Friday, March 12, 2021

Welcome to the New Dead Ball Era

The newly updated
MLB baseball
Much of the talk around baseball this spring has centered around changes that MLB has made to the ball in an effort to bring the home run numbers back down from their historic highs last season. MLB claims that the changes made were relatively minor, but players are concerned that the changes could prove significant. Since top home run hitters receive more money, a leaguewide drop in home run totals could mean less money in player contracts next year. Right now, no one knows exactly what will happen. It's hard to tell by what's happening in spring training, as players are still honing their swings, and the baseballs currently in use are mostly leftovers from last year.

Peter Gammons has an interesting look in The Athletic at the latest drama surrounding the "new" baseball. The truth is that we're really going to know just how much the game will be changed by the ball until the season starts and they start using them. Even then, it won't be until things really warm up in May that we'll start being able to judge the impact.

While MLB claims that the new balls will only travel 2-3 feet less, Gammons quoted one unnamed GM that players are worried that the reduction might be more like 6-10 feet. While the lower number would certainly cut down on many of the cheaper home runs we witnessed in 2020, the bigger number would change the game of baseball as we know it. Every hitter will soon know the joy David Wright experienced in 2009 when Fred and Jeff Wilpon decided the build a new ballpark that penalized their best player.

I'm not a fan of what the game has become over the last few years, but it's a change that's been in progress for decades. Too many at-bats end in walks, strikeouts, or home runs. Particularly when the best pitchers are on the mound, many minutes can go by without substantial game action. Long term, MLB undoubtedly needs to reverse this trend, but just cutting down on home runs this season won't make the game any more interesting.

What will be interesting to watch, especially if that 6-10 foot reduction in fly ball travel becomes a reality, is what adjustments players who have adopted the launch angle approach to hitting might be forced to make as their fly balls find leather and their batting averages plummet. While true power hitters like Pete Alonso still will get their share of longballs, players with more fringy power might find that their approach at the plate has become untenable.

Take a player like Tomás Nido, who spent thousands of his own money to work with a swing coach to adopt the popular launch angle swing and revitalize his offensive game. Nido has always had more than enough defensive skills to be a good Major League backup catcher. The problem has been that his offense lagged so far behind. With a lifetime batting line of .197/.234/.319 and an OPS+ of 49 in 4 major league seasons, Tomás looked like a quintessential Quad-A player. While we still need to see Nido be offensively productive over a full season at backup catcher, he has some hopes of putting together a decent Major League career.

If the changes to the ball this season prove significant, that promise that Tomás Nido showed last season might be washed away. It might even cost him a Major League career. I acknowledge that this is somewhat of a worst-case scenario for hitters, but you could understand the concern.

Based on what we've seen before, I would expect a more modest change than the worst-case projections for ball travel. I think MLB acknowledges that home runs were a little too easy to hit last season and doesn't want to see another year of all-time home run numbers. On the other hand, I doubt very much that they want a new dead ball controversy to take its place. But then again, they've been caught by surprise in other seasons by what they thought were small changes to the ball, leading to outsized results.

As to what it will take for baseball games to feature more action, we've been watching some of the things MLB will be doing in the minor leagues this year, with an eye toward eventually making some changes in the Major League game.

The biggest experiment will take place at the Double-A level. There will be a rule requiring all four infielders to have both feet on the infield dirt at the start of a play, eliminating the second baseman in short right-field used against lefty pull hitters. The idea is to see more batted balls going for hits. There's even a possibility that they might further refine the rule over the second half of the season to require two infielders to be on either side of the second base. If these changes make it to Major League Baseball, the era of pronounced shifting would essentially be over.

I believe most baseball fans would probably like to see the dramatic shifts eliminated. Still, I find myself somewhat torn as to whether it should be legislated as in the Double-A experiment. My belief is that hitters should be trained in the minor leagues to beat shifts with their bat. Better fundamentals should easily counter today's over-the-top defensive shifts. I would much prefer to see the game change that way. Still, if the only way to have extreme shifts go away was a rule change like the one in Double-A this year, I'd have to be in favor of it. I really think exaggerated shifts have hurt baseball in that they're a major contributor to the boring lack of action in today's game.

That will do it for today. Please stay safe, be well, and take care.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

2 comments:

  1. It's tough to beat the shift when you have it beaten into you to hit a long ball or go home. Small ball doesn't sell as many tickets (or jerseys). I think a team that can embrace small ball fundamentals will drive the opposition totally crazy. Think back to how the Cardinals would beat you with a thousand cuts rather than trying to put every pitch over the walls.

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  2. I agree with what you said. Even a home run hitter should be able to hit the ball the other way if all of the infielders are on one side of the diamond. If they were all taught to do that, teams would have to rethink their philosophy of shifting

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