Baseball’s gradual, momentous and almost imperceptible transformation — from a game of intense strategy, scrappy hitters, crafty pitchers and defensive wizardry to one in which the pitcher-vs.-batter matchup towers in importance over the combined mass of everything else — found its ultimate expression in the 12 trips to the plate made by Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo during a four-game series in Cleveland in late June.
In a performance that, depending upon one’s viewpoint, served as either a pinnacle or a nadir for the trend that has come to be known as “Three True Outcomes,” Gallo did the following in those 12 plate appearances: walk, home run, strikeout, walk, walk, strikeout, strikeout, walk, strikeout, walk, strikeout, strikeout.
None of those actions, you’ll note, required the services of a member of the Indians’ defense, save the pitcher and catcher. The Indians could have ordered the rest of their fielders to lie down in the grass or dirt for a brief snooze during Gallo’s at-bats without altering their outcomes, or that of the game.
This, folks, is how baseball is played in the year 2017.
Okay, perhaps Gallo is an extreme example — a hitter who has homered, struck out or walked in a staggering 59 percent of his plate appearances this season, and who had more homers (30) than singles (20) through Sunday. But as a symbol for what the modern game has turned into, he is pretty much perfect.
This season, through Sunday, major league hitters have homered, walked or struck out — results referred to as the “three true outcomes” because they are the purest distillation of pitcher vs. hitter, independent of defense — in 33.4 percent of overall plate appearances, the highest rate in history and a full percentage point ahead of last year. To flip the equation around: Never in history has the sport seen so few balls put in play.
The home run rate of 1.25 per team per game is the highest in history, as is the strikeout rate of 8.24; the former has risen for four straight seasons, the latter for 12. Meantime, the walk rate of 3.26 is the highest in eight years and has risen in four straight seasons.
The trend has brought the sport to something resembling an existential crisis: What do you do when a game has been mastered to such a degree — by pitchers who throw harder each year, hitters who have increasingly learned to wait for one drivable pitch and executives who have come to value those skills above all others — that its very nature has been altered, in ways that are not necessarily good?
Let’s start by asking Joey Gallo.
“The game has changed so much,” Gallo said recently. “It’s weird watching old games, because nobody had anyone like me. But obviously, I think it’s great for baseball, and good for me, because it plays into the player I’ve always been. It’s not just this year — I’ve always been this kind of player. But the way the league was before, there weren’t many players like me.”
More than ever, a baseball game is a mano-a-mano affair between pitchers who are inevitably throwing pure gas — particularly once the parade of high-octane relievers begins around the sixth inning of most games — and hitters willing to take as many pitches as they need to find the one they can drive out of the ballpark, and who don’t care if that results in a strikeout.
“The game has turned into a max-effort affair, on both sides,” said Baltimore Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo. “Everyone’s throwing as hard as they can, all the time, and at times it’s very effective.”
Perhaps nothing has altered the nature of baseball as much as velocity has. At its best, it is a measurable, tangible, glorious quantity, its double (or, increasingly, triple) digits posted on the scoreboard or in a corner of the television screen after each pitch. But as an agent for change, velocity also has a dark side, and you can trace almost all the game’s modern ills — from the epidemic of pitcher injuries to the slowing pace of game (more on that later) — to the game’s singular focus on throwing hard.
According to Fangraphs.com, the average speed of a major league fastball has jumped by 0.5 mph this season, to an all-time high of 92.8. In 2002, the first season for which data was available, the average fastball was just 89.0. It’s not so much that individual pitchers are throwing harder than before — it’s more a case of talent-evaluators weeding out pitchers who don’t light up radar guns. Other than an occasional sidearmer or a lefty with a deceptive delivery, it’s hard to think of any successful relievers who don’t throw at least 95 mph.
“You look around baseball, and every guy that comes out of the ’pen seems to be throwing 100 right now,” veteran reliever Peter Moylan of the Kansas City Royals said. “It’s insane. There used to be one or two guys in the game who could do that.”
The increased velocity has had a major impact on the dynamics of the pitcher-batter matchup. Baseball will almost certainly see a record for home runs set this season, in part because hitters, faced with extreme defensive shifts and armed with data such as launch angle and exit velocity, have begun taking aim at the bleachers as their sole plate strategy. But as with pitching and velocity, the trend may also be the result of a natural selection on the part of executives for hitters with that skill set, as they are better equipped to combat the extreme velocity.
“As we continue to see more relief arms coming in throwing 95 to 100 … the hitters have had to become better hitters,” Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “The only way you’re doing damage against some of these guys is to keep aiming for the fences, keep going for the home run. The pitching is so good, you just don’t see six consecutive singles anymore. Guys throw too hard and have too much nasty off-speed stuff, so that model — let’s string six hits together and only score three runs — might not be the most efficient, best way to play his game.
“And the hitters have correctly identified, ‘If we swing for the fences a little more often, we can actually score more runs. Instead of scoring three, we might score five that inning.’ That’s why they’re more willing to sell out for the home run, and they’re okay with their strikeouts. And as they’re okay with that, that just makes the power pitching you see today even more dominant.”
