How Would We Increase Balls in Play?

There’s a difference between watching the game at home and watching at the park, that much is obvious. Personally, I’m more analytical at home, where I have the tools to identify pitch type and location with some precision, for example. At the field, I can only tell velocity and maybe spot the curveballs, so I get an adult soda, a good companion, and I talk and wait.

What am I waiting for? “People go to the game to see us put the ball in play, throw the ball away, and fall down,” Giants starter Jeff Samardzija told me the other day. “They want to see people doing things,” said Indians slugger Jay Bruce. I couldn’t disagree. The problem, if this is true, is that baseball is trending in the opposite direction. There are fewer balls in play now than at any other point in the history of the sport. There’s less of people doing things, to use Bruce’s words.

Define balls in play as anything other than a walk, hit by pitch, strikeout, or home run, and you can see the trend back to the very beginning of baseball.

Ask a player why this has happened, and a common theme emerges. “Analytics is so far ahead for pitchers than hitters,” said Royals slugger Brandon Moss. “It doesn’t matter if we know what you’re about to throw, we still have to be able to hit it. Just because I know that you throw a curveball 70% [of the time] in a 2-1 count, that doesn’t help me. I don’t want to hit a curveball. I’m still going to look for my pitch.”

He’s not alone. Oakland infielder Jed Lowrie answered my question with one of his own: “Can you name an analytic breakthrough that helps the hitter?” When I suggested that a greater understanding of exit velocity and launch angles might help a hitter adjust — as it’s helped Mark Trumbo adjust recently — the two hitters disagreed. “Not one single time have I wondered what my exit velocity was,” said Moss, who sees the game from an analytical perch but doesn’t feel the new Statcast data helps hitters that much. “The only thing that matters is if it’s a hit or out.”

The idea that the shift has killed the ground ball is pervasive and contributes to the idea that analytics favor run prevention. “I’m trying to swing at a pitch that I can do some damage with, not just put it in play,” pointed out Moss. “You know why? Because if I put it in play over here, you’ve got fucking eight people over there on the right side, so if I put that curveball in play, I’m out. ‘Hey, everyone move to the right side, we’ll just pound him with balls that he puts on the ground!'”

The effect of the shift on league-wide results isn’t as obvious as Moss might suggest — not when you zoom out, at least. The hit percentage on a ground ball has remained steady while shifts have gone through the roof.

If the prospect of the shift has compelled hitters to adopt a more all-or-nothing approach, though, is there a way to fix it? Is there tweak we could make to the rules that would lead to more balls in play? “You don’t have to take away the shift,” said Moss. “But make those infielders stay on the infield grass. And they can’t stand in the outfield. So… when I do hit a ground ball through the right side, and it’s through, it’s through. Now I’m not as worried about the ground ball to the right side, so I’m more likely to put a ball in play.”

Given that every stadium has a regulation infield, this feels like a small measure that would be easy to enforce. We’d see fewer of these plays at least, plays that would’ve made us scratch our collective heads five years ago.

If the shift isn’t to blame, though, what might be responsible for the constant push towards fewer balls in play? Trevor Bauer put it succinctly: “Pitchers optimize for the strikeout and hitters optimize for the home run. It gives them the best return, so they’ll always trend in that direction in the power game.”

Part of that optimization process is velocity. “I can’t remember seeing so many guys throwing this hard,” Pirate John Jaso told our David Laurila. Since we’ve tracked this sort of thing, we’ve never seen fastballs thrown as hard as the ones we are seeing now, so he’s right to point it out.

And though velocity itself has been shown to have value, it also spreads to other pitches. “A lot of times, people strike out because they’re scared a fastball is going to get blown by them,” Jaso pointed out to Laurila. “They feel they have to get ready sooner — get the bat head out there — so they end up chasing stuff in the dirt because all their momentum is going forward.”

“I think it’s velocity,” agreed Bruce. And the numbers bear that out: with every addition mile per hour, the probability of a swing and miss increases. The speed of the pitch does contribute to the exit velocity of the ball in play, but only one-fifth of that exit velocity comes from the speed of the pitch; the other four-fifths are bat speed. And velocity contributes to ground balls, too — though, as Bruce said, “people are trying to hit the ball in the air” and the average launch angle around baseball has increased. About a degree in the last two years.

In any case, there’s little we can do about ever increasing velocity. It’s one of the most sought after tools, from Perfect Game showcases to the major leagues. So it keeps climbing.

