Pitchers are even less afraid these days

Spencer Turnbull of the Detroit Tigers celebrates after his no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 18, 2021 in Seattle, Washington.
Spencer Turnbull of the Detroit Tigers celebrates after his no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on May 18, 2021 in Seattle, Washington.
Image: Getty Images

We didn’t need Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter last night to know that pitchers have smothered baseball these days (and that the Mariners have had all their bats replaced with Play-Doh). It’s the fifth no-hitter of the year, and we’re barely a quarter through the season.

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Wherever you look, you can see just what velocity has done to the game. The strikeout percentage league-wide is higher than it’s ever been. There have been 1500 more strikeouts than hits so far. This list could go on and on.

There are always a lot of factors when discussing stuff like this. But as the season goes on, it does seem strange the MLB’s big move before the season was to curb offense, while doing nothing to pitchers that would balance the scales. Because the new baseball is having effects that either MLB didn’t foresee (given their usual competence, this is likely) or they just didn’t care.

We’ve discussed earlier how although exit velocities are up, the ball isn’t traveling as far. Home runs are definitely down, to 1.14 per game so far compared to last year’s 1.28 and 2019’s Barnum & Bailey 1.38 (all per BBREF.com). Unless you’re Shohei Ohtani, you can blast the ball out of the box pretty hard, but it’s much harder to get it to travel over the wall.

But it’s not just homers that have been kneecapped. There have been fewer hits overall per game since 1908. There are fewer doubles per game since 1989 (though triples seem to be hanging on from last year). The league’s BABIP, batting average of balls put in play (removing home runs), is the lowest it’s been in the past 29 years.

And it appears pitchers have noticed. Because they’re just pouring fastballs into the zone, with much less fear that those can be turned around and sent into the bleachers. For instance, there have already been 30 starts from pitchers that have seen 10 strikeouts or more and no walks. Both Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole have set records for consecutive strikeouts without a walk this season. For comparison’s sake, there were only 54 such instances in 2018. There were 76 in 2019. So this season is more than halfway to 2918’s total and approaching halfway to 2019’s total, and again, we’re only a quarter of the way through the season.

Devan Fink at FanGraphs dived into this more in-depth a couple of weeks ago. The highlights of Fink’s scrupulous work is that there’s been a spike of fastballs thrown in the zone, and that hitters have seen a 30-point drop in wOBA on fastballs in the zone. And with pitchers throwing harder than they ever have (again), hitters are at a bigger disadvantage. Some of that is the April/bad weather effect, but even the normal correction of that as the season goes would still see a precipitous drop in those numbers. Pitchers don’t feel they have to be quite as fine on the corners and can just use the middle of the zone as long as it’s up enough and hard enough.

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And hitters haven’t changed their approach all that much, because they know how rare contact is now. The fly-ball rate has held steady for the past few years (per FanGraphs), but all MLB has done is lower the home run/fly ball rate, which was its goal. But it hasn’t been replaced by anything. The average launch angle is still about the same, 12.1 compared to 12.7 the past two seasons. The slugging percentage on line drives, league-wide, has dipped below .900 for the first time since 2015.

So while MLB has stopped the flood of home runs, it hasn’t increased action, which either was the missed goal or not the goal at all, both of which are a mistake. Thanks to the river of data in the league now, it wouldn’t have taken long for front offices to figure out that there’s less penalty for throwing fastballs in the zone now, and get that info to its pitchers. And there are more pitchers than ever throwing fastballs harder than ever before. The idea of baseball, and the battle between pitchers and hitters, is that the pitchers have to stay on the corners and the hitters have the middle of the plate. Well if the pitchers have the middle of the plate now with much less repercussion, what’s left?

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.