We Need More Astros

My wife and I were driving from the west side of Cleveland to my parents’ place on the east side of the city over the weekend. During a lull in the in-car conversation, I elected to carry out a small-sample experiment.

Before I detail the finer points of that experiment, though, a bit of context. As you’re likely aware, there’s been much discussion about and handwringing over the increasing frequency of the Three True Outcomes in the game, over the decline of balls in play, and, by extension, the greater amounts of downtime between moments of action.

Consider this remarkable nugget from Dan Hirsch:

What we see here is an effect with a number of causes: fewer balls in play, greater stretches of time between pitches, and longer commercial breaks. It took John Lackey about five minutes to throw six pitches on Sunday night.

That’s a remarkable trend, and I think we all understand why the commissioner’s office has been concerned about the dwindling number of balls in play while also wanting to experiment with pitch clocks and pace rules.

From the macro level, from the macro leadership level, a commissioner’s top objective is growing the sport, growing the business. Rob Manfred has pushed the “Play Ball” and “One Baseball” initiatives to grow the sport at the amateur level, but he is also concerned with bringing in, and retaining, more casual fans.

The casual MLB fan I know best is my wife. She enjoys baseball. She has to, or this might be a difficult relationship. But she isn’t regularly visiting Baseball Savant or, I’m sorry to say, FanGraphs.

So I began my experiment, asking her what types of baseball action she enjoys the most. I said it could be anything that occurs on the field, from a catcher’s interference call to home run.

So what appeals most to her? Her initial feeling was either a “grand slam” or “triple play.” Very exciting plays, certainly. But I asked her to identify a more common on-field occurrence. She rattled off a few. Highlight-worthy defensive plays were atop the list. What all her selections had in common, though, was that they were tied to batted-ball events, balls in play.

While some of us here might like the high-strikeout environment that’s emerged in recent years, there’s something to be said for getting more balls back in play.

And one of this year’s playoff teams, the Astros, serve as proof that more contact is possible without introducing extreme measures like lowering the mound or raising seam height.

The 2017 Astros featured a historically good offense. As a regular-season team, they trailed only the 1927, 1930, and 1931 Yankees in wRC+.

And what changed most about the club this year? As you probably know, the Astros have posted the game’s lowest strikeout rate (17.3%). And it’s a dramatic improvement from last season, when they posted a 23.4% mark, which ranked 27th. That’s a remarkable turnaround. And there’s no other club that is close…

Team Strikeout-Rate Changes, Leaders and Laggards
Rank Team 2017 K% 2016 K% Difference
1 Astros 17.3% 23.4% -6.1%
2 Indians 18.5% 20.2% -1.7%
3 Pirates 19.8% 21.3% -1.5%
4 Twins 21.4% 22.8% -1.4%
5 Braves 19.0% 20.0% -1.0%
26 White Sox 23.1% 21.0% 2.1%
27 Yankees 21.8% 19.6% 2.2%
28 Angels 19.7% 16.4% 3.3%
29 Rangers 24.4% 20.0% 4.4%
30 Athletics 24.3% 19.0% 5.3%

The Astros’ surge in contact led to a slash-line triple crown, a .282 batting average, .346 on-base percentage, and .478 slugging percentage. Not bad!

Yes, there were some new players on the team, most notably Brian McCann and Josh Reddick. A full season of Alex Bregman helped, too. They replaced high-strikeouts hitters like Jason Castro and Colby Rasmus, who were dispatched.

But there was also dramatic internal improvement, such as that exhibited by George Springer (detailed by Jeff last month) and Marwin Gonzalez, who cut his strikeout rate by nearly four percentage points.

The cheapest value a club can add is improvement through coaching and development, adding skill and efficiency without adding payroll.

The Astros have done some of that this season. And it’s not like they’ve subtracted power. There was no trading in guns for butter. Said Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens of the approach to Typer Kepner of the New York Times earlier this summer: “I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can hit a homer.”

Yet the Astors have improved from 28th in zone contact last year (83.6%) to first this season (88.8%).

Said Astros GM Jeffrey Luhnow in the NYT piece:

“Power’s exciting, power sells tickets and power wins games, at times,” Luhnow said. “But power usually comes at the expense of rally-killing strikeouts in other instances. It’s not a satisfying brand of baseball, and I don’t think it’s a winning brand of baseball, necessarily, to have 30-home run hitters with 200 strikeouts a year.

“You can have one of those guys, but we ended up having a few of them up and down our lineup. So we made a decision to try to change the nature of our lineup by adding guys that made hard contact.”

