Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Modern Baseball Trends and Making Adjustments

I'm a bit late in getting to this, but Eno Sarris had a very interesting piece in The Athletic last week about how the teams in this year's World Series reflect modern baseball strategy, and asking how this strategy might continue to evolve. There are several fascinating observations here concerning ball movement, velocity, pitching up in the zone, and how hitters might adjust to these trends. As I mentioned in Sunday's post, baseball in glacially slow in adapting to new trends, and once they do follow suit, it's hard for a lot of teams to move on - even if things aren't working as well for them quite as well anymore.

Sarris notes that the trend in rising fastball velocity in recent years has been leveling off, and that teams are looking more at the vertical movement on these fastballs. The importance of vertical fastball movement isn't new. One of the things that set top pitchers apart was the amount of movement on their fastballs. It's why they can often get away with less than ideal location on their pitches, and why they can make hitters look terrible swinging and missing on their best stuff.

If you've watched Mets telecasts over the years, you'll often hear Keith Hernandez talk about a pitcher's fastball being straight, with little of the "ride" or "carry" that Sarris discusses in this piece. Bobby Parnell is a good example from a few years ago, who threw quite hard but also very straight. Parnell had less margin for error than pitchers who had really good movement on their pitches. It's also why, when he is right, Edwin Diaz can be so unhittable, even though he often isn't great at locating his pitches.

Although Sarris is talking about 4-seamers up in the zone, the same could be said about power sinker ball pitchers like Jeurys Familia. When he is right, which is far too seldom since he rejoined the Mets, he has a tremendous amount of late break on his fastball which moves down and in to right-handed hitters, down and away to lefties. When he's hittable, you'll see more lateral movement on the pitch than downward, and the break is also lazier and not as sharp. The Dodgers Kenley Jansen also made a career out of a great sinker with velocity, but both his velocity and movement aren't what they once were, making him much more hittable these days.

In recent years you've probably heard discussion about spin rates on breaking pitches. The higher spin rates lead to breaking balls that break later, sharper, and vertically as well as horizontally. These breaking pitches are tougher to hit. Seth Lugo is a great example of a Mets pitcher who gets tremendous spin on his curveball when he is right. Spin rate on fastballs is also important. Getting back to the 4-seamer Sarris wrote about, higher spin rate on the fastball leads to later and sharper vertical movement, and are much harder to hit. Teams are already starting to prioritize spin and movement over just velocity, which makes sense because hitters face so many pitchers who throw hard. Blazing fastballs are no longer a novelty.

As Sarris points out, teams are attacking hitters up in the zone a lot more often with those 4-seam fastballs, in obvious adjustment to the uppercut swing most hitters are utilizing these days. Teams are now throwing about half of their fastballs up in the zone, and this is a location that uppercut swings can't cover all that well. The combination of velocity, high spin rates and the home run swing are what has caused the dramatic increase in strikeouts for even the better hitters in the game. Again, those who watch Mets games on television are very familiar with Keith Hernandez discussing this subject. When Keith played he had a flat swing which allowed him to handle pitches up in the zone better, but limited his home run output. If Keith broke into the game in the past decade, I would strongly suspect that he would have more of an uppercut swing, especially as a first baseman.

Or maybe not. Sarris points out how the Rays' Randy Arozarena is taking advantage of the trend to pitch up because he has a flatter swing path. He also notes how hitters like the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger and Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs are using a flatter secondary swing to make themselves less vulnerable to being pitched up. Better hitters are going to be making adjustments to better cover pitches up in the zone, and we may very well see more hitters that utilize a more flat swing come up from the minors. You're not going to be able to erase the trend towards higher strikeout totals, pitchers really do throw harder and have some nasty breaking stuff these days. But hitters that consistently get beaten with the same pitch over and over again without adjusting are not going to populate the roster of better teams.

Now the importance of home runs is still high in the game, so I doubt that you'll see a dramatic infusion of slappy singles hitters that dominated the game in the 1970s. We've seen in this World Series how the home run powers modern offenses. But you would think at the minor league level smart teams will work with their talented prospects to develop a plan to combat high heat.

In a similar vein, Sarris points out how aggressively both the Rays and Dodgers employ defensive shifts. It wasn't all that many years ago that dramatic defensive shifts were relatively rare, and primarily used against left-handed power hitters. Now they're ubiquitous in the game, yet most hitters have a hard time adjusting their game to try to take advantage of the holes left open for them by big shifts. You would think the trend would be for smart teams to work with their players in the minors on getting comfortable with methods of beating the shift. Not only are there free hits to be had for hitters adept at this, but enough success could force other teams to shift less drastically on those hitters. At the very least, any hitter that makes it to the Majors should be able to push a half-decent bunt into the abyss left open for them on the opposite side of the diamond to keep opposing teams more honest defensively.

Honestly, it surprises me that we're not seeing more young hitters come into the Majors with a shift-beating strategy. It's been around long enough that we should be seeing more adjustment. I'm not talking about every young hitter being an expert bunter, but it doesn't take anything all that great when they leave half of the field wide open. Just push the ball into the area where the fielders aren't covering.

I've been reading Sarris' stuff for quite a while now. As a writer, I admire how well he explains something rather complex such as spin rates in a way that's accessible to folks without an advanced degree. If you have a subscription to The Athletic, Sarris is always a worthwhile read.

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Joel Sherman had a piece in the New York Post yesterday about what a great gift to baseball fans this World Series has been. I would go further and note that the whole season has been a gift, even for a Met fan like myself who was treated to one last Wilponian disappointment.

I remember how much I missed baseball when it seemed much more likely than not that there wouldn't be a season at all. The game was certainly weird to watch when it came back, but I appreciated the fact that I was, indeed, watching baseball. Not even the awfulness of what will be, hopefully, Brodie Van Wagenen's last Mets team could take away from that. While watching the Mets was often frustrating and even pathetic - they sure managed to get blow out quite a bit in such a short season - it was nice to be in the familiar spot of listening to Gary, Keith and Ron calling a Mets game. Even another season of bad Mets baseball beats a season without any baseball at all.

Admittedly, what made this season a bit easier to stomach was the knowledge that the Wilpons were finally being shown the door. It's been a long time since there was any real reason to believe that the Mets would enjoy anything more than the most temporary of successes while they were running the show. This year, no matter how poorly the team played, you could look at guys like de Grom and Dom Smith and Michael Conforto and Andrés Giménez and David Peterson, and think to yourself that the right person running things could do something with the core that is already here. This isn't 2009, when it was clear that there wasn't much to build with, and you knew the Wilpons would screw it up, anyway.

I've been following with some amusement Mayor de Blasio's posturing on perhaps blocking Cohen's ownership of the club. I'm a liberal Dem, but not a fan of the man. I don't live in the city, anyway. If he wants to lose the vote of any Democratic Mets fan in the city of New York he should definitely block Cohen. A smart politician wouldn't go there in the first place, much less act on it.

I was tempted to write something about Jeff Wilpon's farewell to the troops, but decided to take the high road this once. Saying goodbye to loyal employees was commendable. Still, my hands are shaking as I struggle not to type something sarcastic here...

That will do it for me today. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Check back for new content that we'll be posting here throughout the offseason. Have a great day.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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