But I will take two plays — at least — ahead of that shot: a chopper off the bat of Rafael Devers in the second and a line drive off the bat of Kris Bryant in the eighth.
Neither of those plays scored a run. But as the second half of the season opens, they’re exactly what baseball needs more of — not just this year but well beyond. The balls were in play. Defenders set in motion. Runners scampered around the base paths. There was — get this — action.
“The balance between batter and pitcher is really the foundation of the game,” Theo Epstein said by phone last week. “And when it gets out of balance, it’s really important to restore the equilibrium because everything else flows off that.”
Baseball in 2021 is badly unbalanced. Pitchers sit on one side of the scale as an elephant, hitters on the other as not much more than a mouse. Epstein built his reputation as the architect of World Series champions in Boston and Chicago, breaking curses for the Red Sox and Cubs that defined both franchises for generations. Now, though, he has a more important job: helping the entire sport think through its on-field issues as a consultant with the commissioner’s office. Helping, more to the point, to restore the balance.
This is not easy, nor will it come quickly. But it’s clear that a sport that has a reputation for being resistant to change must now embrace it — and, indeed, will embrace it — because that’s the only way baseball can again be the best version of itself. Move the mound back? Enlarge the bases? Dictate how many pitchers can be on a roster? Anything and everything that might restore balance has to be considered — and, if deemed effective, be thoughtfully implemented.
“Sometimes, when people look at changes that the commissioner’s office are contemplating, they say, ‘They’re trying to reinvent the wheel’ or ‘They’re messing with a great thing,’” Epstein said. “The reality is these potential measures are attempts to restore the game to the way it’s traditionally been played.”
The way it has traditionally been played is intoxicating. The way it’s being played now is unprecedented — and can be borderline boring. Through the first half of the season, 23.8 percent of all plate appearances have ended in a strikeout. If that number holds, it will mark the 14th consecutive season in which strikeout rate sets a record. As Crash Davis said, eloquently and accurately: “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist.”
Besides that: They’re the root of the imbalance in the modern game.
Every strikeout a pitcher racks up is a ball that isn’t put in play, and so the action in the two plays from Tuesday night is replaced by the catcher starting around-the-horn tosses. MLB has surveyed its fans, and what its fans want are more plays that increase action — doubles and triples and defensive gems and stolen base attempts, all events that happen less frequently when so many people strike out.
Devers’s chopper is a perfect example of what the sport needs. It involved first baseman Freddie Freeman leaping before he realized he couldn’t snare it. It involved Aaron Judge, running from first, evaluating whether the ball could be kept on the infield. It involved right fielder Nick Castellanos going into the corner to dig it out. And it involved Devers chugging into second as Judge got to third.
Or that line drive off Bryant’s bat? It came in a three-run game with the bases loaded, making Bryant the potential lead run. It came on a 3-0 count — and he had the green light, a strategic curiosity. Bryant squared up the ball and stung it into play, where it required left fielder Jared Walsh to make a diving, sliding, rally-halting catch.
Guerrero’s 468-foot homer was majestic. But the only players involved were the slugging Blue Jay and pitcher Corbin Burnes — who, by the way, strikes out 37.1 percent of the hitters he faces.
In the search for solutions — the search for more action — that’s the number on which to focus: How frequently hitters strike out. Epstein points out that over the course of history, strikeout rates have had an almost directly inverse relationship with batting average: When strikeout rates are higher, batting average is down. This season, the collective batting average is .240 — the lowest in more than half a century.
Not only does that affect the product on the field, it affects how fans perceive it from the stands.
“When most people grow up, fall in love with the game, [.240] is seen as a below-average hitter, not an average hitter,” Epstein said. “And .260 is seen as an average hitter, not a well-above average one. And when someone strikes out 10 in a game, it’s a great accomplishment, not the norm.”
Pitchers are training to find more velocity. Organizations aren’t teaching the art of pitching but rather are dictating their prospects learn to miss bats to rise to the majors. Scouting reports are better. Technology is better. It’s not difficult to figure out the root of the imbalance, and the pitchers deserve credit for evolving.
But all of this also comes at a time when pitchers are being asked to do less than ever before. Take 1980 as a random year from another era (in part because that would be the summer when I learned to love baseball). The strikeout rate then was 12.5 percent, and 56 pitchers threw at least 200 innings. In 2019, the most recently completed 162-game season, the strikeout rate was 23.4 percent — and only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings.
The goal for a starter in 1980: shake the catcher’s hand at the end of the game. To do that, they couldn’t throw at max effort from the first pitch. The goal for a starter now: Get into the sixth and miss as many bats as possible. Then come a slew of mid-90s throwing relievers to protect the lead you hand them.
“As the role of the starting pitcher evolves, there’s a risk that many starters fade into obscurity, and that used to be a big part of going to the ballpark or tuning in on a given day — who’s pitching?” Epstein said. “Starting pitchers were out there almost the entire time, and you’d get to understand their personalities. You see the arc of their performance over the course of the day. It’s a great narrative.
“As openers have come in and as many starts have become five-inning blasts, we’ve lost that. It’s a better game when starting pitchers have a more prominent role.”
In 1980, most clubs carried only 10 pitchers — which not only demanded more of each of them but left room for interesting position players on the bench, a slugging pinch hitter or a designated base stealer. Right now, many clubs carry 14 pitchers. One way to ask more of pitchers could be limit the number each team can carry. That could, in turn, dictate that the pitchers learn how to get outs early in counts rather than rearing back trying to strike out everybody they see. It could reduce velocity and put more balls in play. It could help restore balance.
But that’s only part of the solution. The banning of sticky substances on the ball earlier this summer could help dial back velocity because pitchers won’t feel as comfortable unleashing a slicker baseball.
But there’s not a single solution, which is why the move-the-rubber-back conversations are real. The sport is testing larger bases — from 15 inches wide to 18 — at Class AAA. But who knows how wide bases are anyway? Why not make them 24 by 24 — and see whether that helps hitters beat out more grounders and makes base stealers more eager to swipe second? At Class AA, the rules in the second half will dictate that all four infielders play with their feet on the dirt, with two to the left of second base and two to the right — essentially eliminating the defensive shift.
Plus, the automatic strike zone that is being tested in the Class A Southeast League — that has to come to the big leagues. It’s common knowledge that after both leagues hit a collective .237 in 1968 — the last time batting average was as low as this year — MLB lowered the mound. What’s less widely understood is MLB also shrank the strike zone. An automated ball-strike system would allow baseball to eliminate the rising four-seam fastball near the letters and the diving slider below the zone that currently get called for strikes. It would tilt the balance back toward the hitter.
“Pitching, right now, is an exercise in pure power instead of an art,” Epstein said. “And the hitters’ last refuge in this environment is to swing for the fences.”
That’s what Guerrero did Tuesday night, and there’s no shame in it. It’s what is being demanded of him — and all hitters — in the current environment. But for baseball to return to being the best version of itself, the current environment must be phased out. As the second half begins, it’s encouraging that the sport recognizes the need for change — and has its best minds driving the conversation about what might be best. Here’s to restoring the balance between batter and pitcher — by whatever means necessary.