Trend Spotting: Short starts, longballs and a New York mess are defining the season

1:38 | MLB
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Tuesday May 30th, 2017

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Two months down, four to go. Here's what we know about the season so far:

1. Short Stories

For all the talk during the 2016 postseason about how "superrelievers" such as Cleveland's Andrew Miller might change the way managers deploy their relief pitchers, the '17 season has seen fairly conventional bullpen usage. The carryover from last fall has been more obvious in the rotation, where teams continue to ask less and less from their starting pitchers.

Starters are averaging just 5.63 innings per game through May 28, which would be the lowest figure in history, besting the previous low (5.65) set last season. Six innings per start was the average in the first 20 years after the 1994-95 strike; teams have chopped a third of an inning off that in the last three years (chart, below).

It's not just a case of teams using their back-end starters for fewer outs, or bad pitchers being chased from games early as offense rises. The 2016 season saw just 74 pitchers qualify for the ERA title (with 162 innings or more pitched). Just 15 pitchers threw at least 200 innings, the lowest ever in a nonstrike year (and actually fewer than the strike year). The 250-inning season has been eradicated; no pitcher has reached that mark since 2011, when Justin Verlander squeaked over the line with 251. No pitcher has started 36 games since 2003, and last year David Price became the only starter since 2010 to make 35 starts.

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Two decades ago "seven-inning starter" was a term of derision. In 2017 there are just four starting pitchers averaging seven innings per start, and none averaging more than 71/3 (Chris Sale leads at 7.3). Zack Greinke is the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history at $34.4 million a season; he's faced just 15 batters after the seventh inning all year, and has pitched into the ninth just once. Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million contract last summer; he has one career complete game, and he hasn't taken the mound in the ninth inning since 2013.

This isn't a lament about the days when men were men. Can teams keep pouring money into these assets while asking less of them in return? It's not as if reducing the workload on these players has produced a golden age of pitcher health. At some point either teams will have to use their top starters more, or pay them less.

Year

Games started

IP

IP/Start

2007

4,862

28,134 1/3

5.79

2008

4,856

28,198 2/3

5.81

2009

4,860

28,257 1/3

5.81

2010

4,860

29,061

5.98

2011

4,858

29,299 1/3

6.03

2012

4,860

28,617 2/3

5.89

2013

4,862

28,767 1/3

5.90

2014

4,860

28,992

5.97

2015

4,858

28,223 1/3

5.81

2016

4,856

27,412 2/3

5.65

2017

1,490

8,394 1/3

5.63

2. Homer Happy

May 23 was a fairly typical Tuesday in baseball, with a full slate of games, a mix of aces and jokers on the mound ... and 46 home runs. Every game featured at least one long ball, with all but four of them seeing at least two.

Baseball is now even more homercentric than it was at the turn of the century, during the so-called steroid era. By any measure there is as much or more power in the game as there was back when Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds roamed the earth.

The rate of home runs per fly ball is only available since 2002, but the 2017 figure of 13.2% would set the record, besting the 12.8% mark set last year. This figure had never officially been above 11.4% before 2015 and, based on home run numbers, we can infer that it peaked around 12% at the turn of the century. What's the end result of all these big flies? It's that 41.9% of runs scored are trotting home now, the highest figure in baseball history.

There are a variety of reasons for this power surge. Greater velocity is part of the equation, as pitches that come in faster go out a little faster as well. While a juiced ball is one popular theory, MLB insists that the baseball hasn't been changed, even releasing the results of its own testing (for weight, circumference and "bounciness") to Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer last month.

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The single biggest factor might be the increased influence of new information on the game. Batters have always tried to hit the ball hard and far, but since MLB's Statcast system came on line in 2015, the value of doing so has been quantified. Data on optimum launch angles and the constant tracking of exit velocity off the bat can be strong incentives for more hitters to sell out for power at all costs.

Some purists cringe at the spread of the fly ball approach, and they may have a point. Whereas the influence of data on the NBA and the NFL has produced more wide-open, entertaining games that show off players' athleticism, the spread of information has only slowed baseball down. Pitchers chase framed strikes off the edges of the plate; batters seek out the one mistake they can drive and lay off pitches they can't. A game that was designed to have lots of action—fielding, running and throwing—has less and less with each passing year.

A third of baseball now is home runs, walks and strikeouts, which is a far cry from the original design of the game, and a radical difference from where we were even 25 years ago.

