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  • The 2017 MLB season was a homer-happy, strikeout-prone affair. Let's dig into one baseball's most unusual regular seasons before the playoffs begin.
By Tom Verducci
October 02, 2017

Baseball got slower in 2017, with more strikeouts and home runs than ever before, while attendance dropped slightly, to its lowest per-game level since 2003. The average nine-inning game (even with fewer replays) took 3:05.11—up four minutes, 29 seconds in just one year, and almost 10 minutes in two years. This season should be the tipping point for owners and players to act on pace of action, the way 1972 was for offense and attendance.

Here are a dozen need to-know facts about the state of play—and how they impact the upcoming postseason.

1. The new style of postseason baseball is good for the Yankees

New York ranked first in homers and third in bullpen ERA in MLB. That makes the Yankees dangerous, because the postseason has never been more about home runs and relief pitching than it is today.

Remember how we liked to say that playing “small ball” decided games in the low-scoring environment of the postseason? Forget it. Trying to win a game last postseason without a home run was almost impossible. Teams went 3–22 last year when they didn’t hit a home run. Just three postseasons earlier, before hitters when crazy with hitting the ball in the air and before the ball was juiced, teams went 15–24 when they didn’t homer. Home runs rule: The world champion Cubs last postseason went 10–2 when they homered and 1–4 when they didn’t.

Like small ball, starting pitching, while still important, is less impactful than it used to be. Starters threw only 56.8% of postseason innings last year, the lowest since the start of expanded playoffs in 1969. They went 19–24. Relief pitchers were 16–11, and after accounting for 33% of decisions in the regular season last year, they accounted for 46% of decisions in the postseason.

The postseason becomes an extreme version of the baseball we saw during the regular season: swing for the fences, and go to the bullpen early and often.

2. It’s a young man’s game

Players 25 and under hit a record 1,669 homers—17% more than any other season in history. The old guys? They don’t matter so much any more. Players 36 and older hit 236 homers, down 23% from last year, and less than half of what they hit in 2004 (554). Where have you gone, David Ortiz?

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3. The pitcher’s duel is officially dead

This was the first season in baseball history in which a reliever was used in every game. The last time two starters threw complete games in the same game happened July 16, 2016, a 1–0 win for Matt Shoemaker of the Angels over James Shields of the White Sox.

4. Matt Cain is done ... already

Cain officially retired at the end of this year, his age-32 season. (He turned 33 on Sunday.) Tim Lincecum, his rotation-mate on two championship Giants teams, also was done in his age-32 season. Cain won 104 games; Lincecum won 110. Combined, they won fewer games than Curt Schilling.

On and on it goes. The best pitchers of this generation don’t last.

Remember the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis? It featured an exciting pitching matchup between past and future Cy Young Award winners Roy Halladay and Lincecum. Cain was there, too. But all of them, and a few others in that game, saw their careers end abruptly. Check out when the end came for some of the best young pitchers at that Midsummer Classic.

Player

Age in final season

Career wins

Roy Halladay

36

203

Dan Haren

34

153

Tim Lincecum

32

110

Johan Santana

33

139

Josh Beckett

34

138

Matt Cain

32

104

Chad Billingsley

30

83

Josh Johnson

29

58

Today there are only three active pitchers who have made 100 starts after and including their age-35 season: R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon and John Lackey. Ten years ago, there were 13.

Though they throw fewer pitches and pitch with more rest, starters simply don’t hold up the way they used to. Why? It’s a complicated answer that includes youth baseball dynamics, but the most obvious factor is starting pitchers bring a reliever’s approach in terms of max effort and velocity. Go as hard as you can for as long as you can. The emphasis on power—including on the offensive side, with the threat of selling out on all three swings to hit the ball out of the park—does not encourage easing your way through a game.

5. I warned you; now remember this when you make your preseason picks next year

My Turnaround Team Theory proved right again. Every spring, I remind you that when it comes to postseason predictions, you better include at least one team coming off a losing season, preferably with a new manager. This year I picked the Rockies as a wild-card team.

How solid is this theory? It’s held true 12 years in a row and 22 of the 23 seasons in the wild-card era. This year we got not just the Rockies, who lost 87 games last year, but also the Diamondbacks, who lost 93 games last year, and the Twins, who lost 103 last year, becoming the first team to go from 100 losses to the playoffs.

Since the wild card was introduced in 1995, 50 teams in 23 years have made the playoffs the year after posting a losing season. That’s 26% of all playoff teams, an average of about two per year. And among those 50 turnaround teams, 20 of them did so under a new manager. That includes the Rockies (Bud Black) and Diamondbacks (Torey Lovullo) this year.

