But this year, even as alarm about the New York Yankees has subsided as quickly as hopes for a Kansas City Royals championship revival, the equilibrium at the heart of the sport — the relative competitiveness between hitters and pitchers — remains historically one-sided.
By almost any statistical measure, hitters are less successful this season than they have been in 50 years. In 2011, the majors’ batting average was .255. As of Monday afternoon, it was nearly 20 points lower at .236. In 2016, hitters were swinging at and missing 23.4 percent of pitches at which they offered, according to Baseball Savant. Five years later, that number has jumped to nearly 27 percent.
The consensus origin of the imbalance is increased pitcher velocity, and indeed the average major league fastball as of Monday was 93.8 mph — more than 1 mph faster than it was 10 years ago and 2 mph faster than it was in 2008, the year Max Scherzer debuted.
MLB executives are so aware of the impact that velocity increase has had on hitters that, while they tinkered with changes great and small to try to make hitters more competitive, Theo Epstein and the MLB office decided to try moving the mound back one foot in the unaffiliated Atlantic League in the second half of this season, hoping that change alone can improve hitter-pitcher competitiveness.
“We kept coming back to the fact that we can try to change four or five things — and we’re going to — to try to nudge the game in the right direction and get more contact back,” an MLB official told The Washington Post this spring. “But we’d probably be negligent if we didn’t at least try the one solution that, while we were calling it radical, might in and of itself be the solution.”
The last time MLB plummeted to this kind of collective offensive futility was the 1968 season, when it was deemed that a .237 overall batting average — lowest in baseball history to date, higher than the current mark — was enough of a problem for the game that it lowered the pitcher’s mound.
Royals Manager Mike Matheny, who played from 1994 to 2006, said in late April that he thinks the real answer to the offensive struggles is both a combination of good pitching and changes in hitter approach.
“But the stuff is that much better. I truly remember days, if you had a guy that was going to touch 94, you knew you were going to have to turn it up,” Matheny said. “Now you’re in a situation where guys are facing 96, 97 at some point in every game; you have to make yourself susceptible to some sort of good spin. It’s as hard of a time to hit as ever.”
But some statistics symptomatic of widespread offensive failings suggest that far more is at work than just increased velocity — and some of it may, in fact, be in the hitters’ control as well.
For example, six weeks into the season, four starters have thrown nine-inning no-hitters. Madison Bumgarner threw a seven-inning no-hitter in accordance with newly shortened doubleheader rules this year, too. Sean Manaea, J.A. Happ and Zach Plesac carried no-hitters into the eighth. Manaea did it minutes after the Cincinnati Reds’ Wade Miley finished the first no-hitter of his career. The most no-hitters ever thrown in a season is seven in 2015. By a rough estimate of no-hitters-per-week, the majors are on pace for around 13.
But those no-hitters can’t be explained by velocity and its trickle-down effects alone. In those games, there’s no parade of hard-throwing relievers coming in to shut down hitters. Hitters get plenty of looks at the starter, leaving time to adjust from at-bat to at-bat. And not all of those no-hitters were thrown by pitchers who throw particularly hard — Miley’s average fastball travels just more than 90 mph. Bumgarner’s sits just under 91.
No-hitters are, to some degree, the product of luck. But the fact that so many have been thrown so far — and many by pitchers who don’t have nightmarish stuff — illuminates hitters’ collective slump.
For one, teams are shifting more than ever, meaning well-hit balls that once might have been hits are not hits anymore. In 2001, the overall batting average on balls put in play was .296. In 2011, it was .295. This season, it is .287. Perhaps that number will correct itself over time, too.
Batter approach seems to be contributing somewhat, too.
Since the dawn of the “Moneyball” era in the early 2000s, teams across the majors have begun to emphasize getting on base over getting hits. In 2011, 8.1 percent of all plate appearances ended in walks. In 2021, that rate is up to 9 percent.
A contact-first, drive-the-ball approach among many big league batters and hitting coaches also succumbed to a more widespread emphasis on elevating the ball — on helping hitters avoid those shifts by hitting the ball over them and also over the fence — the kind of thing that often leads to raises for those who find themselves hitting more home runs.
But emphasizing power over contact results in less contact, and 24 percent of all major league plate appearances this year have ended in a strikeout. Ten years ago, that number was 18.6 percent. Reds star Joey Votto explained the trade-off that even the generation’s most prolific hitters are facing as more and more data is available to tell them not just how much contact they are making but what kind. He told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he tried to cut down on strikeouts in recent years.
“I lost some of my strengths that I first came to the league with — hitting the ball, specifically, hitting the ball all over the field with power, being difficult to defend. I did that in exchange for command of the strike zone, putting the ball in play, being a tough at-bat. And it zapped my power,” Votto said.
Baseball lifers often argue that high strikeout rates and trouble with the shift are as much a product of hitter approach as they are of a great leap in pitcher talent. Though the leaps are undeniable, they argue, the adjustments are not impossible.
“If you can hit, really hit, there ain’t no way they’re supposed to shift on you anyway,” Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker said in March, when asked about a rule MLB is testing in Class AA this year that would limit the extent to which teams can move their players around the infield.
But even if shifting may soon be mitigated by MLB, the high velocities and elite breaking-ball spin rates are here to stay.
Players and teams can grumble about proposed changes or make the necessary adjustments into a new-look game.