What a season. … Albert Pujols has finished as many games on the mound as Blake Treinen. … Anthony Rendon has hit more home runs left-handed than Austin Meadows. … A team learned it was somehow possible to allow no hits but not throw a no-hitter. … And maybe weirdest of all, the whole sport hit like a guy who was converted into a pitcher!
Baseball in 2022: .237/.309/.382
We saw all of that happen in the first quarter of this MLB season. And if you didn’t have columns like this to come to the rescue, you might not know what to make of any of it. But hey, you’re welcome! So here’s what we’ve learned in the first 40 games, now that all 30 teams have made it that far.
1. Lockout hangover is a real thing
Remember that lockout? You know you do. It ended a mere 76 days ago. It just feels like 76 years ago. But we spoke with executives from five teams for this piece, and they’re all still feeling the reverberations of the shortened spring and the bizarre offseason. How? We’ll tell you how.
SOME PITCHERS STILL AREN’T ALL THE WAY BACK — We knew a three-week spring training wasn’t long enough for many pitchers. What we didn’t know was that real games, in April and May, weren’t the ideal platform for them to finish their buildup back to where they’d normally be.
“The lazy narrative,” said a National League exec, “was that three weeks into the season, it would be the equivalent of every other year for most of these guys. I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’ve seen more challenges to it than we were expecting. We’ve seen it in injuries, but also in guys having a tougher time rebounding from outing to outing.”
IS THIS RADAR GUN BROKEN? Here’s more evidence of those same issues, from an American League exec who spent April looking at weird velocity readings, from standouts like Shane Bieber, Robbie Ray and Zack Wheeler, and wondering: What’s up with that?
Early average velo (mph)
“You watch this stuff,” this exec said, “and there’s this fear or panic, like what’s going on? I think it’s clear now we’ve seen unusual velocity patterns, because different guys handled the lockout time differently and the spring training time differently. So it’s been really hard to know what to make of players early.”
INJURIES — All teams worry about health. That’s true in every spring, every season. But especially this year. And not only because the spring was so short, but also because teams spent three months wondering whether their players were working out or working on their pitching wedge. The funny thing is, the injury info we’ve seen so far is mostly just confusing.
According to Derek Rhoads, who monitors injury data for Baseball Prospectus, the total number of players landing on the injured list is down from last year, when baseball was coming off the shortened 2020 season — but the average time they’ve spent on the IL is up, indicating many injuries are deeper and/or more significant.
Non-COVID IL placements, first 47 days
|YEAR||PLACEMENTS||DAYS LOST||AVG. DAYS|
(SOURCE: Derek Rhoads, Baseball Prospectus)
Beyond that data, front offices are finding an uptick in the types of injuries that seem directly related to the short spring: quads, hamstrings, calves, obliques and assorted soft-tissue issues: “I think what we’re seeing,” said an AL exec, “is what happens when guys are just not fully built up.”
SO BEWARE OF THOSE FIRST 40 GAMES — Remember that old adage that you don’t jump to conclusions about your team until you’ve played 40 games? Front offices we spoke with say they’ve pushed that number upward this year. Guess why.
“We’re looking at trends in really small samples,” said one of the execs quoted earlier, “and trying to figure out which is the real version of our own players. How good are we? Plus, you also have a situation with the shortened spring that involved free agency and trades occurring at a rate that we’ve never really seen in spring.
“Usually, there’s one player every spring who signs late and has to rush to get ready for the season. This year there are dozens. There are so many players in new places who are still trying to adapt to their environment … that I think we have to make more allowances for people getting used to a new schedule, a new environment, a new hitting background, new coaching staffs and new routines. Those things really matter.”
2. Presto — we made the opposite-field homer disappear!
I still remember writing one of these What We’ve Learned columns around this time in 2019. Batting practice looked like the driving range at the Masters. Home runs were flying. And all anybody could talk about was the proliferation of opposite-field home runs that looked like outs off the bat — and then landed in somebody’s popcorn box, 10 rows up in the bleachers.
