I am not someone who is overtaken with panic for baseball’s future. I think that that panic is often used in bad faith, to remark upon a change in the game that someone morally disagrees with. There was panic around Babe Ruth clubbing 20 home runs a season and Jackie Robinson integrating the game, and neither of those things threatened the future of baseball.
However, while I’m not panicking, I am Officially Concerned™ about the state of the game. This past April was a standout month for offensive ineptitude, with more than 1,000 more strikeouts than hits and the lowest triple slash line in at least 30 years. The league is striking out, on average, 25 percent of the time. Doc Gooden’s electric, nine-win, Cy Young-winning 1985 season saw him strike out 25 percent of the hitters he faced. Every pitcher, on average, strikes batters out at the rate the best pitcher in the game did in the ‘80s. We’ve bemoaned the reliance on three-true-outcome baseball for a few seasons now, and the popular narrative is that hitters are somehow deficient, that they are lazier or more selfish than in generations past.
If you’ve paid attention to the Yankees, especially the tremendous Yankee pitching this year, it’s hard to believe that the problem is hitters. If you call for a guy to just shorten up, take what the pitcher gives ‘em, go the other way, well:
You take that the other way.
Gerrit Cole is a particularly striking example of the advantages that pitching has in this era, but he’s certainly not the only one. The way I see it, there are three Yankees who best exemplify why baseball may just be broken, and the challenges the governors of the game face trying to fix it.
Gerrit Cole: The Ace gets Ace-ier
Coming into the season, Cole was already among the favorites for AL Cy Young. Had he just replicated his 2020 season, Yankee fans would be ecstatic and have perhaps the best pitcher in the world not named Jacob deGrom. Of course, what actually happened was that Gerrit Cole had the best single month of his career, and it was largely driven by real changes.
Coming into the year, Cole was mostly a three-pitch pitcher, balancing his hard, rising fastball with a slider and curve, which accounted for about 95 percent of his pitches since being traded to Houston. Now, after the best month of his life, his pitch usage looks a little different:
You’ve probably heard David Cone and others talk about Cole incorporating his changeup more. That GIF overlay I posted above shows how well his changeup plays against his fastball — his fastball drops about 10” on the way to the plate, and the changeup drops 23”. If you go up looking for his fastball, you’ll be way out in front of the changeup. If you look change, you’re ten minutes late on a 99 mph fastball up.
Everything that Cole is doing this year is better than he’s ever done it, and in sustainable ways. Cooper and Jake have both written about him this week, so I’d encourage you to check their work out. But every pitch is thrown harder. It’s spinning faster and moving more. His K-BB% is higher than any single season strikeout rate he’s posted in his career. Implementing a new pitch and improving the ones he already threw has taken him from a Cy Young favorite to, well, a supernova.
Jonathan Loaisiga: No longer my hate vessel
I was not a believer in Mr. Lasagna for a very long time. I thought he was in the Michael Pineda vein — stuff that impressed, but without an ability to pull it together in a way that made him a consistent weapon. In April 2021, I was very, very wrong about Jonny, and like Cole, his success includes some hints toward sustainability.
Loaisiga has almost doubled his changeup usage, and critically, been able to locate it in the zone:
This is, to me, one of those aspects that separates a great changeup from a good one — the ability and confidence to drop it into the strike zone and freeze a hitter. Most pitchers use the change out of the zone, but here, Loaisiga throws it pretty clearly in the strike zone, and effectively.
Loaisiga has been open about working with Yankee pitching coach Matt Blake to bring all his potential together on the mound. He spent serious time in the “Gas Station” over spring training, taking full advantage of the technological advances pitching and pitching coaches have made in the last decade or so. Lo and behold, that time is paying dividends.
Aroldis Chapman: Sir, you are 33
Aroldis Chapman has recorded 30 outs this season; 24 of them have been via the strikeout. For one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history, this run is as good as he’s ever been. The quality that really stands out, though? Velocity.
Pitchers aren’t supposed to be gaining velocity at 33. Chapman was on a steady velo decline for five seasons, until all of a sudden, he’s throwing his fastball a full mile per hour harder than he did last year.
