Monday, February 25, 2019

From the Archives: April 16, 2014, "State of the Game, Pt. 4"

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 6, No. 18
April 16, 2014

The baseball we watch today is unique in history, a max-strikeout, high-power, min-single environment that would be largely unrecognizable to baseball fans of 100 years ago and would look strange to those of even a generation ago. This week, I'm going to run a series of articles that looks at the state of baseball on the field, whether it's a problem and what might be done to change it.

In this final installment, I look at possible ways to change the game to address the strikeout issue.


One of the most frustrating aspects of the baseball industry, particularly in the past two decades, is that it waits until a small problem has become a large one to address the issue. There are tendrils off this main problem -- a tendency to fix perceived problems, a tendency to let the media set the agenda, a complete blind spot about causes and effects -- but they all stem from passivity. At this moment, strikeouts haven't completely ruined baseball; they've made the game a bit less fun to watch relative to other eras, but that doesn't seem to have penetrated the awareness of the casual fan or the mainstream media, whose focus is still largely on home-run leaderboards and run scoring as measures of gameplay. Both of those figures are unremarkable, comparable to, as we hear so often, the way the game was played prior to 1993, so there's a notion that the game is back in balance.

It is not. Baseball is as out of balance as it has ever been. Velocity and strikeouts are today what muscles and home runs were 15 years ago -- at historical peaks that affect every single game. 2011-13 were for strikeout rates what 1999-2001 were for home-run rates, but while the latter was a product of short-term factors such as the double expansion; the shift in roster construction that created more pitching jobs and fewer hitting ones; bat and ball technology and a small de facto strike zone -- most of which washed out after '01 -- the former is the product of long-term trends in player development and player evolution that are unlikely to change. Despite the sports-drugs narrative that dominates this discussion, the reason strikeout rates are what they are today is because of the pitchers, not the hitters.

Pitchers have enormous incentives to throw hard and to strike batters out. Velocity gets you noticed from the time you're eating orange slices after a game, and it drives the selection process that turns amateurs into professionals. It's how pitchers are measured as they climb the professional ranks, and how they keep runs off the board once they reach the major leagues. Pitchers are selected for these two skills, and because of that, they've evolved to perfect these two skills. The curve, the slider, the splitter, the cutter all stemmed from the desire to throw a pitch a batter can't make contact with.

Teams, meanwhile, recognize that the way to combat the power all players have now -- nearly every player has some minimum of power thanks to end-weighted bats and big swings -- is to prevent contact. You may hear a lot of talk about pitching to contact and getting quick outs, but the trends are clear: teams pick pitchers who miss bats, or they end up like the 2013 Twins. Moreover, teams have learned that a great source of value is in one-inning pitchers with fairly limited skill sets who can be used until they break and then replaced. Look around MLB and you'll find an entire class of these pitchers making a million bucks a year or less for the task of throwing 65 innings with a 28% strikeout rate. Some do survive the selection process and eventually make better money, but for the most part these pitchers are asked to throw at max effort for a year or three, by which time they've lost effectiveness or health, and been replaced by someone else making the minimum. It's a brutal system, but it's on display every single night. Relief pitching is cheap, plentiful and increasingly fungible.

Everyone is acting in their own self-interest. Pitchers want jobs and money, teams want outs and wins. This isn't going to change, which only heightens the need for the game's administrators to address the matter. I am not sure there is a solution powerful enough to slow the trend towards higher strikeout rates that doesn't open the door to unintended consequences, but there have been some proffered. The most widely-read suggestion actually dates from the time of higher home-run rates and was designed with an eye towards homers rather than whiffs. In the New Historical Baseball Abstract, James suggested that a rule be added legislating the width of bat handles. Hitters were the first statheads, calculating F=ma and looking to a as much m as they could. Bats, once logs, have come to look ever more like paddles, with all the mass at the top, allowing for big swings and big rewards when contact was made.

