June 16, 2018

Has Everything Reasonable Already Been Written About Baseball?

Has everything possible been written about baseball? Are there no new storylines or historical perspectives or stat-related tangents to explore? I ask because there have been an increasing number of columnists suggesting radical ways to speed games up, attract the attention of younger people, and make the game more like whatever the person writing wants it to be.

Buster Olney (ESPN) recently outlined his idea for a "new MLB rule -- four pitchers per nine innings, max".
Major league baseball desperately needs to get off the growing front-office addiction to relief pitchers, which is helping to destroy important components of the game.

Among those: the essential pre-eminence of starting pitchers ... the scoring of runs by means other than a home run; and batters making contact and putting the ball in play.

None of this is meant to challenge the analytical wisdom behind the parade of relievers overrunning the sport. It's been demonstrated beyond any doubt that there are statistical advantages in the growing number of reliever/batter matchups and in the strategy of yanking the starting pitcher before he's exposed to the opposing lineup a third time. Smart people are making smart decisions to create effective seven- and eight-man bullpens.
Oh, boy. Olney admits that going to the bullpen earlier in games and optimizing reliever/batter match-ups results in advantages that lead to winning. That is true "beyond any doubt". So the "front-office addiction" he bemoans is actually an addiction to winning. Olney's argument is that teams with a strong desire to win are destroying the game. Well, that's certainly an interesting stance to take ...
But this trend is affecting the game in ways that will never attract the young fans baseball wants and could also alienate longtime fans. ...

The number of strikeouts has skyrocketed, and batting average and pace of action are both way down as more and more pitchers are used. Researcher Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug out these numbers:

Pitchers per game (per team) past 10 seasons
2018: 4.25 ...
2009: 3.93

Number of pitchers per game (per team)
2018: 4.25 ...
1998: 3.46 ...
1958: 2.44 ...
1928: 1.83 ...
1908: 1.40 ...

The starting pitcher used to be The Man. But more and more, the starting pitcher is a guy. Among many guys. Just a decade ago, 36 pitchers threw 200 or more innings. Last year, there were 15.
This graphic was posted by ESPN last June:

The starting pitcher has not truly been "The Man" in more than a century. A 10-year-old boy who remembers starting pitchers finishing even half of their starts would be roughly 110 years old now. Olney is pining for a game of which no one alive has any recollection.
If managers could use only four pitchers in a nine-inning game, they would need more from their starters. ... A limit of four pitchers per nine innings would also really help the hitters, who really need help these days. ...

Presumably, with fewer pitchers available for each outing, the average velocity would decline, which might especially help hitters on the down slope of their careers. ...

If the long procession of relievers is a good thing for the game, why isn't anyone begging to open up the rosters to 50 and a couple of dozen pitchers?
Come on, Buster. If rosters were to be expanded - has this been suggested by more than one GM in the last 10 years? Not that I can recall - the next logical step from 25 is all the way to 50? Really?!?

(I note Olney says nothing about the increased injury risk if teams suddenly "need more" from each starting pitcher. It's hard to be "The Man" when your career is cut short by injuries.)

The bedrock rules of the game must be changed because hitters "need help"? It was not that long ago that everyone and his grandmother was wringing their hands about a "dilution" in pitching talent. And somehow, not even one generation later, we now have a dilution in hitting talent. That is not possible.

When there was an alleged lack of talented pitchers, hitters were on steroids and umpires refused to call anything in the upper half of the strike zone a strike. Pitchers were forced to put the ball in a square the size of a postcard and, as you can imagine (and probably remember), they frequently missed their target and hitters smacked the shit out of the ball.

And at the same time otherwise intelligent people with an awareness of the game's history put forth suggestions like imposing a limit on pitchers per game, reducing walks to three balls and strikeouts to two strikes, shortening games to seven innings, banning shifts, or beginning extra innings with a man on second base, MLB steadfastly ignores a reasonable rule that ALREADY EXISTS that would increase the pace of play (the 12-second rule). That's the real insanity.
Peter Gammons, The Athletic, June 15, 2018:
Strikeout rates in the last decade have risen from 18 percent to 22.4 percent, which means that more than once every five batters, the ball is not in play.

I hear parents say strikeouts bore kids, who are used to the stream of action in the NHL and NBA. I hear managers talk about it, and broadcasters. "There was a time when Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood throwing 20-strikeout, no-walk games were a novelty," says one National League general manager. "Today, we have a chance to see something like that three or four times a week."
What?!? A 20-strikeout game is no longer a novelty? Fans have the chance to see a 0-walk, 20-strikeout performance THREE OR FOUR TIMES EVERY WEEK?

(Note: Yes, there is "a chance" in every game that a pitcher will ring up 20 strikeouts. It is within the realm of possibility. But there is also the chance that a pitcher will be struck by lightning while standing on the mound (it has happened before), but that is not an event anyone thinks is likely. Our NL GM is not talking about something that is technically possible, but extremely rare.)

Since 20-K games are not novel or unusual, I have prepared a list of pitchers who have struck out at least 17 batters in a game over the last two seasons:

So where's the list? There is no list. In approximately 38 weeks of baseball, even a 17-strikeout game has not happened.

Gammons cited the number of strikeouts steadily rising over the last decade, so let's look at the last ten seasons. From 2009-2018 - about 245 weeks of baseball - the starters with 17+ strikeouts are:


Brandon Morrow, 17 strikeouts vs Rays, August 8



Anibal Sanchez, 17 strikeouts vs Atlanta, April 26


Corey Kluber, 18 strikeouts vs Cardinals, May 13
Max Scherzer, 17 strikeouts vs Mets, October 3 (G2)

Max Scherzer, 20 strikeouts vs Tigers, May 11



Five times. In 10 years. And that's after lowering our strikeout threshold from 20 to 17.

There has been exactly one 20-strikeout game in the last 17 seasons. It remains a novel event.

Note: It is fascinating that in all five instances of a starter striking out 20 batters, the pitcher did not walk anyone. (On September 12, 1962, when Tom Cheney of the Senators struck out 21 batters over 16 innings, he also walked four. Cheney struck out only one batter in the first two innings, had nine through seven innings, and 13 at the end of nine innings. If it can be said that a pitcher meandered his way to 21 strikeouts, that's what Cheney did.)

1 comment:

FenFan said...

I read Olney's proposition the other day at ESPN.com and had almost the exact same thoughts as you, even to the point where he never ONCE mentioned one of the obvious downsides: an increased risk in injury. In particular, the 1960s were littered with young Red Sox pitchers who threw a significant number of innings per season and found themselves going down in flames within a few seasons (the 1961 Rookie of the Year, Don Schwall, comes to mind, as well as Bill Monbouquette and Dick Radatz).

It's also frustrating to see veteran sportswriters like Gammons who SHOULD know better make proclamations that are so easily shown to be false. With resources like Baseball-Reference.com available at your fingertips, how can you not take even five minutes to fact-check what you're boasting?