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:
Seconds per ball in play (including HR). There have been an average of 4 min 35 sec between ball in play this postseason, most in history pic.twitter.com/XlETM2UMQI
— Dan Hirsch (@DanHirsch) October 12, 2017
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…
|Rank||Team||2017 K%||2016 K%||Difference|
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.