In the original Jurassic Park movie, there is a famous scene where a T-Rex is chasing after Dr. Ian Malcom and other driving a Jeep away from the predator. The T-Rex is closing fast, and as it thrusts itself forward baring its teeth and mouth wide open, the camera shows the rearview mirror with the ubiquitous phrase to grand comedic effect: “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”.
For years we have heard about the increase in defensive shifts, teams coming closer to a “one true outcome” finality (Walk/Home Run/Strikeout), and the decline of the two-strike approach. We see more players than ever hitting at least 20 home runs in a season last year, the all-time single-season record, and through it all, those of us who love baseball kept thinking that the game would adjust – it always has.
Babe Ruth broke the single-season home run record in 1919 when he hit 29 at age 24 – breaking the 35-year-old record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884. The next season he broke that record by 25 home runs. He broke that again the following year in 1921 by hitting 59 before waiting a few years to set his record at 60 in 1927. Of course, Roger Maris wouldn’t break that record until 1961 and that wouldn’t be broken until…well technically 1998 but sans PED’s has it?
The point is – we saw this increase in strikeouts coming but now – in 2018 – the epidemic has reached a fever pitch where we are on pace to have more strikeouts than hits. Bob Nightengale reports that we are on pace for nearly 42,000 strikeouts and only about 40,500 hits.
When Babe Ruth started hitting all of those home runs – it took a few years to slow him down – but then pitchers did and his record wasn’t broken for 34 years. Then Maris/Mantle adjusted. The game has constantly been a ying and yang of pitchers dominating for a spell before hitting and offense dominating. Adjustment to these changes doesn’t always come quickly – but those adjustments might be closer than we think.
Even in the PED era as team offenses rose with staggering quickness we also had the privilege of seeing some of baseballs best pitchers: Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens. So it was possible.
Now, where do we stand? By some standards, the pitchers are winning as their strikeout numbers are padded more and more. Chris Sale struck out more than 300 hitters last seasons (first time since Curt Schilling in 2002 the 300K plateau was surpassed) and this season certainly more pitchers are apt to turn in some dazzling numbers…IF they can avoid that other big change in baseball.
While pitchers are striking out more hitters – they are of course also allowing more home runs than ever before which can quickly negate a 10 strikeout performance if you walked three hitters who all scored on home runs.
Hitters don’t mind the strikeouts because they are getting those big home runs. That one true outcome concept I talked about? It is now happening 34% of the time in today’s game. No action whatsoever. The Arizona Diamondbacks are hitting just .227 as a team (lowest in MLB) but lead the National League West. They also only sit about middle of the pack in runs scored and home runs hit, suggesting it is their pitching (3rd in MLB in ERA) that is carrying them – and a tenuous advantage at that.
So what happens next? The hitters are fundamentally changing their swings to hit home runs – and except for examples like Chris Davis who just started missing altogether. This kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. Certainly, some hitters are barely affected by it all – Mike Trout and JD Martinez to name a couple. Mike Trout has a good chance to one day be seen as THE greatest of all time – again particularly in an era of specialization and increased velocity/spin rate that is helping drive those strikeouts. He isn’t getting cheated on hitting home runs either – second in MLB with 23 just behind the aforementioned Martinez at 25.
While some are crying doom and gloom for baseball – I don’t see the situation quite as dire. The game always adjusts. Like the famous words uttered by Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way”.
Baseball finds a way. When Babe Ruth started hitting the ball like crazy and that eventually spread to the rest of the league – pitchers eventually adjusted and we saw greats like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal rise up. Consider in 1919 there were a total of 447 home runs hit. 1928 would be the last year under 1,000 would be hit total barring a few war years.
General Manager Legend Theo Epstein has this quote about baseball:
“Baseball is a game based on adversity. It’s a game that going to test you repeatedly. It’s going to find your weaknesses and vulnerabilities and force you to adjust. That adversity, in the big picture, is a good thing because it shows you where your weaknesses are. It gives you the opportunity to improve.”
In my mind – that next “revolution” of hitters getting back to making contact has to come. Hitting the opposite way, choking up with two strikes. Or something else that analytics will help us discover. Analytics have led us here – and analytics will continue to drive the evolution of the game. Rather than complaining about where we are – can we acknowledge the beauty of this game that has changed so much without changing anything at all fundamentally in over 150 years? Same field, same basic rules, same equipment. What happens in between those chalk lines might look a little different from time to time but in the end, it continues to amaze us in new ways.
While some would tell you baseball is closer to an extinction course like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – I believe that we are about to see just another chapter in the great story of baseball. Like the T-Rex in the mirror, change might be closer than it appears.