Monday, June 20, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 9, 2022 -- "The Big Questions"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 36
May 9, 2022

What about changing to starting with a 1-and-1 count (like softball). So we only need two strikes for a K and 3 balls for a walk? it actually gets to the action quicker in the count.

--Chris A.

This is a common rule in amateur sports. It may even be a fair one at those levels, particularly in non-fast-pitch games where the pitcher’s role is closer to its original one, to enable batters to put the ball in play. 

In MLB, though, it wouldn’t work. The league is hitting .232/.306/.370 -- ugh -- this year. After batters get to a 1-1 count, they’re hitting .212/.297/.333. Last year, the difference was about 40 points of OPS, and in 2019 it was about 50. We think of 1-1 as a neutral count, but it isn’t; it’s a pitcher’s count. In fact, there are no neutral counts after 0-0. Getting to a 1-1 count has the smallest effect, and even it takes away 10-15% of offense from hitters.

No Neutral Territory (Batting by Count, 2021)

             AVG    OBP    SLG  tOPS+
Overall     .244   .317   .411   100
After 1-0   .256   .379   .442   127
After 2-0   .266   .499   .481   174
After 3-0   .263   .730   .474   246
After 0-1   .214   .261   .351    67
After 1-1   .226   .306   .379    89
After 2-1   .235   .390   .412   123
After 3-1   .254   .589   .470   200
After 0-2   .160   .193   .256    23
After 1-2   .169   .225   .276    38
After 2-2   .181   .290   .305    66
After 3-2   .199   .456   .352   130

tOPS+: OPS relative to the overall league OPS

This leads to one of my favorite notes. In 2017, batters hit .255. In 2021, even being spotted a 1-0 count, they hit .256. Heck, maybe the solution is to go to three balls for a walk.

Take a look at that second line, those plate appearances where the batter starts 1-0. They hit .256/.379/.442, which is around what the league hit in the crazy season of 1894, when there were 14.7 runs scored per game. That would be overshooting the mark. A game with a walk rate of 16% would be unwatchable, even if you shaved a pitch per batter off those walks.

For all the things that may be worth tinkering with given the way player skills have changed, four balls and three strikes may damned well be perfect.

There’s going to be tinkering, however, whether we like it or not. What we want to start thinking about is not what changes we want to see from the current game, but whether there is an optimal version of baseball for which we should be aiming. Should baseball be a ten-runs-per-game sport? Nine? Eight? 14? How long should a game take? I’ve written about this before, but the people who think a baseball game should take two-and-a-half hours are crazy; the last time games ran an average of 2:30 was in 1977 and the players were all smaller, skinnier, and weaker. Games ran 2:50 in the first half of the 2000s, and that’s an optimistic goal.

Perhaps most germane to these discussions: What should the strikeout rate be? Baseball’s strikeout rate has climbed inexorably from the sport’s earliest days. I sounded the alarm about this in 2014, when the strikeout rate had just reached 20%. It’s 23% now, even with pitcher batting finally off the table. Thinking back a bit, the Davenport Translations that were the backbone of the early Baseball Prospectus annuals were created for a league with a 16% strikeout rate. We used to target pitchers, for fantasy-drafting purposes, who struck out seven men per nine innings. I’m not talking about the 1890s here. This was 25 years ago.

The absolute all-time peak for MLB tickets sold was in 2007, just short of 80 million fans. That league hit .268/.336/.423 with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 3.6% HR rate, and 9.6 runs per game.

Speaking just for myself, I think 20% is where you lose the thread, and you really want a game with a maximum strikeout rate in the high teens. When I wrote that series in 2014, one of the points I made is that if you didn’t address the problem, you’d eventually have a crisis. That was at 20% and with more hits than strikeouts. Now, we’re at 23%, headed for the fifth straight season with more strikeouts than hits, and nothing’s been done.

MLB seems to be hoping that nibbling around the edges -- deadening the baseball to modify batter behavior, using a pitch clock to modify pitcher behavior, limiting rostered pitchers to modify front office behavior -- will lower the strikeout rate. They may be right, but all these changes combined are, at best, going to slow the increase rather than roll it back. Some may increase the league's walk rate, making them a wash. Some come with unintended consequences, like punishing hitters for making really good contact. There’s the potential for some to cause an increase in injury rates, which should be a concern for a sport where star players break down way too frequently. Certain changes we’re likely to see, like mandating bad defensive positioning, are likely to increase the strikeout rate -- hitters will be rewarded for dead-pull hitting, while pitchers will have greater incentive to avoid contact.

I’m getting buried in the details, same as MLB. 

The details aren’t where we have to start. We have to start with this: What should a baseball game look like? What is the right mix of offensive and defensive events to entertain fans, allow the players to show off their skills, keep competitive integrity, and get everything done in a reasonable amount of time?

The last time baseball really engaged with these questions was in the 1800s, when the sport was young enough to still be malleable. Twelve decades later, it’s time to do so again.