Part 1 explained the increasing home run and strikeout rates in Major League Baseball, and how sabermetrics and technology have influenced this change. This post will discuss solutions - both good and bad - and how Major League Baseball can implement them.
Games have become largely home runs or strikeouts, slowly eliminating so many of the elements even average baseball fans enjoy like diving plays in the hole, outfield assists, and stolen bases. As players adjust to meet the demand for home runs and strikeouts, the trend will only increase. Adjustments to the game have happened throughout the history of baseball and the league will need to explore options to help maintain the long term competitive health of baseball.
Simple Changes aren’t the Answer
Some simple rule changes have been suggested to combat rising home run and strikeout rates, but they will not successfully solve the problem. Let’s look at a couple of simple rule changes and explain why they won’t work.
One idea is to lower the height of the mound. Lowering the mound would give hitters an advantage as pitcher velocity would decrease. This was done in 1969 because offense was low across the league and the rule change was successful in increasing offensive production. Giving the hitters an advantage would decrease strikeouts but only add to the home run problem.
Another idea would be to decrease the flight of the ball. This has been discussed lately due to pitchers saying balls are “juiced” and that is the reason for increased home runs. The league has officially said the ball is not juiced but that the drag on the ball is lower for reasons they cannot identify.
Increasing drag or otherwise deadening the ball would cause balls to travel lower distances and therefore decrease home runs. This idea is more effective than changing the height of the mound, but it still doesn’t fix the problem. Hitting and preventing home runs will still be highly valuable, and hitters will continue to optimize their performance towards launch angle. The result will be the same game and strategy we have now, just with a lower home run rate and less scoring. Strikeouts will continue to rise and fans will be bored seeing warning track power fly balls instead of home runs.
Commonly proposed ideas only address the symptoms of baseball’s changing trends. In order for rules to effectively change baseball, the root cause of the problem must be identified before a solution can be created.
Identifying the Root Cause
We already know from Part 1 of this series that sabermetrics value home runs and strikeouts highly, but what about the rules of the game caused statisticians to value them that way?
Home runs are the most efficient way to score and therefore win. At least one run will score when a home run is hit, where multiple singles are needed to drive in a run. This efficiency means that a player who hits a lot of home runs is more valuable than another player even if their batting averages are equal.
Strikeout value is derived from their effectiveness preventing home runs. It is not the strikeout itself that is valuable, instead, it is the fact that not having the ball in play at all is the only way to ensure a hitter doesn’t hit a home run. Not giving up plays that are the most efficient way to score is a principle of defense in any sport, and that is reflected here.
It appears statisticians value home runs and strikeouts because they are the most efficient way to score and prevent scoring, respectively. Using this information we see that the way runs are scored is the root cause of the problem and adjusting scoring is the key to solving the problem.
If the scoring of baseball is adjusted to make home runs less valuable, then other baseball plays will increase in value, and organizations and players will adjust to these changes. A carefully chosen scoring system will keep the mechanisms of baseball the same and prevent home runs and strikeouts from taking over the game.
Changing Scoring to Devalue the Home Run
Now that we have identified the goal and a strategy to get there, we can dig into a rule changes that would be effective. The basic premise of the rule is that all offensive action is rewarded with scoring.
One way this could be applied is to give a fraction of a point for every base a player reaches safely. This would add significant scoring value to other forms of offense while keeping the scoring value of a home run the same. The result is an increase in the overall value of other offense, thus decreasing the extreme value a home run holds.
What a rule change like this does is ensure all skill sets hold value in the game. Not only would singles, doubles, and triples help a team score, so would stolen bases and advancing runners. Even the nearly extinct sacrifice bunt would be valuable for each runner it advances. By adding value to other types of offense, a high OBP player or someone who can steal bases could be equally as valuable to an organization as a 30+ home run hitter.
