MASTER NOTES April 6, 2019: Week 1 (Over-)reactions

On April 2, the estimable analysis site fivethirtyeight.com, headed by former BaseballHQ analyst Nate Silver, dropped a Hot Takedowns podcast titled, “Let’s Overreact To MLB Opening Weekend.”

The site is a truly excellent must-read for anyone of a data-analytical bent, but with all due respect, it is a little presumptuous to base any analysis on three days’ worth of games plus a couple of tilts in Japan. That’s why I had the good sense to wait until after the whole of the first week to overreact. Now that’s a simple size!

Actually, it probably isn’t, but in the manner of fine sports journalism everywhere, I’m not going to let the small matter of insufficient data stop me. So let’s look at some of the stats from week one!

The first item to note is that hits are down to below 8/G, by far the lowest in the 30-team era, and the lowest in MLB history since 1908 (7.7 H/G). And that shouldn’t really count, since it was when the baseballs were made out of old pillowcases stuffed with dead passenger pigeons, which was a big improvement over when they were stuffed with live passenger pigeons.

All the other sub-8.0 H/G seasons were either in that pillowball era or in 1968, when Bob Gibson was throwing 212-MPH fastballs from an eight-foot-tall mound that was only 46 feet from home plate. Or so my Dad told me.

Meanwhile, singles are down even more than hits. The 1B/G mark in this early season is literally the lowest ever, and I literally mean “literally,” not “literally” in the usual sports-journalism sense of “not literally.” Anyway, the 10 lowest 1B/G levels of MLB history are from 2010 to 2019 inclusive, ending with the last four seasons:

      Hits   1B    2B    3B    HR
2016: 8.7   5.7   1.7   0.2   1.2
2017: 8.7   5.5   1.7   0.2   1.3
2018: 8.4   5.4   1.7   0.2   1.1
2019: 7.8   4.8   1.7   0.1   1.2

This development is part of a trend that has seen singles drop from nine or 10 per game in the pigeonball era, to around seven per game through the DiMaggio era, to around six through the Beatles era (with a brief jump to the mid-sixes in the Big Red Machine era), back to the low-sixes per game until the start of the Steroid Era. Since then, singles have dropped for many seasons, dipping under 6.0 1B/G and declining further until what you see in the table above.

That’s four singles per game from the Extinct-Wildfowl Era, and a full single per game in just the last four years. Of course, it is early yet to say what has happened—it might be something as simple as a few less leg hits early in the season because guys are being cautious about running hard for 30 yards when their quads are chilled like meat-locker hamhocks. But it is something to watch, considering its impact on run-scoring (and, indirectly, RBI) and SBs.

Doubles have maintained a pretty steady level around 1.7-1.8 2B/G since 1995 or so. As well, it seems possible that in the pigeonball days, doubles were often stretched singles slapped into gaps by 125-pound sprinters, while today they are wannabe HRs, deep flies that didn’t quite make the fence. Triples are down to barely .1 per game, from a long-running average closer to 0.2 per game, but this seems like it could also be weather- or temperature-related.

Speaking of which, SB attempts show a continuing steady downward trend:

1995: 1.04 SBA/G
2016: 0.73
2017: 0.71
2018: 0.71
2019: 0.63

Again, early days, frigid nights, cold hamhocks. But when the 30-team era began 21 seasons ago, teams were trying just more than one SB a game, so even if this year’s number rebounds to the 2016-18 level, the game will still be missing some 1,600 SBA per year compared with the level of 1995, and at the 71% success rate in the 30-team era, that’s more than 1,100 bags lost.

In a related development, the SBO% has dropped by more than one-quarter during the 30-team era, to 4.9% this season (using baseball-reference.com’s definition of SBO) from 6.8% in 1998.

Happily, hitters are finding other ways to get on base. Walks are up about 13% from 2016:

2016: 3.1 bb/G
2017: 3.3
2018: 3.2
2019: 3.5

We can hope that this increase in walks helps offset the loss of singles as far as SBOs go. As well...

