Thoughts on some of the more interesting things I found randomly looking stuff up the other day:
Here's what I like to do on an off day: sit down at my laptop, start with an idea of something I'd like to look up, click on Baseball Reference or Fangraphs, find something that makes me think of something else, and keep looking up stuff until my butt gets sore from sitting on the hard chair at Starbucks, take a break, and then find some more stuff. I find this game endlessly interesting, and there is so much good writing out there, so much good information.
And the beauty of my job is that when I come across something interesting - I get to ask players, coaches and managers what they think about a given issue. Because the one thing I've learned in my 19 years on this job is that I will never know the game at the level those who play it (or coach it) do. So - thanks to an off day last week, here is some random stuff I found interesting from the first half, either stuff I went to look up, or stumbled across on my way to looking up something else. Some made it into our broadcasts, a lot didn't. As always, your comments are always welcome.
If there was a theme of the first half - it's that many are worrying about baseball and how it's being played.
Many believe it's not an interesting game because there's not enough action. Lots of home runs, strikeouts, and singles being eaten up by shifts. There have been more strikeouts than hits in the major leagues through three and a half months. There had never been a single month with more strikeouts than hits, and now we may have a full season with more strikeouts than hits. I'd call that a major change, and one worth talking about. Jeff Passan, Jayson Stark, Buster Olney, Tom Verducci, Ken Rosenthal and many others have written about this. I think Jayson's piece for the Athletic in May was outstanding. Jayson polled a couple dozen players, coaches, managers, executives and former players about some of their ideas to bring back the action in baseball, and ideas for how to make the game better. I don't agree with all the ideas they came up with - but the article was designed to get the conversation started.
My two favorite ideas from his article: don't limit the shift, but require all infielders in a shift to be on the infield dirt. It levels the playing field for left-handed batters, and brings back the line-drive single to right. It rewards left-handed hitters for a good swing. The other idea comes from John Smoltz, a very bright man. He says mid-inning pitching changes are killing the flow/feel/rhythm of games. After watching three games in Tampa this past week I couldn't agree more. His idea? Give managers three chances -he suggests "three timeouts" - to make a mid-inning pitching change in any one game. That would certainly add more strategy to the game, while keeping the game moving. I'm sure managers would love it.
I don't find myself lamenting the way the game is played now. Sure, there are some dud games every now and then, but for the most part - even as the Tigers have struggled -- I like watching baseball every day. I like the brand of baseball the Tigers have played in the first half - more aggressive on the bases, better defense, and paying attention to detail (not always -but getting better!). Ron Gardenhire and his staff are putting a system in place that will pay big dividends down the road. But when you take a moment and realize the climb in the strikeout rate means there will be roughly two thousand fewer balls put in play this year in the American League compared to just five years ago, it does seem logical that you'd want a little more action. And more chances for some of the really talented players we have in the game to put their defensive skills on display.
There certainly was a lot of coverage about what the Rays are doing.
And rightfully so. Using a bullpen like no one ever has (really out of necessity) and getting great results. The best point I saw made - by several people, but again, led by Jayson Stark - is that if we go to a game of bullpens, and the traditional starting pitcher no longer exists in 10-15 years, baseball will be losing a lot. For as long as I can remember, as a fan, you always want to know who's starting tonight, especially when your staff is full of studs like the Tigers had a few years ago. Or when you have a special player like Mark Fidrych. Or Fernando Valenzuela. Or Justin Verlander. Or Clayton Kershaw. You look forward to watching certain guys pitch, and you look forward to a game when two aces are on the mound. "Stanek versus Trivino" - nothing against those two guys - just doesn't have the same appeal as "Scherzer v. deGrom." Fans love watching aces at work even when it doesn't work out for their guy. They just want to see that guy pitch. They love seeing a guy work deep into a game, work out of jams, make adjustments, or just plain dominate - it's one of the truly enjoyable things about watching baseball. The thought that two or three out of every five days will be a bullpen day (or five out of five) just doesn't do it for me. Which brings us to...
Fun Fact #1:
There were five complete games in the National League in the first half. Five. One-thousand, four-hundred and forty-one games started, five finished by the same guy who started. I stumbled across this when I was looking up various ex-Tigers to see how they were doing and saw that Max Scherzer had one complete game -which made him the co-leader in the National League. So it got me wondering - how different is that from previous seasons? And how does that compare to the American League? Glad you asked:
|AL Complete Games||NL Complete Game|
The gap has been narrow the last couple of years, but large this year and in 2015. Since the start of 2015, there have been 162 complete games in the AL, 109 in the National League. It would appear most of the discrepancy can be linked directly to the lack of a DH in the National League.
When fans in NL cities argue against the DH, or recoil in horror at the thought of a DH, they often start with the argument that there would be less strategy with a DH. Mainly, there would be no... double switch. I always think of Jim Leyland when I hear this argument. Jim Leyland managed in the National League for 14 years before taking over as Tigers manager. And Jim Leyland believes the double-switch is the most over-rated strategic move in baseball, often used when it doesn't need to be. He believes - and there's much logic in this - that the decision to take a pitcher out in the American League is much more difficult than in the National League.
