The MLB “Special K” Problem

“The problem with calling my shot is not arrogance, but it is bad role modeling. By 2015, they are all going to think they can do it just because I once did!” ~ Babe Ruth.

Yesterday at The Pecan Park Eagle, reader/professional data analyst Andy Biles made his case with some easy to see data support that “Plain and simple – too many strike-outs” had killed the 2015 Astros’ chances for an AL pennant.

As a comment on the same column, long-time respected baseball media broadcaster and author Greg Lucas added an expansion thought about the “K” as a general problem for baseball today:

“Strikeouts are a problem everywhere, but the Astros have been the poster children over the last three years. More pitchers than anytime in the history of the game are throwing FBs at 95 mph or more so it is natural that more are K’ing. However, the object still has to be to cut down on the totals and have smarter at bats. No ball in play guarantee no hits. Balls in play give the offense a chance. Lots of walks and higher OB% are only helpful if someone can make contact, get a hit and drive them in. Waiting for bases loaded walks to score won’t win any pennants.” – Greg Lucas.

From there, it is both easy and obvious – and the case makes itself – that all of the defensive shifting we see in MLB today is nothing less than a direct response to the growing numbers of players who come to bat to pull the ball out of the park or sit down, with small chance of hitting the ball at all – let alone hitting it to the opposite field. They are trying to be Ted Williams when they are not even close to being the “Splendid Splinter”. In irony, these go-for-broke “hit or sit would be bombers” are more likely to be picking up a not so splendid, but much more painful splinter from the benches that support most of their “hit or sit” efforts.

Greg Lucas makes a good point about how much the growing presence of pitchers who throw 95 mph, or better, also buries the hopes of most wannabe sluggers. Add to that thought the fact that many of these new fireballers also now possess the ability to throw gradiently slower change ups that make the challenge of timing the fastball even tougher – especially when this new tougher breed of bigger, stronger pitchers also has one of those fade away sliders or curves that land in the low outside dirt like an irresistible carrot – and result is – there’s far more sitting than hitting.

Some of us are getting tired of 2-1 final scores that often are simply the result of three home runs in which those long balls were part of of 5-hit game in which the other two hits were accidental boomer-swing infield singles – while both teams struck out in double digit totals.

What should baseball do, if anything? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. I’d still like to see MLB leaders seminar or bejabber the snot out of this subject this off-season, and especially before Minute Maid Park brings that center field fence in about 30 feet and completes the shift of our very unique site into a total home run band box and an even stronger invitation to play “hit or sit” ball.

The argument has been expressed that studies have shown bringing the fences in at MMP will not result in a significant increase in homers to center, based upon some study of many current fly balls that were either caught or fell in as extra base hits under current conditions. The flaw in that reassurance is that these studies were of hitters who were mostly trying to avoid hitting fly balls to a foreboding 436 feet away fence. Once the distance is 400-405 feet, and the from the heels guys of 2017 see it, just watch and count the increase in balls hit to dead center that will make it over the new shorter fence. Our money is on a dramatic increase in center field homers – and another reenforcer to the thought – “Just go up there and knock it out of here. If we get enough people going yard, we won’t need any base runners.”

Making a baseball field smaller only encourages “swing-from-the-heels” baseball. Hitters need to see the possibility of a triple somewhere – or else – they may as well join the crowd of trying to reach all of the now very reachable fences.

So, what is a good option?

I’m a great fan of looking for the best adaptability answers first. Hitters who learn to take advantage of those open fields that the new shifts leave could do things: (1) They would break up the “shift” on all hitters who demonstrate the ability to hurt that extreme one side defense: and (2) Such an adaptation could help batters remember that singles or doubles down the opposite field line also count as hits – and they help bring back that rarer commodity known as “the base-runner” to the game.

The other choices all have to do with changing the height of the pitching mound or the distance of the pitching rubber from home plate. In these regards, I am totally opposed to any change that alters the basic comparative conditions that have been almost sacredly protected over time.

The home run would not disappear if we built some parks that were at least 330 feet down the line and allowed dead center to be 415 feet, but I also am not a fan of cookie cutter dimensioning answers either. Our ballpark variability on fence distances are a big part of our game’s uniqueness. I’m cool with Houston’s 315 feet left field Crawford Boxes, but only because of the deeper dimensions that now exist from left to right center.

Finally, maybe it doesn’t need to be a movement. All it takes is for a few smart players, or one team with enough of those guys in roster stock, to see being the first to acting on the vulnerability to the current trend puts you or your club at the head of the class – and starting with learning to hit to the opposite field is the obvious place to start.

The home run isn’t going to disappear with the returned of table-setting base runners. Television would never allow that to happen. Homers are TV’s signature moment. They simply are not the whole game of baseball that makes the diamond drama the closest athletic brother to the game of chess.


6 Responses to “The MLB “Special K” Problem”

  1. Rick B. Says:

    I think the core of the issue is our “highlight-reel” culture. Every player wants to hit the mammoth, game-winning homer (a game-winning sacrifice fly is so unsexy).