Increasing velocity is also at the heart of what many regard as the game’s biggest issue today, time of game — as well as its cousin, pace of play. (Time of game means the length, in hours and minutes, of a game, while pace of play generally refers to the time between pitches.) Higher velocity leads to pitchers and hitters alike requiring extra seconds to gear up for the heat that is on its way, which affects pace. But it also adds minutes to games because of the extra pitches involved, as hitters are increasingly bred to take pitches — both to draw walks and to find a pitch to drive. The resulting rise in strikeouts is a side effect everyone has learned to live with.
“One thing I’ve noticed changing over the course of my career is the way hitters approach a two-strike count,” said Orioles closer Zach Britton. “Even 0-2, they’re not protecting [the plate]. They’re still up there war-hacking. They really don’t care if they strike out.”
Despite some minor efforts to shorten games, they are, in fact, longer than ever — an average of 3 hours 5 minutes for a nine-inning game, up five minutes from 2016 and a full half-hour from 1982.
There are only two ways to reduce the time of game on the field — by limiting the time between each pitch, or reducing the number of pitches. Not surprisingly, Commissioner Rob Manfred has largely focused on the former, initiating talks with the players’ association, currently ongoing, about instituting a pitch clock to keep pitchers and hitters from stalling between pitches, and perhaps limiting mound visits.
As for the other half of the equation — the extra pitches and the resulting inaction — Manfred said, “Our research suggests that the home run is actually a popular play in baseball. I think that strikeouts — some fans actually like them, if they’re strikeouts by a pitcher. If Clayton Kershaw strikes out however many guys and goes nine innings, some fans like to see that. I think where it starts to get troubling from a fan perspective is tons and tons of strikeouts, no action [and] lots of pitching changes. That combination is troubling to me.”
Union chief Tony Clark, a major leaguer from 1989 to 2005, used the word “unfortunate” in acknowledging the shift in the way the game is played, but sounded a note of resignation about its seeming intractability.
“I think a lot of that change is the result of how the game has been taught and what [talent evaluators] are valuing along the way,” Clark said. “I think a lot of that is unfortunate. Having said that, fans like home runs, it seems. Fans like strikeouts, it seems, and we have a lot of both.”
Here’s the problem: this year, there have been 297 total pitches in an average game, an all-time high and 30 more pitches per game than there were in 1988, according to baseball-reference. At an average “pace” of 24.3 seconds between pitches, that’s an extra 12 minutes of game time. And unlike the pace problem, there doesn’t appear to be much that can be done to cut down the number of pitches.
“There’s no question that taking pitches adds to the length of a game,” said New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, formerly the executive vice president of MLB. “But at the same time, maybe we can figure out how to get more of those pitches put in play — not to mandate it, but to make it more attractive to the hitter somehow. You could expand the strike zone, but you have to be careful. Any time the strike zone changes, it’s a dynamic process … This may be just the [reality] of the game: there are 20 to 30 extra pitches [per game]. So let’s try to cut out the other dead time that doesn’t really contribute to the action.”
Is a game full of 100-mph strikeouts and 450-foot home runs — but one that requires more pitches and more minutes to play, and that produces fewer balls in play — necessarily a worse viewing experience than a 1970s-style game of 88-mph fastballs, quick at-bats and sacrifice bunts by light-hitting infielders? Some would say no.
“What does a kid going to a baseball game want to see?” Britton said. “He wants to see Aroldis Chapman pumping 105-mile-per-hour fastballs. He wants to see Chris Davis strike out three times and hit a bomb his fourth time up.”
Said Alderson: “We have to have more action in the game. We’ve got to have fewer walks and strikeouts. But I also disagree with the notion that a strikeout is not action. I do believe fans appreciate a strikeout. They understand what leads up to a strikeout, what leads up to a walk. It’s a little more nuanced, but it is a form of action itself. So I don’t bemoan the fact we have all these strikeouts.
“Is it perfect? Maybe not. But a routine grounder to second isn’t action either. Is that more exciting than a strikeout?”
And before we go making serious changes, with all their unintended consequences, to reverse a trend that may not be a real problem in the first place, let’s remember the cyclical nature of baseball, which over the decades has seen periods of pitching dominance interspersed with periods of offensive explosion. Just three years ago, in 2014, home runs were at a 20-year low and scoring was at its lowest since 1981. And then … something happened — a revolution, an imperceptible shift or, as some believe, a juiced ball. But maybe someday, the cycle will come back around.
That’s the message of Joey Gallo, our slugging, walking, striking-out symbol of the modern, three-true-outcomes brand of baseball.
“The game adapts,” Gallo said. “Home runs were down, and then they shot up. The game fixes itself somehow. I don’t think game will be like this for the next 40 years. It will change again, and you adapt to that, and then it will change again. That’s just the way sports works. It may not stay this way forever, but it’s a good thing for now.”