record 18 outs, with three pitchers facing fewer than three batters. Final time of game: 3 hours, 28 minutes.
This season, teams are using an average of 4.25 pitchers per game, the most in baseball history and a significant increase over where things stood even 10 years ago (3.92).
Don't blame the managers. You play to win the game within the framework you are provided. The problem is the framework itself. There is no reason baseball couldn't institute a rule that requires a pitcher to face at least three batters once he takes the mound.
Unlike a lot of worthy ideas that die on baseball's tradition-bound vine, this one would actually move the sport back toward the way it has been played for most of its history. When the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, teams used an average of 2.56 pitchers per game. That means that, this year, a game features four more pitching changes than it did back then.
Still, until recently, there's been little to suggest that pace of play has an impact on attendance. Between 2000 and 2003, the average time of game dropped from 3:01 to 2:49, but attendance dropped by about 5 percent.
Which leads to Theory No. 2
2. Baseball attendance is dependent upon our disposable emotional energy.
In 2001, attendance reached a post-strike high of 72-plus-million fans. The following year, it dropped to 68 million.
You might recall that year being a rather turbulent one, with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 giving way to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you look at the significant dips in baseball attendance through the years, you'll notice that they often coincide with disruptive events.
Between 1967 and 1969, a time period anchored by a year that many historians identify as the must tumultuous in 20th century US history, baseball attendance declined by 10 percent. Conversely, in the first four years after Vietnam, attendance increased by 4.9, 14.0, 5.0, and 7.3 percent from where it was when Saigon fell in 1975.
The most significant decline in attendance in modern baseball history occurred from 1949 to 1953, which prompted some extended soul-searching about the sport's ability to survive the explosion in TV home ownership.
The current era of attendance decline includes many of the aforementioned factors, from the 2016 election and its aftermath to the explosion of the social media era. Is it crazy to think that Americans are simply too emotionally exhausted to enjoy baseball like the used to?
Or, how about this. . .
3. Baseball attendance isn't a problem at all
Rather, the problem is that the markets that have traditionally driven attendance are filled with boring teams. The Mets stink. The White Sox stink. The Angels stink. The Rangers stink. The Phillies have stunk. Consider the stretch of 2013-17 with the five seasons preceding it. In the most recent stretch, the eight teams in the country's five largest media markets have combined for a winning percentage of .505. From 2008 to 2012, that number was .535. Attendance in those five markets fell by 11 percent between those two time periods. Now, get this: Attendance in the other 22 markets actually rose by 3.2 percent.
My Spidey Sense tells me that reality probably involves some combination of the three of these.