MLB Attack Is Back After Sticky Mess, But Only Up To 2019 Levels

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Strike-out rates are still at an unacceptable level.
Statue: Getty Images

Yesterday, my colleague Jon brought something from a deep dive into how the offense in MLB has turned a month into the awesome “Sticky Stuff Purge” of 2021. He’s hardly alone. Ben Lindbergha did it at The Ringer. So did Joe Sheehan’s newsletter. It’s only natural because the big story in baseball a month ago was all the things that… the weird kid in your third grade always ate is used by pitchers to deceive hitters. We were all excited to see what the effect would be if they went without, as pretty much every baseball fan would like more things to happen during games.

What everyone has come to is that yes, the offense has increased, and yes, it’s not just due to the warmer weather of July. The increases are more than the normal summer curve, and strikeouts are down, averages are up, more runs, everyone seems pretty happy. The problem is, these changes are only slightly better than the margins, and they don’t keep baseball away from the main problem.

The strikeout rate for the past month is 22.8 percent. That’s the same as for the entire 2019 season, when serious discussion about a real issue with how baseball was played — and more importantly, how it was enjoyed — began to rise far above a whisper. It’s still below the 2018 level, which was 22.3 percent, and no one thought that 22.3 percent of PAs who ended up with the batter shuffling back to the dugout was an acceptable number. Baseball had to remove sticky stuff to get back to the first problem level. Basically, it’s approaching “suck”.

The same goes for contact. Yes, the contact rate has increased from 75.7 to 76.3 percent in the past month. But that’s the exact 2019 number, again when most baseball observers said there wasn’t enough action in the game. It still stands behind the 2018 number. MLB was able to stop the slide in the direction of two guys who played catch for three hours where the game was headed, but it hasn’t really backtracked. It’s just where it was, which isn’t good enough. By way of comparison: in 2010, the contact percentage was 80.7 percent. The success rate was 18.5 percent. These are the kind of songs that baseball needs to come back to.

Perhaps crucially, the crackdown on the junk hasn’t really slowed down the speed. Last month the average speed of the four seam was 93.5 MPH, which has been all season. There have been fewer gadgets and more contact, but not in a significant amount, and not enough to conclude that the speed problem baseball has is now dead.

And still, more than a third of last month’s plate appearances end in a strikeout, walk or homer. That’s a third of the times a fielder never moves, or one of them turns. There are still more strikeouts than hits. The single is becoming increasingly rare.

Perhaps the most important study is what happens in the Atlantic League two weeks from now when the hill is moved back half a meter, something I’ve been hammering on for a while. That is a step towards solving the speed/contact problem. We’ll see how it works.

You may have to stop sliding before you can progress, and maybe MLB can claim it’s done so much in the past month. It’s certainly hardly a topic of discussion as it was a month ago, as players and fans have adapted (as always happens about whatever players are bothering with when changes happen on the pitch). But to really make baseball changes that people will notice with their own eyes, this is just a start.

And no, banning the service won’t do it.

Then again, maybe I should celebrate every progress baseball makes, no matter how incremental. It really hasn’t been their MO in a while. Blind squirrel, acorn, etc.

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