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.