Gains in fastball speed are one of the first and still most-covered breakthroughs of modern pitching analytics. Think about guys like Charlie Morton, who went from throwing 92 to 95, and how that extended his career, taking him from a scrub to a bona fide playoff-caliber starting pitcher. Chapman so far this year has also staved off Father Time, and of course, added his much-celebrated splitter to his repertoire.
These three pitchers both exemplify the dominance of the Yankee staff, as well as the structural advantages that have been baked into the sport. There’s just more stuff for pitchers to do, more tools for them to access, and more data for them to act on in order to make their pitches better, and suppress runs more. That’s the heart of the crisis that baseball faces — not a crisis of motivation or skill, but of information.
To a large degree, this crisis has always existed. Part of the beautiful thing about baseball is that pitchers always have the initiative — they’re the ones that dictate the pace of play. The action doesn’t begin until a pitcher decides what pitch to throw, and delivers it. Everything the hitter does is reactive, by the very nature of the game.
This is one reason why rising strikeouts are the only constant in the history of the game:
The only time the game has seen a serious change in strikeout rate was when the highest governing body directly intervened, after the 1968 Year of the Pitcher, lowering the mound to its current 10” height. Like clockwork, the strikeout rate began to decline for about a decade, before pitchers, seizing the initiative as the structure of the game allows them to, adjusted. The only measure that stopped pitching dominance was MLB changing the rules, and lending a structural advantage to the hitters.
We’re past that time now. Pitching success, and the technology to prolong that success, has outpaced the hitter’s ability to adjust. Like machine guns driving World War I soldiers to the trenches, the three-true-outcome style is a defensive response to a game that’s become structurally devastating. Hitters largely don’t care about contact, about moving station to station, because Gerrit Cole throws a changeup now that you can’t even sniff. And even if you do, Cole gets taken out of the game and Aroldis Chapman, throwing harder than ever, is now on the mound.
This is also why so many of the MLB rule changes aren’t going to work. Deadening the ball doesn’t incentivize contact, it makes the quality of contact you finally make lower. Limiting pickoff attempts to gin up stolen base attempts doesn’t matter when hitters reach base less and less.
Even market-driven solutions aren’t the answer. Yeah, better pitching machines are being produced, ones that can replicate the spin and break of the grossest pitches in the game. Yeah, augmented reality allows hitters to “see” the best pitchers in practice before facing them in real time. But that technology works both ways — both pitchers and hitters get to use it. Pitchers will use those newfangled pitching machines to experiment with new grips and breaks, without needing to practice themselves. AR is the same. Every gain made by hitters is offset by the gain made by pitchers.
Thus, the rules of baseball must be changed to directly disadvantage the pitcher. Maybe the answer is lowering the mound again. Maybe the answer is moving it back — the mound has been set at 60 feet, 6 inches for 150 years, while pitchers have gotten bigger, stronger, throw harder and throw more disgusting breaking pitches than they did in Abner Doubleday’s time. Maybe the answer is changing the usage of pitchers, tying the DH to your starter, capping roster sizes to force starters to go deeper into games and lend more advantage to the hitter.
If you didn’t notice, those three possible solutions have nothing to do with the liveliness of the ball, putting ghost runners on, or changing the base size. They directly disadvantage the pitcher, a governing intervention to level a playing field skewed to the point where I’m finally worried about the sport’s long term health.
The tree of baseball must be refreshed from time to time with the tears of sad pitchers. As brilliant as Cole, Loaisiga, and Chapman have been in 2021, they’ve struck out 44 percent of hitters they’ve seen. That introduces such a low level of competitiveness that the governors of the game must intervene. Hitters can’t just shorten up and take the ball the other way. Hitters can’t go station to station. What a hitter can do is hope a pitcher loses the zone and take a walk, hope the pitcher leaves one out over the plate they can hit out of the park, or swing hopelessly at pitches engineered to never be hit. Advances in pitching have fundamentally broken the game, and it’s up to MLB to repair it.