In 2013 MLB playoffs, hits dropping to historic low

Sunday October 13th, 2013

Nobody has ever seen major league baseball played the way it is being played this postseason. A nearly decade-long trend of increased strikeouts in baseball is being taken to the extreme this postseason, when a groundball, nevermind an actual hit, is cause for excitement.

The Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals (the three highest-scoring teams in baseball this year, by the way) and Los Angeles Dodgers combined to score two runs in two League Championship Games yesterday while striking out 41 times.

Postseason baseball traditionally leans more toward pitching than hitting. The tournament format generally takes back ends of rotations and middle relievers out of play, a surfeit of off days allows a manager to rely on his best arms more often and advanced scouting reports are more detailed and focused. (Intelligence favors pitching and defense more than offense.) Odd starting times with the sun lower in the sky create poor hitting conditions.

Now layer those factors atop what has been happening in baseball over the last decade or so, as average velocity and spin rates by pitchers has increased and as hitters have come to accept strikeouts as no worse than any other form of an out. Strikeout rates increased this year to a record high for the seventh straight year.

You wind up with this formula: more pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff plus more hitters who don't care about striking out plus the usual postseason schedule factors equals an unprecedented style of baseball. The baseball has never been in play less often than it has this postseason.

Twenty-three games into the postseason, get a whiff at what has happened to baseball this October:

  • One out of every three batters that steps to the plate this postseason strikes out or walks (546 of 1,627 batters, or 34 percent of all plate appearances). That's a ton of pitches without the ball being put into play.
  • Saturday was the first day in baseball history with two 1-0 postseason games on the same day.
  • Total 1-0 postseason games in the past week: three. Total 1-0 postseason games in the previous 11 years (2002-2012): three.
  • Batting average of all teams this postseason: .231.
  • The Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Tigers combined to bat 1-for-27 with runners in scoring position yesterday (.037).
  • Postseason games this year are averaging 17.48 strikeouts per game. That's up 16 percent from the regular season average this year (15.1) -- and up 51 percent from how the game was played just 20 years ago (11.6).
  • The results from the first three LCS games: a .159 batting average, no home runs, seven runs and 65 strikeouts with an average time of game of 3:48. That's an average of one run every 98 minutes.

If you like close, low-scoring games, you're in luck. Thirteen of the 23 games have been decided by one or two runs. But if you like to see the ball put in play and the action of fielders, baserunners and the baseball in motion, you have my condolences. You can write it off as a small sample, and maybe the Red Sox and Tigers stage a slugfest tonight to make you feel better. But you cannot deny baseball has been trending in this direction for years and we are closer and closer to asking when the normal ebbs and flows of the game will turn this around, or whether procedures and rules need to be addressed to encourage the ball in play more often.

2. Well-constructed Cardinals limiting Puig

The Dodgers are learning that nobody has better figured out what plays best in today's game than the Cardinals, who are stocked with young power pitchers and hitters who spray the ball around just enough. Righthander Michael Wacha, 22, is the breakout star of this postseason, though the Cardinals also boast power arms Carlos Martinez, 22, Shelby Miller, 23, Trevor Rosenthal, 23, Seth Maness, 24, Kevin Siegrist, 24, Joe Kelly, 25 and Lance Lynn, 26. It's like a deeper version of the 1969 Mets' staff.

Wacha became the youngest starter in Cardinals history to pitch scoreless baseball in a postseason game, displacing Dizzy Dean (1934 World Series). His biggest out was the whiff of Yasiel Puig with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth on a full-count fastball.

Puig saw 29 pitches in four at-bats and struck out in all four at-bats, falling to 0-for-10 with six punchouts in the series. Puig looks confused. The Cardinals have exploited a young hitter who seems to guess wrong if he doesn't wail away at the first or second pitch of an a-bat. He had only six hits this year on full counts, batting .162. Moreover, check out these strange splits on Puig from the regular season:

Hitting the first or second pitch1211327.512
At-bats longer than two pitches261615.230

3. Observations and notes

From a long day that produced one earned run over two games:

The Dodgers have pitched Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw in back-to-back games this year 30 times. Yesterday marked only the second time they lost both games . . . It's nice to have options: St. Louis manager Mike Matheny used five pitchers to get the final eight outs and Detroit manager Jim Leyland used five pitchers to get the last 10 outs . . . Yes, we know bunting often is a bad play, but it seems counterintuitive that sacrifice bunts occurred this year less frequently than at any time in recorded baseball history -- just as runs continue to go down and strikeouts continue to go up. It's laughable to see teams suddenly asking players to bunt in the run-depressed environment of October baseball when they haven't done it all year. The skill level of bunting -- now that it is a frowned-upon tactic -- is abysmal . . . The biggest play of NLCS Game 2 was when Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis somehow missed a fastball from Kershaw with David Freese at second base. The passed ball moved Freese to third, whence he scored on a flyball by John Jay (after a failed bunt, naturally). These games are so close that every 90-foot advancement is huge. Oh, and one difference between Game 1 and Game 2: Carlos Beltran can throw and Carl Crawford cannot . . . The Red Sox saw 164 pitches in ALCS Game 1 without scoring a run, the second most in the wild card era for a nine-inning postseason game. The Cardinals saw 166 pitches while getting shut out by the Giants in NLCS Game 7 last year.

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