There were more than 700 of those opposite-field homers that year — the most in history, according to Baseball-Reference. And why do we mention that? Oh, maybe because we’re on pace this year to see that number almost cut in half.
(*-projected over full season)
Need any more proof that the 2022 baseballs are flying slightly differently than those 2019 rocketballs?
“We’ve done a ton of work on the humidor effect,” said one AL exec. “And one of the things we’ve looked at is the spin of batted balls, because the spin on the baseball has a big impact on how far it goes. … When you’re hitting a home run to the opposite field, it’s impossible to topspin it. You have to backspin it. And when you hit the ball with backspin, it has more humidor effect.”
Most teams expect the overall home-run rate, and the opposite-field home-run rate, to tick up as the weather heats up, based on what they’ve been told by MLB about the humidor effect. But let’s take a step back from that and ask a much more essential question:
Does it make sense to apply the humidor the way it’s been implemented this season if it means you have a sport in which baseballs travel differently on the West Coast than the East Coast, or in some climates than in others, or on some days versus other days? Imagine what we’d all be talking about if the NBA had a “basketball humidor” — and all the three-point shots on the East Coast kept clanking off the rim?
“We have to figure out how to adjust the humidor, based on different weather, and make it more adaptive,” said an NL exec. “We just need more consistency in the ball, month to month, season to season and ballpark to ballpark.”
3. Anybody have a humidor that could suppress the strikeout rate?
It’s not that hard to understand the concept behind trying to “normalize” the baseball. But does anyone have an invention lying around their basement that could also “normalize” the strikeout rate? Because if you want a sport with more action, that would actually accomplish something.
“We can keep talking about all these other ways to solve the (action) problem,” said one AL exec. “But I don’t really know that you’re solving that problem until you address the strikeout problem.”
The good news is, strikeouts have ticked down slightly this season — to 8.5 per nine innings (from 8.9 last season). The bad news is, strikeouts continue to be the One True Outcome that is devouring action. Nearly one in every four plate appearances in a major-league game ends in a strikeout. As recently as 2007, it was closer to one in every six.
And here’s why that’s a bigger problem now than ever before: As home runs plummet, it means the rate of strikeouts to home runs is suddenly way out of whack.
At this pace, we’re going to see approximately 36,000 more strikeouts than homers this season — the largest difference ever. And “is that good for our game?” one exec wondered. “I don’t think so.”
“But here’s the question no one can answer,” said another exec. “If we want less home runs, we know how we can do that. But if we want less strikeouts, what’s the answer to that?”
4. The heck with limiting where infielders can stand. How about where outfielders can stand?
All right, do you mind if we drive down this road for one more exit? Thank you. Because we can’t help but mention that if baseball doesn’t take some sort of action, the extra-base hit could become practically as extinct as the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Doubles — Approaching their lowest rate (1.58 per game) in 30 years.
Triples — Tied for their lowest rate ever (0.13 per game).
What that means — Let’s say this keeps up. If we project those rates of doubles and triples over a full season and compare it to 15 years ago, we’d see 1,500 fewer doubles and 300 fewer triples than we did as recently as 2007 — which would give us the lowest gapper rate (doubles plus triples) in nearly half a century.
“There’s no doubles. There’s no triples,” said an AL exec. “We’ve got bigger, stronger, faster athletes who cover more ground. We’re seeing more sophisticated defensive positioning on top of it. We’re seeing less homers, so that’s less of the Three True Outcomes. But we’re not seeing more runs. We’re just seeing a lot more outs.”
Yes, the theory behind a deadened baseball might be: Fewer homers = more gappers = more action. But that is not how it’s worked out, because outfielders are now positioned so deep that most of those fly balls that used to leave the premises have turned into outs, not doubles. And that was the whole idea.
So as baseball ponders limiting infield shifts, is it also time to think about limiting where outfielders hang out? Correct answer: Obviously!
