The state of baseball, and the conflict between what is efficient and what is entertaining, is captured in this story a manager told me recently. It happened a few seasons ago. The manager’s team lost a game in part because a relief pitcher, a groundball specialist, allowed an infield hit on a topped ball. Just bad luck, the manager figured.
The general manager figured differently. After the game he questioned the manager about why he did not opt for a strikeout pitcher.
“You’ve got to keep the ball out of play,” the general manager implored.
The manager knew better than to respond. But to himself he thought, The pitcher did his job and the ball was mis-hit! This is what we’ve come to?
The nuances that made baseball interesting in an Escherian kind of way—the closer you look, the more you appreciate it—are being blasted away by the pursuit of the almighty strikeout. Hit-and-run plays, bunts, stolen bases, singles, rallies, pinch-hitters, defensive gems and the like deplete as the ball gets put into play less often.
Front offices, not managers, control how the game is played. Armed with extensive data they understand games swing on home runs (either hitting them or defending them) and that the best defense is to smother offense with strikeouts. (Paradoxically, as front offices emphasize strikeouts on defense, they wave them away on offense as not much more than a nuisance, contributing to the strikeout’s rise in prominence.)
As baseball nears its halfway point this season, the most important trend in baseball is how the game continues to lurch toward less action over a longer period of time, like a toy with a battery winding down. Strikeouts—up for a 13th consecutive season—are at the heart of it.
At the end of this month there will be more strikeouts in half a season than there were in the entire 1980 season.
The ‘80s were a sweet spot in baseball’s popularity. The highest rated World Series games 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 all occurred between 1984–88. (The best Game 2 audience was 1993.) Baseball was big box office. Hollywood cranked out baseball movies annually, including Bull Durham (1988).
There is that great scene in Bull Durham in which Crash Davis visits Nuke LaLoosh on the mound and tells him, “Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some groundballs – it’s more democratic.”
Strikeouts are boring. How prescient.
The run scoring environment in 1986 (8.82 runs per game) was not much different than it is today (8.74). But how we get to those eight or nine runs is dramatically different. The road there today is a flat highway with a low speed limit; it takes longer and with less scenery.
The average game in 1988 took two hours, 45 minutes and gave you 57 balls in play and 11 strikeouts. The average game today takes 19 minutes longer and gives you 49 balls in play and 17 strikeouts.
Though baseball traditionally has relied on its natural ebbs and flows to correct the offense/defense balance, it also has put a thumb on the scale more than a traditionalist would care to admit (lowering the mound, tweaking the strike zone, adding the DH, livening the ball, and this year, mandating industry standard climate-controlled storage of baseballs, which has reduced the rate of flyballs that become home runs).
In the most crowded entertainment space ever, and faced with a trend more than a decade long of fewer balls in play over a longer period of time, baseball is reaching a day of reckoning. Commissioner Rob Manfred, in an awkward dance with the Players Association, has been brainstorming how to change this trend for years. But the actual action (automatic intentional walk, limits on mound visits, countdown clock between innings) has been minor.
This is the choice the powers of baseball face: let the game continue in this way and wait for it to self-correct, or impose rule changes to change the direction of this giant ocean liner.
Before you decide on an answer, consider these three parts of the equation: Define the Problem, Define the Sources of the Problem, and Consider the Solutions.
Part I: Define the Problem
What is so bad about strikeouts, anyway? It’s actually the environment they create: more pitches, more dawdling between pitches, and more emphasis on power and missing bats. When a batter steps to the plate today he is more likely to strike out than to get a hit. That had never been true before in the history of the game.
The ball simply isn’t in play often or quickly enough to capture or hold the attention of casual fans.
Consider how much the game has slowed in just 20 years: the games are taking 15 minutes longer with 17 more pitches not put in play (including home runs, strikeouts, walks and hit batters). Balls in play are important because they create movement across your eyes—movement of the ball, runners and fielders. Movement is what the screen-addled mind craves, and movement is the attraction of soccer, basketball and football (even with its perception of movement created by the use of the no-huddle offense). Inertia is the enemy of the digital generation.
Today, on average, you have to wait 3:45 between balls put in play—41 seconds longer between movement than 20 years ago.
Compare baseball in 1998 to baseball in 2018 and you can see how much the game has slowed:
Average MLB Game
Time of Game
Pitches Without Ball in Play
Percentage of Pitches Without Ball in Play
Minutes Between Balls in Play
For years baseball could treat pace of action as a back burner issue because of a cozy security blanket: attendance was rock steady. Today that security blanket is gone.