So the Astros hoarded contact hitters, but some of their hitters also became better contact hitters. And then there’s Jose Altuve, who continues to do Altuve things, such as reach base on an infield hit and cause havoc on the bases with 30-foot-per-second sprint speed in Game 1 of the ALCS.

And Altuve did more damage on the bases when a teammate put the ball in play in Game 2, dashing home with a walk-off victory:

Now, perhaps Altuve shouldn’t have attempted to scamper home Saturday night. FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello did an excellent job with all the numbers here. But, hey, it worked and it was fun. The Astros are fun. The Astros are fun because, in part, they don’t strike out. The put the ball in play. And when they put the ball in play, they have athletes like Altuve, Springer and Carlos Correa who can run and do damage. The Astros’ style of play should captivate our attention and that of more casual fans.

While the game has become more static, featuring less action, while it appears to be headed toward a future of more standing around, the Astros are living, breathing proof that it doesn’t have to be that way. The Astros give us — and the commissioner’s office — hope.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

These articles really frustrate me sometimes. We know that even with the rising strikeout rates, the number of balls in play per game less we’re seeing now is not a lot lower; pitching staffs are striking out maybe 2-3 more guys per 9 on average than 30 years ago, and only 1-2 from, say 15.

Someone, somewhere, in an article I can’t find anymore, quoted the official Historian of MLB as saying something like “Coincidentally, everyone’s idea of the best way to play baseball is exactly the same as the way it was played when they were 8.” That quote has stuck with me and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Different people react to it in different ways. I understand there’s a lot of concern about casual fans, but I equally believe there’s a lot of confirming biases going on here, and that the viewpoints of a lot of authors who write about this topic seep into their analysis.

Great defensive plays are neat. Routine grounders to shortstop aren’t particularly interesting, and in fact a wicked breaking ball strikeout is probably more exciting. The pace issue is a much larger concern than the balls in play issue in terms of fan interest, since it is just a strict negative. I doubt the casual fan is going to notice the difference in a couple grounders or popups per game, especially when most of those are routine and forgettable.

Its interesting to me how concerned the sabermetric community, now in really a 2nd or 3rd generation of writers, has become with the three-true-outcomes narrative. I’m old enough to have been reading BP 15 years ago when analytics was effectively at war with people like Joe Morgan and actively advocating for whatever most improved a team’s chances of winning, which was exactly what teams have done: recognized strikeouts from hitters aren’t a big deal as long as they’re a tradeoff for more power, and that strikeout-heavy pitching reduces your vulnerability to ball-in-play variance. TTO was coined as a joking and advocating phrase. Now half the writers in the sabermetric community are concerned about their prevalence.

We did this. We championed the walks-and-a-3-run-homer A’s batting Jeremy Giambi leadoff because of his walkrate. We championed teams that rejected the bunt and the stolen base. We ridiculed teams that consistently signed replacement level veterans for millions of dollars and talked about playing the game the right way and manufacturing runs. And we did it all to direct hostility from some really close-minded and silly people whose two primary arguments were that stat nerds don’t know shit about baseball and that their idea of baseball wouldn’t be interesting or fun.

Sometimes it seems like half the writers on Fangraphs have come to agree with the second point. Everyone’s terrified of MLB’s market share and the casual fan.

I find the hysteria to be, at best, tiresome. The Astros are neat. Jose Altuve is great. Justin Turner is great. Joey Gallo is great. Aaron Judge is great. The greatest thing is that they’re all great at the same time without doing it the same way. Lets stop pretending that the baseball that gave us Aaron Judge and his 50%+ TTO rate isn’t interesting to the casual fan.

I get that this probably won’t be a popular opinion. But man, the hand-wringing on behalf of MLB for the strikeouts by the Fangraphs writing staff is by far my least favorite part about the site. Analyze it all you want, but don’t start your article with a preconception about how one thing is better than the other. It makes your entire piece read like you’re promoting a viewpoint instead of analyzing a situation.

Dave Stewart
6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Yeah, what he just said.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I just want to add one other thing as a personal anecdote, and that is that I think the prevalence of great and exciting defensive plays is so low that there’s no way to meaningfully increase their frequency by adding a few BIP each game.

I’m a Dodger fan. I have watched pretty much their entire season. Sometimes avidly with each pitch, sometimes in the background, looking up at the crack of the bat or the roar of the crowd. I doubt I missed more than 30 or so innings of the entire season, when I shut off a couple games in disgust during the losing streak.

The Dodgers were an objectively excellent defensive team this year. They finished 2nd in DRS. They finished 2nd in UZR/150. They finished first in defensive efficiency and BP’s Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. The only player on the team who was defensively below average was Joc Pederson.

