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Baseball Goes to Extremes

A record for Opening Day home runs is beginning to look prophetic as the rates of walks, strikeouts, and homers have eclipsed the April figures from recent years. Will these increases hold up through September?

Ringer illustration

On MLB’s Opening Day, the Los Angeles Dodgers set a single-team record by launching eight flies over the fence. The other 29 teams combined for 40, bringing both leagues’ total tally to 48 long balls, another Opening Day record. The Seattle Mariners, one of the teams that went deep that day, have homered in 20 consecutive games to start the season, which snapped and extended a record that had previously stood at 14. The Oakland Athletics’ Khris Davis, who hit his 10th homer on May 11 last season en route to a major league–leading 48, got to double digits in dingers this year on April 12. In one game last weekend, two Triple-A teams combined for 15 home runs—perhaps not by coincidence, in the first season in which Triple-A leagues have adopted big league balls. Welcome to baseball in 2019.

Less than a month ago, I wrote an article entitled, “If You’re Sick of Homers and Strikeouts, We’ve Got Some Bad News for You.” The news was that spring training stats suggested we were in store for another season in which home run and strikeout rates would reach (or remain very close to) all-time highs. The stats didn’t suggest that those rates might be in for very large leaps—and after three years of record or near-record home run rates and 11 consecutive upticks in strikeout rate, one might have suspected that the biggest gains were behind us. Yet through Monday—a period encompassing 241 games, or almost exactly 10 percent of the MLB regular season—almost every recent trend that’s contributed to concerns about fewer balls in play and a slowing pace of play seems to be accelerating.

Let’s look first at changes in the outcomes of plate appearances. The table below shows MLB’s through-April and full-season rates in six statistical categories in each of the past three years—which we could lump together as the history’s highest-homer era—along with the 2019 rates through Monday’s games. Certain stats tend to be higher or lower at the end of April than they are at the end of the year, so juxtaposing the through-April and full-season rates allows us to gauge whether we can expect this year’s current marks to increase or decrease. Keep in mind that this year’s April stats include only half the month, so they’re still somewhat subject to change.

The headline here is that the home run rate is way, way up: 5.3 percent of non-strikeout at-bats have ended in homers, up from last year’s 4.5 percent full-season rate and 4.3 percent rate through April. Through Monday, teams were on pace for 6,372 home runs, which would easily eclipse the record of 6,105 set in 2017. That’s without accounting for the fact that the leaguewide home run rate typically climbs as the season goes on and the weather gets warmer. The full-season home run rate hasn’t finished lower than the through-April rate in any season since 2014, the year before farther-flying baseballs rescued the sport from its lowest ebb in non-strike-season scoring in almost 40 years.

Research conducted at Baseball Prospectus by Ringer contributor Rob Arthur showed that early this season, the ball was exhibiting less drag than it typically did in 2018. Reduced drag translates to longer line drives and fly balls, which means bigger benefits for hitters who get the ball in the air. Hitters seem to be responding to that incentive to aim up. In the past three years, the leaguewide ground ball rate has decreased slightly after April, and the grounder rate this April would already be significantly lower than last year’s full-season mark, which was the lowest on record. This year’s average launch angle on balls hit 95 mph or harder, 13.3 degrees, would also be the highest in the five-season Statcast era.

In addition to the apparent change in ball flight, hitters seem to be hitting the ball harder, which could be ball-related but might also reflect either a change in the Statcast system or an evolution in hitters’ approach at the plate. It certainly doesn’t seem as if batters are putting their minds to making more contact, because the strikeout rate is soaring yet again. Through the first half of April, 36 percent of plate appearances have ended in a home run, strikeout, or walk (the last of which has also become more common). And that’s not counting the additional 1.2 percent of plate appearances ending in hit by pitches, which would constitute another record rate.