Per-game attendance this year compared to the same point last season is down 6.5%. If the 27,483 average holds this year, it will be the worst per-game attendance since 1996, the first full season after the disastrous 1994–95 strike.
Even if you give attendance the same second half boost it received last year (it went up 1.7% after this point), attendance will be the worst in 15 years.
This is not to suggest pace of action is the sole cause. Weather and the anticipation that many teams were rebuilding are factors. But as gate revenues decline, owners will have to consider that the pace of action—the decline of movement—is at least a factor, too.
Part II: Define the Sources of the Problem
Don’t be so quick as to blame the Launch Angle Revolution. Done poorly, yes, trying to hit more balls in the air creates vulnerability to high fastballs. But the greatest sources are on the pitching side. The quality of pure stuff pitchers bring to the mound these days is greater than ever before.
1. It’s velocity, but not nearly as much as you think.
Yes, it’s true that as velocity increases fastballs get more difficult to hit. Here’s the evidence:
2018 Hitting vs. Fastballs by Velocity
We’ve all heard that velocity keeps going up—except that’s not true. Velocity has peaked, and did so years ago.
We have pushed the limits of the structural integrity of the human body when it comes to throwing hard. Doctors and clinicians at the American Sports Medicine Institute once figured that the pitching arm rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second, the fastest measured motion of any human activity. They found that during the pitching motion the shoulder and arm bore the equivalent of 40 pounds of force.
Curious as to how much force a shoulder could withstand, they applied force to the shoulder joints of cadavers to find a breaking point. The cadavers’ ligaments blew apart at just over 40 pounds of force, which means pitchers work right up to the workload of having their shoulders explode.
The average velocity of a major league four-seam fastball has been steady, and actually is down slightly this year:
Average MLB Four-Seam Velocity
The number of pitchers who touch 100 MPH shows no growth:
MLB Pitchers Touching 100 MPH
Most importantly, pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs than at any time in the 17 seasons such records are available. According to Fangraphs, fastball usage has plummeted from 64.4% in 2002 to 55.4% this year. The effect of velocity on keeping the ball out of play has been overrated.
2. It’s about spin, especially the slider.
Since 1975, when Baltimore manager Earl Weaver used a radar gun in spring training to track whether his pitchers were tiring, the only metric we had for pitches was how fast they traveled. Trackman and StatCast changed everything. Now we can measure spin rates, spin axis and movement. We have metrics for breaking pitches and data to tell us what works and what doesn’t. The information has spawned the Age of Spin. Pitchers are increasingly replacing fastballs with breaking balls, which you can see in a window as small as 10 years:
Percentage of Pitch Types
Veteran pitchers such as Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Luis Severino, Gerrit Cole, Clayton Kershaw, Rick Porcello and Carlos Carrasco are all having outstanding seasons while throwing the fewest fastballs of their careers—in most cases dropping below 50%. Why are pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs and more breaking balls? They are following the data:
Vs. Breaking Balls
I wrote last year about why the curveball was enjoying a renaissance. What’s been happening with sliders is even more pronounced.
According to Fangraphs, slider usage soared from 11.8% in 2003 to 16.3% in 2017. This year, according to StatCast, slider usage is up to 16.5%. Hitters are on track to see 44% more sliders this year than they did in 2003. That amounts to 36,365 more sliders compared to 15 years ago.
And hitters are seeing not just more sliders, but also better sliders. During those 15 years, average slider velocity has improved from 82 to 84 mph.
Over the past three years, the slider is the fastest-growing strikeout pitch in baseball.
Changes in Percentage of Strikeouts by Pitch Type
Slider usage is particularly heavy with relief pitchers as more relievers pick up more outs in the average game. Pitching has become a craft of specialists, and pitchers with strong arms who don’t have a third pitch, don’t hold runners well and don’t field their position well have a welcome place in the game as a matchup reliever used in short bursts. Just about every night you will see a parade of relievers (many of them failed starters) who pitch exclusively out of the stretch, throw with a cross-fire delivery from the far arm-side of the rubber, and rely on a fastball/slider combination to overpower hitters and keep the ball out of play.
The use of an “opener”—starting the game with a reliever—by the Rays and Padres is an extension of this specialization.
3. Game management
The swelling inventory of fastball/slider relief specialists has allowed managers to follow the analytics when it comes to turning the game over sooner to bullpens.
A fresh arm always has been a better option more often than a tiring one—but we just didn’t dive deep enough into analytics to know it and teams didn’t have enough good arms in the bullpen to survive taking their starter out quickly night after night. Those barriers have fallen.
