ST. LOUIS -- The numbers drive the change in baseball, and the numbers are indisputable.
Fact: A starting pitcher facing a lineup for a third time or fourth time will experience a decline in performance, generally. As a result, starters are getting pulled from games earlier than ever.
Fact: Relief pitchers are throwing at a higher velocity than ever, diminishing hitters' chances to put the ball in play.
Fact: As it has become more difficult to generate hits against higher velocity and defensive shifts, hitters are taking more aggressive swings, at higher launch angles, in an effort to lift the ball. This approach is generating more homers and, apparently, rocket-fueling the pace of strikeouts.
Some executives who have followed the numbers and helped design the dramatic changes to the sport are OK with the big swings, big flies and big whiffs. “I’ve got no problem with it,” one club official said the other day. “We’re just trying to adapt and win ballgames.”
But a lot of executives abhor the Frankenstein monster that the numbers and science have helped create, with the dueling parades of relief pitchers and increasingly overpowered hitters. “I hate it,” one high-ranking evaluator said. “It’s just not that fun to watch.”
Through the competitive application of the analytics, the in-game exposure of starting pitchers has been reduced, along with their workloads and their relative importance. Fifteen seasons ago, 44 starting pitchers compiled 200 or more innings. Last year, just 15 pitchers got to 200.
Instead, there are more pitchers for shorter appearances, with incredible velocity. Baseball’s marathoners -- the starting pitchers who had to develop a strategy for attacking a lineup for a third or fourth turn -- are an increasingly endangered species, replaced by relievers who are asked only to throw as hard as they can for one inning, or maybe two, and are trained and developed for that task. They are throwing harder than ever.
“It used to be that when you saw a reliever hit 100 mph, it was a big deal,” one NL official said. “People in the game would talk about it. Now you’ll see some reliever you’ve never heard of step out of the bullpen throwing 100 mph every day.”
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider the total number of pitches thrown at 98-plus mph year to year, passed along by Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information:
2018: 2,139 (and on pace for more than 20,000)
The increased velocity means less time for hitters to react in their work of trying to hit the baseball, and naturally, the number of strikeouts has climbed dramatically. In 2009 -- when the number of very hard-throwing pitchers was only just beginning to rise -- 82 hitters racked up 100 or more strikeouts. Last year, 140 hitters reached the 100-strikeout milestone.
With shifts becoming more prevalent, the hitters -- many of them nudged along by their respective organizations -- have worked to get the ball into the air, over the infielders, with the hope that they can drive the ball over the outfielders as well. This is how launch angle has become a thing -- and manifested -- through data collection. According to Statcast, the average launch angle has increased significantly over the past four seasons, as hitters have adopted this strategy, rising from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 10.8 (2016) to 11.1 (2017) to 11.8 degrees so far this season.
The number of home runs jumped last year, with 117 batters hitting 20 or more homers -- far more than in 2001, in the height of the steroid era, when 88 hitters clubbed 20 or more homers, and far more than in 2011, when 68 hitters got to the 20-homer mark.
The sport-wide batting average is dropping, diminishing the number of sustained rallies and perhaps feeding into the hitters’ collective effort to hit homers -- and the strikeouts.
“It seems like every night this season, you get a notification on your phone that somebody is taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning,” one staffer said at the ballpark here Saturday.
This was not a baseless observation. According to Langs, there have been 16 no-hit bids of at least six innings this year. There was a total of 24 six-inning no-hit bids in the entire 2017 season.
The Major League Baseball product is changing, quickly. The ace starting pitchers have long dominated baseball’s sales pitch and the ticket-selling narrative. For years, the top of every daily press release included a list of probable starters, given the habit of customers to check on the possible matchups. If professional wrestling had Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan vs. Ric Flair, baseball has had, in the telling of the sport, Koufax vs. Marichal, Gibson vs. Seaver, Jack Morris vs. John Smoltz, Bumgarner vs. All Takers. The Big Train. The Express. The Big Unit. The Rocket. Pedro. Maddux.
When Jane Leavy wrote her biography of Sandy Koufax, she used his 1965 perfect game -- the last of his four no-hitters -- to structure the narrative, a brilliant choice that made sense. It was the best pitcher’s best game.
It seems unlikely that anybody would write a book about the Dodgers’ no-hitter of the Padres on Friday. A lot of teams will set franchise records for strikeouts this year, it appears, but San Diego leads the industry in whiffs, with 337 in 33 games. To put that number into perspective, remember that Randy Johnson is the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings, at 10.6. The 2018 Padres are averaging 10.2 strikeouts per game.