It’s difficult to forecast where the rate of three true outcomes will finish the season; in 2016 and 2018, it dropped after April, but in 2017, it rose. Strikeouts and walks tend to tail off a little as the season goes on, but those drop-offs are often counterbalanced by an increasing rate of home runs. The current TTO rate is more than double what it was the year Babe Ruth retired, but it would also represent an enormous increase relative to the already record rates of recent years. An uptick of 2.2 percentage points—the year-over-year increase if the season ended today—would be the biggest since absent servicemen returned to the sport in 1946. Even an increase of 1.4 percentage points—the current spike compared to 2018’s through-April rate—would be the second largest since 1986.

Last year was the first full season in history in which strikeouts outnumbered hits, and only by 189. Through Monday, the league was batting only .244, and strikeouts were already ahead of hits by 305. Because balls are flying over the fence, scoring is still robust: The current rate of 4.68 runs per team game—which also tends to rise during the summer—would be the highest since 2007. But the way teams are producing those runs is drastically different. With non-home run hits increasingly scarce, almost 44 percent of runs this season have been scored on homers. That’s an unwelcome development for fans who prefer balls in play and non-jogging baserunners, and it may partly explain why we’re seeing the fewest stolen bases per game in the DH era: It doesn’t make sense to risk erasing a runner when the odds of scoring on a homer are historically high and the odds of scoring on any other kind of contact are historically low. Baseball is becoming more static, and we’re one unpredictable fluctuation in the baseball’s aerodynamic qualities away from an ugly offensive outage.

Although hitters may be swinging for the fences, they’re not the real culprits behind the burgeoning TTO rate. Hitting is a reactive activity, and the whiff-prone, launch-angle-oriented hitters of today are trying to make the most of the livelier ball while also making the best of the bad hands they’ve been dealt by impossible pitchers. (Pity poor Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta, who recently pinch hit in the ninth inning of a game in which he still struck out four times.) The table below breaks down the early- and full-season stats at the pitch level.

Pitchers are throwing their fastballs as hard as (if not harder than) ever, but they’re also abandoning sinkers and embracing sliders at a rapid rate. As recently as 2010, sinkers were more common than sliders and curveballs combined. Last year, sliders alone approximately pulled even with sinkers, and this year they appear poised to blow by them.

Sliders are simply harder to hit, and many hurlers—including the pitching prize of this past winter’s free-agent class, Patrick Corbin—have found success by doubling down on the whiff-inducing delivery. Sliders are also thrown more often outside of the strike zone, which leads to a lower leaguewide zone rate, more walks, more pitches per plate appearance—another number at an all-time high—and longer games. All of these trends were apparent a year ago, but they’re really ramping up now.

The combination of faster fastballs and more breaking balls probably explains why hit by pitches and wild pitches are both more common than they’ve ever been before in baseball’s modern era, and why passed balls are occurring more frequently than they have since the mid-1990s. What’s harder to hit is also harder not to get hit by (and harder to catch). And speaking of longer games: Much to commissioner Rob Manfred’s dismay, pitchers appear to be taking more than a full second longer between pitches than they did through last April—and in each of the past two seasons, that pace has only slowed as the season has proceeded. The average nine-inning game thus far has clocked in at 3:05, five minutes longer than last year and tied with 2017 for the longest ever. On the bright side, attendance has bounced back by about 2 percent relative to the same point last year, possibly because the sport has been blessed by better weather.

Most of the trends in evidence this April are not new, and MLB has belatedly begun to address them via planned rule changes and Atlantic League experiments. Those correctives could rectify potential problems that won’t solve themselves. In August 2017, my Ringer colleague Michael Baumann wrote a piece whose subhead proclaimed, “With the march of three true outcomes … the sport has been pushed to its efficient extreme.” Yet what seemed extreme two seasons ago doesn’t seem so extreme now, and at this rate, what seems extreme in 2019 may seem a lot less so in 2020. As baseball writer Joe Sheehan observed in his newsletter on Tuesday, “I don’t know where the outer edges of this version of baseball are, but I do know that wherever they are, we’re heading rapidly in that direction.” Until MLB acts, that entropic process will force fans to do one of two things: learn to love whiffs and dingers, or resign themselves to a less dynamic, and perhaps less appealing, pastime.