Launch angle. Spin rate. Three true outcomes.
OPS+. WAR. FIP.
Stats have truly overtaken the game of baseball. Is it a good thing? Yes. absolutely, yes. For better or worse, advanced analysis is here to stay. It drives all decisions in baseball. It is why teams choose to sign (or not sign) a certain free agent, it is why teams trade assets for future value. It is how teams rebuild their entire organizations to win championships.
But the statistical revolution hasn’t been without its drawbacks.
The focus on launch angle, home runs and the three true outcomes have given baseball a semblance of its glory days from the late 90’s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the single season home run record. In today’s game, we are not only seeing more home runs, but we are seeing more players hit more home runs than ever before. And while that may seem exciting, it has actually affected the entertainment value of the product on the field.
Because of the increased home runs, baseball has also seen increased strikeouts. This in and of itself is nothing new, but this year’s pace is alarming. In April of this year, for example, there were more strikeouts (6,656) than hits (6,360) for the first time in baseball history.
In addition, baseball games in 2018 are averaging over 3 minutes in between balls put in play (in play meaning non three true outcomes). It’s no wonder non baseball fans think baseball is boring. Home runs, while exciting in their own way, are far less exciting than a great defensive play, a string of hits, or a nail biting one run game.
But this, this, is where the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays have earned their salt.
This year’s Rays (at least offensively) are pretty much the opposite of last year’s team. A team that ranked 6th on home runs a year ago, now ranks 27th. A team that ranked 25th in batting average now ranks 6th.
But there are two categories in which the Rays lead all of baseball.
The first is BABIP, or Batting Average On Balls In Play. Essentially, this stat measures how many balls in play fall for hits (Home runs are technically hits, but are technically not in play). On other words, the Rays are putting the ball in play. A lot.
Whereas last year’s team hit more home runs but were near the bottom in runs scored, this year’s team is far closer to the league average in runs per game despite struggling to hit the long ball. Putting the ball in play has forced teams to make great defensive plays, and an increase in great defensive plays is simply great for baseball.
Imagine as world where Adeiny Hechavarria never got a ball hit to him. I sure don’t.
So we know the Rays lead baseball in this category, but why is it important? As I mentioned earlier, the increased home runs in baseball have come at the expense of increased strikeouts–we’ve known this for a while now. But the tide is turning, and pitchers are adjusting.
Pitchers have realized that it is far more difficult to ‘launch’ an elevated 4 seam fastball, and that’s what they’ve gone to. The conventional wisdom of ‘keeping the ball down’ is totally out the window. to further my point, here’s a list of baseball’s top whiffers on that pitch in 2017. Let me know if any of these names sound familiar.
|3||Steven Souza Jr.||121|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
They Rays have moved toward hitters who make contact, and clearly, it’s working. The rest of the league is now starting to pick up on this as well, but the Rays, like they have in the past, stay ahead of the curve.
In addition to BABIP, the 2018 Rays also lead the majors in one run games with 17. While this is more dumb luck than it is an actual metric, it’s undeniable that it’s produced some thrilling games, even if they have been on the losing end of most of them. Despite a 15-19 record, the Rays have been in almost every game, which, alone, is pretty darn exciting.
So if you’re one of those refusing to watch this team because they traded your favorite player, I have four words for you: