H.G. Wells and Chicken Little, call your offices. The Gawdsakers (as in, Mr. Wells’s description of those hollering “For Gawdsakes let’s do something” about, oh, every other real or imagined crisis) and the Littles (the ones succeeding the fabled chicken hollering “The sky is falling!” even on bright, sunny days) gaze upon two-week-old baseball season and have the willies. And I don’t mean Mays.
Typical is New York Post writer Joel Sherman, or at least his headline writer (one of the dirty little secrets of journalism is that writers don’t always get to write their own headlines), scrawling atop his 11 April column, “MLB’s home run nightmare worsens with no end in sight.” Sherman isn’t quite that hysterical in the actual column, but he isn’t quite temperate, either.
“The homers are part of a grouping with strikeouts, walks and hit by pitches that the Commissioner’s Office has been obsessed with lessening to get more action within the field of play and on the bases to quicken the overall pace,” he writes. “So far in 2019, MLB is seeing its nightmare worsen.
“In 2018 those four types of plays represented a record 34.8 percent of plate appearances,” Sherman continues. “It was 37 percent in 2019 through Wednesday. The sport is on a per-game record pace for homers, strikeouts and hit by pitch, and walks are at a two-decade high.
“Through the first 180 games this season, there have been 467 home runs. That projects to 6,318 for the season. The record is 6,105, set in 2017.”
So much for the wise old saying that records are meant to be broken. But why not take a look at the overall picture in a more sensible fashion?
As of Saturday morning, the American League’s teams delivered 1,687 base hits. Of those, 350 are doubles, 31 are triples, and 268 are home runs, which means 38 percent of the American League teams’ hits have gone for extra bases. The National League’s teams delivered 1,651 base hits, among which are 344 doubles, 25 triples, and 269 home runs, which means 39 percent of the National League’s hits have gone for extra bases.
You might have noticed that the National Leaguers have hit 369 non-homer extra base hits and the American Leaguers, 381. That’s 113 more non-homer extra base hits for the American League and 100 more for the National League. And it means the American League through Saturday morning hit 1,038 singles and the National League, 1,013. Put the two leagues together, and 39 percent of all base hits have gone for extra bases.
A baseball team has two jobs: 1) Put runs on the scoreboard; and, 2) Keep the other guys from putting more runs on the scoreboard. The American League teams have put 959 runs on the scoreboard so far; the National League teams, 951. American League pitching has thrown 13 shutouts so far (the Athletics lead the league with three); National League pitching, 17. (The Pirates, of all people, lead the league, also with three.)
Another wise old saying is, “Good pitching beats good hitting—and vice versa.” The problem for Joe and Jane Fan and, often enough, Joe and Jane Sportswriter, is that they can’t make up their bloody minds what they want to see. Under today’s dubious microscopes, one minute Sandy Koufax would be called a genius and the next he’d be charged with ruining the game. One minute Henry Aaron would get high praise; the next minute, he’ll be accused of helping dull the game.
Show them a flood of good pitching and they’re ready to find all kinds of contortions to give the hitters an even break. Show them a flood of good hitting and they’re ready to find comparable contortions to give the pitchers a little love. Show them nothing but the home runs, the walks, and the strikeouts, and they can’t answer at least one salient question: “You’d rather see them hitting into double plays?”
Which reminds me: American League teams have made 5,440 outs and National League teams, 5,402. Through Saturday morning, American League batters have hit into 124 double plays and National League batters, 134. Meaning five percent of each league’s outs came from double plays.
A well-turned double play is a delight to watch around the infield but hell on a hitter who’s just wasted a valuable out. I have a hard time believing those who want whatever they think is more “action” really want to see more double plays. Not even if they could put Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski, and Keith Hernandez around the infield.
Funny thing, too: As of Saturday morning, the American League’s batting average on balls in play is .290 and the National League’s, 291. And the stolen base isn’t quite as extinct as you might have been led to think, either. Through Saturday morning, the American Leaguers have tried 137 thefts and consummated 121; National Leaguers have tried 125 and consummated 86.
That’s an .883 American League stolen base percentage and a .688 National League percentage. Put them together and you have a .790 major league stolen base percentage, a mere eighteen points below Hall of Famer Rickey (The Man of Steal) Henderson’s stolen base percentage.
So far this season’s surprise team is the Mariners. As in, the allegedly rebuilding Mariners. They have the best record in the Show through Saturday morning, and they’re earning a reputation as a powerhouse: their 37 home runs are better than everyone else so far, with only the continuously-rebuilding Athletics (34) having hit 30+ bombs in their league and only the consistently-mighty Dodgers hitting 30+ in the National League.
But lo! The mighty Mariners have hit 43 percent for extra bases overall, and they have a .904 stolen base percentage in 21 tries. (19 steals.) (The bottom-feeding Royals, World Series champions a mere four years ago, have almost as many thefts, 16, as the Mariners.) The Mariners have 32 doubles and four triples to go with their 37 bombs, but they’ve also hit 97 singles—57 percent of their hits.
Two nights ago I sat in Las Vegas Ballpark watching the AAA Aviators tangle with and blow out the Sacramento River Cats, 11-3. The game’s most remarkable feat was the Aviators whacking four triples in five consecutive plate appearances in the third inning and the final three of them consecutively. Those triples were good for three runs. Let me reiterate: Only one team major or minor leagues, to my knowledge, ever did the triples thing better in a single inning, the 1934 Red Sox hitting four straight triples against the Tigers.
Meanwhile, the game’s first run scored while River Cats left fielder Michael Reed dialed Area Code 5-6-3 in the second inning. The Aviators scored twice in the bottom of that inning on a wild pitch, a throwing error, and some marvelous hustle, then sent home two runs on a walk, a base hit, and an RBI double in the fourth. The fifth through the seventh were scoreless on both ends but with only five strikeouts between the two sides. Top of the eighth, Cats third baseman Zach Green hit a leadoff homer over the right center field fence and past the swimming pool onto its patio behind that fence; the Aviators scored four in the bottom on a double, an RBI single, and a two-run homer.
There were 22 hits in the game, ten singles four doubles, four triples, and three home runs. The Aviators pitchers struck out seven; the River Cats pitchers, 15. But I don’t remember anyone complaining about 22 of the game’s 51 outs coming on strikeouts. Including Reed’s double play, the only double play of the game while we’re at it, there were 23 ground outs in the game, 16 fly outs, and one runner under arrest trying to steal. Meaning 76 percent of the game’s outs didn’t come by strikeout.
Calm down, Chicken Gawdsaking Little. There’s more “action” than you think. (I can’t wait for the next kvetch over the next great pitching duel.) Baseball isn’t exactly in the dire shape you’ve tricked yourself into believing.