After four Dodgers pitchers bullied the Padres on Friday night -- the fireball-throwing Walker Buehler for six innings, followed by a trio of relievers -- somehow it seemed inevitable. “One hundred percent,” one evaluator said afterward. “Means literally nothing and will be forgotten quickly.”
Because of the analytics-driven changes to player development, it’s unclear whether the possible heirs to the ace pitcher legacy will ever fully emerge into the next Bumgarner or Pedro or Randy Johnson. Promising young pitchers are limited in innings as they work their way through the minor leagues to protect their arms, and once they reach the big leagues, they’re used more conservatively, with managers looking to pull them once they hit bumps the third time through the opposing lineup.
If the ace pitchers continue to disappear, then an increasingly important question is: Who will take their place as a ticket-selling draw? An executive noted that perhaps the dynamic new-face pitcher in the sport right now is the Brewers’ Josh Hader, who fires fastballs, sliders and changeups from a vicious angle and has struck out almost two-thirds of the batters he has faced this year. Hader is a pitcher who is generating a ton of buzz within the industry.
But because of the nature of Hader’s role, it would be really difficult to sell him to consumers in the way that you could sell Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens or Max Scherzer. Hader is held in reserve for a very specific role -- throw an inning or two or three when Milwaukee holds a lead -- and nobody can anticipate what day he’s going to pitch. For the sake of winning games in 2018, he’s an incredible weapon. For the business of baseball, he’s another relief pitcher in the growing army of relievers, as we’ve gone from 14,238 relief appearances in 2009 to 15,657 last season, with the game currently on pace to see 16,099 relievers come into games.
The problem with the current trends in the sport, one evaluator noted, is that it’s hard to envision the game spinning out of its current vortex without some foundational alteration. MLB might not be able to move toward a more palatable product of increased action of balls being put in play without the lowering of the mound, for example, or a lengthening of the distance from the mound to home plate or something with the strike zone. “How about doing something that helps the hitters?” he asked.
Unless that happens, the analytics will continue to push the sport toward the use of more relievers who throw harder and harder, with hitters increasingly struggling to make contact. The numbers are the numbers.
News from around the majors
Some scouts are skeptical that Matt Harvey, taken off the Mets’ roster Friday, can quickly pivot to another team and be effective as a starting pitcher -- because of what they see as a lack of arm speed. One evaluator said: “His arm is just dragging through his delivery.” That’s a possible sign that Harvey hasn’t fully recovered from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and that he simply might need more time to rebuild strength from a procedure that is still relatively new in baseball. Either way, it was time for Harvey to move on. After he was moved out of the Mets rotation, with his ERA at 6.00, he became even more isolated in the clubhouse, engaging teammates much less than he had at the outset of spring training.
• Rival evaluators love to watch 21-year-old Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies because of his relentless hustle and speed. Said one: “He’s a pest, in a good way.” A 165-pound switch-hitter, Albies has more extra-base hits this season than Mike Trout, Aaron Judge or Bryce Harper, and he scored 32 runs in Atlanta’s first 31 games.
• After the Indians’ Trevor Bauer seemed to insinuate on Twitter that Gerrit Cole and the Astros have used foreign substances in pitching -- which, as written here before, is not uncommon in baseball -- Houston players and manager A.J. Hinch fired back at what they perceived to be jealousy. Beneath that drama, other teams are trying to figure out why Houston’s pitchers have had a marked spike in spin rate of the baseball.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
Friday: Keith Law on the legacies of Ichiro and Albert Pujols and on Matt Harvey; Jessica Mendoza on the Bauer vs. Astros feud; Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on five weird weeks for the Astros.
Thursday: Jameson Taillon of the Pittsburgh Pirates on how the team responded to the trades of Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen and how he uses analytics; Karl Ravech on the incredible performances of Mookie Betts and the Yankees; Sarah Langs and The Numbers Game.
Wednesday: Jerry Crasnick on Ken Giles’s punch heard around the baseball world and on Trevor Bauer’s shifting statements; Paul Hembekides on baseball’s strikeouts; Diamondbacks play-by-play man Steve Berthiaume on the Diamondbacks’ fast start.
Tuesday: Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos on Atlanta’s whiz kids and how their arrival will affect the club’s plans before the trade deadline; Tyler Kepner of the New York Times on Corey Seager’s season-ending injury; Sarah Langs and The Numbers Game.
And today will be better than yesterday.