“It is tough to scout when there are so many strikeouts”. This was a refrain from an exasperated scout who was seated behind me at a minor league baseball game I attended a couple of days ago. Little did I know I was witnessing a weird bit of professional baseball history. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and Inland Empire 66er’s combined for 35 strikeouts in the nine inning game. Apparently, the two clubs had a combined 34 strikeouts the game before. Now this can be down to bad hitting, or great pitching, but I think the reality is somewhere in the middle. All these strikeouts got me thinking, and then to have Wade Miley throw the fourth no-hitter during the first month of the season (Fifth, if we are to count the seven inning effort from Madison Bumgarner) I was really beginning to contemplate what is wrong (if anything) with offense in modern baseball.
As I write this today the combined triple slash for MLB hitter is .234/.311/.392. There have been 8857 strikeouts compared to 7627 hits. So to put it simply, a fan is more likely to see a batter strikeout than they are to see them get a hit. Rougned Odor is about a league average hitter when looking at the MLB triple slash line. Odor is .236/.289/.437 for his career, which if we look at his recent history is just good enough to get traded after being designated for assignment. The reasons for the horrible offensive environment in baseball 2021 is not one simple thing, but a confluence of factors.
At the aforementioned minor league game, I was discussing what can be done to help offense in baseball. Now in my experience in talking with scouts, they tend to think the on-field issues with the game are simple approach and mechanical problems. Rarely do they take outside factors into account. He wasn’t trying to entertain my notion of the game being vastly different from what we grew up with when I brought guys like Tony Gwynn who did not have to face the type of velocity in the game now, which allowed for a different style of hitting. I said to him it is easier to hit a homer than it is to string singles together in the search for a run. His thinking is the hitters aren’t taught to hunt base hits anymore, and too many guys are selling out for power, when they don’t have enough for them to be effective players. The MLB strikeout rate was 2.8 per game in 1921, whereas it is 9.2 strikeouts per game now (mind you this is 9.2 for each team in the game). However, the runs were 4.85 per game in 1921 versus 4.38 this year (again, this is for each team batting), so offense is down just about half a run per game, but it is a far cry from the 3.42 runs per game in 1968, which was labeled as the year of the pitcher and led to the mound being lowered.
In my opinion when people talk about fixing things on the offensive side in baseball the issue is often mislabeled. Since the start of the 20th century, the runs per game have been between a high of 5.55 in 1930 to a low of 3.38 in 1908. This issue isn’t necessarily how many runs are being scored, but it is a question of how runs are scored. The low water mark of .10 home runs per game of 1907 pales in comparison to the 1.39 home runs per game of 2019. The league hit .296 in 1930, but that has fallen off to the .234 where it is now. The slugging percentage has gone from .305 in 1908 to a peak of .437 in 2000, during the heart of the steroid era. So simply put, the ways teams approach offense is now more focused on power at the expense of contact.
As I see it, the league is not doing a good job of branding the changes in the way the game is being played. I have lost count of how many telecasts have a dopey broadcaster who isn’t up on the current trends in the game paired with some former player who decries the strikeouts. This is even worse during the national games where the folks in the booth aren’t familiar with the teams. The home runs should be highlighted, and the increased velocity in the game should be used to explain why hitting is so hard now. Changing the conversation around offense will make it easier to implement changes on the field to increase it.
The first change to where offense comes from has already been made. Changing the way baseballs are made can have a large impact on where runs come from. 2021 has seen the increased the drag coefficient of the baseball, which will decrease the distance in flight, but it also has been shown to come off the bat at a slightly higher speed. It increased velocity off of the bat combined with the decreased should mean hitters will have a better chance at singles and doubles. The league should own up to the changes to the ball, rather than taking the opaque approach they have to this point. The PGA limits the specifications of the golf ball when they see change is needed.
The next change is much more difficult to implement, but it will take a team winning with an offense build around a contact centered approach. A huge ingredient of the Houston Astros success since 2017 is the team has not finished worse than second in the league in fewest strikeouts as a team. The reasons why can be debated, but the point is more balls in play means better offense.
I am not a fan of dictating to teams how their rosters are constructed, so I am not in favor of a limit on the number of pitchers on a roster. The way I would attempt to limit the number of relief pitchers, and emphasize the starting pitchers is by increasing the amount of time players must spend in the minor leagues when they are sent down. This means clubs can’t just call up a guy when the bullpen is taxed, because then he wouldn’t be for let’s say a month for sake of argument. Teams will want their starters to go longer to save the bullpen arms, and this will have the knock on effect of increased offense because the starters can’t just air it out for five innings, and the hitters will get to see the starter an extra at-bat.
There are lots of great things going on in the game right now, but the league has to make sure the players on both sides of the ball are given a chance to shine.