Pitchers Are Way Ahead of Hitters So Far

Starting the season after a long layoff and an abbreviated training camp was bound to put players in different positions of readiness in the season’s early going. When a season starts in late March or early April, teams enjoy a full spring training but weather can have an effect on hitters. Better weather means better offensive production, so it seemed possible that a late-July start might help hitters skip some of the early-season struggles we typically see; the universal designated hitter also seemed likely to help move things along. So far, it has been a bit of a mixed bag.

Through yesterday’s action, teams are scoring 4.5 runs per game, which is down from last year’s 4.8 full-season mark despite the addition of the designated hitter in the National League. Of course, the first week of the 2019 season saw teams score an average of 4.3 runs per game, so there are more runs than the beginning of last season. Runs alone probably aren’t going to tell us if pitchers have a bigger advantage than they normally do, though, particularly when changes to the ball over the last few seasons have had a pretty dramatic effect on scoring. To get a sense of the last few seasons, here are some end-of-season numbers since 2017 (excluding pitchers hitting), along with the start of this season:

Early Returns on 2020 Statistics
2017 3.4% 9.6% 8.7% 21.2% .175 .301 .326
2018 3.1% 10.3% 8.6% 21.7% .165 .297 .320
2019 3.7% 9.8% 8.7% 22.4% .187 .299 .325
2017-2019 3.4% 9.9% 8.7% 21.8% .176 .299 .324
2020 3.3% 11.2% 9.4% 23.3% .167 .276 .313

Home runs are certainly down from last season, but compared to the last three seasons, the dip isn’t huge. We have seen an increase in the rate of infield fly balls, walks, and strikeouts. The power numbers are down some, but the big drop from previous seasons’ numbers concerns BABIP. The increase in walks isn’t enough to offset the greater number of strikeouts, the lack of power resulting in weaker contact, and considerably worse overall offensive numbers. Before we compare these numbers to typical early-season numbers, let’s add in some plate discipline stats as well:

Early Returns on 2020 Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStrk vFA
2017 26.2% 65.8% 77.7% 51.1% 10.4% 93.3
2018 26.9% 65.6% 77.2% 51.0% 10.6% 93.2
2019 28.6% 66.0% 76.5% 49.3% 11.1% 93.4
2017-2019 27.2% 65.8% 77.1% 50.5% 10.7% 93.3
2020 25.9% 64.5% 73.9% 49.8% 11.7% 93.3

Players are swinging less, both in and out of the strike zone, but they are also making a lot less contact than in previous seasons. I included fastball velocity in the last column to provide some sense of where pitchers are compared to previous seasons. Now, let’s look at these plate discipline and velocity numbers compared to the first six days of the season in the last three years:

Early Returns on 2020 Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStrk vFA
4/2/17-4/8/17 24.5% 66.7% 77.1% 50.5% 10.5% 92.9
3/29/18-4/3/18 25.4% 65.4% 76.3% 50.5% 10.8% 92.9
3/28/19-4/2/19 27.3% 64.8% 75.3% 49.5% 11.3% 92.9
Early 2017-2019 25.7% 65.6% 76.2% 50.2% 10.9% 92.9
2020 25.9% 64.5% 73.9% 49.8% 11.7% 93.3

What we see here is that batter passivity in the early part of the season is pretty normal. Players typically don’t swing as often in the beginning of the season. They do usually make a lot more contact than they are right now, though. That might have something to do with pitcher velocity. In the early part of the season, pitchers don’t normally throw as hard as they do later in the year. In the first week of this season, that hasn’t been the case. Pitchers are in mid-season form while the batters are getting their bearings, likely causing the increase in whiffs and strikeouts and the resulting weaker contact. Contact rate has gotten progressively worse the last few years but this season’s drop is 50% worse than the last few years. Weak contact is normal for the early part of the season, but it isn’t typically this bad, as we see in the table below:

