Modern Baseball, Fast and Slow, For Better and (Sometimes) Worse

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

If you were looking for fast-paced, high-stakes baseball action, the tenth inning of Saturday’s Rays-Red Sox clash had everything you could ask for. Scoring? Five runs crossed the plate. Drama? There was a walk-off hit. Balls in play? The Red Sox hit a triple, and the Rays scored a run by combining a balk and a throwing error. Like home runs? It had one of them too.

If you were looking for grind-it-out, low-scoring, perfectly pitched baseball, the other nine innings would have been more your speed. Boston and Tampa Bay combined for two hits and seventeen strikeouts. They used ten pitchers. Runs? Only four runners so much as reached second base.

Which one is modern baseball? They both are. If you wish baseball had more balls in play, with more bunts and steals and plays at the plate, I can’t blame you. If you wish it had more dominant starting pitchers and more seven-inning starts that end with a mound conference and a manager talked into leaving his ace out there for just one more batter, I can’t blame you. But the game being played today is just as captivating, the performances just as impressive. They just come in different shapes and sizes.

Bobby Dalbec is very much a modern hitter; 35.1% of his plate appearances in the major leagues have ended in a strikeout. That’s a rate that most pitchers in history would be embarrassed about; indeed, of the seven players with 1,000 career plate appearances and a strikeout rate above 35%, four are pitchers and three are currently active. Nothing says modern baseball quite like starting at an offense-first position for a good team while striking out all the time.

The Red Sox aren’t starting Dalbec because they don’t notice the strikeouts; they’re starting him because everything else he does makes up for them. His batting line, strikeouts and all, has been 8% better than major league average in his brief career. He socked 25 home runs last year in only 453 plate appearances. Few players can match his prodigious power, which landed him the starting first base job.

Naturally, his main contribution to Saturday’s game was a triple. Despite being a corner infielder, Dalbec is fast. Nearly everyone in baseball is fast these days. Thus far this year, he’s clocked in with an average of 27.8 ft/sec at top speed, in the 72nd percentile among all hitters. That’s fast — faster than the fastest kid at your high school, if you want a mental comparison, unless you went to high school with a college track star.

When Dalbec sent a ball to deep right to lead off the top of the tenth, he wasn’t trying to move the runner over. He wasn’t trying to put the ball on the ground on the right side to help the zombie runner advance. He put the ball in the air with power. Matt Wisler was up in the count, 0–2, and tried to induce a swing with a slider off the outside corner. He succeeded, but players are just too dang powerful these days.

Dalbec smoked the pitch to right, 97 mph off the bat. It got past one of the best defensive outfielders in the game; Brett Phillips is 12 outs above average in the outfield since the start of the 2021 season, fifth in baseball. If it had been hit higher, or softer, or just less down the line, it would have been an out. But none of that happened, and Dalbec’s speed seemed pivotal for a moment. Thanks to his taking an extra base, he scored on a fly ball to left to give Boston a 2–0 lead. Would he have scored anyway? Probably; Trevor Story singled later in the inning. But either way, Dalbec’s extra-base hit put the Red Sox two runs clear, key when dealing with zombie runners.

Oh yeah; it was Boston’s first hit of the game. Tampa Bay’s bullpen shredded Boston all night. Through nine innings, a sextet of guys who casual baseball fans have probably never heard of shut down Boston’s powerful offense.

J.P. Feyereisen is the other reliever the Rays got in return for Willy Adames. He throws 99 and complements his fastball with a splitter and a huge, 12–6 curveball. That sound you just heard, by the way, is Rays fans rushing to the comments to tell me I’m wrong. I made all three of those pitches up! Feyereisen sits in the low 90s and complements it with a slider and a changeup. The point is, he’s not exactly a household name just yet.

On the other hand, maybe he will be. That low-90s fastball is darn near unhittable. Boston hitters came up empty on four of their nine swings against it. Those other five? They produced two weak pop outs and three foul balls. It’s one of those backspinning, illusion-of-rising fastballs, and batters simply can’t do anything with it. The slider and changeup don’t have quite the same bite, but they’re solid as well.

Feyereisen drew the start on Saturday, but he’s not a starter. After two perfect innings, he hit the showers in favor of a parade of his fellow relievers. Javy Guerra was next. No, not that Javy Guerra, the journeyman reliever who won a World Series with the Nationals. This Guerra was a reliever in San Diego, but the Padres didn’t have space for him and traded him to the Rays on April 16 for cash rather than waive him. The night before, he’d thrown one perfect inning. This time, he was shaky; he walked Rob Refsnyder, and after the next batter reached on an error, his day was done after less than an inning. Rafael Devers was due up, and the Rays wanted a lefty.

