It’s been a strange season so far, as I’m sure everyone will agree. But what we are seeing on the field is a severely compromised version of the game of Major League Baseball. It’s not just the rule changes and lack of fans in the stands. The quality of play is degraded due to numerous factors. We can see this with our eyes and what we are watching on T.V., and we can also see this in the early data. While the Diamondbacks are off to a horrific start, which may tend to color our view, a deeper dive into league wide numbers reveals some early season “trends”. I put the word trends in quotes because obviously we are still talking about extremely small sample sizes. The number of total games played is just 6% of a typical season. The average games played per team is 10. There are 9 teams that have not even played 10 games yet. But a few of these trends are so striking that they are likely to be indicating…….something.
From the chart below we can see that although Runs per game are down from last year, they are right in line with 2018 and the previous 6 years in general. This may seem odd to some as Batting Average and OPS are down so much. Look at how low hits per game are! How can run scoring still be this high? There are a couple of hints in this table below for why this might be. Can you spot them?
Although strikeouts continue to mushroom at an alarming rate look at overall Walks. Then look at HBP. Combined those two are 4.04 Per game. The quick increase in BB+ HBP is a real signal. Up until 5 years ago HBP were fairly stable for the previous 20 years. Why the sharp increase of 57% since 2015 and 27% since just last year? We’ll come back to that when we discuss the pitching. Notice also the decrease in double plays. And Sac hits! Teams have completely abandoned the sacrifice bunt. Also notice that Intentional walks are cut in half.
What you clearly have here is hitters putting far fewer balls in play, getting far fewer hits, (including a lot fewer doubles), and pitchers issuing far more walks and HBP.
What’s going on with the pitching?
The first thing to know is that teams are getting far fewer innings from their best pitchers and a lot more innings from their inferior pitchers. As recently as 2014 starters averaged 6 IP per start. But that number has seen a sharp decrease over the last 5 years. Accordingly, there has been a sharp increase in the % of innings and batters faced (BF) that have gone to relief pitchers. And these extra BF are not going to your top relief aces that typically work the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings. They are going to inferior middle relief and mop up men, and younger pitchers without experience or control.
That’s a 34% jump in percentage of batters faced going to relief pitchers (from 35% in 2015 to 47% currently). That’s where most of the extra walks and hit by pitch are coming from. It’s notable that Wild Pitches are also up 10% from 5 years ago even Balks are up from last year. One would think that with so many more PA vs. inferior pitching, hitters would be taking advantage with more hits, and higher OPS in general, but obviously that is not the case.
There is another problem with these younger, wilder, inferior pitchers getting more innings. Inevitably, they are facing more batters in key moments of games. A word about a few of the metrics in the table below. The number in the boxes is tOPS+. That is OPS for the split in question relative to the overall average. over 100 favors the hitter, under 100 favors the pitcher.
tOPS+ in various “clutch” splits
L&C is late and close, 7th inning or later within 1 run: Most of those innings are still going going to the better relievers. So while we see an uptick to 94, it’s not dramatic, although significantly higher than 3-4 years ago.
High Leverage: This is a stunning number. What that 117 number tells you is in key moment of high leverage, which often can come in the middle and even early innings, not just late innings, pitchers are allowing OPS at a rate 17% higher than overall. THAT IS EXTREME. It points to not being able to execute in key situations.
RISP: tOPS+ is always higher in RISP, as when there are RISP it’s a sign things aren’t going well for the pitcher in the first place. But jumping from 109 to 117 is again, extreme. The same applies to the 2 out RISP numbers. With 2 outs, pitchers generally have the edge, but that has flipped completely around.
Simply put, pitchers are not executing their pitches and getting hurt in key situations, as often as not by simply adding extra baserunners via walks and HBP in the middle of rallies.
What this all points to for me is a sharp decrease in the quality of play, and honestly a decrease in the quality of entertainment. You have hitters that now strike out at such a high rate that the ball is not put in play very much. You have pitchers that have poor command and control and are huffing a puffing their way to record levels of walks and hit by pitch.
On top of all that, pitchers are taking 10% more time to deliver their pitches compared to just 2016. (25 seconds per pitch) Back in 2017 I wrote THIS POST about pace of play. Not only are pitchers taking more time to deliver pitches, but in total, due to the ever increasing number of K’s and BB’s, total pitches per game have continued to grow as well. As a result the time of game for a 9 inning game has grown from 2:50 in 2010 to 3:07 in 2020. I know some don’t like the focus on the time of game. But my focus is on the PACE OF PLAY. All we are getting is an extra 20 minutes of dead time.
What we are left with is a slow paced, boring game, full of hitters that don’t make contact and have an all or nothing approach and don’t need to run very much and pitchers that work slow can’t throw strikes.
And all of this is now exacerbated by an avalanche of injuries and Covid-19 IL trips, causing teams to give more and more playing time to not yet ready for prime-time players. Looking beyond 2020, young players are being deprived of valuable minor league development time this year, and certainly that will have impact to the quality of play in 2021 and at least for the next several years.
As for our Diamondbacks, well, I don’t want to kick a guy while he’s down. But simply put, if this early part of the season is viewed as a “Month”, the team’s batting performance so far is the worst stretch of offense in the history of the franchise. The previous worst month was May of 2018. And that team followed up with a very terrible September that same year. While we know that this team is not as bad as their current numbers, it’s an indicator they aren’t very good and even if they rebound, are likely to slump again after that. And I can’t even begin to explain the total lack of home runs, other than to say that they have the lowest fly ball % in MLB.
Much like everything else in 2020, I guess we have to be grateful and appreciative for what we have. But it’s hard to overlook the clear degradation of quality of play and not be concerned with the future of the game.