Year

HR per game

HR on CONact

runs HR%

1999

1.14

4.02%

35.9%

2000

1.17

4.14%

36.7%

2016

1.16

4.39%

40.1%

2017

1.21

4.65%

41.9%

3. New York Mess

Another year that started with a belief in homegrown pitching has already come crashing down in Queens, where the vaunted young starting staff has failed to stay healthy or prevent runs. The Mets, coming off consecutive playoff appearances, have seen their 2017 hopes dashed by a staff that has allowed the most runs of any NL team, on its way to a 21-27 start.

Confident that they had young starting pitching to spare, the Mets let Bartolo Colón go in the off-season and didn't bother to bring in another veteran innings-eater to back up their homegrown hurlers. By Opening Day they were already down fourth starter Steven Matz (strained elbow) and No. 7 Seth Lugo (partially torn UCL). Noah Syndergaard tore his right lat muscle in early May, just days after controversially declining an MRI to check his right biceps. Suddenly Brewers castoff Tommy Milone was in the rotation, to disastrous (10.50 ERA in three starts) results. Outside the rotation, closer Jeurys Familia returned from his domestic-violence suspension to make 11 appearances before being shut down, perhaps for the season, with a blood clot in his right shoulder.

The pitchers who remain upright haven't fared much better. Last year's late-season sensation, Robert Gsellman, has seen his ERA nearly triple from 2.42 to 6.45. Jacob deGrom has been the nominal ace, while posting the worst ERA (3.23) of his four-year career. Matt Harvey learned that availing yourself of Gotham's dark nights goes over better when you pitch well during the day. Suspended for three games after failing to show for a May 7 contest at Citi Field, Harvey has a 4.95 ERA in ten starts.

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It's a remarkable state of affairs for a group around which the Mets have been trying to build for half a decade. Mets starters are 11th in the NL in ERA, 13th in innings pitched and last in base runners per inning. The collapse of the rotation has undercut a bounceback by the offense, led by leftfielder Michael Conforto—who, freed to play after Yoenis Céspedes strained his left hamstring, has hit .322 with 13 homers. He's helped the Mets rise to fourth in the NL in runs scored, a mark that should have been more than enough to back the projected pitching.

Alas, with Syndergaard out, Matz forever a question mark and Harvey striking out just 16.5% of the men he faces, there's little reason to think the Mets' rotation will be able to anchor a contender this season.

Year

GS

IP

ERA

WAR

2015

89

566

2.69

12.3

2016

93

557

3.47

11.8

2017

34

197

3.83

2.8

4. Rockies' Road

The best way to describe clutch in baseball is as a thing that happens, rather than as a skill an individual or team possesses. Clutch performances will happen, and they will very often be the difference between making the playoffs or not. That these performances may not be repeatable doesn't make them any less valuable.

That brings us to the Rockies, who have been absolutely white-hot in the clutch, and as a result they have the best record in the National League and a one-and-a-half-game lead in the competitive NL West. The Rockies' 33–18 mark is helped by the fact that they've gone 9–1 in one-run games and 18–8 in games decided by three runs or fewer. Their ability to win close games is tied almost entirely to how well their revamped bullpen has pitched in big spots (chart, below).

Bud Black's Rockies have gotten incredible work from righthander Greg Holland, who they picked off the remainder pile after he missed all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Holland, who is missing two ticks off his fastball from his days as the Royals' closer, has made up for it by going almost all in on his slider, throwing it almost half the time. Batters are 7 for 42 off the pitch, all singles. Overall, Holland has a 1.37 ERA in 21 appearances and has struck out 38.9% of the batters he's faced.

Team

Avg.

OBP

SLG

OPS

Dodgers

.185

.240

.283

.523

Rockies

.200

.269

.290

.559

Cubs

.215

.301

.330

.631

Cardinals

.230

.309

.350

.659

Diamondbacks

.227

.312

.362

.674

Colorado has also seen a few older moves pay off, as Adam Ottavino (claimed off waivers in 2012) and Jake McGee (acquired by trade in '16) have combined for 39.2 innings of 2.25 ERA baseball. Batters are a combined 15 for 103 (.146) with no extra-base hits off Holland, Ottavino and McGee in the clutch.

The great work by the pen has helped to paper over some of the problems the Rockies have had on offense. They're third in the league in runs scored, but that's entirely a park effect; statistics that adjust for Coors Field, such as weighted runs created, peg them as having the 12th-best offense in the NL. Stars Nolan Arenado (.288/.348/.566 with 12 homers) and Charlie Blackmon (.330/.366/.618, 12 homers) have played well, and Mark Reynolds has mitigated some of the effect of the injuries with his 13 dingers so far.

But if the Rockies are going to be a playoff team—much less fend off the Dodgers for the division title—they're going to need more than well-timed performances. They're going to need performance all the time.

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