Sunday, May 27, 2018


"OK, boys...on three!!"
Well, that was a crock. The "MLB Committee Studying Home Run Rates" issued a report this past week, and it's first and foremost a circle jerk.

"No change in the just carries farther."

Cue Jim Gosger popping out of the hotel room closet in Ball Four with his immortal "Yeah, surre."

It's clear that something went haywire with quality control over a three-year period at Rawlings, and this contributed to the historic 2016-17 homer spike. We understand that Rob Manfred--first and foremost a slick lawyer--is not going to let this stick to him if he can avoid it. And that's what this report is primarily all about. Proving, mostly, that academics and the post-neos who dominate sabermetrics will do the circle jerk cover-up in exchange for a continuing place at the banquet table.

The Tango Love Pie: still a toxic concoction for the
overall health of baseball...
Of course there's more to this story than just Manfred-the-shyster-magician and his misdirection. There's also the "perfect storm" of Tom Tango, "barrels," and "launch angles." What we like to call the "Tango Love Pie" was semi-exonerated as a "primary causal agent" in all this (and others in the post-neo cabal contributed to muddying the waters with overly-parsed "analyses" that deflected from the potential impact of all those batters swinging from the heels).

One gets the distinct sense that no one in the analytical community really wants to know how this happened. And Manfred-the-shyster-magician has generated sufficient sleight-of-hand to insure that the Big Finger will not wind up pointing at him.

So that leaves us with the question of what actually DID happen to make homers go up by 46.5% in three years. It's very clear that it was a combination of factors, several intrinsic to the increasing senility of baseball's analytic component, and several random factors that turned 2016-17 into a perfect storm.

Here are those factors:

--The continuing fetish of the long ball, which the post-neo sabermetric community has joined.
--The implementation of hitting strategies that follow from this escalating fetishization.
--The parallel love for pitchers who throw at high speed but have less movement on their fastball and have fewer effective alternate pitches at their disposal.
--A turnover in effective relief pitchers at the point where the first three factors could commingle to maximize the increase in HRs allowed by relievers.
--A lax effort to curtail quality control problems concerning the manufacture of baseballs that could carry further in part due to new hitting strategies and in part due to...
--An unusually hot spring in 2017 that created a "perfect storm" of home run activity for two months (mid-May to mid-July).

And, that, kiddies, is what they call multivariate analysis. Now baseball's purported brain trust ought to be able to do that. But they didn't. They didn't come close.

Baseball has been down this road before--just without all those math majors in their cubicles. The 50s brought us more homers per hit, and when expansion in 1961-62 created an uptick in offense, baseball's brain trust decided that they need to do something--so they changed the strike zone. What happened?

Just what might happen again now. Offense sputtered. Pitchers adjusted to the favorable conditions. Hitters didn't. They had to rescind the changed strike-zone rule in order to boost offense.

So, today, as offense fell off its historic peak from 1993-2006, the subsidence included a decline in HR/G and isolated power (ISO). Around 2013-14, that clearly had overcorrected, and an influx of good young pitchers and the strategy of increasingly using "one-note" relievers brought offense to a level that hadn't been so low since the 1988-92 "de facto strike zone change" (of which we've had many in the past two decades...kind of like the "proxy wars" we've seen being fought in all those far-flung places around the world).

But all through this time, baseball was becoming more enamored of the low-average slugger. With batting average discredited as a statistic measuring value, it became easy for teams to look for players whose ISO was high enough to pick up the slack in terms of overall slugging average. And the post-neos could chime in about how this was the way to score more runs with less hits--a kind of "pass-through market efficiency" that would be a painless way to boost offense despite the pervasive decline in on-base percentage (OBP).

And so what had formerly been a scarce commodity in baseball (because its perceived worth was limited) slowly morphed into the new fad. With BA high in 2000-05, there was no need for such a hitter type. But later in that previous decade, certain teams began to collect these types of hitters.

That trend has escalated in the present decade, as our chart at left demonstrates. What was once a trace element in baseball strategy is now becoming pervasive. In 2018, even with a downturn in offense and HR/G, we have essentially one player of this type per team getting significant playing time.

We can break this phenomenon down to another level of granularity, to see how it has become pervasive (as opposed to merely an incidental strategy). If it were only incidental, it would remain a phenomenon on the fringes of player development and acquisition--more specifically, this type of hitter would cluster in one age range or another.