Comparing Season Starts Since 2017
4/2/17-4/8/17 2.9% 9.7% 9.5% 21.8% .158 .289 .311 90
3/29/18-4/3/18 3.1% 12.0% 9.6% 21.3% .167 .286 .318 100
3/28/19-4/2/19 3.0% 10.7% 9.2% 23.0% .161 .287 .306 89
Early 2017-2019 3.0% 10.8% 9.4% 22.0% .162 .287 .312 93
2020 3.3% 11.2% 9.4% 23.3% .167 .276 .313 NA

The power numbers this season that have actually been better than those in the beginning of the season in prior seasons. The passivity we saw in the plate discipline numbers shows up in the walk and strikeout numbers, which aren’t meaningfully different from last season. The lower than average BABIPs and higher infield fly ball rates indicate hitters are still getting their bearings. And as we can see with the below-average wRC+, numbers typically get better as the year goes on. The wRC+ was not included for this season as there is no rest of season to compare it to, yet. Better weather might be helping the power numbers, but the weaker contact seen in the low BABIP shows hitters are likely still in typical early-season form. Average exit velocities from Statcast also show batted balls leaving bats at about a mile per hour slower this season than in years past.

There’s one more cluster of dates that might helpful to consider, and that’s the period right after the All-Star Game. In a normal year, players have a short layoff that coincides with this year’s season start. Here’s how the offensive numbers look:

Comparing Midseason Numbers Since 2017
7/14/17-7/18/17 3.3% 9.3% 8.4% 20.9% .172 .296 .320 96
7/19/18-7/24/18 3.1% 10.9% 8.8% 21.1% .165 .300 .323 103
7/11/19-7/16/19 4.0% 10.4% 8.2% 22.2% .196 .307 .333 106
Post-ASB ’17-’19 3.4% 10.2% 8.5% 21.4% .178 .301 .325 102
2020 3.3% 11.2% 9.4% 23.3% .167 .276 .313 NA

There’s a reason it’s called midseason form. Batters hit for good power with slightly lower strikeout numbers and are a little bit above-average overall with the first half of the season under their belts. This year, the hitters don’t have that luxury. Here’s how the plate discipline numbers look:

Comparing Midseason Numbers Since 2017
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Zone% SwStrk vFA
7/11/19-7/16/19 29.8% 67.4% 76.1% 49.1% 10.4% 93.4
7/19/18-7/24/18 27.5% 65.8% 77.3% 50.9% 10.7% 93.1
7/14/17-7/18/17 27.7% 65.3% 77.9% 51.1% 11.5% 93.6
Post-ASB ’17-’19 28.3% 66.2% 77.1% 50.4% 10.9% 93.4
2020 25.9% 64.5% 73.9% 49.8% 11.7% 93.3

Hitters are more aggressive later on in the season, but they are better at making good contact even as pitch velocity rises. While there are a lot of variables involved — the ball, the weather, the fact we’ve had less than a week of baseball — it certainly looks like the batters are in the early-season mode of feeling things out at the plate while pitchers’ velocities are already at midseason levels. The pitchers’ level of play and high velocity combined with typical early-season discomfort from hitters at the start of the season appears to be causing some lower-than-normal contact rates, even for early in the season. As hitters become more comfortable at the plate, we can probably expect to see offense rise, though likely not by as much as in the last few seasons due to the already advantageous weather conditions.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

Cleveland pitchers so far:

46 Innings
61 Ks
7 Walks (+4 HBP)
1.96 ERA
2.51 FIP

Not bad, not bad at all…

3 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

On the other hand, I keep watching the White Sox and thinking “short summer training session, very few exhibition games…shouldn’t pitchers be ahead of hitters?”

I guess they just need better pitchers.

3 years ago
Reply to  emh1969


3 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Add Zach Plesac’s career best 8 innings and 11 Ks with no BB and no runs allowed this evening.

…granted, Brad Hand looked awful, but still.

3 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

Tito likes to give his veterans the benefit of the doubt but he clearly needs to make a decision re: Hand. Hand was horrible in the 2nd half last year and reports are that he’s struggling to hit 90 with his fastball this year. Plus a 60 game season doesn’t give much leeway for a veteran to work through any issues. Problem is, who do you turn to?