    Basketball suffers from a parallel affliction. Players want to make the monster dunk or shoot nothing but three-pointers. The result has been that games in which both teams score in the 80s have become commonplace because few players are good shooters anymore.

    The place where the “highlight-reel” mentality begins is, understandably, in youth sports. It’s perfectly natural for kids to dream about being a hero, but sound fundamentals are what should be taught and encouraged. From my observation, that’s rarely being done and, as with anything, the longer bad habits are continued,the harder it becomes to break them. One result of that is the modern ballplayer who strikes out more often in one season than many old-timers did over lengthy careers.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Amen from another choir member, Rick!

      Curt Walker, a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, and a great friend of my dad’s during their Beeville Texas lifetimes, was a big leaguer for 12 seasons (1919-1920), batting .304 career, Curt Walker struck out 254 times in 5,575 career plate appearances.

      In six seasons (2010-2015), Chris Carter of the A’s and Astros has struck out 669 times in 2,001 plate appearances, while also batting .217 for his still active career.

      Carter did have Walker snookered on career homers, we should add. The score, so far, is: Chris Carter 109 – Curt Walker 64. *

      * Curt Walker won’t be adding any HR to his total. He’s been dead for nearly 60 years.

    • shinerbock80 Says:

      I know this is a baseball discussion, and I have long been an advocate for the “old-fashioned” batting average being a very important and senior-abused stat. It’s for all the reasons that Greg and Bill outlined, and I’m certain Andy, too. Strikeouts kill you. But bear with me. I’m coming back around.

      I did want to dispute the statement that NBA “scores in the 80s are commonplace”. The NBA points per team average is and has been between 98 and 107 almost every year since 1954. The low point was 1995 and years around then when the dismally bad isolation game was in vogue, and points per team average dropped as low as 91.7. The lesson for baseball there is that when teams like Phoenix and Golden State began running a higher paced offense, other teams followed. it was more exciting for fans. Rick is right about the highlight reel mentality being one of the culprits, but history in baseball shows that it goes back to the days of Ruth, as Bill suggested at the outset, not merely the days of Sports Center. One aspect he mentions is Interesting to check, however. When the 3-point shot came to be in 1979-80, scoring stayed statistically the same.

      The better cautionary tale for baseball, perhaps, is men’s tennis. I never was much of a tennis fan anyway, but at least in the days of McEnroe, Connors, Borg and even Agassi, there was usually interesting volleying after the serve. My perception, and many other people’s, is that serves got so fast that a majority of points became aces. Boring!

      So my follow up question, and perhaps another column’s worth of discussion, is do the majority of fan’s find the high-risk, high-reward home run fueled offenses to be boring? Because that’s what really will bring change since it potentially costs money. I think though most of us will complain about it, we’re solid enough baseball fans that we’ll keep paying attention regardless.

      • Rick B. Says:

        I don’t want to get into a fruitless argument here, but in regard to the NBA, with the exception of a few teams, it’s nowhere near as interesting as in its 1980s heyday. Scoring average means little – if a team scores 80 points twice and then goes off for 110, they average 90 points per game (but obviously two of those games were clunkers).

        As for our preferred sport (here) of baseball, I believe you’re correct in saying we’ll continue to watch. There are too few purists who love every aspect of the game – the home run rules with the casual fan. Indeed, that does go back to Babe Ruth, whom we credit with saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal. And how did he do that? With the homerun, of course.

        What was the steroid era all about? Homeruns, and people loved McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds (well, maybe not Bonds) until they had to face facts about how guys were hitting all those homers. While PED use has been curtailed, the effect of the homerun mentality remains.

  2. gregclucas Says:

    Impossible to equalize different eras, but consider BabeRuth never struck out as many as 100 times in a single season. Oh yes, he also had a lifetime .342 batting average to go with those 714 home runs. Now players are easily capable of striking out over 200 times and hitting .242. AND THEY STILL PLAY regularly!

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Although we cannot truly compare two players to each other who achieved their stats in different eras, it is fun to speculate how those separate achievements most probably would have affected each man, had they racked them up in an exchange of eras with the other.

      Had Curt Walker hit .304 for 12 years from 1999 to 2010, and only struck out 254 times, he might be about 3 to 5 years short on time from getting some Cooperstown votes next spring. (.304 was good, but not great for the 1920s, and Walker was still more of a dead ball era hitter in the first big decade of Ruth & Co.

      If Chris Carter had begun his 6-year career in 1920, and done what he did in his own era zone, he may not have even made it to 1925 with an MLB club. Juxtapose his 212 “K”s from 2013 to 1923, and that might have been the end of his line. If not, his 155 “K”s and .199 BA for “1925” (2025), even with his 24 HR might have been the door to his minor league career.

      Unrelated, but a possibly connected thought: The infield practices we used to see prior to games into the early 1960s may have simply disappeared with the advent of the modern power-hitting era. Do we have any data on fewer base runners and fewer infield plays ocer the past half century being linked to the growth of the K/HR numbers in the modern era? And were these the factors that caused the elimination of infield practices prior to games?

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