27 July 2021

Ellis Millsaps: Baseball Edition 2021, Pt II

 The rules rarely change but the way the game is played has changed markedly in the past few years and those changes along with superman power pitching and sticky substances are contributing to record low batting averages.

 The infield shift, which has come to be almost universal, works. Sabermetrics show that batted balls are less likely to result in baserunners when the shift is employed. ( If I'm a left-handed hitter leading off an inning where my team is behind by two or more runs I'm going to bunt to the unmanned third base position. I'm not going to hit a two-run homer.)

 The recent emphasis on "launch angle” increases strikeouts and lowers batting averages. The theory behind this approach is that a homerun is worth more than two singles. The launch angle hitters ( that isn't everyone) no longer practice what we were always taught: swing level and put the ball in play. Accompanying the upward swing phenomenon is the idea to swing as hard as one can, which also decreases the likelihood of making contact.

 The way teams employ starting pitchers has radically changed. It used to be that starting pitchers were expected to go a complete game or die trying. Now all starters are pulled so that they don't have to pitch through the order a third or certainly not a fourth time. Stats show that the starting lineup starts to figure out what the starting pitcher is throwing during their third at bat. Now most starters are pulled after five or six Innings and the opposing lineup will likely see four or five pitchers during a game.

 On the homefront, going into the second half the Braves have been treading water with no life buoy in sight. That's beyond the scope of this essay but I mention it as I transition to talk about Jacob deGrom. 

A few weeks ago the Braves opened a three-game series with the Mets in which the home team needed to win two in order to gain on the league leader. That outcome seemed highly unlikely because after they split the first two they faced in the third game Jacob deGrom.

 deGram is the best pitcher on the planet, some say in the history of the planet.

Coming into this midseason game he had an era of .69, way better than any starter in history at that point in the season. He had driven in more runs than he had allowed. Active debate began as to whether he was better than Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson.

 It's almost an apples to oranges comparison. As of the date of that Braves start in which the Braves put up three runs-- half as many as the deGrom had allowed in the season to that point-- there had been 24 complete games thrown in all of Major League Baseball. DeGrom had one of those. In 1966 over 700 were thrown. In ‘68 Juan Marichal alone threw 30. In ‘66 Koufax posted a 1.73 ERA while completing 27 games, the record low ERA to that date. Two years later Gibson blew that record away with a 1.12 ERA and 28 complete games. Carl Yaztremski led the AL in hitting that year with a .301 average. As I mentioned earlier, the next year MLB lowered the mound height from 15 to 10 inches.

 deGrom is challenging Gibson’s record although in his last three starts his era has “ballooned” to 1.01 (now 1.08). One can't help noticing those outings came after the sticky ball ban. That may well be a coincidence. In that game against the Braves he struck out 14 in 7 innings, but the fact that he didn’t have to go through the order a fourth time is verifiable. On the other hand he doesn’t get to pitch off a 15 inch mound.

- Ellis Millsaps