I have never liked this idea, largely because I feel like it would have been a huge disadvantage for hitters to change the feel of a bat in their hands. Looking back at James' original writing, he does suggest that the rule be gradually phased in, with the minimums moving up a 1/20th of an inch of circumference a year to a final figure of 1.3 inches (from a bit more than half that today). That's a bit more palatable to players, I'd imagine; the problem is the players don't make bats, and James' suggestion puts a staggering amount of pressure on batmakers during the decade of transition. Enforcement would also be a problem -- you'd have to pre-approve every single bat in a dugout, because no one can visually ascertain the difference between a bat with a .9" circumference and .75". There's also the issue of the baseball world below the level of the professional game. Golf is currently dealing with this, as the technology of balls and clubs, placed in the hands of professionals, overwhelms the game's historic courses -- while making the game more accessible and enjoyable to millions of amateurs. Would the regulations on bat handles leak down to colleges, high schools, Little Leagues, or would there be a split between what the major leaguers use and what the rest of the world uses?

That's not even my biggest objection. No, while James' suggestion may have made sense in 2001, when home runs dominated the game and the goal was to hinder power while putting more balls in play, to make batters' lives more difficult now would make the problem worse. It's focusing on the wrong side of the equation; the strikeout peak is happening because the pitchers are too good, not because the hitters are being stubborn. Put thicker-handled bats in the hands of major leaguers now, and they'll hit for less power while striking out about as much. The hope is that they'd change their approach to value contact over power, creating more balls in play; the reality is that "approach" isn't the issue in today's game, it's pitchers globally averaging 92 mph with cutters.

(As an aside, James' other suggestion was to move the batter's boxes off the plate by a few inches. It was a different time, to be sure, but can you imagine being a left-handed batter in today's game and being asked to move away from the plate, given the way the outside "corner" is called? You'd have to retire.)

The last time MLB wanted to fix the balance between hitters and pitchers, it lowered the mound from 15 inches to ten, redefined the strike zone to make it smaller and, when those changes didn't move the needle, introduced the DH in the American League. (Note: it wasn't "MLB" back then, it was two independent leagues making their own decisions.) As I've written, I've done a 180 on the DH and now believe it to be a good idea for the game, because pitchers are not selected for their batting and haven't been for 120 years. The "strategy" added by pitcher hitting amounts to "if runner(s) on and less than two outs, bunt", because pitchers are so bad as hitters the risk of a double play outweighs the chance of a positive outcome. Pitchers are extreme specialists, and denying that in the interest of tradition or symmetry or whatever other nonsense is countered by this: .119/144/.161. Unfortunately, the DH issue is to baseball what the abortion issue is in U.S. politics, and it's really a non sequitur here, so we'll leave it be.

Mound height is an interesting idea. There's not a ton of room between ten and zero, but if current trends continue, that would be one area to examine. We know that a higher mound helps pitchers, and I'll speak just from one experience pitching in a real game off flat ground as a kid that it's freaking weird and difficult. Lowering the mound from ten inches to eight or nine would likely increase offense, but it's not clear if it would increase balls in play or just make the game even more TTO-oriented. We don't have a big lever, moving the mound five inches, the way they had in '69. As with anything under discussion, changing the mound height in 30 ballparks invites the question of what to do in hundreds or thousands more. In an age in which we're dealing with a rash of pitcher injuries, at great cost to the industry, lowering the mound comes with the unknown of what it would mean for pitcher health -- that's the best argument against doing so. Lowering the mound an inch is one of the most likely outcomes should strikeout rates continue to rise.

James wanted to modify the bats, but what about the baseballs? We know that the mid-1990s changes to the ball helped trigger the power game that followed, rewarding fly balls and the swings that generate them. It seems that if you deaden the baseball a bit, you change that equation and encourage hitters to trade power for contact without messing with their bat grips. We wouldn't want the balata ball of World War II, but if the baseballs produced were at the lower range of tolerances rather than the higher ones, you might see some results. The problem here is that it could take years for hitters to adapt, during which time you could easily create a Deadball Era III; the only thing propping up run scoring right now is home runs, and if you turn a bunch of them into F8s, baseball will start to look like soccer.

Both equipment solutions come at the problem from the wrong direction, trying to force batters to behave differently in the interest of aesthetics. While there is some choice, some evolution of batters, in today's strikeout rates, the real reason they are so high is the improvement by pitchers. Solutions for taking strikeouts out of the game should address pitchers, not hitters.