And how do we know that? Because the sport has already started testing out that very premise.
We’ve seen it just in the last few weeks, in extended spring training, with an informal experiment in requiring outfielders to position themselves from 10 to 25 feet more shallow than in the big leagues. By all accounts, it produced enough doubles and triples that you shouldn’t be surprised if you see this idea tested more extensively in the near future.
But would big-league front offices rebel against limits on both infield and outfield positioning? Don’t bet your Andruw Jones bobblehead on it. The growing sense we get is that modern front offices are increasingly resigned to the idea that these changes are inevitable, so it makes more sense to adapt than resist — as long as it makes the game better in a meaningful way.
“In general,” said one exec, “I’m for allowing teams to do whatever they want to do. But I also know that front offices across the game know we’re just going to lose that argument. That is a commissioner’s office/
5. It’s never been harder to be a rookie
Everyone loves a good top prospects list. Just be prepared to cover your eyes when you look at the numbers next to the names on those lists, because this just in: These guys are not in the Pacific Coast League anymore.
We present the names of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects who have made their big-league debuts this season, plus a few other assorted top prospect names. We left out players who have only a handful of at-bats. These were the real-life stats of everyone else in The Show through Wednesday.
Good thing there’s Jeremy Peña (who didn’t make Law’s top 100)! So what should we make of all that? Baseball is hard. That’s what.
“It takes time,” said one longtime NL exec. “It still takes the same amount of time to figure it out. I don’t give a damn what round they were drafted in or how much money you gave them. Just because you pay them more don’t mean the apple is going to turn red any quicker.”
But this isn’t only about how much time it takes. When you add in the lost development season of 2020, the relative inexperience of most top prospects and all the information opposing teams already have accumulated on every young player who arrives, “the layer of separation between the big leagues and Triple A is just enormous right now,” said an AL exec.
“The pitching in the big leagues is so much better,” said another exec. “The defense is so much better. And the info teams are using is crushing it. I’ll give you an example. Say Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in Kansas City and the Royals roll into Chicago. He’s never dealt with the four people who have spent hours and hours breaking down every one of his at-bats, and see everything he’s susceptible to, and have spent hours on a game plan just on how to get Bobby Witt out. None of these kids have ever seen anything like that in Omaha. I’ll tell you that.”
The best of these prospects will figure it out. Rodríguez has hit .315/.351/.522 this month. Witt has a .956 OPS over the last two weeks. Greene took a no-hitter into the eighth two starts ago.
“But they’re the unique ones,” said one exec. “They are the very clearly the exception to the rule right now.”
After the Mariners sent Jarred Kelenic (hitting .140/.219/.291 at the time) back to the minors earlier this month, their assistant GM, Justin Hollander, used an old Bill James term — the “transition tax” — to describe to reporters how long it takes nowadays for even the best prospects to adjust to life in the big leagues.
“And I think that transition tax,” he said, “is as high as it’s ever been right now.”
6. Uh-oh. Is that a Subway Series ahead?
Is it time to stock up on subway tokens and figure out where that No. 7 train stops? It just might be, because we’re about to witness something seen only once before:
Of course, the only other year that happened, 1988, it turned out that neither of them made the World Series — and the Yankees actually wound up in fifth place in the seven-team AL East. But are both teams capable of a deep run this October? Why wouldn’t they be?
They have two of the top five run differentials in the sport. The Yankees are off to their best start since 1998. The Mets hold their biggest May lead in franchise history.
Yankees hitters lead the league in hard-hit percentage, average exit velocity and home run percentage. Mets hitters rank top two in the NL in average, on-base percentage, OPS+ and contact rate.
Yankees pitchers rank top two in the AL in strikeout rate, opponent OPS and FIP. Mets pitchers rank top two in the NL in WHIP, strikeout rate and strikeout/walk ratio.
