Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, January 19, 2018

Three True Outcomes Making Baseball Boring and Predictable

Rangers' slugger Joey Gallo epitomizes the all-or-nothing approach that plagues baseball today.

More and more, baseball is becoming a “three true outcome” game, ruled by home runs, walks and strikeouts. Hitters have taken an all-or-nothing approach, becoming almost entirely focused on the long ball.

Last season, MLB set a league record with 6,105 total home runs, which was 26 percent higher than the average from the previous five years. Clubs encourage hitters to create loft and swing for the fences.

MLB Home Runs Last Four Seasons

2014: 4,186
2015: 4,909
2016: 5,610
2017: 6,105 (MLB record)

Look at that -- the number of home runs hit across the majors rose by nearly 2,000, or 50 percent, in just a four-year span!

The problem with this go-for-broke approach is that it often leads to a whole lot of nothing on the field.

League-wide, average fastball velocity has increased every season since 2009, a span of nine seasons, from 91.8 mph to 93.6 mph, according to FanGraphs. This had led to a lot more swings and misses.

There were 40,105 strikeouts in 2017, surpassing the record of 38,982, set just the previous season. The league-average strikeout rate has risen every year since 2006, and set a new all-time record every year since 2008.

The Red Sox, for example, set a franchise record last season with 1,580 strikeouts, led by Chris Sale’s league-leading 308.

Yes, more pitchers now throw in the high-90s than ever before, but batters also swing and miss an awful lot.

Last season, 140 hitters stuck out at least 100 times and 26 of them struck out at least 150 times. Whiffing has become an epidemic.

Strikeouts are different from other kinds of outs because the ball is not put in play and cannot result in a run scored. A sacrifice fly or a ground ball in the infield can score a run. Batters can reach base on an infield hit or an error, but unless there is a wild pitch or a passed ball, a batter who strikes out cannot reach base. Simply put, striking out is an unproductive at bat.

The problem with the three true outcomes is that the ball is not put in play often enough to make the game as interesting, or as fun, as it should be. There were 9.1 percent fewer balls put in play last year than just two years earlier. Meanwhile, players across baseball recorded a 33.5 percent three-true-outcome rate last season, surpassing 2016’s record of 32.3.

This means a third of the plays involved only the pitcher, the catcher and the batter. If that’s not boring, it’s certainly a lot less exciting and a lot more predictable.

Last season, 58.3 percent of Texas slugger Joey Gallo’s plate appearances ended in one of the three true outcomes. Aaron Judge was second, at 55.2 percent.

The 6’ 5”, 235-pound Gallo typifies all that is wrong with three-true-outcome baseball. Though the Rangers' masher hit 41 home runs last year, he batted just .209 (in other words, he didn’t even bat his weight), while striking out 196 times, which amounted to whiffing in 37 percent of his plate appearances.

The over-reliance on home runs for scoring has come at the cost of small ball. There is now less emphasis on bunting and base stealing (which is at a 45-year low), for example. With so many strikeouts and walks, fans aren’t witnessing many of the things that have traditionally made baseball so exciting, such as the squeeze play, the double steal and the hit and run. With the ball in play less frequently, it also eliminates the chance for great defensive plays.

The three true outcomes have taken fielding, and fielders themselves, out of the game. It would be hard for Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith to look so otherworldly while fielding their positions in today's game. Furthermore, they’d likely be bored by having so many fewer opportunities.

In short, the three true outcomes have led to a more boring and predictable brand of baseball. Instead of trying to get runners on base, methodically advancing them into scoring position and then bringing them home, the game has shifted to a jackpot style of baseball where everyone relies on the instant bonanza of the home run to score and win.

One of the results is that hitting is becoming a lost art.

While 117 players racked up 20 or more home runs last season (the most in history), only 25 hit .300 or better. Hitting ability is now the rarest offensive skill.

Last season, Judge, the New York Yankees’ right fielder, broke Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record and finished the year with 52 long balls.

Judge led the American League with 127 walks (also a rookie record). However, he also led the big leagues with 208 strikeouts.

Judge embodies the all-or-nothing approach of today’s major league sluggers. His high walk total is a by-product of pitchers fearing his extraordinary home run power. It’s safer to issue him a free pass than to take the chance that he’ll clear the bases with one swing.

It’s worth repeating that Judge had 208 whiffs last season. He also had a record-setting streak of 37 consecutive games with at least one strikeout.

Here's some perspective:

Joe DiMaggio struck out 39 times in his rookie season, which was the highest total of his career. In 1941, he struck out just 13 times!

Babe Ruth’s highest strikeout total in any season was 93. Despite his historic home run totals, Ruth never whiffed 100 times in any season. In 1931, the Babe had 199 hits, 46 of which were homers, posted a .495 OBP and fanned just 51 times.

Lou Gehrig topped out at 84 strikeouts in 1927 and had just 31 in 1934. The Iron Man had seven full-time seasons with less than 50 strikeouts.

Ted Williams had a career-high 64 strikeouts in his rookie year. He fanned fewer than 50 times in almost every other season.

While viewed as great sluggers, the above players were all pure hitters, who also happened to possess great power.

Those kinds of hitters are a relic of the past. Today’s players are, for the most part, either hitters or sluggers — not both.

Judge looked like the perfect combo in the first half of last season. Though he finished the year batting a very respectable .284, he may ultimately prove to be just another slugger, with a high OBP (.422) and a ton of Ks.

Fans have always loved the long ball, so perhaps MLB is unconcerned about the rise of the three true outcomes. But perhaps it should be. Walks and strikeouts are boring to most fans, especially the casual variety. If fans stop coming to games and tune out of local broadcasts, MLB will take notice.

As it is, there is already a concern that younger fans — millennials — are less interested in baseball than previous generations. Their main complaint: baseball is too slow. The three true outcomes have to be viewed as a primary culprit.

It’s pretty widely accepted that the baseballs used over the past 2-3 seasons are juiced. MLB could reduce the number of home runs by returning to the previous baseballs, which weren’t wound so tightly. But it won’t; fans love the long ball too much.

However, organizations, instructional leagues and coaches could certainly preach and teach the art of hitting, while shaming the absurd amount of strikeouts that now plague the game. There is no reason that home run hitters can’t hit for average or that great hitters can’t also hit for power.

If they could see today’s game, DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig and Williams would all be shaking their heads. They’d wonder how so many of these guys still have jobs... and massive paychecks.

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