MLB in the year 2020 was long-awaited. Its return came with a mandated 60 game schedule by MLB as there was no deal made to share in the revenues of the sport between the owners and the players. For the time being, that is behind us and we have had roughly 12 games played by each team of this season. Keep in mind that is 20% of the season. What have we seen so far? Ideally, we have seen the best players in the world on the field and playing the game. It has been a pleasure to see the familiar and unfamiliar players do their thing.
We have seen injuries to key players. Stephen Strasburg, Corey Kluber, Mike Soroka, Wade Davis, Justin Verlander, and Marcus Stroman plus others. The 2nd spring training was on a few weeks leaving the players a bit vulnerable to injuries. Also, due to the number of games to be played, nagging yet simple injuries could keep someone out for the rest of the season. For example, Kluber has a muscle strain. This could keep him on the IL several weeks and could lead to no more on-field action depending on how competitive the team becomes. We have seen players put on the IL due to having COVID symptoms. There is actually a listing for Covid-19 for the IL. We have seen players opt of the season and this week saw one opt back in (ATL-Nick Markakis). There has been a couple of teams that have gone through an outbreak and were forced to shut down play to get control of the further spread of COVID. We now have 7 weeks left of a season and the STL Cardinals have 8 weeks of baseball games to play! We had a team that was forced to find a new home stadium the week MLB started! Toronto Blue Jays could play their home games at their stadium, but the away teams had to quarantine for 10-14 days prior to being able to enter the public in Canada. This forced the Bule Jas to find another home site which they settled on Buffalo, NY. Yet do not forget that we still have had a grand total of 0 paid attendance for any of the games. It seems awkward to see photo cut-outs as fans and pumped in crowd noise. It could be worse, as most teams have covered up the empty seats. Yet all of this and not what I want to talk about!
The game on the field has overshadowed ALL the above in my mind. In particular, the pitching. The pitching is better than it has been of any year for MLB. Hitting has become the most difficult skill to master at the MLB level. Oh, you could say things like the pitching is always ahead of hitting at the start. True enough statement as most batters take 25-40 at-bats to get their timing in rhythm with their swing. Do you know just exactly how hard it is score runs? MLB “qualified” pitchers have an average (not a top 10 or the number one spot) of 81.0% LOB (left on base). 81% of men on base DO NOT SCORE! This leads to a couple of specific reactions.
The first is that base on ball rates are up. The average BB% is 6.7% or 2.41 per nine innings. A starting pitcher is less concerned about the base on balls because 81% of them don’t score; thus, it is more important to throw quality pitches to each hitter getting them to make outs. Quality pitches lead to the 2nd reaction. The average MLB fastball today is 93.2 mph! It will always be the most difficult pitch to hit thus pitchers throw it the most. The BIG SECRET of fastballs. They are not straight pitches. In fact, they move dramatically. Here are interesting stats about pitches and their movement. In 2020, there have already been 74 pitches thrown at 98+ mph with 0 to 1.5 feet of Hmov (Horizontal Movement). Yep, 98+, and up to 18inches of horizontal movement. These are not sliders or cutters, they are fastballs! Even with this about the fastball, the most effective pitch is a slider. It is being thrown with more spin and harder than it has been ever thrown thus creating more movement that breaks much sharper and later nearer to the batter. When a pitcher throws a ball in the strike zone and the batter swings and misses, there is a stat for that. It is called SwStr% (swing strike percent). The average for an MLB pitcher is 11.8% of pitches will be swung at and missed IN THE STRIKE ZONE! In the year 2009 (10 years ago) the SwSTR% avg was 9.1%. Much more contact was being made (that is because the ball wasn’t thrown as hard nor did it move nearly a foot and a half).
We spoke about LOB% being 81%. How does it get so high? There are measurables for key areas. First, let’s look at less than 2 outs and a runner on 3rd base success. Success is graded as that runner scoring. There are less than 2 outs so obviously a hit will score the run but some things as simple as a flyball to the outfield, a groundball not hit at a corner infielder, or a wild pitch will also do the job. I would expect this to be a decently sized number here. The fact is that only 46.6% of those runners are brought into score! What about when a runner is on 2nd base with 0 outs. Success, in this case, is considered moving the runner to 3rd base. The success rate is 47%. So, moving runner happens 47% of the time, then only scoring that runner happens 46% of the time. The pitchers are smart using the hitter’s aggressive nature to get him to make weak contact or no contact. MLB teams are batting on average .216! This is the lowest ever unless going back to the pre-World War era (dead ball). Teams are striking out 23.5% percent of the time! That is their average (in 2009, the average was 18%). There is a team with 30+% strikeouts (DET). There are 35 players that have 30 K% or higher and 5 players 40% or above!
Maybe this is an anomaly due to the wildness of the season. Maybe this is the pitchers taking over the game. Maybe this is the hitter and his launch angle approach. Whatever it is, the pitchers in 2020 are the best they have ever been with the nastiest stuff they have ever had. Stuff plays too. It carries from city to city and from year to year in most cases. MLB is cyclical so at some moment in the cycle, there will an adjustment by the hitters to get more competitive. The ball in play is what draws the most fans. It will take youthful talented hitters who are disciplined and quick enough to turn on the pitches thrown at them. Keep your eye out for the ones emerging (Soto, Acuna, etc.). It will be these guys that next change the game. As you watch the remainder of this season, be in awe of those pitchers and when a hitter gets his, tip your cap.