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How The Game Has Changed: Part 2, Hitting And Fielding

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Hitters have changed drastically over the years

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last week I wrote the first part of this article, covering how pitching has changed to be less reliant on starting pitching and how the role of the reliever has grown, especially over the past twenty years. It was a fairly short article and might have seemed underwhelming. There were two reasons for this: 1) much of the data (e.g., the pitch types and locations) is lacking in data from earlier than the 2000s. 2) I want to attribute the growing rise in strikeouts to the hitters moreso than pitchers.

And that brings me straight to Part 2: Hitting and (as a result) Fielding.

The “Three True Outcomes” approach is causing a dramatic increase in strikeouts

As you might have heard by now, batters are striking out at rates that have never been seen before. This is a part of the “three true outcomes” approach to baseball - walk, strikeout, or home run. Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds are two former Diamondbacks that represent this “three true outcomes” approach to a tee.

What might surprise you, however, is how steady the walk and home run rates have held up over time. Home runs have not really followed the substantial increase in strikeouts. Now, there is definitely SOME effect - after all, last year was the single highest HR/PA in MLB history - but the period of 1994 - 2014 isn’t really much higher than the period from 1953 - 1970:

Sean Testerman

If I was to pick any one subject in these two weeks’ worth of posts to claim is the “not your grandfather’s baseball” well, this would be it. Seeing this chart actually surprised me - I thought the home run rates were going to be substantially higher, especially prior to the 1960s (when the mound was lowered and the strike zone was shrunk). Not really. You’ll also note that there really isn’t any significant bump from the steroid era, but I shall save that for another post on another day.

However, we are not done with the Three True Outcomes...

Batters aren’t actually hitting more flyballs but they are hitting the ball harder

Now, the data for this only goes back to 2002, so it is a limited scope. However, I’m sure most of you have heard about all these hitters trying to hit “more flyballs” or “increase his FB%” yaddah-yaddah. You would think that with all these players doing this (allegedly), that we would see an actual increase in Flyball%, right?

You see where I’m going with this? Since 2002, there hasn’t been a measureable increase in Flyball%. In fact, it appears to have mostly gone down. And strangely, what has increased over this time? Infield hits and bunt hits. Amazing.

So, you may not be surprised to hear that aside from the past year and a half (which there were talks of a different baseball), home haven’t really increased since 2002. And they’re back down again so far in 2018.

Sean Testerman

This chart is honestly not very revealing. But I use it to bring up my point. Despite the push for more flyballs, more home runs, and, in general, more of the “three true outcomes”, we aren’t really seeing this in the batted ball data. Flyballs haven’t changed nearly as much (or at all) and neither have the home runs.

So have the strikeouts been worth it? Probably not, but they’re not necessarily a bad thing, either. A ball in play still has roughly a 30% chance of being a hit and we have seen a steady increase in Hard% over the last 7 years... though this might just be a blip in the system.

I think we’re in an MLB crux. I think the change in approach to hit more flyballs works for some hitters (see: JD Martinez) but when applied to the league as a whole, they don’t seem to really work.

But I think some teams are already fighting against this “trend” in baseball (which I put in quotes because it’s more of an ideal than anything set in reality). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best offense in baseball (The Astros and it wasn’t even close: 121 wRC+ vs 108 wRC+ for the second-place Yankees) is the team that had the lowest K% and second-lowest TTO% (three true outcome%). And just look at the teams with the bottom-5 K%s so far this season (Red Sox, Angels, Pirates, Braves, Mariners) - they all have wRC+ of 113 or higher and rank in the top 7 so far in the season in offense. Will this be the new trend?

However, we are not finished yet, because this has a huge impact on fielding..

Defensive value is less valuable than it ever has been, especially for 2B and SS

This is another thing that seems contrarian to what you hear about all the time. Teams wanting to build strong defenses, choosing to use a shortstop who still can’t hit because of his defensive prowess, etc. But it’s really comes down to something brutally simple:

More strikeouts => Less balls in play => Less value for defenders

This isn’t rocket science. The more opportunities you have to make a play, the more opportunities you have to save/lose your team a run on defense. It’s just like any other skill in baseball.

And I haven’t even gotten into shifts (and won’t be in this post due to limited data0, which further downplay the value of infielders (and to a lesser extent, outfielders). The “traditional” infield alignment doesn’t adjust to a batter’s hit tendencies, so infielders with a great range had the best value. When you’re aligning your defenders to the places where specific batters hit the ball the most common, you’re lessening the value and/or need of having “great range” because they are now in the place where they are most likely to field a ball.

Sean Testerman

Sorry for the large chart, but it was the only way I could think to properly display this information. I calculation for each position was (PO + A)/(100*Innings). I multiplied the innings by 100 so that we could deal with integers instead of decimals; it doesn’t change the shape of the chart at all. I also added a linear regression line to help make it easier to see the trend.

This chart is depressing. You’re pretty much watching the value of defenders decline with each passing year. SS and 2B are hit particularly hard but we see steady declines for both 3B and outfielders. I excluded 1B (they’re already low-value defenders, in general) and C (I don’t know how to properly measure their defensive value).

So, what does this all mean for defense? Well, it’s pretty much tied directly to the rampant increases in strikeouts since I showed above that the batted ball data wasn’t really changed during a smaller window with data. This means that value has shifted heavily from defenders to pitchers in regards to run suppression. It also widens the gap between fielding and the other skillsets.

So, in summary:

Pitching (especially relievers) and offense are more valuable than ever in baseball; defense is less valuable.

(Sorry Nick Ahmed)