I’m cribbing heavily from Joe Sheehan’s newsletter again, but in his latest missive he points out that things keep getting better and better for pitchers. Thanks to technology and greater study, they discover new pitches or tweaks to existing ones as they keep throwing harder and harder. At the same time, they’re coming up with more devilish breaking pitches. The new thing is a slider that breaks far more horizontally and spins more like a globe than a bullet. For instance, according to BaseballSavant, last year there were just 18 sliders thrown across the league for the whole season that had more than 15 inches of horizontal break. So far this year there have already been 35. And the average velocity is up again on fastballs.
And MLB has decided to punish the hitters.
We know last year there was a mix of the makeup of the baseball. The year started with the deflated football version that didn’t go anywhere, but then in the middle of the season they mixed in the livelier one without telling anyone. Hitters already have to deal with every pitcher going through a Pitch Lab to figure out how to add spin and break and discover new ways of fooling them. Hitters have nothing like that.
And now, even when they’re squaring things up, they’re watching the ball die of exhaustion somewhere on the warning track.
So far this season, when a batter makes contact with an exit velocity over 100 MPH and with a launch angle over 15 degrees — just about as perfectly as you’d want to hit a ball — they’re slugging 1.797. That sounds like a lot, but not compared to the expected slugging percentage, which is based purely on the seasons that have come before with those parameters, which is 2.270. That’s a difference of nearly 500 slugging points. Based on every batted ball in the Statcast era, all done with a different baseball, hitters simply can’t match what they did before because something is keeping the ball from flying as far.
As Sheehan points out, on just flyballs, the expected slugging is .969 while the actual slugging is .721. And before anyone screams about it being April and how cold it is (never do this to a Chicagoan, WE KNOW), the expected slugging last April of balls hit at 100 MPH and with a launch angle of 15 or higher was 2.147, lower than it is this season. Except the actual slugging pretty much matched that, at 2.058.
There are things in the works. A pitch clock is thought to be something that will lower velocity, and maybe even spin. But that’s being tested and brought through to shorten game times, not so much to aid offense, though that would be a happy side effect. Pushing back the mound seems to have lost steam after players in the Atlantic League complained of injuries, but it really should have never been introduced in the middle of the season when pitchers would have to adjust their release points on the fly. They should have had a whole offseason and spring training to adjust. The assault on sticky substances and perhaps the implementation of the Japanese baseball is another, though some would tell you the Sticky Crackdown (title of your sextape) was evaded somewhere last year and pitchers finding a new slider that breaks more than ever suggests the same.
MLB decided that homers had gotten too plentiful, and didn’t enhance action. But turning well hit balls into outs isn’t much of an answer either.