- The Dodgers hit plenty of homers, played extremely long games and even had a position player pitch ... during a win. Are they playing the game that MLB is trying to eliminate?
The Dodgers are tied for the best record so far in the NL West at 3-1. They’ve also embodied quite a few of the major ongoing debates about baseball’s aesthetic virtues (or vices, depending on whom you ask)—everything the game might need to fix, or preserve, or test out in the Atlantic League. Here, then, is a Rorschach test for modern baseball. It could seem like what’s going right in today’s game. It could seem like what’s going wrong. It could seem like a bunch of meaningless splotches without any greater significance. Regardless, it’s what’s been going on with the Dodgers:
Too Many (Or Just Enough?) Home Runs!
The Dodgers’ first home run of the season came after just two innings. The Dodgers’ first home run record of the season came after just seven. With eight total dingers on Thursday, they hit more than any team ever had on Opening Day. And they’ve kept it going, hitting six more over the next three games. (Only Seattle, which got a jump start on its schedule with the two-game series in Japan, has hit more.) Los Angeles has spread the power through the lineup, too, with home runs from seven different players so far.
That fits perfectly, of course, with the fact that baseball has seen more home runs than ever over the last three years. There weren’t quite as many in 2018 as in 2017, which holds the record (likely due, in large part, to changes to the ball), but last year’s number wasn’t too far off this historical high-water mark. The 1.15 home runs per game in 2018 fell behind only 2017 (1.26 HR/G), 2016 (1.16) and 2000 (1.17); the three-year rolling average for home runs over the last three seasons is higher than it’s ever been, and it isn’t close.
It’s too early to track home runs per game for 2019. If you really wanted to, though—statistical significance and responsibility be damned, because dingers—you’d see that it’s 1.44, which would break baseball’s record and then some. That’s exactly double the rate of home runs from 1992. (Or, if you’re trying to be really dramatic, more than seven times the rate of 1919.) It is, depending on your perspective, insanely fun or a monotonous slugfest designed to kill rallies and strategies. It is, no matter your perspective, a big piece of our first glimpse of the 2019 Dodgers.
Games Are (Not?) Too Long!
Look at L.A.’s second game, and, well, obviously: It was thirteen innings. It was a slow thirteen innings, though. It lasted six hours and five minutes, resulting in the team’s only loss so far—and in the longest regular season home game in team history. (Yes, the longest postseason home game is exactly what you think it is.) At baseball’s current average pace, thirteen innings will typically wrap in a comparatively speedy four hours and twenty minutes. Friday’s game, meanwhile, only hit this mark at the top of the tenth. In other words, its total time was closer to the marathon eighteen innings from the last World Series than it was to the average thirteen. The highlights included multiple double switches, fifteen total pitchers, and a replay review lasting four minutes.
Position Players Are Pitching (Just Fine?) Too Much!
The Dodgers’ third game featured something truly interesting, if record-setting home runs and game length weren’t enough to get you going. Up by 13 runs in the ninth inning, L.A.’s Russell Martin came out to pitch. Catcher Russell Martin. Up by 13 runs.
This one isn’t a sign of modern baseball so much as it is a sign of where the game might be headed. In 2018, more position players pitched in more situations than ever before; the phenomenon began to look like something you might expect with a team losing by seven runs in the eighth, rather than only by double digits in the ninth. This increase didn’t include any position players pitching with a lead, though—you saw that only in late extra innings, when there were hardly any other choices available, and even then, it felt like something radical and disruptive. MLB took note of the trend and was, apparently, concerned enough to include this in its latest set of proposed changes for the players’ union, stipulating that a position player could pitch only in the sixth inning or later in a game in which his team trails by seven or more runs.
But those rules aren’t in place just yet, and so we ended up here: Martin on the mound, in the ninth inning, with his team winning, getting two easy grounders and a fly-out to close out the game. Maybe it was delightful—absurd in such a way that you simply have to laugh. Maybe it was a farce—absurd in such a way that you simply have to legislate it out of the game. Maybe it was somewhere in the middle! Ultimately, it was the 2019 Dodgers in Game 3.
Baseball Does (Not?) Need A Pitch Clock!
Okay, this one didn’t set a record. It didn’t show us anything radically new. It wasn’t even noticeable, really; it was only a handful of seconds over the course of the game. Every second counts, though—as perfectly demonstrated by the pitch clock that the league has been eager to implement.
Putting “Dodgers” and “pitch clock” in the same vicinity likely brings just one player to mind, of course: Pedro Báez, the righty reliever who throws at a pace seemingly between grass growing and paint drying. Báez became baseball’s slowest pitcher in 2015, his first full season in the big leagues, 29.8 seconds between his pitches on average. He was the slowest pitcher again in 2016, even slower now, 30.2 seconds. And he held the title again in 2017, slower once more, 30.7 seconds. In 2018, however, he reversed the trend. Amid the growing concern over pace of play, with a pitch clock in use in the minors and expected to show up eventually in the majors, Báez—by this point, nicknamed “The Human Rain Delay”—sped up a tiny bit. He averaged a hair under 30 seconds between pitches, just as he had in his first season; instead of being baseball’s slowest pitcher, he became the fourth-slowest.
Báez made his first appearance of 2019 on Friday, during the marathon loss. The game might have been slow, but he worked fast. He took 25 seconds between pitches—which, well, it is slow, slower than the league would like, five full seconds slower than would have been allowed under the pitch clock that was tested this season in Spring Training. But this was fast for Báez! Too fast, it turns out, for him to keep it going for his second appearance. He pitched again on Sunday, entering in the fourth inning with runners on the corners and zero outs after an implosion by starter Walker Buehler. Báez didn’t do anything to make the situation better. He faced five batters and let three runs score, including a home run from opposing pitcher Luke Weaver. But for the purposes of this paragraph, only one piece of information matters—his struggle involved slowing down, going back to 30-plus seconds between pitches.
Thanks to his fairly quick first outing, however, Báez’s average figure for the year is still under 30. This means that he’s not the slowest pitcher in baseball. He’s not the fourth-slowest pitcher in baseball. No, Báez, right now, is the 27th-slowest pitcher in baseball. Relative to everyone else, Báez is faster than he’s ever been.
Maybe this is a sign of pace-related progress to come for Báez. Maybe it’s just something to enjoy while it lasts. Maybe Pedro Báez is the problem with baseball, the embodiment of the need for a clock, or maybe he is baseball—sliding between being a little better and a little worse; trying to adjust to new playing environments and new rules; doing his best, or something like it.