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Okay, an exaggeration. But not that much.
Just about every major offensive category in the game declined last season. Batting average and on-base percentage have been on the wane since 2006. Strikeouts have skyrocketed, batters whiffed 20.4 per cent of the time in 2014 — highest rate in baseball history and the first time it has ever been greater than 20 per cent. And the strikeout rate has increased every year since 2005.
Runs per game fell to 4.07 in 2014, lowest since ’81, and 13th-lowest since World War II.
Easy enough to blame the dim wattage on a post-steroid era. No juice equals dilution. That doesn’t tell the entire story, however. The advent of power arms is likely the greatest culprit, as flamethrowers who would have been starters in the past are now more frequently relegated to the bullpen and short-innings expertise.
Of course, there have always been yin-and-yang trends in baseball, when either pitching or hitting is paramount. But the moundsmen clearly have the game in their nasty grasp at this moment in time.
“Pitchers have adapted,” says Josh Donaldson, the career .268 hitter — .301 in 2013 — who’s brought his sterling defensive assets at third base to the Jays this year. “A lot of guys are using more movement and they’re throwing harder. When everybody’s throwing at a certain velocity, you reach a point where you kind of have to pick your poison.”
It doesn’t help that the strike zone keeps expanding. According to research conducted by Hardball Times writer Jon Roegele, the strike zone has grown by 40 square inches — from 435 square inches in 2009 to 475 square inches in 2014, with the largest part of that enlargement in the lower area of the zone, as umpires increasingly call strikes below the kneecap.
Donaldson has certainly noticed — and tried to adjust — to the up-down distention.
“The two biggest pitches that they’re calling now, that I’ve really noticed a difference in the last couple of years, is the fastball down — that’s at the hollow of the knee, which is in the rule book — and the back-up curveball.”
As a one-time catcher calling pitches, Donaldson is struck by the transition. “I’m not too far removed from catching and if a slider backed up, it never used to be called a strike.”
The last time MLB officially changed the definition of the strike zone was after the ’96 season, when the boundary for the bottom of the zone was lowered from the top of the batter’s knees to the bottom.
Another factor crushing offence is heightened deployment of the defensive shift, with some even calling for its mandated elimination from the game.
Managers in baseball have gone gaga with it, both in modest application and radically. Stats compiled by Baseball Info Solutions — a high-tech company that crunches deep analytic numbers — indicated that teams employed the shift 13,296 times last season. In 2011, teams shifted 2,357 times.
“For lefties to get ground ball hits on the pull side now, it’s almost impossible, unless they’re a lefty who’s fast. Most of the time they’re not going to play the second baseman that far back because they can beat it out anyway.
“With that being said, a hit that was a hit five years ago is not a hit anymore. For me, as a righty, you were taught your entire life to hit a ball up the middle. Now, you smoke a ball up the middle and there’s a second baseman or a shortstop there. But as many times that they do that to me, I’ll also get a three-hopper that goes through the four-hole.”
The Braves put the shift on Donaldson Saturday here, his first at-bat, and he stroked a ball through the right side for a single. Next time up, the fielders were positioned closer together but it still took an outstanding leap by Eric Young Jr. to pull in a ball off the top of the wall for the fly out.
“You have to sometimes pick your poison and put your ego aside,” continues Donaldson. “If they’re going to give you something, why wouldn’t you take it? The game’s about scoring runs and scoring more runs than the other team. If they’re going to put four infielders on the right side or the left side, take your ground ball single. Why not?
“There are times when they have a guy up the middle and two pull-side, if I feel good off a pitcher, I’m still going to try to get it deep.”
Whatever the tendencies in baseball today, Toronto’s potent offence hasn’t been stifled, making the Blue Jays an exception to the trend. Indeed, slugger Jose Bautista doesn’t accept that offence is on the wane.
“I don’t know if batting average and on-base average are declining that much. I’m sure they’re not at the same level that they were before. But we’re coming out of an era that had heightened offence because of a different set of reasons.”
That’s not merely code for steroids.
“There’s a period of adjustment. In the game of baseball, every 10 or 15 years, there seems to be a major shift from offence to pitching. It’s an on and off kind of thing. We’re coming from an offence-heavy, home-run dominant era. Now it’s a pitching dominant era and it seems like a huge contrast. I think that’s why people may be making such a big deal out of it.
“But we still have a great set of ballplayers that can hit the ball a long way.”
There’s one other advantage, perhaps merely of nuance, to pitchers this season. Batters can no longer step away from the box once the at-bat has begun, though this diktat was implemented primarily to help shorten games.
“They expand the strike zone, now they say we have to stay at the plate,” gripes basher Edwin Encarnacion. “This game, it’s getting harder to hit, year after year. There’s a lot of good young pitchers coming up, throwing 96, 97, 98, sink the ball, cut the ball. Not easy.”
“They have to find a way to make this game fair for hitters too.”