BY KEVIN KERNAN
Everything is set up for the hitter to succeed in the New Rules MLB.
The infield shift is banned, so there is so much more green space for a hitter. Don’t underestimate the fact that infielders can’t plant themselves on the grass anymore, that creates more space too – and better hitting angles to get a ball past the infield.
In addition, pitchers are learning to deal with the Pitch Clock and it appears some are tiring faster in games because of less rest and gather time between pitches and innings.
Base stealers have been enabled to such a degree that it is almost impossible to get thrown out “stealing’’ a base anymore. The bases are bigger too, so the length between the bases is no longer 90 feet.
This version of the Rob Manfred baseball flies too. The bats are the best they have ever been in the business. And, of course, there is the DH in both leagues and Fake Runners in extra innings, the banning of foreign sticky stuff, all to spark the offense and help the hitter.
Yet, a funny thing has happened on the way to home plate.
You still have to find a way to put the ball in play.
Maybe the next step for Manfred is to get his main minion Morgan Sword to establish a batting tee rule where hitters can have one swing a game off the batting tee.
Heading into Saturday, 600 games have been played in 2023, a little bit more than a small sample size. In those 600 games, hitters, despite having so much wide-open space again to shoot at, despite all the other advantages, have struck out more this season per game than last year.
Yes, you read that right here at The Story. Hitters are striking out more than ever. They are still in launch and lift mode.
Amazing. They keep telling you about the higher batting average of balls put in play this year, you know BABIP, but they don’t tell you about this.
Hitters are striking out more than ever.
Instinctively, you already knew, especially if you have watched the Giants play. Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco Warriors struck out 12 times in a 7-0 loss to the Mets Friday night. And the Mets started a pitcher, Joey Lucchesi, with the left-hander appearing in a Major League game for the first time in nearly two years. No problem. He threw seven shutout innings and struck out nine feeble Giants.
Welcome to 2023 where hitters can’t make contact. The Giants did bounce back Saturday for a 7-4 win against the struggling David Peterson to move to 7-13, yet they did strike out another 11 times.
In the first 20 games of the season, they have as many losses as coaches.
Here are the hard MLB strikeout numbers, directly from the wonderful people at Elias Sports Bureau who have helped me and so many other writers through the years with their research.
Notice the strikeouts per team, per-game over the last three seasons, entering play on Saturday.
In 2023 there have been 5,207 strikeouts, 8.68 per-team, per-game.
In 2022 there were 40,812 strikeouts, 8.40 per-team, per-game.
In 2021 there were 42,145 strikeouts, 8.67 per-team, per-game.
Startling numbers. That is where MLB is at right this second.
Joey Lucchesi #47 of the New York Mets pitches against the San Francisco Giants in the fourth inning at Oracle Park on April 21, 2023 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Hitters managed to hit .243 last year and with all the Three Great New Rules help aren’t doing much better, batting .245 this season.
Don’t buy the hype PR commercials, it continues to be a K Party in MLB.
There are lots of reasons for Whiff Ball but certainly the over-use of analytics may be part of the problem, according to baseball people I have spoken with and respect. Isn’t that something.
It’s not just the Giants, of course, who lead all of baseball with 205 strikeouts, heading into Saturday. The NL West Dodgers (202) and Padres (196) are right behind them, along with the Phillies (202), who made it to the World Series last year, but have been hammered by injuries, and at least have the highest batting average in baseball at .279.
The Padres lost 9-0 to the Diamondbacks with 13 Ks Friday night. The Dodgers lost 13-0 to the Cubs with another 13 Ks. The Giants were thumped, 7-0 with those 12 Ks. So combined, the Giants, Padres and Dodgers managed to lose by the score of 29-0 with a stunning 38 Ks on Friday night.
My friend, former Padre and renowned bubble blower Kurt Bevacqua just happened to call me Saturday about all the Ks in MLB … when I had already started the research and checking in with Elias about all the Ks in MLB.
“I’m not used to seeing Juan Soto taking a called fastball third strike,’’ Bevacqua said. “What’s up with that? That is just flat-out guessing wrong, that’s all there is to it.’’
Bevacqua is correct. This is guessing gone wild.
That’s where analytics come into play, the overuse of analytics.
A big part of hitting used to be “see the ball, hit the ball.’’ I still can hear Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn saying that over and over and over again. That’s not the case anymore for a lot of hitters.
A big part of hitting now is “see the iPad, guess the next pitch.’’
Know and respect the situation, hitters.
It’s amazing how many hitters are striking out looking now, especially in RBI situations, getting caught looking at a third strike that is not a borderline strike, but a strike that is in the hitting zone. Watch any game and you find yourself saying, what the heck is he doing there?
“That pitch was right down the middle and he never got his bat off his shoulder.’’
Here is what he is doing. Information overload, people. Amazing this is all happening despite the 13-, 14- and 15-person coaching staffs.