Guerra’s replacement, Jeffrey Springs, pitched in the majors off and on from 2018 to ’20 for Texas and Boston. He compiled a 5.42 ERA and a 5.03 xFIP. Naturally, the Rays picked him up, and all he’s done since then is throw 51 innings of 2.96 ERA/2.94 xFIP/3.62 FIP relief. He’s striking out 35% of the batters he faces.

Springs isn’t exactly a lefty specialist. His job, in simple terms, is to come in and face a tough lefty, then pitch for a while before departing when a tough righty comes up. In this game, that meant two innings of work, then a departure with Story coming to bat in the fifth (two out, no one one; the leverage wasn’t the issue).

Cue Jason Adam. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Adam was a journeyman reliever who compiled a 4.71 ERA from 2018 to ’21 with three teams. On the Rays? Six appearances, 1.59 ERA. He walks a lot of guys and probably always will, but his slider/fastball combination looks sharper so far this year.

Next up after four outs from Adam: Ryan Thompson. All he’s done in 66.2 career innings is put up an ERA below 3 despite a sinker that sits around 90 mph. His sidearm delivery makes his slider unique; it’s a sweeping, gloveside-breaking rainbow, but he releases from such a low arm slot that it actually fights gravity somewhat on its path home. That provides the strikeout punch while his sinker gets grounders; naturally, he got two fly ball outs on sliders in a hitless seventh.

Have you heard of Andrew Kittredge? He pitched the last two innings of regulation baseball, and he looks like a lot of good relievers these days: hard sinker, hard slider, and the ability to go longer than an inning if necessary. He broke out in a big way last year, to the tune of 71.2 innings and a 1.88 ERA. He’s been the team’s highest-leverage reliever this year, and he rose to the occasion with a six-up six-down performance. The Rays threw nine no-hit innings, and they did it without using any of their shiny starting pitcher prospects.

It’s possible you’ve never heard of any of these guys. They were hardly high draft picks. Guerra was a low-dollar international free agent; he signed for a $250,000 bonus. The rest were drafted in the 16th, 30th, fifth, 23rd, and 45th rounds (in order of appearance). That’s just baseball these days, and particularly Rays baseball: assemble a bullpen that might not look like much on paper but does nothing but get outs. Relievers are good these days!

Want further proof? The Red Sox matched the Rays zero for zero through the first nine innings, and they did it with a carousel of their own. Garrett Whitlock, the Rule 5 sensation, made Tampa Bay look bad. In four innings, he struck out seven and only allowed a single baserunner. Just one problem: it was the first start of his major league career, and he wasn’t stretched out to go any longer, so he departed after four innings.

Next up: Austin Davis, acquired from the Pirates last season in exchange for Michael Chavis. He has a career ERA over 5, and naturally, he’s striking out 32.3% of the batters he faces so far in 2022. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: he’s fastball/slider/changeup and developed a new sweeping slider over the offseason. He stymied the Rays for an inning before giving way to Kutter Crawford.

Crawford, you’ll be delighted to know, throws a cutter, though it’s not his primary offering. A starter by trade, he’s in the Boston bullpen thanks to larger roster limits, and three of his five outings this year have spanned ten or more batters. In effect, he’s a security blanket; when a starter doesn’t get the length the Sox hope for, Crawford can provide bulk length to keep the rest of the bullpen in their normal lanes. That’s exactly what he did on Saturday, but if he did it this well every time, he wouldn’t be a fringe bullpen guy. He faced ten Rays and struck out five. His fastball will make you doubt your eyes; it explodes through the zone and misses plenty of bats. When he scuffles with location, he’s hittable, but when he’s consistently locating in the upper third, he’s a world beater.

With two innings out of Crawford, the Red Sox only needed one more inning to add up to nine, and they called on Tyler Danish. He had a few cups of coffee with the White Sox from 2016 to ’18, but had since been in reliever purgatory — also known as the minor league systems of the Mariners and Angels — before joining Boston as up-and-down innings filler this offseason. So yeah, sure, whatever, of course he’s struck out half the batters he’s faced in three innings of major league work. Relievers are good these days!