The pivot point in every game today is when the lineup turns over a third time. It’s when a pitcher is most vulnerable. More and more, managers are pro-active in getting a starter out, and here are the data why:
Vs. Starters Third Time
Vs. Relievers First Time
As teams place a greater emphasis on defending the home run and avoiding contact, they can’t ignore the opportunity to improve the chance of a strikeout by 25 percent and decrease the chance of a home run by 30 percent.
It works. The best team in baseball, the New York Yankees, has allowed its starting pitchers to face 27 batters (three times fully through) just seven times in 62 games – fewer than any team in the American League except the Angels. That puts the Yankees on pace for just 18 such starts this year – less than halfas many as the previous franchise low (40 in 2008 and 2016).
Go back 20 years to 1998, before turning games over to bullpens was wildly popular. Starters today face batters a third time 24 percent less often than they did in 1998—that’s 8,000 plate appearances a year that flipped from starters to relievers.
And again, the evidence is that the strategy is working. By getting starters out earlier, teams have lowered the third-time-around OPS against starters from .807 to .793.
4. Starters’ mentality.
Starters have adopted relievers’ mentalities. No longer worried about pacing themselves or getting hitters out three times, starters can attack hitters with maximum velocity and with all their pitchers from the moment they start the game. More evidence:
The average starter today faces just 23 batters (almost 2 ½ times around the lineup) and throws 90 pitches. Starters have become sprinters instead of marathoners.
The result? Starters hunger for strikeouts, too. In fact, the strikeout rate difference between relievers and starters is narrowing. Over the last 20 years, despite the growth of the specialized bullpen, strikeout rates have increased more for starters (up 31%, including seven straight record years) than for relievers (26%).
Part III: Consider the Solutions
No more minor tweaks. For true impact so the game presents noticeably different (i.e. faster), MLB should consider any two of these three suggestions:
1. Lower the mound.
This worked in 1969, when the mound was lowered from 15 inches (in actuality, there was great variability based on the home team’s preference) to 10 inches, where it has stayed. Hits and runs went up and strikeouts went down. (Also, the top of the strike zone was lowered; walks increased.)
It stands to reason that if you create a less steep path of the pitch that hitters will have an easier time squaring up the baseball. But there may be cost.
“I think you run the risk of more injuries,” said Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. “To switch it after they’ve been trained this way and give them less of a slope would risk injury.”
Mets manager Mickey Callaway, the former Cleveland pitching coach, agreed. In Cleveland the team had its pitchers train with sensor-embedded sleeves that measured stress on the arm. They found that throwing on flat ground created more stress than pitching off a mound, prompting the Indians to reduce flat-ground throwing.
“It was just the opposite of what you might expect,” he said. “Based on the science, I would be worried that having the pitchers pitch off less of a slope might lead to more injuries.”
A study by doctors at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine California, found that “flat-ground throwing at even the shortest distances had similar biomechanical loads compared with pitching from the mound.” That study confirmed a similar one in March 2011 by Dr. James Andrews, Glenn Fleisig and biomechanic specialists at ASMI.
“It’s not true,” Fleisig said a few years ago about a lower mound lowering the force on the elbow. “When you throw as hard as you can on flat ground you have the same force on the elbow. That’s not the solution. The solution is less pitching.”
Perhaps baseball could lower the mound incrementally, such as one inch a year for four or five years.
Rothschild suggested softening the baseball, which would encourage pitchers to pitch to contact, which would produce more balls in play. “But we know that’s not going to happen,” he said.
2. Limit 25-man rosters to 12 pitchers.
This is a cap to the veritable bottomless well of relief pitching that has overtaken the game. The idea here is to reduce pitching changes and restore a premium to the length of starting pitching, which might discourage the “relievers’ mentality” that starters have adopted.
3. Adopt a pitch clock.
This is Manfred’s favorite idea. He backed away from implementing one this year to appease a union already agitated by a slow free agent market. He seems set on following through for next season. Nothing would have a bigger impact on how baseball looks without touching the strategic elements of the game than the pitch clock.
The players like to argue that they should not be forced to play “speed up” baseball. But more than two-thirds of current major league players already have played professional baseball with a pitch clock in the minors. And baseball for more than a hundred years was played well without players stepping out of the box and walking off the back of the mound, as if every pitch were the splitting of the atom.
It’s only been in the past decade that players “needed” the deep mental reset between every pitch in order to play baseball. What the pitch clock does is re-train players. It would create two difficult months of whining and complaining, and then, like the anti-collision rule at home and the slide rule at second base, become the new normal.