Baseball is constantly evolving but as the 2019 season prepares to open, the sport’s fielders, and perhaps the joy of the game, are continuing on the slow road to extinction.
Baseball, as we once knew it, is dead. Increasingly, games are not decided by nine players, but three — the hitter, the pitcher and the catcher. The other seven defensive players matter little given the game’s recent trend.
During the 2018 season, more than a third of all major league plate appearances ended in one of the three true outcomes — a home run, walk or a strikeout — the highest rate of all time. If we ignore pickoffs and stolen bases, that means one out of every three plate appearances concluded with a batter getting a pass to first base, circling all the bases or just simply sent back to the dugout; none of those events requires participation from any defensive player other than the pitcher and catcher.
If you find that boring, and there are plenty who do, I’ve got some bad news for you: This is just the tip of the iceberg.
No discussion of the three true outcomes hitter is complete without first paying homage to its patron saint, Adam Dunn. Dunn, a 14-year veteran from 2001 to 2014, was the king of the three true outcomes. His 10 seasons producing at least 25 home runs, 75 walks and 150 strikeouts are the most of any player ever, and twice as many as Ryan Howard, who had five such seasons from 2006 to 2011. Almost half of all Dunn’s at-bats during his career ended on one of the three true outcomes. Dunn was not the first to favor three true outcome at-bats — San Francisco outfielder Bobby Bonds skewed heavily toward the three true outcomes in 1969 (32 home runs, 81 walks and 187 strikeouts) and there were 16 batters to follow in his footsteps over the next three decades. But now it appears teams want as many Dunns in the lineup as they can fit.
In 2018 seven hitters met or exceeded 25 home runs, 75 walks and 150 strikeouts: Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Judge, Matt Carpenter, Michael Conforto and Justin Smoak. In 2019, more than twice that number of batters is projected to meet or exceed the 25-75-150 benchmarks, 15 in all, with eight others coming within five at-bats of one or more of the three true outcomes.
Analytics, of course, is at the root of the issue. The biggest change brought about by Statcast, a “state-of-the-art tracking technology capable of measuring previously unquantifiable aspects of the game,” is that is has reinforced the importance of an uppercut swing that results more often in fly balls and line drives rather than ground balls. According to MLB’s Statcast data, the frequency of home runs has risen from one out of every 37 plate appearances in 2015 to one out of every 33 plate appearances in 2018.
Swinging for the fences more frequently also leads to more strikeouts, which aren’t as taboo as they were in prior years. In other words, you don’t have to worry about the manager chewing you out for being aggressive at the plate. In fact, managers encourage it. Look no further than this year’s Minnesota Twins, who hit a league-leading 50 home runs with 91 walks and 303 strikeouts in 33 spring training games in 2019.
“We knew we were going to have power, and we knew we’d have some swing-and-miss, certainly, so I don’t think [the spring] changes my perception of what we have going into the season,” Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, told Phil Miller of the Star Tribune. “I feel pretty good about the collective power of the position player group, for sure.”
But there are two other growing trends that figure to make the game even less exciting by further tamping down hitters’ effectiveness. The first is the proliferation of the so-called “opener,” a reliever used to start the game to keep the primary pitcher (traditional starting pitchers) from facing the top of the lineup as frequently. This allows starters/primary pitchers to work later into games while preventing hitters from facing any one pitcher more than twice in a game. The data shows relief pitchers, from 2015 to 2018, allowed a .713 OPS the first time through the order whereas a starting pitcher allowed a .716 OPS against; that rose to a .785 OPS against when a starting pitcher went through the order for a third time in a game.
If hitters don’t get the benefit of a third plate appearance against the same pitcher, we’d expect that OPS number, and run-scoring as a whole, to trend downward.
“I do think there are times where [using an opener] presents a real strategic advantage when you’re looking at teams that have left-handed-hitting heavy tops of the order and you’re planning to start a right-hander,” Farhan Zaidi, San Francisco president of baseball operations, explained at Giants FanFest in February. “Do you throw a lefty out there to go through that top of the order one time and make things easier for your starter? I can just say that when the opposition is thinking about using an opener, it makes your life harder. Our goal as a team should be to make life as difficult as possible for our opposition.”
The second trend that could decrease offense and increase boredom? Look for teams to employ more shifts — including those featuring a four-man outfield — in an effort to make life as difficult as possible for opposing hitters. Harper, the most recent free agent acquisition of the Philadelphia Phillies, has already seen this deployment twice in spring training after never seeing it in any major league at-bat in his career. Kris Bryant, Matt Adams, Billy McKinney, Cody Asche, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez, Greg Bird and Blake Swihart all saw a four-outfield shift for the first time this spring, too. And here’s why: In 2018, batters facing the four-man outfield hit .186 against the alignment with a .339 slugging percentage.
And those factors are just the micro, the macro picture is that a lack of parity may diminish any excitement around playoff races. With teams seemingly divided into those building for the future and the league’s legitimate contenders, the late season could be a snooze fest.
According to the projections at FanGraphs, the AL Central (Cleveland Indians, 87 percent chance to win the division), AL West (Houston Astros, 89 percent) and NL West (Los Angeles Dodgers, 86 percent) are all but decided before the first pitch has been thrown. The AL East is between the New York Yankees (62 percent) and Boston Red Sox (35 percent), with the loser likely a shoo-in for a wild-card spot. The Washington Nationals are better than 50/50 to win the NL East (54 percent) and the Chicago Cubs are favorites to win the NL Central (45 percent). If we are lucky, those last two divisions will provide some drama toward the latter part of the season. Otherwise we will have to wait until October to get any sense of urgency.
All of this seems a likely reason that last year’s per-game attendance dropped to its lowest point in 15 years and why Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced a series of rule changes earlier this year designed to shorten game times. There is also talk of banning the shift altogether, talk that will likely grow louder if its proliferation continues to decrease run production.
But change seems to be a ways off. In the meantime, we’ll have to try to stay awake through the upcoming season.