Away from the field, Major League Baseball is having a busy spring. Although the league hasn’t done anything drastic to address the aesthetic and economic complaints that colored discourse about the sport over the winter, it has seriously discussed doing drastic things, which by baseball’s slow-moving standards is itself a significant departure from the past.
First, MLB announced a partnership with the independent Atlantic League to test a series of experimental measures, including moving the mound back, making the bases bigger, and using pitch-tracking technology to assist umpires’ calls. Then MLB and the Players Association unveiled an array of tweaks to big league rosters and tactics to be implemented this year and next. Although the changes were mostly minor, they may have portended more meaningful alterations to come—and, even more encouraging, indicated that the league and the union were willing to work with each other to tackle the sport’s structural problems, including the cracks in the foundation of free agency that could be causing the recent spate of extensions. Finally, after the Blue Jays declared that they’d be boosting their minor league players’ wages by about 50 percent—to an admittedly still-low level—ESPN reported that MLB had proposed “sweeping changes” to conditions in the minors, including “a significant increase in salaries.” That, too, represented a reversal, given that up to that point, the league had exerted all of its (and Congress’s) power to avoid compensating players.
For now, the major league mound hasn’t moved, MLB is still safe for LOOGYs, and many minor leaguers are still struggling to make ends meet. But after a winter when it sometimes seemed like the sport was doomed to be undone by data-driven standstills both between balls in play and on the free-agent market, baseball has begun a belated course correction. For the first time in years, it looks like the league is committed to change.
On the field, though, all indications are that baseball in 2019 is destined to look a lot like it did last year—which is why it’s crucial that the league and its players continue to talk. If you’re worried about the game’s ongoing evolution (or devolution) toward an all-or-nothing style of play in which the three true outcomes are ascendant, this year’s spring training action hasn’t offered any evidence that the decreasing contact rate will recover on its own.
In each of the past two years, I’ve scoured spring training statistics for clues about the upcoming regular season. Although spring training stats are often dismissed as meaningless in light of the small samples, variable talent levels, and less-than-all-out efforts endemic to exhibition baseball, the numbers can prove predictive on the player level and the team level. On the league level, they’re even more reliable. As a refresher, the table below lists the correlations between league-level spring stats and regular-season stats—including strikeout, walk, and home run rates, hit-by-pitch rates, the ratio of groundouts to air outs, and runs per game—over the past 13 seasons. A correlation of zero would represent no relationship, while a 1.0 would indicate a direct connection.
Spring Significance (Correlations 2006-18)
For the most part, what happens in spring training doesn’t stay in spring training. That doesn’t mean that every incremental change in spring stats is perfectly mirrored in major league games after Opening Day, but the respective rates tend to move in tandem. If, for instance, hitters had decided en masse to start making more contact or the baseball had changed in a way that made a major impact on power, we would expect to see some sign of that in the spring stats.
There’s no sign of that this spring. Even with the Twins’ preternatural contact king Willians Astudillo doing his bit by staying strikeout-free for 51 at-bats, the spring training strikeout rate has risen for the 11th consecutive year. The graph below plots the spring strikeout rates from 2006 to 2019 alongside the corresponding regular-season strikeout rates (excluding pitcher hitting) from 2006 to 2018.
In a related development, exhibition batting averages fell by about half a point relative to last spring, reaching a new low in this 14-season sample. Last year’s .248 regular-season batting average was the lowest since 1972, the year before the advent of the designated hitter. Based on this year’s spring stats, contact doesn’t appear to be bound for a bounceback.
Here’s the good news for fans who fear the whiff: Compared with some previous seasons, these changes are slight. This year’s strikeout-rate increase is smaller than any of the previous 10. And while the batting average is still slowly sinking, last spring’s league batting average fell by close to two points relative to the preceding spring, which had dropped by almost seven points compared with the spring before that.
This spring’s walk rate and rate of home runs on contact—as well as the hit-by-pitch rate, which rose to a modern-era-record 0.4 per game during the 2018 regular season—are virtually flat, which means that the overall rate of the three true outcomes is also up only infinitesimally.
None of the major spring training stats—including the ratio of ground outs to air outs, overall runs per game, and time between pitches—shows any major movement since last spring. Although the sport has seemed stuck in a constant state of upheaval since Chris Sale struck out Manny Machado last October 28, that turmoil hasn’t transferred to the field.
If you’re the type of fan who’d prefer for baseball to go back to the way it once was, this spring’s results suggest that your hopes are about to be thwarted again. (In another blow to nostalgia, the go-go Royals, whose every offseason transaction seemed intended to channel the speed-driven ’80s, rank a disappointing eighth with 27 spring stolen bases, which would have ranked 11th last year. Maybe they didn’t want to waste their speed on the Cactus League.) There’s no real reason to think that contact is making a comeback, because the primary force fueling the rise in strikeouts is still in effect: Pitchers who miss bats tend to be better, which incentivizes teams to pursue them and begets more missed bats. But just as velocity appears to have plateaued—perhaps because teams are prioritizing spin and movement rather than fastball speed alone—this year’s spring strikeout spike is more muted than any we’ve seen in some time.
A year ago, I wrote, “On the eve of Opening Day, it seems safe to say this: If the homers and strikeouts that suffused recent seasons weren’t to your taste, baseball in 2018 will be even more bitter.” That turned out to be true, as the TTO rate climbed to yet another new high. Based on the preseason signs, it seems a little less safe to say that today about 2019.
In light of long-term trends, of course, the smart money would still suggest that contact will be scarcer than ever this season. The problems baseball is confronting on and off the field are too persistent and deep-rooted to resolve themselves. This spring, MLB finally acknowledged that the game might need a nudge. In that sense, the sport made measurable progress, even as its stats stood still.
Thanks to Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance. Spring training stats are current through March 25, 2019.