I don’t think I can recall more than a handful, maybe 10 at most, ‘exciting defensive plays’ that the team made this year. Yasiel Puig made a few great throws. He stole a home run. Cody Bellinger made a neat sliding catch when he started playing left field. Chris Taylor made a nice jumping catch on his first batter as an outfielder. Chase Utley made a completely ridiculous play as a first baseman on a ground ball that hit the bag; it was so absurd that the pitcher’s mouth was wide open in shock while he took the feed for the out. That one might have been one of the best 1B plays I’ve ever seen. Justin Turner picked some hot shots at 3B.

You know what great defense looked like? Thousands of ground balls hit so directly at Corey Seager that he was done moving to field the ball before the camera even reached him. A lot of casual fly balls where the outfielders barely flinched. A loooooot of strikeouts on borderline pitches because Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes are great. I don’t think a Dodger laid out in a dive for a fly ball in the outfield all season. A few people made feet-first sliding catches. Great defense was boring as fuck.

I get that individual defenders can be exciting. Billy Hamilton’s speed is exciting. Javier Baez’s defense is fun to watch. Most defense isn’t those guys, though, even good defense. It’s guys who are positioned so well that everything looks routine. It’s not clear Corey Seager has the range to play shortstop, but he fields way more than an average number of balls, because he’s always in the right place, because the Dodgers put him there.

Great defense is just as unpredictable as a grand slam or a triple play; in modern baseball, it might be rarer (I remember more Dodger grand slams this year than great defensive plays; of course, they lead MLB in grand slams, so …)

It’s not a panacea for fan excitement.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I’d love to see any Statcast numbers on what kind of “jump” and “route” Seager gets on grounders hit his way. I’m sure he’s positioned perfectly per the Dodgers analytical team, but he still has to react and then make quick lateral movements. If his reaction and first step are elite, then he may very well have the range to play shortstop, foot speed be damned.

(Like we need another reason why this kid is the lefty-hitting clone of Cal Ripken Jr.)

6 years ago
Reply to  tz

Yeah, I said ‘not clear’, not ‘definitely not’, I’m a believer Seager will be at SS for at least the length of Justin Turner’s contract, and then probably move to 3B. But his above-averageness is a big part due to positioning, but no positioning is so precise that you’re actually always in the right place, and sometimes it burns you. Back in Game 1 of the NLCS, Ron Darling went on and on about Javier Baez leaving his shifted position and Bellinger hitting the ball right where he was, but I guarantee you that movement was the result of scouting. Bellinger’s 2 strike approach vs the shift has been to whack the ball straight up the middle very consistently, and I bet they pinched Baez to the middle specifically to field the ball 3 feet to the SS side of 2B which is where Bellinger has like 10 hits vs the shift this year..instead, Bellinger pulled it further right where Baez had been.

Nothing’s perfect. Corey Seager’s good. Positioning makes him better. He’s not Baez or Andrelton Simmons or Baez out there doing it with raw athleticism.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I’m not 100% convinced that too few balls in play is not a contributing factor, but you are totally right that pace is the biggest issue right now.

It’s also easier to fix.

Pitch clock that needs to be enforced.

Discourage batters from looking for signs from the coach after every single pitch. Require both feet in the box at all times, and the pitcher can pitch whenever he is ready.

Limit the number of mound visits by catchers.

Speed up reliever entrances. 3 warm-up pitches on the mound? Cart to bring them to the infield? I’m open to ideas.

Require relievers to throw to at least 2 or 3 batters (or go on the 10-day DL to make sure no one is faking an injury).

Hold networks to the exact time limit for commercials. If the commercial isn’t done, too bad. Cut back to game immediately.

Replay done by an expert up in a booth. He/she only overturns obviously egregiously missed calls that can be discerned immediately before the next play starts. If it’s not obvious that quickly, it’s not overturned. No challenges.

Most of these wouldn’t negatively alter the game at all (depending on how you feel about the reliever restriction). If it cuts the time for a 9-inning game from 3:05 (this year) to 2:46 (2003), that’s a big positive benefit. That means some games will be 2:30 (or less), and I’m committing to 2:45-3:00 at most in most games.

If that works and helps ratings and/or attendance, we consider more dramatic changes like automatic strike zone, shorter commercial breaks (which could be made up for by higher attendance), and a limit on pickoffs per batter (I don’t love this last one, but some people do).

I think if we get the game down to 2:30 on average (which might be possible), that solves 95% of the problems. And it doesn’t fundamentally alter the game outside of a few small issues around the edge.

