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In the age of the juiced ball, we all must adjust our expectations

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In a time when the league’s offensive baselines can shift seemingly overnight, fans must be ready to shift their expectations as well.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

All sports, to some extent, are games of change. Basketball has spent the past few seasons reckoning with the discovery that three points are worth more than two points. Analytics are slowly becoming more prevalent in football, and some teams are getting significantly more aggressive when it comes to going for it on fourth down and in deploying things like play-action fakes. And in baseball, the three true outcomes are all the rage, with home runs in particular exploding at an eye-popping pace.

When a game changes as fast as baseball has in recent years, though, it can threaten our understanding of the sport in some ways. A juiced ball has radically changed the landscape of MLB overnight, multiple times, shifting the foundation of the entire league year-over-year. If the ball can change so quickly, it can leave fans up the river without a paddle.

In an era in which the game itself can shift instantaneously, we as observers have to be just as quick on our feet. Ever since a new ball made its debut after the All-Star break in 2015, the sport itself has been liable to change at a moment’s notice, and with every change has come a new set of baselines and averages. Those who follow and analyze the game must be prepared to change as well.

Take this as a reminder that we all need to be ready to shift our expectations. The game today is not what it was even five years ago. That means we cannot allow our expectations to remain anchored in an era long past, even if that era feels like it was just yesterday.

Take, for example, the simple triple slash line. In providing us three important metrics, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, the triple slash can import a wealth of information in an instant. It can tell us that the average non-pitcher in 2014 hit .255/.318/.393, with a .711 OPS.

This season, the average non-pitcher has posted a .255/.326/.439 slash line and .765 OPS. That 54-point increase has happened over a relatively short period of time, but we have to be cognizant of it when evaluating players. That .765 OPS is higher than the career OPS of many an All-Star, such as Lorenzo Cain, Yankee-killer Howie Kendrick, and Mike Moustakas. It’s almost as high as the career OPS of our hero, DJ LeMahieu! Basically, the average hitter in 2019 is nearly as productive at the plate as LeMahieu, a .302/.353/.417 hitter overall, has been for his career.

That huge OPS jump is mostly propelled by a jump in power, of course. The league’s hitters as a whole own a .184 isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average), a pure measure of power performance. That is the highest ISO in the history of the game, and it’s not close, with 2017 and its version of the juiced ball clocking in at second with a .175 figure.

Keep this new baseline in mind when looking at the Yankees’ own players. Brett Gardner’s .200 ISO is great for him, but not that much better than average in the modern league, and his overall .233/.317/.433 line doesn’t even equate to above average after adjusting for league and park. Gio Urshela’s .829 OPS would’ve been sensational five years ago, and would have ranked him third among third basemen in 2014. This year, it puts him 18th among third basemen with as many plate appearances. Even someone like Luke Voit looks more mortal in today’s context, as his .229 ISO is quantifiably mediocre among qualified first basemen, though his on-base skills obviously still make him a fabulously productive hitter.

None of this is to besmirch the Yankees’ cache of tremendous hitters. New York trots out probably the best lineup in the league on a night-to-night basis. Just remember to adjust for modern context when watching them.

Where we might really need to adjust our expectations, though, is with regard to pitchers. Just as the baseline has risen massively for hitters, it has decreased rapidly for hurlers. As crazy as it might sound, pitchers with ERA figures well over four (and sometimes even over five!) can still produce real value for their teams in 2019.

Consider, for instance, James Paxton. Paxton has somewhat disappointed in his first season in pinstripes, dealing with injuries and inconsistency. His ERA is up a third of a run, from 3.76 last year to 4.09 this year. And yet, thanks to the altered landscape around him, Paxton’s ERA+ figure, which adjusts for league and park, has actually improved! Paxton owns a 110 ERA+ in 2019, up one point from 2018. That number is befitting of an excellent mid-rotation arm or a decent number-two starter, not too far off from what the Yankees were looking for in dealing for Paxton.

The league’s pitchers in 2019 own a 4.48 ERA. In 2014, they posted a 3.74 ERA. Hell, in 2001, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, the league’s pitchers managed a 4.42 ERA! As hitters have generated historic amounts of power, pitchers must have yielded historic amounts of power, to the tune of a 1.38 HR/9 mark, easily the highest of all-time.

This puts a group of Yankee starters that have had up-and-down seasons in a more flattering light. Just maintaining an ERA in the upper-threes or low-fours is a real accomplishment in 2019. That means Paxton, along with CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Domingo German, all have had fairly strong seasons thus far, at least in terms of run prevention (it also means that J.A. Happ probably hasn’t been quite as bad as you might have thought, but he’s still been pretty bad).

This can serve as a broader lesson for how we follow sports in general. Everyone’s free to be a fan however they like, but if we want to remain knowledgeable about the game in front of us, we have to constantly be willing to alter our own perceptions. Failing to do so is how we end up evaluating pitchers based on win-loss record, or advocating for running the ball on first-and-ten every time. The game will never stop changing, and neither should we.