... HBPs are up quite a bit:

2016: 0.34 HBP/9
2017: 0.37
2018: 0.40
2019: 0.51

The 17-point jump from 2016 is a 50% increase in plunkings. This could be just a case of pitchers struggling in the colder weather to find their fine control. Not a lot of gap between hitting the inside black and the hitter’s elbow armor, knee armor, shoulder armor, hand armor, or thigh armor. In fact, it seems more and more they’re hitting the plate and the plating.

But in several games I’ve watched so far, commentators have been talking about how pitching coaches are telling their pitchers to be more aggressive pounding the ball to the inside part of the plate, partly to counter the growing trend of hitters “diving into” outside pitches to put them into play with authority. I’ve seen Nelson Cruz get hit right on the knob of the bat twice already so far, and both times he was hanging over the plate like a Notre Dame gargoyle. And he got angry at being hit.

If this is a thing, watch out for more hitter injuries. We’ve already seen a spate of hitters, like Jose Ramirez and Andrew Benintendi, fouling inside pitches onto the insides of their own knees, another potential source of injuries. This could be another source of SBOs if the trend continues.

Stop me if you've heard about this one, but strikeout rates are at a new MLB high, tipping past one per inning for the first time ever:

2016: 8.1 K/9
2017: 8.3
2018: 8.5
2019: 9.0

This trend has been going since Abner Doubleday killed his first passenger pigeon, as it flew off the ark and sought landfall. I might be confusing a few stories there. In any case, Ks will be more and more plentiful, but the hidden value jump might be in hitters who don’t strike out. More to think about here.   

Another short-run trend with potential long-term ramifications is that saves are up substantially:

2016: 26.3% SV/G
2017: 24.3%
2018: 25.6%
2019: 31.3%

Again, there’s an easy explanation, which is my favorite kind. Cold weather and early-season caution with zillion-dollar arms are getting starters out of the game earlier. This is something to watch as the weather improves, to see if starters are “stretched out”—or if they aren’t, and continue to have their innings restricted because of the well-advertised third-time-through penalty, something I’m familiar with from my days at the local buffets.

This could be a huge development, decreasing the counting stats—innings, Ks and Wins—from starters and potentially redistributing them to a larger number of relief pitchers who also get more Holds and Saves. I was also curious about the number of pitchers getting saves, as we’ve been encouraged to expect more advanced leverage-based bullpen management spreading the saves more widely among more pitchers.

That might still happen. Not so far, though. Teams have used the same number of pitchers to close wins as they did last season: through 158 games in 2019, 35 different pitchers had saves, while after five games per team last year (150 games in all), the same number of pitchers had recorded at least one save.

Finally, my favorite: official scorers have been calling more errors “errors.”

2016: 0.58 E/G
2017: 0.58
2018: 0.57
2019: 0.66

This could again be weather-related, but it bears watching. For the last many seasons, it has seemed like fielders never got errors, even on what seemed like routine plays, and especially when a local home-side batter had put the ball into play. So far this season, I’ve seen half-a-dozen errors called on infield muffs I was sure would be called hits, including some that looked like relatively tough, non-routine plays—certainly plays that should be made by big-leaguers, but the kind of errors that scorers had been bending over backward to ignore. I wonder if MLB has told scorers to start cracking down and being more stringent on using the rulebook standard of a hit or an error, namely if a big-league player should have made the play and didn’t.

This would be a huge change from the current policy, which seems to be that if the fielder could have and should have made the play but didn’t, ascribe the failure to the ball being hit too hard and award a hit. And by the way, the rules say that the fielder doesn’t have to touch a groundball or flyball to commit an error if he could have made the play with “ordinary effort.”

The seven-point change in E/G thus far, after 134 games and almost 5,000 fielding chances, is a 16% increase. If it continues, we would see a substantial further decline in singles (although not in baserunners), and a decline in ERAs and WHIPs with fewer “blamed baserunners” aboard counting against pitchers’ rations. The benefit would disproportionately favor GB pitchers and punish GB hitters.

So that’s it: walks, HBP, Ks, saves and errors are up, hits, singles, and SBs are down. I can hardly wait to see the other 25 weeks!


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.