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Major League Baseball has become Dave Kingman.
It hits .236 — Kingman’s lifetime average. It walks in 8.9 percent of its plate appearances and strikes out in 24.1 of them — Kingman’s averages were 8.2 and 24.4 (all stats are heading into the weekend). It does this in an endless hunt to hit home runs.
Kingman was entertaining in the 1970s and 1980s as an oddity for that approach: prodigious (for the time) strikeout totals and home run distances. He was fun when there was one of him. But now Kingman is pretty much the game.
In Kingman’s 1971 debut season, a plate appearance ended in a walk, strikeout or homer 24.7 percent of the time, meaning no ball was put in the field of play. The percentage was 26.6 in his final season, 1986. It is 36.1 percent across MLB each of the past two seasons. Hit by pitches — another not-in-play outcome — also have been at record levels the past two years.
A nine-inning game is, on average, taking 3:07 to play, tying last year for the longest ever. So it is taking longer than ever to produce a half a run less per game than even two years ago and a batting average that would be the lowest ever. The record low was .237 in 1968. That was the Year of the Pitcher. That year, two pitchers — Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell — averaged a strikeout per inning among 76 qualified starters. This year, 39 of 69 so far — a group that includes J.T. Brubaker, Tyler Mahle and Logan Webb — are averaging a strikeout per inning. It used to be you had to be an elite starter to do that, now you can fall out of Pitchers Anonymous.
Among relievers, 94 of the 143 who had appeared in 15 games were averaging a strikeout per inning, 69 were averaging 10 or more strikeouts per nine, 47 were averaging 11 or more, 34 were averaging 12 or more.
There were six no-hitters — not counting Madison Bumgarner’s in a seven-inning game. A third of teams were averaging four runs or fewer — including both the Mets and Yankees, who also were among the 12 teams batting .230 or lower. Five of those clubs were in the AL (you know, playing with a DH), including the Mariners, who were batting .198.
The conceit in baseball for decades was that there was nothing harder to do in sports than hit a baseball. Then, nearly every innovation of the past decade-plus has favored pitchers, making hitting even harder. What should frighten those who love the game is this from one GM: “I think we are not at the bottom.” So brace for lower averages and strikeouts 30 percent of the time — or more.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly recently said: “It’s been coming. It’s been building. And now it is at a point where it is getting so much more attention because it is just a game that sometimes is unwatchable.”
Which is why, attempting to generate more in-the-field-of-play offense, MLB is tinkering with rule changes throughout the minors — such as limiting defensive shifts, limiting pickoff throws to encourage base stealing and even, in the Atlantic League, moving the mound back a foot.
There are no easy solutions. Many attempts will have unintended consequences — would moving the mound back, for example, lead to even more pitching injuries? But doing nothing is no longer an option. The mound was lowered after 1968, the DH came to the AL five years after that. Here are three potential offensive additives I would recommend:
The average fastball was 89 mph in 2002 (Fangraphs). It has been on a pretty steady climb to 93.4 this year. Batting average pretty much drops with each mph, and pitchers have particularly adapted to work the top of the zone with substantial heat, a pitch that has the devilish combination of being tempting to swing at and incredibly difficult to hit. And remember, faster four-seamers also means faster sliders, cutters, etc.
“It used to be that pitchers offered straight fastballs and something that moved,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said. “You don’t see straight fastballs any more, unless it is 98 [mph] at the top of the zone. That is a hard pitch to hit. Think how your bat moves. And then you are exposed to anything low, which is an offspeed pitch.”
Bringing the zone down to the belt (from the midpoint between the belt and shoulders) would allow hitters to train to be more disciplined to not offer above that — a pitch they are pretty much never hitting. It will also reduce the diversity and trickiness of the breaking ball down. This also would help address the rise in hit-by-pitches, especially in the upper body and head area, since pitchers no longer will work up as much.
One GM said, “The substance thing is a joke. The fact we are ignoring it is a bigger joke. We are seeing pitchers improve their stuff by 300-400 rpms. This isn’t rosin or sunscreen to get a better grip [on a slick baseball]. This is, the ball would stick to their fingers if they turned their hand upside down. I think, like steroids, we have created pitchers who are dominating who might not even be in the game if they weren’t cheating.”
In March, MLB sent a memo to teams saying it was collecting baseballs to see the extent of the problem and what was being used, as a cottage industry has grown in sticky stuff. A threat also was made of punishment, none of which has been meted out yet. And the gentleman’s agreement persists that no manager will challenge a pitcher on the other team, in recognition that members of his staff are doing similarly. So while MLB works on a tackier ball or a legalized sticky rag to put on the mound, this is going to fall onto the players to speak out and enforce in a way that never came for steroids.
The reality is there are many ways that pitchers can improve legally — from weighted ball regimens that increase velocity, to high-speed cameras that help refine efficiency of movement and release, to computer-generated scouting reports that pinpoint hitting weaknesses in a precision human scouting could not. A pitch that is not a four-seam or two-seam fastball or sinking fastball is now thrown half the time. As an AL GM said: “If you can’t hit a slider, you go to the plate now and get five sliders. There are no more hitter’s counts where you can just expect a fastball. The evolution of the game plan is now 100 percent geared toward exposing weaknesses. If you can’t hit a changeup, you are going to see that pitch all the time.”
To add sticky stuff to improved velocity and break, when all these other pitching edges exist, is unfair. And, again, it is illegal.
One GM said, “We are just so much better at positioning than ever.”
Long explained: “For every one that gets through a shift, there are three that get taken away. Everyone knows where my guys hit the ball and play accordingly.”
At Double-A this year, all four infielders must have their cleats on the infield dirt when the pitch is delivered, with a consideration for the second half of the season of enforcing two infielders on both sides of second base. The NBA and NFL consistently address defensive strategy to promote offense, and a shift is nothing more than a zone defense. This zone essentially has taken away batting average on grounders, especially to lefties, leading to even more of a fixation to get the ball into the air and out of the park. When people talk about changing swings, that is not as easy as snapping your fingers, especially with the velocity and the spin being encountered.
There also is a psychological impact of smashing a grounder at 100 mph-plus up the middle or into the traditional 3-4 hole — both hits for a century-plus — that are now often outs. The percentage of outs on grounders hit 90 mph (66 percent), 95 mph (62.3 percent) and 100 mph (59.3 percent) are the highest of the Statcast era (thanks to Sarah Langs at MLB.com).
Hitters are not being rewarded for striking the ball hard on the ground. So the impact of the shift is not just the balls that are fielded, but the change to a swing philosophy that often makes hitters more vulnerable to strikeouts.
MLB did not get to be Dave Kingman in one year or for one reason. It is going to take more than one change and one year to reverse this trend. But there can be no more delay.
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