If you’re having a hard time getting into sports as they’ve restarted during the coronavirus pandemic, you’re not alone. The athletes playing are struggling with this, too.
Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was very candid about his feelings on Thursday night, after Boston’s 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of their best-of-seven first-round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t really feel like playoff hockey out there,” Rask said, as reported by NBC Sports Boston. “There are no fans, so it’s kind of like playing an exhibition game. It’s definitely not a playoff atmosphere out there. You try and play as hard as you can. When you’re playing at a home rink and an away rink and the fans are cheering for and against you, it really creates a buzz for the series.
“There’s none of that. So it just feels, like, dull at times. There are moments when there are scrums and whatnot, and then there will be five minutes when it’s coast-to-coast hockey. There’s no atmosphere. So it feels like an exhibition game. We’re trying our best to ramp up, get energized, and make it feel like it’s a playoff game.”
Over in the NBA, Sacramento Kings guard Kent Bazemore was a little bit more charitable in his take, noting what his team could gain from the experience of playing in the bubble.
“It’s a good learning experience for a very young team that hasn’t been in a playoff-type atmosphere,” Bazemore said, as reported by The Sacramento Bee. “I think the intensity down here is reminiscent of the playoffs without the 20,000 people, so it’s an eye-opening experience for a lot of guys.”
While the NHL is playing in a totally fan-free atmosphere, the NBA has had court-side video boards with live streams of cheering fans. So maybe it’s a little closer to normal, but it’s still very much not the same. In Major League Baseball, meanwhile, there obviously are no fans, but the setup varies from ballpark to ballpark, with some featuring cardboard cutouts of fans, some using tarps with ads on them covering empty seats, and some just going au naturel with rows upon rows of unoccupied chair backs.
And how’s baseball season going so far, relative to normal? In this case, the answer can be gleaned through some statistical indicators, rather than players’ comments about the situation.
So far, Major League Baseball has played about 11 percent of a typical season’s worth of games, not a definitive sample size, but also not insignificant.
The batting average across the majors is .239, just two points above the .237 average compiled by big-league hitters in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” It’s lower than the .244 of 1972, after which the American League instituted the designated hitter rule, and that’s with a DH now in both leagues and enough players who have been truly locked in that three guys — Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, and Donovan Solano, have hit over .400 so far. Teams are averaging 1.53 doubles per game, which would be the lowest rate since 1989.
Those numbers alone would suggest dominant pitching, but that’s not what’s happening either. Pitchers are surrendering home runs at a rate of 1.31 per team game, the second-highest rate in history behind last year’s 1.39. Teams are striking out 8.75 hitters per game, close to last year’s 8.81, but it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a year-to-year decrease in strikeouts since a drop from 6.55 to 6.30 per team game in 2004 and 2005. Teams are issuing 3.45 walks per game, the highest rate since 2000, but only 0.09 intentional walks per game, the lowest rate ever. And the average game now features exactly one hit batsman, which would break the record high of 0.94 set in 1898. And no, it’s not a matter of everyone throwing at the Astros — their hitters have been plunked 10 times, tied for 10th in the majors and well behind the Mets’ tally of 18 times taking one for the team.
All of that adds up to teams scoring 4.64 runs per game — right between the 4.45 of 2018 and the 4.83 of 2019. But those underlying numbers point to relatively normal results being reached through a simultaneous degradation in the quality of both hitting and pitching.
Will all of this improve as athletes shake off the rust of several months out of action, while growing more accustomed to the experience of playing in front of nobody? Perhaps. For now, though, while we’ve gotten sports back, they’re not nearly at the level we’re accustomed to seeing.