Players who are at the beginning of their careers or at the end of their careers are likelier to manifest these types of statistical extremities.the younger players either gain BA and add value by maintaining their secondary statistics ratios, or they don't stick. Older players who had greater established value due to higher BA and secondary statistics ratios can afford to lose BA if those secondary ratios remain steady, so teams might play them for an extra year or two until all of these elements decline to the point where they aren't cutting it.

So you'd expect to find very young and very old players on this list. And, in the table above, you'll see a lot of them there. But as the fetish for this type of player grew, something else has started to happen--these players are now showing up more and more in the prime years of their careers--from ages 25 to 32.

In short, baseball is institutionalizing the low-average slugger.

If this trend continues--and there is no reason to believe that items 1-3 in the "factors" list above have suffered any reversals amongst baseball's "brain trust"--then we are likely to see a continuation of the current decline in BA that has cropped up thus far this season. Right now this difference is in the 8-10 point range, which is negligible enough that post-neo sabes will dismiss it out of hand. But consider the fact that HR levels are currently dropping off at a rate fast enough to bring the 2018 average below 2016 levels. That means that teams are starting to figure out how to combat at least some of the factors that resulted in the HR spike.

You can see a capsule history of the five-year HR phenomenon in the table at left, which breaks things out by team. These are the pitching stats, not the hitting stats, because we want to know if pitching adjustments will be the factor in what happens to offense in an age that loves the long ball not wisely but too well.

The teams in 2015 who started the upward trend from 2014's low ebb of HR/G (0.86) are shown in yellow--the Braves, Tigers, Phillies, Padres, and Mariners--are shown in yellow. Several of these continued to increase their HR/G allowed rates across both 2016 and 2017. They were joined by a number of other teams in 2016--the Reds, most spectacularly (in the year in which Cincinnati hurlers set a new record for the most HRs allowed in a season).

And you can see what followed in the "perfect storm" season last year--everyone gave up at least one HR/G, and a total of 12 teams were over 1.3 HR/G. (Note also that we show .500+ WPCT teams with their HR/G averages in red type...the order in the midst of this storm was that teams with lower HR/G rates were the teams who made it to the post-season. But then the Dodgers and Astros put on a home run derby in the World Series.)

No one knew what to expect with respect to all this in 2018. (The post-neo-sabes didn't care, so they weren't invested in expecting anything. Bill James, more voluble than ever over at his pay-per-view site, has remained silent. Tom Tango has simply tossed more "barrels" on his Love Pie-making machine (now endorsed, fittingly enough, by Tim Tebow and the ghost of George Foreman).

What we see, though, is that some teams are adjusting. Exactly how they're doing so is not yet something we can tease out--and, frankly, some of this could change as we hit the summer. You have good teams from 2017 dropping their HR/G rates and you have bad teams from 2017 doing the same (and becoming good teams, at least so far--see the Braves, Phillies, Mariners, Angels, and A's).

Now some of these teams have yet to drop below their 2016 levels (which is what the far right-hand column measures--trying to show which teams are getting close to some kind of sanity regarding HR/G allowed). But 18 teams are back below 2016 HR/G levels at this point--and BA allowed is dropping because the hitters aren't ready to make their own adjustments.

Joey Gallo: see the ball, hit the ball--but mostly MISS the ball...
If hitters don't make any adjustments--and they aren't being encouraged to do so by anyone in those math major cubicles--then we might see BA take another, more significant nose dive in 2019, as more teams figure out how to re-optimize their pitching staffs for minimizing HR/G. We might be talking sub-.240 for baseball as a whole next year.

That would mean another jump in "low-average" sluggers--up to the high 30s or so. With the climate of acceptance for players like Joey Gallo, this is certainly a plausible outcome.

And that will send R/G levels in the general direction of 2014 again, much like what happened in the early 70s once pitchers adjusted to the re-instituted rules changes of 1969.

Here's a fun fact: HRs are up this May (1.17/G) from April (1.08/G). Run scoring, however, is down two-tenths of a run (4.25, down from 4.47). BA is down, walks are down. The more that happens, the harder it will be to make it up with increased ISO, if HRs don't go back to their "perfect storm" numbers of last year (extremely unlikely). The result: we'll have a game that is boringly two-dimensional on both the x and the y axis: painfully limited offensive variety and low offense. Take a bow, post-neos: if anyone should own this impending circle jerk, it's you.