In keeping with the theme of the game, the Red Sox’ bullpen crew was also lightly regarded as amateurs. Whitlock was an 18th-round pick, Davis was drafted in the 12th round, and Crawford was chosen in the 16th. Danish was the lone high draft pick as a second-round selection in 2013. Like Tampa Bay, Boston assembled its scoreless innings out of players that every team had plenty of chances at.

That brings us back to the top, or rather the bottom: Boston led 2–0 headed into the bottom of the tenth. The zombie runner doubled the number of Rays who had reached second base; they’d mustered absolutely nothing against the parade of Boston pitchers. Sure, the Red Sox had been no-hit, but they were at least walking and stealing bases. The Dalbec-led breakthrough looked likely to hold up.

Only, it didn’t. Meet Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray. Kiermaier is a defensive specialist, one of the best center fielders in baseball year in and year out. He’s not on the team for his offense; he consistently bats at the bottom of the order and has been 14% below average at the plate over the last five years.

But this is modern baseball, which means that everyone is a power threat. Kiermaier was batting seventh. He had no home runs on the year, and only seven in 2020 and ’21 combined. Heck, since 2020, he’s hit more triples than home runs. The Rays were down to their final out, and even that only barely; Taylor Walls was the previous batter, and he reached on a two-out throwing error by Trevor Story.

When Walls stole second, the Rays’ chances brightened considerably. Kiermaier was now a single away from tying the game. As it turns out, he was also a home run away from walking it off:

It would be easy to look at this game and bemoan what baseball has become. Nameless relievers turning in scoreless innings! Zombie runners scoring twice! Starters done for the day after a combined six half-innings! It’s everything that everyone hates about the modern game.

It was also incredible. Every inning was filled with drama. Both teams had chances to win; both were constantly a home run away from winning. Power-hitting first basemen stroked triples. Triples-hitting defensive specialists hit homers. It had all the joys of a great pitcher’s duel, so long as you don’t focus too hard on who’s on the mound, and all the joys of “moving this runner 90 feet is all that matters” as long as you don’t mind the fact that some of those runners reached base automatically.

So yeah, baseball is different now, and for plenty of people, it’s worse. There are too many strikeouts. There’s too much sitting around waiting for home runs — home runs that haven’t come so far in 2022. There are too many relievers. That’s all true. But the game on the field is phenomenal. These guys are awesome. They’re all so good. Depth relievers are capable of making All-Star hitters look foolish. The big guys can fly. The little guys can bop. When I’m getting to watch all of that excitement, it’s hard for me to care about the rest of it.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

23 Comments
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JohnThackermember
9 months ago

It was exciting, but not only does the ghost runner rule make it much easier to add to the slim count of “teams that have lost a no-hitter,” it is possible now to achieve the previously impossible “teams that have lost a perfect game” (and not in the old pre-1991 Harvey Haddix sense). I couldn’t help think of that during the game, and despite the excitement, it did bother me some.

sadtrombonemember
9 months ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

I cannot wait for a pitcher to take a no-hitter all the way to the 10th inning, the ghost runner is on 2nd, and the right fielder makes an error that allows them to score. A no-hit loss, right there.

LenFuego
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Meh. Several pitchers have thrown no-hitters and lost, including Andy Hawkins losing 4-0 (4-0!) in 1990.

sadtrombonemember
9 months ago
Reply to  LenFuego

Yeah but that was mostly bad luck. This would be by design.

mgwalker
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No need for the error, the ghost runner could steal third and home and then the pitcher gets a loss despite allowing no hits/walks/HBP and the defense committing no errors.

Philmember
9 months ago
Reply to  JohnThacker

As soon as you have the zombie runner, it is no longer a perfect game.

cartermember
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil

Has there ever been a perfect game with an error? What about more than one error? Curious if they have made errors in foul territory and still had a perfect game.

LenFuego
9 months ago
Reply to  carter

By definition, it is not a perfect game if an error is committed. Nobody can reach base at all for it to be a perfect game.

But if what you are really asking is if any pitcher has thrown a no-hitter that was not a perfect game only because a fielder made an error, the answer is yes. Clayton Kershaw had a perfect game ruined in 2014 by a Hanley Ramirez 7th inning throwing error. I am not sure if there are any others.

Last edited 9 months ago by LenFuego
mgwalker
9 months ago
Reply to  LenFuego

When Rich Hill took his no-hit bid into the 10th inning against the Pirates a few years ago (eventually spoiled by Josh Harrison’s walkoff HR), the only baserunner to that point had been allowed on an infield error.

mgwalker
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil

And the blemish is real (just not the pitcher’s fault).