To demonstrate this rule change, let’s rescore a game from the 2019 season and use a constant value of 0.25 points per base. Let’s also add a rule that only full points earned are considered in the final score:
09/22/2019 - Seattle Mariners at Baltimore Orioles
Final Score: Mariners 1, Orioles 2
New Final Score: Mariners 4, Orioles 3
In this game the Mariners has significantly more offense (7 hits to 3) than the Orioles but lost the game using traditional scoring. Although the Orioles would have gotten to hit in the bottom of the ninth in this example, it shows how changing the value of each offensive play would put more emphasis on different parts of the game. Walks and errors are now much more detrimental to the defense. A two-strike approach that results in advancing a runner could now be a huge win for the offense where it is traditionally viewed as a wasted out. You could even end a game on a stolen base! A well rounded offensive attack and sound pitching and defense have always been foundations of winning teams, and this will only be emphasized using this type of rule.
This rule could be refined further by changing the fraction of a point scored for different offensive plays. Maybe it is determined a base hit should be worth more than a walk, and a walk worth more than grounding out to advance a runner. Major League Baseball could get the desired value for each offensive event just by rewarding teams for those plays.
This rule change is significant, and would change the strategy of baseball, shift our scale for good statistics, and quickly change how some player’s values are assessed. However, baseball has a history of embracing large rule changes to preserve the game and already has the infrastructure needed to test these rules before implementing them league wide.
Historical Rule Changes in Baseball
As the game of baseball has changed, the rules have been modified to maintain the fundamentals and protect competitiveness between teams. Three major rule changes in baseball have dramatically changed the strategy of winning and the skillset a player would need to be considered highly valuable:
Allowance of Overhand Pitching, 1884:
This rule made the pitcher a competitive participant in the game as opposed to someone who was there to toss the ball into play and allow the hitters and fielders to compete. After the change, hard and deceptive throwers became highly valuable, and hitters had to adjust their entire approach.
Start of the Live Ball Era, 1920:
This set of rule changes and upgraded ball materials caused a huge spike in offensive production, especially in the number of home runs hit. Power hitters emerged as a key component to a winning team and the value of power spiked.
Addition of the Designated Hitter, 1973:
The addition of the DH removed low performing pitchers from the offensive lineup and added a player whose only role was to hit. Now players who were highly skilled at the plate but a defensive liability had a role on a team.
These significant rule changes are now key parts of the game we see played today. Baseball without overhand pitching, the current ball, and a DH would be unrecognizable to today’s fans. Baseball will not be ruined by a significant change, if anything, it is part of its history.
Testing and Adjusting New Scoring Rules
In order for the proposed rule changes to effectively rebalance values in the league, they need to be carefully tested and refined. Although organizations would not change their development processes for a proposed rule, the effects on strategy by managers and players could be assessed by using the rule for an entire season.
The Atlantic League is a testing ground for new rule ideas just like this. This year they have tried radar tracking defined strike zones, a minimum number of batters a pitcher must face, and a rule allowing for the stealing of first base. All of these rules are significant changes and the league evaluates the effects they have in the Atlantic League before deciding about implementing them league wide.
Implementing scoring rule changes in the Atlantic League would be an ideal testing ground where point values could be continuously adjusted, added, and eliminated based until a desired outcome was achieved. Extensive modeling could also be performed to evaluate how the rules might change game outcomes. In just a couple of seasons, a set of rules could be outlined that would affect the game in a positive and predictable way.
Changing the home run and strikeout trends Major League Baseball would require extensive rule changes and small changes would not be effective in addressing the root cause of the problem. Adjusting the scoring system of baseball would devalue home runs and strikeouts by inflating the value of other offensive production.
Although these rule changes add complexity to the game and could result in strange endings to a game, it will encourage action in all areas of baseball. Players of all skill sets will be able to have value if they are truly efficient in their craft. Defense, base running, and battling in difficult counts will be reborn in professional baseball, bringing it back to its foundation.
Baseball has a history of changing its rules in the best interest of the game, and now it is time for another adjustment to save the game we all love.
As home runs hit record levels this season and strike out rates continue to climb, Major League Baseball has a problem that needs to be addressed. This post will examine the trends and explain how we got here.