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6. Beware of road teams in wild-card games

The wild-card game is the ultimate trap game. The home team bears the most pressure: They are 3–7 in these games, half of which have been shutouts. But, wait: It’s not just about the wild card game. Since 2009, there have been 28 sudden-death playoff games. The road team is 18–10 in those win-or-go-home matchups, a .642 winning percentage. And keep this in mind: the team that scores first in the wild card game is 8–2.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

7. The Rays were the most boring team in baseball

If the Rays represent the future of baseball, I’ve got three words for you: “No thank you.”

The Rays mastered the trends that are making baseball duller (less action over a longer period of time). They smacked 228 homers—sixth most in the majors—but scored the second fewest runs in the American League. One hitter after another walked, struck out or homered. One hitter after another swung mightily trying to loft the ball in the air, not bothering to put the ball in play with runners in scoring position. Eight players hit double-digit home runs, but nobody drove in 90 runs, nobody scored 90 runs, and nobody stole 20 bases (because you don’t try to steal when everybody is trying to hit a homer).

The Rays are the canary in the coal mine for MLB. If the game keeps emphasizing the three true outcomes (home runs, walks and strikeouts), you’ll get an entire sport of teams as boring as they are.

Category

AL Rank (out of 15)

Runs

14th (694)

Strikeouts

15th (1,538—worst all-time in AL)

Three True Outcomes

15th (37.6%)

Doubles

15th (226, fewest in league since 2003)

RISP

15th (.227)

Two-Strike Hitting

15th (.158, tied with Texas)

High-Leverage Situations

15th (.227)

Vs. Relief Pitching

15th (.220)

Time of Game

14th (3:12)

Attendance

15th (1.2 million)

So here is how dully the Rays played baseball: They averaged three hours and 13 minutes per game to score the second-fewest runs and strike out the most in league history with the worst rally-capable offense. And they ranked last in the league in attendance.

On an average night at Tropicana Field, you would find only 15,741 people in the stands to watch 84% of pitches not to be put in play. They had to wait once every four minutes, or every 6.1 pitches, to see either team put the ball in play.

8. Never before has baseball been played with the ball in play less often

Strikeouts increased for a 12th consecutive season; in 20 years, they have increased 25% per game. With walks increasing for a third straight year—and you know about the record number of 6,105 homers—the juiced ball is not in play in fully one out of every three plate appearances (33.5%).

9. The greatest young player in baseball history still has never won a playoff game

Mike Trout will watch the playoffs again at home. Trout, who is only now entering his prime, finished with career bests in on-base percentage (.442), slugging percentage (.629), OPS (1.071), OPS+ (187), intentional walks (15), walk rate (18.5%), strikeout rate (17.8%) and contact rate (82%).

Here is the entire list of players in baseball history with 200 homers and 165 stolen bases through their age-25 season:

Player

Home Runs

Stolen Bases

Mike Trout

201

165

10. Parity is dissipating

Superteams are back, thanks to clubs understanding that it’s better to rebuild fully than to construct a team to win 81 games.

(The Tigers, and perhaps the Royals, join the White Sox, Phillies, Padres, Reds, Braves and Athletics in checking out for a minimum of three years. The Mariners, neither good enough for the playoffs or bad enough to rebuild, represent the worst possible team architecture: They spent $168 million to go 78–84, have won between 71 and 87 games for six straight years, and haven’t made the playoffs for 16 straight years.)

All those intentionally bad teams mean more wins for good teams. This year, three teams won more than 100 games for only the fourth time (1942, '98, 2002). Last year, the Cubs became the first 100-win team to win the World Series since the 2009 Yankees. We have a shot at back-to-back Super Champions for the first time since we had four in a row from 1975 to '78 (Reds twice, Yankees twice)—even with the expanded playoffs that make Super Champions less likely.

11. The Indians are the official Team to Beat this postseason

The Indians became the first team to finish a season on a 33–4 run, unless you count the 1884 Cincinnati Outlaw Reds of the Union Association, a league that existed for one year only and was so chaotic that teams would fold mid-season and be replaced by minor league squads.

But check this out: In the Indians' four losses in the past six weeks, they lost once by one run with the tying run on base, once on a walk-off homer, once by two runs and once by one run. They at least had the tying run on deck in the only four losses that stood between them and a 37–0 finish. When they open the Division Series Thursday, the Indians will have not have lost a game by more than two runs for 41 consecutive days. And since Aug. 24, their starting pitchers are 26–1.

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In his 37-year career in pro baseball, Cleveland manager Terry Francona has seen the four longest World Series title droughts end: the Cubs (108 years in 2017), White Sox (88 years in '05), Red Sox (86 years in '04, with Francona at the helm) and Phillies (78 years in 1980). He has played or managed in all four organizations. The next longest drought, and the longest active one, belongs to his current employer: 69 years.

12. Totally random fact

Brandon Phillips came to the plate 604 times and only twice was called out on strikes: once by umpire Ben May in June and once by Phil Cuzzi in September.

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