So these are two teams full of star power, dollars and many of the right ingredients. On the other hand, we heard all these concerns from the surveyed execs — first on the Mets:
“I’d be more confident with Scherzer and deGrom.” … “They obviously need Max back. Their whole playoff dynamic depends on Max Scherzer starting Game 1.” … “The second half will be interesting because they’re one of the oldest teams I can ever remember.”
And as for the Yankees concerns: “They definitely need to patch up their bullpen and upgrade center field.” … “Can they sustain a starting pitching injury? And can Nestor Cortes keep doing what he’s doing when he’s never thrown 120 innings in a season?” … “They need some injury luck on the mound — and, probably, to add somebody that’s a difference-maker in the rotation at the deadline. But I don’t know if there are enough of those to go around.”
So are we sure that adds up to a Subway Series? “They’re both headed for the playoffs, and that’s good for baseball,” said one AL exec. “But we know how unpredictable the playoffs are. So they’ll get there. Then we’ll see what happens.”
7. Coming to October: It’s a Trout/Ohtani sighting!
The Angels are a playoff team. Oh, it’s true that we can’t officially ignore those last 116 games they still have to play. But we can see the October future, and the Angels are a part of it.
Baseball Prospectus projects them as a playoff team. FanGraphs projects them as a playoff team. Baseball-Reference projects them as a playoff team. So what could possibly go wrong, especially in an American League overstuffed with clear non-contenders?
All right, so the execs we surveyed had some thoughts on that. They see real depth questions beyond this team’s stars. We heard concerns about Taylor Ward’s unsustainable .425 batting average on balls in play, and about Noah Syndergaard’s worrisome plunge in strikeout rate (6.9 per nine innings) and velocity (from 98 mph to 94 mph). There were also concerns about Patrick Sandoval’s staying power and about bullpen depth.
Still, it feels like their time. Time for Mike Trout to finally win a playoff series. Time for Ohtani to work his magic on the October stage. Time for what, potentially, could be a must-see attraction for the sport.
“What they do at the deadline, I think, will determine how far they go,” said one rival exec, “because they’re going to have to almost create a second layer of starting pitching to get through the season. … But they obviously are really talented. There’s a reason that everybody wants to believe that this is the year of the Angels.”
Dodgers are a historic behemoth
The largest run differential in baseball history is 401, by Joe DiMaggio’s 1939 Yankees. So why would that come up in a column we’re typing 83 years later?
Possibly because the Dodgers are on pace for a plus-420 run differential. And even though they’re “only” at 114 now, with 118 games to play, there’s no reason 420 is out of the question. Seriously.
This might be the best, most complete Dodgers team in their ridiculous run of 10-year excellence. And that’s quite a pronouncement. Regardless of how close the Padres may lurk in the standings, this is the most dominant team in the NL by any measure.
Offense — They rank first in the NL in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, hard-hit percentage, percentage of base runners scored, extra-base-hit percentage, strikeout/walk ratio and, well, you get the picture.
Pitching — They rank first in the NL in ERA, starters’ ERA, bullpen ERA, lowest opponent hard-hit rate, lowest opponent OPS and ERA+ (where they’re currently sitting at an unreal 156, which would blow away the franchise record).
Fielding — They rank No. 1 in the NL in Defensive Efficiency. They have plus defenders, according to Sports Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric, at seven positions. And they’re tied for the NL lead in Sports Info Solutions’ Good Fielding Plays Above Average.
Now here is what’s really terrifying. They’ve done all that in a season in which Tony Gonsolin has been their best starter, in which Max Muncy and Justin Turner have combined for a 71 OPS+, and in which Cody Bellinger has a sub-.300 OBP and 17 more strikeouts than hits. None of which you probably would have projected.
But they make it work because they have star players all over the diamond. (“Name me a better 1-2-3 in anybody’s lineup than Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Trea Turner,” said one NL exec.) And they regularly show that they’re way more than the sum of their star power.