The 2019 Home Run Derby was good entertainment. Seeing Vlad, Jr. crush his way through the preliminary rounds before ultimately losing to Pete Alonso in the finals was exciting - and baseball fans watched. However, a nightly schedule of home run derbies is not what baseball fans want to see. Although the game is still far more complex than a home run derby, the recent increases in home runs and strikeouts has the game headed in that direction.
A Closer Look at 10 Year Trends
Over the past 10 seasons, home runs have been on a steady rise. This has primarily been driven by a new approach to hitting which emphasizes launch angles. Players come to the plate with an all-or-none mindset, taking a swing intended to do maximum damage in all counts.
Hitters aren’t the only ones improving. Pitchers are throwing harder and smarter to combat hitters’ new approach. Better pitching combined with home run swings in all counts has lead to an increase in strikeouts.
How Sabermetrics and Technology Got Us Here
New sabermetrics that evaluate player performance and technology that allow players to fine-tune their swings and pitches to match those evaluations has led to a rapid evolution in baseball. Organizations no longer use simple statistics to evaluate players like slugging percentage, home runs, ERA, or strikeouts. The use of advanced sabermetrics have lead to a change in how teams value player talent and that is one reason why we see such a rapid increase in home run and strikeout rates. Let’s dig into a couple of well known sabermetrics and how they have changed the value of home runs and strikeouts:
wOBA - Weighted On Base Average:
Fangraphs’ definition of wOBA is “to measure a hitter’s overall offensive value, based on the relative values of each distinct offensive event.” As we look at the formula for calculating a player’s wOBA notice the 2.1x multiplier for home runs. This gives a player who hits home runs a higher wOBA and in turn, a higher value when teams assess them.
FIP - Fielder Independent Pitching:
Fangraphs says FIP is used “to assess a pitcher’s talent level by looking at results a pitcher can control directly: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs." Notice the 2x multiplier for strikeouts and 13x multiplier for home runs. A high value pitcher is effective at preventing home runs and striking batters out accomplishes that in the most efficient way.
The statistics have evolved to capture what player characteristics help a team win, and some of those characteristics are hitters who hit home runs and pitchers who don’t allow them by striking batters out. Teams have simply found players who maximize the scoring opportunities the rules of baseball present them.
This is the same trend we see in basketball. Efficient scoring is accomplished through 3-pointers and free throws, not mid-range jumpers. NBA teams have used sabermetrics of their own to adjust their strategies and find players like James Harden who are highly skilled in those areas.
Technology has also evolved, allowing players to adjust their performance to match the high value outputs MLB teams are looking for. Sabermetrics identified the valuable characteristics in a player, but technology has allowed players to adjust faster than ever.
Hitters can receive real time feedback on launch angles using devices like Trackman or Rapsodo. Training programs have been developed that uses this technology and specific drills to repattern a hitter’s swing in a way that optimizes launch angle. Players like JD Martinez, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Turner attribute their success to optimizing their swing to hit the ball in the air.
Pitchers use the same technology to adjust spin rate and spin axis on their pitches and make them as effective as possible. The goal with pitch tuning is to make fastball spin rate higher and to optimize breaking pitches to have efficient spin that results in sharp break and deception. For example, Gerrit Cole’s recent success has coincided with a 400 rpm increase in his fastball.
Organizations and players have used tools to optimize winning and performance. This is not something unique to baseball or new to sports. Optimization will continue to push players towards home runs and strikeouts unless rule changes give them a competitive reason to do so.
Home runs and strikeouts have been on a steady climb over the past ten seasons. New approaches to hitting and pitching have coupled to dramatically change how games are played.
Organizations have identified the value of home runs and strikeouts using sabermetrics while players have rapidly optimized to meet those demands using technology. This optimization has led to a high value on home runs and strikeouts that is detrimental to the longevity of baseball.
Part 2 of this analysis will investigate some possible solutions and how Major League Baseball could implement them to slow the home run takeover.