Take a fairly common scenario for a National League manager: you get to the late innings (meaning the 6th inning on), down a run or two - it doesn't matter how your guy is pitching - when his spot comes up out he goes, lifted for a pinch hitter. The decision is made for you the vast majority of the time by the inning and the score. In the American League you have to decide if your guy - who might be tiring - can get this next guy out. Is he better than that guy you have warming up in the pen? Were those two singles he gave up just groundballs in the right spot or was he elevating his pitches? What does his track record say once he gets past the 6th? What if your 7th inning guy hasn't been very good lately? How much has he been used? All these things - and a dozen more - might be going through a manager's mind when he has to make the call on whether to pull his starter. It is far from automatic. And it leaves the manager open to all kinds of second-guessing. And isn't that what fans want, anyway? (For the record - my experience would seem to indicate that a manager almost always takes his starter out one batter too soon, or one batter too late)
What would fans in NL cities gain if the pitcher didn't bat? First - they would get a chance to see someone like, oh, I don't know - Max Scherzer - pitch deeper into games on a more regular basis. Or Jacob deGrom. Or Aaron Nola. See them on the mound in a 2-1 game in the 8th inning, with maybe with a chance to close it out in the 9th. Whether he goes the full nine or not, you would definitely see more innings from your aces on nights they're pitching really well. And that's compelling baseball.
What else would they gain? Well, just off the top of my head...
They wouldn't have to watch Jose Quintana step to the plate ever again.
We were just in Chicago for two games against the Cubs. Jose Quintana got to bat for the Cubs. Jose Quintana was 2-78 in his career as a hitter. With 45 strikeouts. The only question as he stepped to the plate was: could he make contact? A foul back to the screen brought polite applause. Quintana struck out in his first AB, bunted into a force in his second, and then was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The 0-2 left his batting average at a tidy .025 for his career.
It used to be that you could reliably count on pitchers to hit .125-.130 each year. That has plummeted (that damn shift) to .113 for National League pitchers this year, and .109 for American League pitchers. American League pitchers strike out in 55% of their plate appearances, NL pitchers at a 41% clip.
American League pitchers look positively frightened when they're asked to lay down a bunt. You would be too if they sent you to the plate with a bat and told you to bunt a 95MPH fastball that was moving in on your hands - when you've basically never done it before. NL pitchers have laid down 241 successful sacrifices in 2018. American League pitchers have laid down nine. Far fewer attempts, but they lay down bunts about half as often as their NL counterparts. This is absurd. Does anyone really go to the ballpark to see pitchers hit? Of course not - we celebrate each hit by a pitcher because it's like seeing a unicorn - oh, look, he got a hit! How'd that happen?
Your team gets a little two out rally going in the 2nd inning - and....here comes Johnny Pitcher with his .078 career batting average. Inning over. I don't care how weak your #9 hitter is in the American League - I'd still rather see him than a pitcher every time.
Fun fact #2: The Houston Astros are on pace to give up 510 runs this season. No American League team has held opponents below 550 runs (excluding 1981 and 1994) since 1972, the year before the DH (also a strike-shortened season, but add in the few games that were missed, and both Baltimore and Oakland would have been below 500). The Astros are built around a bunch of starters who like to work deep into games. They are the counter-balance to the Tampa Bay Rays. No other team in the AL is on pace to allow fewer than 600 runs.
Speaking of things that haven't happened since there's been a DH... the American League is hitting .248 going to the break. The league-wide batting average hasn't been below .250 since .... 1972, when AL teams collectively hit .239.
Miscellaneous facts on how the game is played, and trends:
-offense in the American League is down slightly from last year (6%) - but 4.42R/G is almost exactly at the average for the last nine years in the AL. From 1993-2009, during the "peak era" for run-scoring, the range was 4.70 to 5.40R/gm.
-the HR rate this year is down 9% from last year, but - at 1.18HR/gm, is still 5th-highest in history.
-isolated power (simply SLG minus BA) remains at record high levels. It's down from an all-time high of .173 last year, but above where it was during the 1993-2009 period.
-the strikeout rate in the American League has climbed again, to 8.47K/9.
A little strikeout history: the strikeout rate for American League pitchers reached 5.5K/9IP for the first time in 1963. For the next 45 years, the strikeout rate went up and down in a range from 4.48K/9 to 6.40, then hit 6.5 for the first time in 2007. Six years later, in 2013, the strikeout rate reached 7.5K/9IP. Now, five years later, the strikeout rate has reached 8.5.
- it took 45 years for the strikeout rate to go from 5.5 to 6.5, then 11 years to jump from 6.5 to 8.5.
-American League hitters - thru 7/15 - have 12,240 hits, and struck out 12,111 times.
-National League hitters - thru 7/15 - have 12, 074 hits, and struck out 12,426 times
Fun fact #3: Fastball use in the American League has dropped for 10 consecutive years. Fastball use league-wide is down again this year - and has now dropped every year for the last ten years. Not always by a lot, but by at least a tiny fraction for ten straight years. The end result is fairly dramatic. League-wide, fastball use was at 60.5% in 2008, down to 53.4% this year, a drop of 12%. The slider - at 17% - is still the second most-thrown pitch in the American League. The use of all the other pitches Fangraphs tracks - slider, curveball, cutter and change -- are up anywhere from 18% to 25%. In 2008, Texas threw fastballs more often than any other team - 69% of the time. Toronto was last, at 53%. This year, the Blue Jays lead at 61%, the Yankees are last, at 44%.
Before tonight's 89th All Star game, a look at how strange the history of this game has been: the American League has won 17 of the last 21 All Star games, with one tie (the "Selig shrug" game). Go back 11 more years, and the AL is 24-7-1 against the National League since 1986. Dominant. But not quite as dominant as the National League was the preceding 23 years: from 1963 to 1985, the NL won 21 of 23 games against the American League. Which brings us to tonight: after decades of dominance by one side or the other, we head to the 89th All Star game all tied up at 43-43-2.
Also, the All-Star game is really late this year: The Tigers will have played 98 games at the break this year, the Astros 99. I don't ever remember the break coming this deep into the season. I looked at the last 15 years or so, and found the break coming at 94 games once, and 91 games another time, but usually the break comes around the 88-89 game mark. Seems strange that when we talk about "first half" and "second half" this year, one "half" will contain 30 more games than the other.
Thanks for reading. I'm looking forward to the second half - and to reading your comments!