Before I spoke to Bevacqua, I asked one of the top talent evaluators in the game, “What’s going on?” This man has been either been participating or watching games for 40 years. Here is what he had to say and Gen Z, pay attention, you may learn something.
“You don’t change the game with legislation, you change the game by teaching guys to play the right way,’’ the evaluator told me. “Go up to plate as a hitter looking for a good pitch to hit. Not going through 12 pages of analytic data. As a pitcher you are attacking the hitters’ weaknesses. You are getting ahead and throwing strikes. The cat and mouse works pitch to pitch. The chess game goes pitch to pitch. You do this. I do that.’’
The more analytics there are, the less practical coaching there is even if you have a small army of coaches on staff.
“Guys were taught to see the ball, hit it,’’ he added. “You were taught pitch recognition, you were taught strike zone recognition. You were taught to look for a ball in a certain area. Now they have so much data they are looking for certain pitches as opposed to just seeing the ball.
“Fastball right down the middle called strike three and you say, ‘What the bleep were you looking for?’’
Hitters are caught with their sequencing down.
Michael Harris II #23 of the Atlanta Braves and Vaughn Grissom #18 of the Atlanta Braves look at an iPad together in the dugout during the second inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Truist Park on September 16, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images)
But it is more than just fastballs down the middle left unharmed.
“Or there is the hanging breaking ball that the guy takes because he wasn’t looking for a breaking ball that pitch.’’
You see it often.
That is such a strong point that is lost on the Sea of Nerds.
You will often hear announcers say, “that breaking ball backed up there on the hitter”. What they are really saying is that the hitter couldn’t pull the trigger on a cement mixer like Mike Schmidt used to pull the trigger on hanging sliders.
“Mike Schmidt hit 300 home runs in his career off hanging breaking balls,’’ the evaluator said.
More rules, more analytics equals less baseball.
Morgan Sword, who loves to say they are trying to make this game look more like the 1960s game, doesn’t have a clue what the game looked like in the ‘60s.
For example, I looked at some numbers for Young Morgan and his ilk.
In 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, there were 5.9 strikeouts per-team per-game. Those hitters put the ball in play and found the holes on the field in the pre-shift days. The next season, when the mound was lowered and so was the level of play with four expansion teams added to MLB, there were 7.5 strikeouts per-team, per-game and the batting average was .248. The Red Sox led all teams in home runs with 197 but struck out only 5.7 times per game.
That generation of players put the ball in play. They were rewarded for putting the ball in play. This all became fashionable when strikeouts didn’t matter to the people now running the game.
You know who else was rewarded for putting the ball in play?
The fans were rewarded by watching more action in the game – and this was before the DH – so you still had a ton of pitchers striking out. But the pitchers also knew how to bunt and put the ball in play.
Mike Schmidt (Getty Images)
The 1960s are ancient history, though.
Let’s go back to not too long ago in our baseball time machine, back to 1998, 25 years ago and this week I will begin reading Jack Curry’s new book: The 1998 Yankees, The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever.
I was there when the Yankees steamrolled the Padres in the World Series.
There were 6.5 strikeouts per-team, per-game in 1998. There was action in the game.
Right now with the Mets playing the Giants this weekend at Oracle Park, the Giants are dead last, averaging 10.79 Ks per game while the Mets were second best in MLB, averaging 7.05 per game. The last time the Giants won a World Series in 2014, Bruce Bochy’s Giants were middle of the pack, averaging 7.54 strikeouts per game.
It should be noted as well that many hitters seem to be having trouble finding their hitting rhythm in the PCE, Pitch Clock Era. Some of that is Pitch Clock, but the game always had umpires who would move the game along, “Get your ass in the box and let’s go,’’ so it’s not just the faster pace.
Timing was always hit and miss. Now though, this generation of hitter has got a lot in his head because of that information overload and the ridiculous concept that the hitter always has to put his “A’’ swing on a pitch – and subsequently swings from his heels trying to hit the ball .500 feet when a simple single will do.
In his post-game analysis former major leaguer Mark Sweeney made that exact point the other day after watching the Padres’ Trent Grisham take such a wild two-strike swing in an RBI situation that Grisham’s helmet flew off.
Know and respect the situation, hitters.
This is not your typical weekend tournament for travel ball teams. This is the Major Leagues. It could get worse, too. Young hitters are being rewarded for home runs to such a degree, they are losing the mechanics of the swing, they are not seeing the ball and hitting the ball.
They are in launch mode all the time, thinking power first. As one scout told me about young hitters, and this is a great tip for all young hitters: “Let the hitting come first and then let your power come. Have some patience. Cal Ripken Sr. used to tell Cal Jr. ‘Be a good hitter first, son.’ Your power comes when you become a man.’’
Just for fun, I went to the MiLB page to check out the Class A Clearwater-Tampa box score from Friday night. Each team struck out 11 times, 22 Ks, 15 hits, seven players were batting under .200, two were batting under .100.
Be a good hitter first, son.