“They’re so good at building star-level talent, and then surrounding those players with pieces that make sense,” said another exec. “And that encapsulates what I think all of us aspire to do in terms of building a complete team. When you catch the ball, when you throw strikes, when you dominate on the mound and you play offense like that, that’s impressive. Plus they have the kind of depth that, when somebody gets hurt, they just plug someone else in and they don’t really miss a beat. I know we’re only 40 games in, but that’s pretty special.”
Justin Verlander is the Nolan Ryan of the 21st century
We use the term “ageless” carefully, and for good reason: Because it turns out nobody is ageless – sadly, not even Betty White. But there’s a whole separate category of agelessness in baseball. And Justin Verlander has entered the discussion.
What he’s doing is something nobody has ever done. He had Tommy John surgery at age 37. Now he’s the AL Cy Young of the first quarter, at age 39. Eight starts. Seven runs allowed. Amazing.
According to the invaluable research of Tommy John surgery historian Joe Roegele, just two other starting pitchers in history are known to have had the procedure at age 37 or older. One was Bronson Arroyo. The other was Jamie Moyer — at 47! But only Verlander has come back from Tommy John surgery, at this advanced age, to be exactly what he was before: a dominator.
Nolan Ryan was a threat to no-hit you into his mid-40s. Verlander has plans to do the same. I asked an AL exec, whose path crossed his once upon a time, how long Verlander can pitch like this. He laughed.
“As long as he wants to,” the exec said. “At some point, Father Time will catch up to him because it catches up to everyone. So of course he’s not going to do this till he’s 50. But I guarantee you, nobody is working harder to be as good as Justin Verlander as Justin Verlander is. So he’s the last guy I’d ever bet against — to do anything.”
10. That ticking you hear is the pitch clock coming
It’s still the game without a clock. Um, for four more months anyway.
But when 2023 rolls around, that’ll change. Book it. There’s not much we can safely predict about 2023. But here are a few things: Aaron Judge will be tall (and well-compensated). Steve Cohen will have plenty of dollars in the checking account. And a pitch clock is coming to your nearest big-league ballpark.
We’re confident of that because hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear from somebody, raving about the impact the new 14-second pitch timer (18 or 19 seconds with runners on base) has had on life in the minor leagues.
Average game time: Down 28 minutes since last year (from 3 hours, 3 minutes to 2:35).
Strikeouts and walks: Both have declined since the minor leagues began enforcing the pitch clock about five weeks ago. (Strikeout rate: from 27.1 percent to 25.3% percent; Walk rate: from 11.4 percent to 10.6 percent.) In other words … less dead time, more action.
“We love the pitch clock,” said one AL exec. “The game is much better with the pitch clock. I cannot see a future that does not have a pitch clock in the big leagues.”
We have heard a few complaints from people in player development. Their hitters feel rushed, they’ve said, and they’re struggling because of it. It’s a reminder that, contrary to popular wisdom, these clocks actually affect hitters more than pitchers. But the response, even from big-league front offices, is practically unanimous: Better get used to it, because the clock isn’t going away.
There is still a major question hovering, though. It’s hard to envision big-league players signing off on a 14-second pitch clock. So what is the right number, at that level? The early consensus is 20 seconds with nobody on, 25 to 30 seconds with runners on base. But one exec balked at the idea that a big-league clock needs to be increased by that much.
“Honestly,” he said, “we need to get as close to that minor-league clock as possible, because everything we’re trying to do with pace of game, this clock is achieving that. If we can get as close as possible (to 14 seconds), it’ll be just like every other change. Everybody complains. Then they get used to it.”
“The two best things we could do,” said another exec, “is get rid of the three-batter rule and bring on the pitch clock. I love it. And I’m pretty sure the people who televise baseball will love it — because when you turn on your TV and it says, the Cubs are on at 7 and ‘SportsCenter’ is on at 10, guess what? ‘SportsCenter’ will actually start at 10.”
(Top photo of Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts: Chris Coduto / Getty Images)