A group of analysts presented to MLB owners in August a statistical “state of the game.” The overriding question in the room was this: If the uniform adoption of analytics to build teams and win games is good for general managers, is it good for the consumer product of baseball? And if it’s not—if analytics generally favor run prevention and make for a game with more stoppages, more strikeouts, more relief pitchers and fewer balls put in play less often—should MLB do something about it? Does MLB just let the natural ebb and flow of the game and its offense/defense balance run its course? Or does it tweak that balance, knowing a product that provides less action over more time is anathema to a generation growing up with devices literally at its fingertips to provide diversion once the smallest of dead times arises?
It’s a big, important question in a world teeming with more and more choices. In the meantime, here’s a snapshot of what baseball looks like in 2016. With the final numbers almost in, here are the nine macro trends that stand out about this season (all stats are through Monday unless otherwise noted):
1. The increase in home runs is freakish (again)
Back in June, I wrote that what was happening with the spike in home runs since August 2015 defied trending norms. This was not the gradual evolution you would expect when people note the usual litany of reasons: increased velocity by pitchers, lack of two-strike approach by hitters, emphasis on launch angles, state-of-the-art PEDs, etc.—all things that have been in place for years, so you shouldn’t expect such a sudden spike.
But what I said then is even truer now that the rate of home runs has increased even since June. The growth in home runs in consecutive seasons is so large as to be unprecedented without an obvious reason. After home runs went up 17% last year, they are up 15% this year. This marks only the fifth time that baseball has seen a double-digit increase in homers in consecutive years. The first four occasions were easily explainable: 1929 and '30 featured the first generation of players after Babe Ruth popularized the home run; '46 and '47 saw players returning from World War II; '69 and '70 brought the lowering of the mound; and '93 and '94 saw expansion to Denver and Miami.
What might be the cause this time? One veteran pitching coach offered this theory: “Something happened to the baseball,” he says. “I said it Opening Day. I’m not lying to you. I saw baseballs going out to the opposite field like they were pulled—in cold weather—and I said, ‘Uh-oh. Something’s up.”’
Through Tuesday, 107 players have hit at least 20 home runs—a new record, up from 64 last season. The Reds' Adam Duvall has 33 in his first full season after hitting eight in parts of two years in 2014 and '15. Jake Lamb of the Diamondbacks has 29 in 2016 after hitting 10 in '14 and '15 combined. Consider this trio of previously light-hitting shortstops who debuted in 2012 and each have exactly 20 home runs this year.
|Player, Team||Career HR, pre-2016||Previous High|
|Freddy Galvis, Phillies||20||7|
|Didi Gregorius, Yankees||22||9|
|Jean Segura, Diamondbacks||23||12|
2. Strikeouts continue to rise
Break out the cheap champagne: On Monday night, MLB set a record for most strikeouts in a season for the 11th straight year. There are more than 7,000 more strikeouts this year than there were 10 years ago.
3. Small-ball is dying
The rate of sacrifice hits has reached a low in recorded history for a fifth straight year.
4. Relief pitching is taking over baseball
More champagne: On Monday night, relievers broke the record, set in 2007, for most innings pitched in a season. They also have struck out the most batters in history. With seven more wins, they will have the most victories in history.
We are on pace to sit through 15,226 pitching changes, another record, and more than double what there were in 1986. Dodgers rookie manager Dave Roberts needs just seven more pitching changes to break the all-time record for most pitching changes in one season—a record set in 2007 by Nationals manager Manny Acta. Here’s how much the game has changed in nine years: Acta needed to make 588 pitching changes because he had a bad team that lost 89 games; Roberts has deployed 582 pitching changes to win a division title.
5. The slide rule had no effect on double plays
It kept middle infielders healthier, as it was designed to do, but it did not spark an increase in double plays. Baseball is on pace for 3,731 double plays, a decrease from last year of—get this—eight double plays.
6. Shifts are not depressing batting average on balls in play
Here are the annual batting averages on balls in play since 2011: .295, .297, .297, .298, .299, .300.
7. Intentional walks are dying
The rate of intentional walks has hit an all-time recorded low.
8. Nobody alive has ever seen so many wild pitches
The rate of wild pitches is the highest since ’91—that’s 1891.
9. Attendance is remarkably stable
For the past eight years, per game attendance—from a low of 30,066 to a high of 30,806—has not varied by more than 740 people per game, or .003%.