Speaking with a fellow writer in the press box the other day, we wondered what would happen across baseball, professional and amateur, radar guns were to be banned. Given that the most recent data suggests more velocity means more stress — with the added nuance that pitchers who pitch closer to their personal max stress themselves the most, as Glenn Fleisig noted recently during his presentation at Saber Seminar — we might do double duty of increasing balls in play and limiting injuries. It’ll never happen, though.

Moss thought that hitters and pitchers together were working hand in hand to increase strikeouts. “They pitch to limit contact, and to get weak contact. And once they get ahead, they pitch for a strikeout,” Moss pointed out. “How do we combat that? We don’t give in. They don’t give in, we don’t give in.”

That effect has been documented by Russell Carleton: players are eschewing the two-strike approach in order to swing for the fences and look fastball no matter the count. And maybe that’s a decent approach, because hitters aren’t even seeing fastballs on 2-0 and 3-0 counts like they used to. “3-0 changeups and curveballs,” Moss muttered. “How about an automatic heater down the middle on 2-0. That would get us more balls in play!”

2-0 Fastball Percentage, 2008-17
Season FB%
2008 60.9%
2009 60.9%
2010 62.0%
2011 59.6%
2012 60.7%
2013 61.0%
2014 60.3%
2015 60.7%
2016 60.2%
2017 58.2%
SOURCE: PITCHf/x
All sinkers, two-seamers, and four-seamers in 2-0 counts.

As you can see, fastball percentage in 2-0 counts has actually been pretty consistent over the past decade, with the exception of a two-point decrease between this year and last. Perhaps that’s the effect that Moss has identified. We’ll have to see. Moss’s enthusiasm aside, there’s nothing that can be done about this structurally.

There is another element that’s relevant to this discussion. The strike zone. It’s bigger than it’s ever been. That leads to strikeouts, obviously, which also leads to a suppression of ball-in-play totals.

Lowrie has noticed and thinks that we could improve the pace of the game and put more balls in play with one easy solution. “If you look in the last 10 years, the called strike zone has gotten three square inches bigger, mostly to the bottom of the zone. Runs per game are down almost a full run…, the average game time has gone up 25 minutes, and pitches per at-bat have gone up one full pitch,” he pointed out. “If you make the strike zone smaller, you force the pitchers to throw the ball in the zone, and guys will swing earlier in the count… One fewer pitch per at-bat, at 30 seconds: that’s a lot of time.”

While Lowrie has correctly identified the existence — if not necessarily the magnitude — of the trends he cites, correlation doesn’t always mean causation. Players could be getting more patient because baseball more greatly values walks on the open market. Maybe players have noticed the link between seeing more pitches and better outcomes.

And if you make the strike zone smaller, that could create a lot of unintended consequences. For one, couldn’t it just lead to more walks? Seems obvious. And modeling what swing rates will do with smaller strike zones is near impossible. It might work… and it might just exacerbate the problem.

If nothing else, hitters certainly have general ideas about adding balls in play. But I also hear them expressing some frustration about how they’re supposed to address the problem as individuals. “Everything is way harder than just saying it,” Bruce pointed out. “I don’t know if there is much hitters can do about it, hitting is so hard, anyway,” Jaso pointed out. “So much is out of your control. I feel that if you get it into your head that you’re not going to strike out, chances are that you’re going to strike out. It’s like a golfer approaching a shot and there’s a sand trap there. If he tells himself, ‘Don’t hit it in the sand trap,’ he’s probably going to end up hitting it in the sand trap, because that’s what his brain is thinking about.”

And others expressed doubt that this was even a relevant train of thought. We were talking about pace of game changes this spring — a similar effort in terms of changing rules to improve fan interaction with the game — but Nationals closer Sean Doolittle thought we were veering off course. “We’re talking about pretty drastic changes to shave five minutes from a game. Are you seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds lining up for season tickets?”

The lefty thought we should consider how the game is packaged and how people could better interact with the game. “Marketing? We’re not that good at it. Let’s see if we can use some of our personalities to drive traffic and energize the game. Blackout rules. Millennials don’t pay for cable. Allow more gifs and videos on social media. Statcast could help if you use it right — showcasing how athletic some of these guys are.”

Rule changes seem like monkeying with the game, anyway. “I believe, just like anything, there’s evolution,” said Bruce. “The game is always going to demand that you, as a player, make the necessary changes to be successful. Baseball is changing. Guys used to leave the glove on the field for the other guy to use it; it used to be as big as their heads.”

When Bruce summed it up, he hit a note that could sum up the effort to undo what has happened to baseball recently: “Everything always changes, everything gets better.”

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Move the outfield fences out. Triples for everyone!