At a 10,000-foot level, strikeout rates are higher because we've reduced the workload on all pitchers individually, allowing them to work at maximum effort over shorter periods of time. Starters go six rather than nine -- just two pitchers averaged seven innings per start a year ago -- and relievers go one rather than three. Because games are still nine innings long and seasons still 162 games long, this has meant more pitchers have to be available for any given game or series or season. There were 11 games played Tuesday, and 79 relievers were brought into those 11 games. Sixty-three of those 79, four in five, pitched one inning or fewer.

If you're going to fix the strikeout problem, one that is most prevalent in the late innings, this is where you start. The people who obsess over the pace of the game often make suggestions that target specialization and batter-by-batter baseball -- usually mandating that a pitcher must face multiple batters before he can be removed. That's a half-measure. The simplest, most elegant and most effective way to start fixing the strikeout problem is with one rule change:

No pitcher can be removed once an inning has begun, absent evidence of an injury or at least six batters faced in the inning. A pitcher removed due to injury must immediately be placed on the 15-day disabled list.

This rule would get at the strikeout problem in a number of ways. First, relievers with large platoon splits would become less valuable, and those relievers tend to have high strikeout rates when facing their preferred hitters. The "six batters" clause virtually eliminates tactical relief usage, and ensures that a pitcher being removed mid-inning is coming out due to ineffectiveness and having allowed at least one run. The race to the bottom in IP/app -- and with it, the acceleration in K% -- would end, and with that, value would begin to accrue to pitchers with the durability to go two innings effectively, with the tradeoff in K% that implies. Pitchers whose command is unreliable -- often power pitchers -- would come with much greater risk because they couldn't be removed quickly if they didn't have command on a given day. With tactical reliever usage eliminated and IP/app on the rise, teams would be free to buy back a roster spot or two from their pitching staff and use it on hitters. This would, theoretically, improve the quality of late-inning at-bats, allowing for more good hitters on benches.

To be clear, I am not advocating this. I don't like rules that take strategy out of the game, and while a new set of strategies would pop up -- the decision whether to send a starter out for a seventh, an eighth or a ninth inning would become incredibly sensitive -- I think this would be a net negative. However, this change should force teams to value different skills in their pitchers, especially in their relief pitchers, which would go a long way to arresting strikeout rates.  It would, although this is not the primary reason I suggest it, reduce the number of commercial breaks that occur late in games. I continue to think this is a perceived problem rather than an actual one, in terms of fan interest, but the change would generate a lot of positive coverage from the one group most vested in shorter games, beat writers.

Because some significant part of the strikeout problem is roster construction, I could get behind a change that mandated a gameday roster. The completed-inning rule should push most teams back to 11 pitchers or even ten, with bench spots opening up in concert, but in may also be time for an explicit recognition that starting pitchers are their own category. There are a small handful of times when a starter is used as pinch-runner or pinch-hitter or emergency reliever, but for the most part, teams play every game with 21 men available. Let's make that a rule, then; expand rosters to 28 men, and allow managers to activate 25 for each game, with a maximum of ten pitchers. Ten pitchers will be more than enough under the new rule and would even be plenty under the current ones. (Just a tiny handful of games in MLB history have seen a team use more than ten pitchers.) This is a spot where I think MLB would be right to use force to reverse the trend away from carrying pinch-hitters and pinch-runners and platooning. Having ten pitchers available for a game is far from a hardship, and trading off three dead roster spots for three live ones is an absolute good. Too many critical PAs late in games happen between a dominant relief pitcher and an overmatched hitter -- let's bring back Johnny Grubb and his ilk to make those moments more interesting.

Finally, and there's a larger piece about this coming, you have to fix the strike zone. Some not-insignificant part of the higher strikeout rates in today's game is the outside corner to left-handed batters. It doesn't just affect pitches called out there; it affects every at-bat in which a hitter has to protect not just the outside corner, but the corner of the other batter's box. We need automated ball-and-strike calling as soon as is reasonable, because there are too many unhittable pitches being called strikes, and it's distorting the game.

Major-league baseball in the 2010s is unlike any version of the game ever played. While still enormously popular, the problem of fewer balls in play and ever more dominant pitching is eroding at the watchability of the game. We have not reached a tipping point yet, where the game loses its entertainment value, but if current trends continue, that point may not be far off. It is imperative that MLB, at its highest levels, displays the recognition that there is a problem, the commitment to understanding its causes, and the conviction to proffer solutions that make the game better, protect all its stakeholders and minimize unintended consequences.