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MLB

Baseball Is Better For Having Just A Little More Chaos

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Astros swept the New York Yankees Thursday in a day-night doubleheader. The losses dropped the Yankees to 64–30 on the season, still the best record in all of baseball. The wins lifted the Astros to 61–32, good for second place in the American League. The Astros took the season series over the Yankees, five games to two, and along with the lowly Cincinnati Reds—who took an improbable two of three off the Yankees in a mid-July interleague tilt—are one of just two teams in baseball with a winning record this regular season against the Evil Empire.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone turned grumpy when asked about his team dumping the season series to the outfit that nipped his team each of the last two times it reached the ALCS. “Don’t overstate this,” insisted Boone, of losing five of seven to the Astros, including a no-hitter in June and a sweep to open the second half. “We beat them four out of six last year and where did that get us? I understand it’s a big story in the season we’re in. It’s not gonna matter till October. If we happen to come back here in October, we’re gonna show up. We’re gonna expect to win.” In what has been a profoundly unsquirmy season for the Yankees, it’s a relief and even a shit-hearted delight to see their skipper wrestling with “narratives” and reliving unpleasant memories right at the outset of an important second half.

However much Boone might prefer to frame these contests as garden-variety regular-season stuff, the games have the feel of playoff baseball, the late stages of Thursday’s early game in particular. With the game tied at two in the bottom of the ninth, Alex Bregman singled to left and was moved over to third on a double by Aledmys Díaz. Three batters later, with two outs and the bases juiced following an intentional walk, Astros pinch hitter J.J. Matijevic punched a broken-bat grounder to the left side, and everyone situated anywhere near the infield just started tearing ass all at once, in a delirious and wonderfully chaotic few seconds of pure action:

Loath as I am to celebrate anything good that happens for the Houston Astros, a bases-loaded broken-bat infield single is an extremely bitchin’ way for a baseball game to end, and is precisely the kind of thing fans who’ve struggled with baseball’s Three True Outcomes era hope to see more of if the sport ever starts swinging back the other way. Little moments of hectic action, where lots of different things might happen, to replace just a portion of those moments where only three possible things might happen, none of which involve in any way any of the seven guys standing around in the infield and outfield.

This baseball season has gotten a few things correct. For one thing, the ball is a little bit deader, and so dingers are a little bit less likely and therefore a little bit more special. Your mileage on that may vary—perhaps you are the sort of vulgarian who wants only dingers, nothing but dingers all the time, dingers dingers dingers—but the good news for the rest of us refined aesthetes is the decline in cheap dongs corresponds with a drop in the other two equally dreaded so-called “true outcomes.” Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris of The Athletic took an in-depth look Thursday at this delightful trend—home runs down to 1.08 per game, strikeouts down to 8.36 per game, walks down to 3.11 per game—and concluded, happily, that this may not, in fact, be a fluke. Sarris says some combination of MLB’s league-wide use of humidors and the league settling on one ball type—a deadened ball—has led to a drop of approximately 10 percent year over year in dingers. Fascinatingly, it turns out walks track league-wide very closely with dingers: When dingers rise, walks rise, and when dingers fall, walks fall. That’s two true outcomes accounted for, right there.

But a drop in homers and walks without a corresponding drop in strikeouts would be a recipe for truly brutal baseball. And, in fact, the baseball this season has been a little bit ragged, with the league’s hitters in the first half combining for a downright Karkovician slash line:

But! Strikeouts are down, which means however shitty the results in statistical terms, fans are seeing more action in the field than they’ve seen in recent years. Sarris and Stark found that some of the decline in strikeouts can be chalked up to the fact that National League pitchers are no longer digging into the box and murdering rallies and stinking up the numbers. But also, hitters this season seem to be more action-oriented overall, swinging early and often and finally, finally chipping away at the advance of strikeouts and walks as the dominant outcomes of plate appearances:

[B]atters are swinging more than they ever have in the pitch-tracking era, at balls and at strikes.

[…]

The march upward in swing rates has been steady, increasing a little with every year. The two highest swing rates have come in the last two seasons, and the three highest in the past four seasons. Batters are swinging at 32.3 percent of the pitches they see outside of the zone now, compared to 24.9 percent in 2008.

[…]

If batters were swinging at pitches the same way they did back in 2008, they’d have swung at over 7,600 fewer pitches by this point in the season.

The Athletic

A game where batters are swinging more and putting more balls in play and where more of those balls in play must be fielded is a faster, more action-packed game, and that is something we can all support. Even the person on Earth who most hates Major League Baseball, baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred.

What if it’s all linked together, a clean and comprehensible matter of cause and effect? What if pitchers are more comfortable throwing over the plate precisely because fewer barreled-up balls are soaring out, and batters, recognizing that pitchers are less afraid of the strike zone and that their best uppercut rips are less likely than ever to produce a home run, are getting back to punching the ball into play and hunting gaps and doing a little directional hitting? Buddy, that would rule insanely hard. Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long confirmed to Stark that he has observed just that sort of change in approach: “I heard Jeff McNeil say the other day something like, ‘I don’t even care if I hit it 47 miles per hour. I just want to find a hole because it doesn’t do me any good to swing harder, because the ball is not going out.’” Hell yes!

“Now … swing. Keep swinging!”

So it is possible right now to feel some small encouragement about baseball’s direction! Against all odds, the lumbering idiot behemoth that is Major League Baseball may just be changing its trajectory, back toward a better version of itself.