Sports

More MLB offense is great and all, but running back 2019 ain’t it

Strikeout rates are still at an unacceptable level.
Image: Getty Images

Yesterday, my colleague Jon took something of a deep dive into how offense in MLB has changed one month into the great “Sticky Stuff Purge” of 2021. He’s hardly alone. Ben Lindbergh did it at The Ringer. So did Joe Sheehan’s newsletter. It’s only natural, as the big story in baseball a month ago was all the things that the weird kid in your third grade used to eat being used by pitchers to bamboozle hitters. We were all excited to see what the effect of them going without would be, as pretty much every baseball fan would like to see more things happen during games.

What everyone has gotten to is that yes, offense is up, and yes, it’s not just due to the hotter weather of July. The increases are more than the normal summer curve, and strikeouts are down, average is up, more runs, everyone seems pretty happy. The problem is, these changes are only slightly better than on the margins, and they don’t get baseball away from its main problem.

The strikeout-rate for the past month is 22.8 percent. That’s the same as it was for the entire 2019 season, when serious discussion of a real problem with how baseball was played — and more importantly how it’s enjoyed — started to get way above a whisper. It’s still below the mark of 2018, which was 22.3 percent, and no one thought 22.3 percent of PAs ending with the hitter shuffling off back to the dugout was an acceptable number. Baseball had to cut out sticky stuff just to get back to the first problem level. Basically, it’s approaching “suck.”

Same goes for contact. Yes, contact-rate the past month has risen to 76.3 percent the past month from 75.7. But that’s the exact number from 2019, again when most baseball observers said there wasn’t enough action in the game. It’s still behind the 2018 number. MLB was able to basically arrest the slide toward two guys playing catch for three hours that the game was headed toward, but it hasn’t really clawed anything back. It’s just where it was, which isn’t good enough. For comparison, the contact rate in 2010 was 80.7 percent. The strikeout rate was 18.5 percent. These are the kinds of numbers baseball needs to get back to.

Perhaps crucially, the crackdown on the goop hasn’t really slowed velocity. The past month the average four-seam velocity has held at 93.5 MPH, which it’s been all season. There have been less whiffs and more contact, but not by a significant amount, and not enough to decree that the velocity problem baseball has is now dead.

And still over a third of plate-appearances the past month end in a strikeout, walk, or homer. That’s a third of the time when a fielder never moves, or one of them might turn around. There have still been more strikeouts than hits. The single becomes rarer and rarer.

Perhaps the more important study is what happens in the Atlantic League in two weeks when the mound will be moved back a foot, something I’ve been harping on for a while. That is a step to solving the velocity/contact problem. We’ll see how it works.

Perhaps you have to stop sliding before you can make progress, and maybe MLB can argue that it’s done that much in the past month. Certainly it’s hardly a topic of discussion the way it was a month ago, as players and fans have adjusted (as always happens about whatever players are caterwauling about when changes on the field happen). But for baseball to truly make changes that people will notice with their own two eyes, this is merely a beginning.

And no, banning the shift isn’t going to do it.

Then again, maybe I should celebrate any progress baseball makes, no matter how incremental. It really hasn’t been their M.O. for quite a while. Blind squirrel, acorn, etc. 

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