Just when you think the game is cleaned up and returned to its 100 plus year glory, the ugly issue has risen once again. That is right. Steroids are back in baseball. Except this time it’s not such a dirty little secret. No this time it is upfront and openly talked about. So why have you not seen any stories about this news? Because this time it is not the strength and speed of the players that are being affected. No this time it is the brains and philosophy which are changing the game. The latest brand of steroids…analytics.
Steroids drastically changed the game, allowing players to stay healthy or recover quicker while giving them enough muscle to send a warning track ball over the fence for a home run. And now, analytics are changing the game (and not in a good way).
Analytics has brought some good things into the game. Pitchers better understand what pitches work against certain hitters. Defensively teams are now able to determine the likelihood of where a hitter may put the ball in play. And hitters themselves have benefited from the ‘launch angle’ craze to hit home runs at record rates. It has also led to some weird things, such as these odd defensive shifts for pull hitters. But analytics has also brought to light some bad qualities of the game.
There is no denying the connection of analytics to the increase in home runs. Teams are now hitting home runs at record rates. In fact last season there was a 47% increase in home runs from just three years earlier. Last year teams hit 6,105 home runs; breaking the previous mark of 5,694 set in the middle of the steroid era. This is good right? To paraphrase the old adage used during the home steroid era, people dig the long ball.
Except it is not all a ‘home run’. Sure home runs are exciting but the route the teams have gone about getting them, embracing the ‘launch angle’. Do not be fooled launch angle is just the 21st century term related to a long known baseball term, uppercut swing. And any little league player from before the turn of the century understands what having an uppercut swing means. It means more strikeouts.
Along with the record-setting home runs thanks to analytics, are coming record shattering strikeouts. Last season nearly 22% of hitters struck out, a major league record. Already this season that percentage is over 22%, which would mark the 11th straight season the strikeout rate has increased. When hitters are selling out for the fences they are less likely to make contact. It is as simple as that. But teams in all of their analytical wisdom have decided that home runs are worth more than contact hits.
Analytics is not only changing hitters but also changing pitchers for the worse. Analytics has “revealed” that pitchers struggle going through a lineup for a third time. So what does this mean? It means starters are now not expected to even last six innings. That is the best cast scenario for analytics. If a pitcher sets hitters down in order, the ideal spot according to analytics, would mean the pitcher comes out in the 7th inning; prior to facing the hitters for the third time. This came to the forefront on opening week when Philadelphia Phillies manager, and analytics lover, Gabe Kapler pulled his young ace Aaron Nola in the 6th inning after just 68 pitches and having given up only three hits while leading 5-0. By the way, the Phillies ended up losing that game.
Analytics is not just simply removing the starters innings but conversely putting those innings on an increased workload for bullpen pitchers. Teams are burning through their bullpen pitchers at an alarming rate. The game was already becoming more specialized with bullpen pitchers but now teams have gone all in on using their bullpen to the max. So much so that many teams are figuring their minor league call-ups into the make up of their major league teams, knowing they will shuffle pitchers back and forth all season long.
Analytics can be a great tool. But like many thought processes it should never be the end-all. While the study of baseball by the numbers has brought some useful things, it has also quickly deteriorated the game itself. This isn’t just a baseball thing either. Look at basketball, which has fallen in love with the three-point shot, or football, where teams are increasingly reducing length of passes and using short five-yard throws to move the ball.
Baseball games have become increasingly boring with fewer and fewer balls being put in play. Who wants to watch a game when the result of an at-bat will more than likely be either a walk, strikeout, or home run? What kind of game is it when starting pitchers are only asked to go barely over half of the game? MLB may have thought they were bringing the game into the 21st century but instead they have opened Pandora’s Box.