Even though the 2017 season officially ended last week, the preparations for next year have been underway for some time. In a sense, teams have been planning for 2018 for years. After all, it can take a high-school draft pick five-plus seasons to receive the sort of development and polish necessary to survive in the major leagues. Balancing the future and the present is a significant task for a front office. And since the close of the season, teams have been gathering and meeting at their respective operational headquarters to narrow strategies on how to attack this winter and how to best position themselves in 2018 and beyond.
Just over a month ago, after an Alex Gordon home run set the major-league record for total homers in a season, I arrived at the (tentative) conclusion that it would be more challenging to plan for the future in today’s game. Consider: just three years ago, the game was in the midst of a depressed run environment. There was this idea that the future of offense was going to be defined by flat swings and line drives.
Said former Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens (now the club’s bench coach) to the Washington Post back in 2014:
“We work on a level swing,” Meulens said. “We always talk about being flat. We always talk about, if you miss, make sure you miss down and not up. From spring training on, we’ve been on these guys. All throughout the year, if you see somebody popping up in batting practice, we pull them aside and say, ‘That’s not what we’re doing here.’ I’m proud of the guys that they listen. They’re all-in for this plan, and it’s worked for us.”
Wrote Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated of the Giants-Royals 2014 World Series in which teams went three consecutive games without a home run:
What the Royals and the Giants did exhibit in the Series is an offensive approach that may indeed be the way forward for future champions. Both teams are stocked with high-contact, athletic hitters who put the ball in play to all fields, a counterattack to the high-velocity bullpens and sophisticated defensive shifts that have wrought games with more strikeouts and fewer hits.
Things have changed, eh?
Hitters are going over shifts, not around them.
Many believe popping into the top of the batting cage is no longer taboo.
While you could argue that the Giants’ expansive ballpark requires a different approach, the value of an air ball is still greater than the value of a ground ball at AT&T Park.
A lot of people thought hitters were in a tough spot and that the offensive downturn would be stickier back in 2014. Things change, and things have never changed so quickly in baseball — at least since the close of the dead-ball era — as they have in the last couple of seasons. For those reasons, I suspect it’s tougher to plan and predict the future. What will the environment look like in 2018? In 2023?
For starters, there’s the matter of the ball.
The ball changed in the second half of 2015. It began to fly further — a development documented by Ben Lindbergh, Alan Nathan and Rob Arthur. This postseason, it appeared not only to exhibit the reduced air resistance that has characterized it the last two-plus years, but also to help hitters in another way, with some pitchers complaining about the ball feeling slick. There’s perhaps some merit to their claims: as Jeff Sullivan recently observed, Houston’s Brad Peacock simply stopped throwing his slider in the postseason.
MLB claims that it hasn’t intentionally arranged for any changes to the ball; indeed, the ball-specification standards are so wide that the claim is plausible. So there might not be a conspiracy theory. But MLB and Rawlings can change the run-scoring environment pretty dramatically with even just subtle alterations of the ball. If there are plans to make such changes, the league could benefit everyone — particularly those in charge of filling the rosters of major-league teams — by making that information public. As of now, I think we have to assume the ball is going to continue to jump in 2018 unless we are told otherwise.
But accounting for the ball is merely a part of planning for the future. The power spike goes way beyond that.
Hitters have changed. And the changes they’ve made might be more permanent. Major-league batters produced an average launch angle of 11.8 degrees in the regular season, a Statcast-era high; that figure increased to 12.1 degrees in the postseason.
Consider the launch angle leaders from the postseason:
|Rank||Team||Sample size||Avg. Launch Angle|
With more hitters becoming more receptive to new philosophies and more often optimizing their performance through data tools, we are probably far away from reaching Peak Airball.
I suspect the offensive environment is going to become even more extreme next season and that the 2017 home-run mark will be shattered, though a de-juiced ball could change that.
Another question: are strikeouts going to continue to climb?
Hitters struck out in a record 21.6% of plate appearances this past season, up from 20.4% in 2014 and 17.1% a decade earlier in 2007.
If strikeouts continue to climb in addition to fly-ball rates and home runs per fly ball, it will erode the value of individual and team defense. Pitchers and batters are both doing their best to keep as few balls in play as possible. It’s the transformation into a bat-missing pitcher that allowed Charlie Morton to break out this season for the Astros and win an ALCS Game 7 and a World Series Game 7.
The good news for planners, as both Dave and I detailed regarding Morton — and I noted about Chris Taylor — is that players have proven to be perhaps more malleable than we thought. But that’s also dependent upon the openness and motivation of a player and environment.
In the short term, I’d bet the game continues to become more extreme — and that point extends to pitcher usage and roles.
In each of the last two seasons, just 18 starting pitchers have reached the 200-inning mark.
We can debate the merits of bullpenning all we want, but teams are going to be pitching more and more from their bullpens in the future. Accordingly, there’s perhaps value to be had in getting out ahead of this trend and adapting, finding more hybrid arms, developing the practice among minor-league pitchers, and respecting the Third Time Through the Order Penalty.
Pitchers have more and more moved away from fastballs, a development we continued to witness with the World Series champion Astros, both in Lance McCullers‘ postseason appearances and, to a lesser extent, Morton’s.
In 2017, major-league pitchers recorded the highest curveball rate (10.8%) and lowest sinker rate (18.%) in the PITCHf/x era (as you can see on FanGraphs leaderboards).
More and more pitchers are asking why fastballs should be a primary pitch and for good reason:
|Pitch type||2017 Postseason wOBA||2017 Regular Season wOBA|
It’s the low, sinking fastball to which hitters have adapted. And while the game always ebbs and flows, in 2018 it seems like more hitters will be raising their sights and adding loft to their swings. In short, chasing more quality breaking-ball dominant pitchers and fewer sinker-type arms might be advisable.
Predicting the future is tough. What we do know is the run-scoring environment has become more extreme in three successive seasons, starting-pitcher innings continue to decline, and breaking-ball usage continues to increase along with velocity. While the ball could change, some of these trends seem like they will continue on their 2017 trajectories. The probability of returning to a 2012-14 run environment seems unlikely. The future is, by nature, unknowable. But we can think about the future in probabilistic terms, and this is a game becoming increasingly extreme. That makes planning for tomorrow more difficult than ever before.