The major trends in baseball kept flowing in the same direction in April: more strikeouts, more walks and more home runs.
One month doesn’t make a season, but the first month of the 2019 season is an indication that how baseball is played continues to narrow. As skilled pitchers more and more keep the ball out of play, hitters more and more swing for the fences to make their few hits count. Increasingly it becomes a game of boom or bust.
Small sample size disclaimers are in order here. We still have 83 percent of the games to play. But let’s have some fun with the sample we do have–without taking it too seriously.
The State of Play
• The strikeout rate is up for a 14th straight year, now at 17.7 per game.
• The MLB batting average is .246, joining last year (.244) as the worst Aprils since the DH was added in 1973. Compared to full season averages, in only three of the past 100 seasons has it been harder to get a hit (1967, 1968 and 1972).
• Walks are up sharply this year to their highest level in 19 years. Why? With fewer hits, a pitcher’s main job is to defend against the home run, which means walks are not a bad play.
• The rate of double-play grounders is the second-lowest ever, behind only the nadir of hitting, 1968. Because groundballs are down, managers are foolish walk batters “to set up a double play.”
• The average game has 49 foul balls–and 46 balls in play. That loosely means fans have about the same chance of fielding a batted ball as the actual defenders on the field.
• Yes, all of you pitchers, something’s up with the baseball. The ball is carrying farther. Well-struck pitches are going out of the park at a higher rate:
100+ MPH Exit Velocity With Launch Angle of 25+ Degrees
Home Run Percentage
And so are pitches that are not well-struck …
Pitches Hit Less Than 100 MPH for Home Runs
Home Run Percentage
The Team Trends
• Yes, you can lose a postseason berth in April. And the 11-17 Red Sox are in danger of doing just that. In the wild-card era, only eight of 122 teams who played under .400 baseball in April recovered to reach the playoffs.
• The A’s and Tigers still don’t have a sacrifice hit, the first teams since the 2003 Blue Jays to play so many games in April without one.
• The Indians and Marlins have yet to hit a triple. Only four teams played at least 25 games before May without a triple: the 1993 and 2013 Braves, 2000 Cubs and 2018 Cardinals.
• The Pirates are tamping down their worship of the fastball. Pittsburgh dropped from 66% fastballs last year (No. 2 in MLB) to 57% this year (No. 17).
• The Nationals are the team most likely to panic into paying Craig Kimbrel. Their bullpen has a 6.57 ERA.
• The Indians are hitting .116 with two strikes. The all-time low for a season is .148 by the 2017 Padres.
• Braves pitchers, the youngest in baseball, are walking 4.8 batters per nine innings. Only one postseason team ever walked batters at such a high rate: the 1949 Yankees.
• GM Brodie Van Wagonen’s attempt to fix the Mets’ offense is working. The Mets’ average launch angle in each of the past four years was among the six highest in the game. Stripped of some of their flyball hitters, the Mets this year rank 24th. Their batting average on balls in play has risen from .283 (29th in baseball) to .322 (tied for second best). Now about that pitching and defense …
The Player Trends
• Bryce Harper has more swings and misses than any player in baseball: 88. Daniel Murphy swung and missed 85 times all of last year.
• Willians Astudillo is the anti-Harper. In 150 career plate appearances, he's whiffed just four times.
• Christian Yelich hit 18 flyballs at home. Twelve of them were home runs. Cody Bellinger robbed Yelich of a 13th homer, too.
• Kris Bryant grounded out to the pull side 22 times. His previous high for rollovers in April was 13.
• Shortstops Cole Tucker of the Pirates (24th overall pick in 2014) and Carter Kieboom of the Nationals (28th in 2016) each homered for their first major league hit in their first major league game. Each took a well-executed curtain call.
• Jesus Aguilar hit more home runs than any first baseman in baseball last year. He has none this year.
• Fastball machine Sean Doolittle doesn’t throw many splits and changeups. He had thrown 225 in his career without giving up a home run–until Hunter Renfroe ripped one for a homer last Friday.
• Bellinger hit .206 last year on inside strikes. After changing his swing path to get back to 2017 form, he is hitting .533 on those pitches this year.
• Marco Gonzales obtained 627 swings and misses–more than any pitcher except Trevor Bauer. All of Gonzales’s swings and misses occurred on pitches slower than 90 mph.
• Jay Bruce has four singles and nine homers in 94 plate appearances.
• Mike Trout has a career-low chase rate (16%). With runners in scoring position he has more walks (10) than at-bats (8).
The Simply Weird
• With the threat of stolen bases down, pickoffs are becoming rare. Only 41 runners were picked off. The rate of players picked off (one every 9.8 games) is down 61% in 20 years.
• The American League is so bad the Yankees have no wins against a team with a winning record–and still had a winning month.
• The Yankees paid more money to injured players than what four teams paid for their entire roster (Pirates, Orioles, Marlins and Rays).
• It’s dangerous out there: the rate of batters getting hit by pitches is up for a fourth straight season to its highest rate in 119 years.
• This is why free agency for veterans is dead: 14 players posted a WAR of 1.5 or greater. Every one of them is 28 or younger.