Most of the discussion about baseball this year has been about the baseball itself, or the lack of runs being scored. Rob Mains at BP expertly broke down just how big the offense problem in MLB these days, when you pull it out from under the shield of extra innings/Manfred Man. These discussions lead other ones on previous rules changes, and their effects, and rules changes that might be coming soon such as a pitch-clock, or banning shifts.
But when you see this pitch from Milwaukee’s Aaron Ashby, you see the real problem:
This is why run-scoring is at an all-time low, strikeouts remain around an all-time high (though having dropped a little so far this season from last), and why the rules changes that MLB has implemented only poke at the edges of the problem. And the deflation of the baseball has only punished hitters who are already up against it in every way.
The thing is Ashby certainly has some remarkable stuff, but it doesn’t stand out that much from what other pitchers around the league can do. He’s got incredibly gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors, and so far this season his average fastball velocity (96.0 MPH) and his 30.9 percent K-rate would rank in the top six in both categories if he qualified. He’s doing fiendish things with a baseball for sure, but there are many others doing the same fiendish things at only a slightly lesser rate of… fiendishness?
Look at this thing breaking for the lefthanded batter’s box like it was fleeing a bank job, and wonder how anyone could possibly make contact? There are guys on every team, yes even yours that sucks balls, who can throw something like this. If it’s not a 95 MPH cutter, it’s a 93 MPH two-seamer or a curve that dives toward China at the last possible second. Once again, the average velocity across the league is up this season, according to FanGraphs, to 93.2. But it’s no longer just the velocity that hitters are being asked to compensate for, but the movement these pitchers can get.
And then when you consider all that pitchers have throughout their development before they even get to the majors to refine or improve their arsenal, it truly seems hopeless. Not just the seven defenders behind them that have copious scouting reports even in the minors about where a hitter might hit the ball, but labs and studies breaking down the movement and spin and the air around the ball, different grips and release points that are then analyzed through every inch of movement giving them immediate feedback to tweak some more.
Hitters? Uh… ax handle on your bat?
When you see pitches like this from Ashby, or whichever display of filth from your chosen game to watch, it’s obvious why hitters have decided they have to go for the downs on every swing, because they’re not going to get more than one pitch to hit, if that. The idea of “fastball counts” has faded, as even if pitchers are throwing fastballs at 2-0 or 3-1, they look like this. And they throw fastballs less and less in those spots now. Stringing a bunch of singles together off this? That’s not gonna work for me, brother.
Which is what made the new baseball and the regulated humidors in all parks so frustrating. Now, along with everything hitters are up against, this kind of stuff, when they do square a pitch up by some miracle, they’re not always rewarded. You can do everything right and then watch your barrelled contact pull a Hindenberg on the warning track. Why does this help?
The problem is the pitchers and what they can do. They have become simply too great a force. And even if MLB can get a pitch-clock installed next year, and that’s not a certainty, how much effect will that really have? Numbers suggest that yes, the games will get shorter, but not much more will happen within them. Banning the shifts isn’t going to “change behavior” among hitters, because all that will be opened up are the hits they’re not getting now through their pull and lift approach. It will reinforce it.
And changing that behavior is nigh-on impossible when facing this. And “this” isn’t going away, because all the tech and analysis pitchers have will be with baseball forever. MLB tried to do something about this with the sticky-stuff ban last season. Well, either they’re not doing enough to keep that going or it wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place, given what we’ve seen of offense so far.
The only way for baseball is to even out velocity and movement. Pitchers aren’t going to just stop throwing harder, and the next generation will throw harder than this one. Maybe pitch clocks will help, maybe roster restrictions will help, but not all that much. The experiment to move the mound back wasn’t much of a success last year in the Atlantic league, but installing this kind of change in the middle of the season was always awkward. Injuries were for sure a problem when you’re asking pitchers to adjust after many reps from the traditional distance. The proper way to do this, and it should be tried again, is to give everyone an entire offseason to prepare their release points and muscle memory.
Otherwise, well, the Ashbys of the world are going to continue to run things.