6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

I don’t think it’s possible in today’s environment where every event on the field is the subject of millions of dollars and also like an entire department of professional analysis dudes.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Bullpen carts might not have a meaningful impact on pace of play, but I still vote to bring them back just for the fun of it – http://m.mlb.com/cutfour/2017/07/14/210932342/the-history-and-mysteries-of-the-mlb-bullpen-cart .

And they should mostly be the golf carts with a baseball helmet top, not a Toyota or a Chrysler LeBaron, except that the Mariners can bring back their miniature tugboat.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Hear hear! There are multiple ways to win, and there are lots of different ways to have exciting games. (Let’s be real, strikeouts are fun too.)

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Not going to argue with the larger point, but I will argue that a slow roller to short is normally much more exciting than a strike out.

The reasoning is simple, more moving parts and it seems like something is actually happening in the process, while 99.9% of the time the play is handled easy. The perception is different. It is why the NFL seems to have more excitement, moving parts.

I will concede that there are certain situations the K is more exciting. The runners on 2nd and 3rd, 1 out in the 9th, closer against star hitter where they have battled each other for a good at bat. But most of the time, a strike out is very anti-climactic

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I actually tend to agree with your main point: there seem to be a lot of teams winning and players succeeding with different strategies right now, which is fun. However, aren’t you conflating two ideas here? There is “what helps teams win” and “what makes baseball enjoyable,” and sabermetric advocacy of a TTO approach was in service of the first idea, not the second.

A comparison with evolutionary theory is apposite here. If sabermetricians are the Darwinians and Joe Morgan et al are creationists, suggesting that strategies that help teams win are ipso facto good for the game is social Darwinism: by saying that strategies for survival are ‘good’ rather than ‘most effective’ we are turning a descriptive theory into a prescriptive one, or rather prescribing this offensive strategy for the health of baseball rather than its individual teams.

“And we did it all to direct hostility from some really close-minded and silly people whose two primary arguments were that stat nerds don’t know shit about baseball and that their idea of baseball wouldn’t be interesting or fun.”

Sure, it’s close-minded to ignore evidence about how best to win a game or construct a roster but discussing whether how the game is played creates an enjoyable experience for fans, particularly younger ones, is sensible: indeed, to ignore this is close-minded. Of course it’s not the responsiblity of a team to make themselves worse for aesthetic reasons but the existence of a commisioner’s office and of journalists and bloggers means that we can take a more holistic, longer-term view of how the game is played.

John Thorn (I imagine)’s quote is witty and certainly has a ring of truth to it (I’m English and had never seen the game until my twenties, so I’ll have to take it on trust) but it’s important to make sure that there enough eight-year-olds interested in the game right now to ensure its health for future generations.

Again, this is a general point: I like how the game is played right now. However asking questions about the aesthetics or enjoyment of the game does not make one an enemy of progress.

6 years ago
Reply to  csw117

My complaint isn’t with questions, its that a certain subset of Fangraphs writers write about this topic in a way that suggests they have already decided the answer to the question is that it is bad.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Can FanGraphs initiate a “Posts of the Year” program? I nominate this one.

I’ve become accustomed to the Commissioner of MLB apparently operating under the assumption that baseball fans don’t really like baseball. I am not prepared for my favorite baseball site to take the same tack.

Appreciating that there are legitimate issues with 4+ hour games as the standard, I can think of lots of fantastically exciting baseball plays that take a long time to get a ball in play (e.g., the 9 minute Gardner/Allen AB) or don’t put the ball in play at all (an aging Sabathia striking out a young superstar Correa with the bases loaded) – and that’s just in the past week.

I think baseball would be better served by spending less time apologizing and more time celebrating the things that make it unique, from the lack of a clock to the fact that guys shaped like Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve can each be superstars.

Of course there there are some tweaks around the edges that could help the appeal of the game, including:

– a pitch clock/a crack-down on the Josh Beckett style laps around the mound
– enforcing the rule that batters can’t step out of the box once a pitcher is set
– getting a new face for John Lackey

And at least 2/3 of these could be implemented by next year’s spring training.

John Elway
6 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

I second the new face for Lackey. Talk about long in the tooth.

Just neighing.

Joey Butts
6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

It’s not hard to see how the pace of play issue is linked to the balls in play issue. Hitters are waiting for pitches they can drive (for home runs) and they’re getting into deep counts as a result. They don’t mind that that leads to more strikeouts (and more walks). Meanwhile, the AB’s take longer because of the deep counts. Fixing the one issue would put a dent in the other issue, as well.

Manute Bol sings better than this
6 years ago
Reply to  Joey Butts

Is your last name really Gallo?