Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you will get a current affairs column to start your day on one of SI.com.MLB writers.
Congratulations! We come to the end of April, which means that baseball has been in season for a month and therefore it can be analyzed (something) in a concrete way. So what have we learned about MLB in 2021? (Other than that, offense is down and position players who pitch are up.) Here are five takeaways:
Launch staff are back to normal
Last year was terrible to handle a pitching staff. Between the sudden start to the season, the punishment schedule, the fact that there were no traditional minor leagues for rehab assignments … it was harsh! The duration of the average exit sank to a record low of 4.8 IP. Part of that was influenced by the schedule itself, a natural byproduct of a schedule packed with seven-inning doubles. But the rest were teams that managed their staff carefully with an eye to injury risk, trying not to overload anyone and spreading the workload. This meant a whopping 735 players pitched in the 60-game season in 2020; that’s the exact same number he released in a full season in 2015 and hundred more which released in a full season in 2010.
But it was difficult to determine how the situation would change in 2021. For one thing, even though this season is on a regular schedule after a full spring training, there are still concerns about managing the workload and injury risk for pitchers coming from such an odd year. (With young pitchers who spent part or all of last season at the alternate site, rather than in game situations, there are particular concerns.) And perhaps more pressing, these trends were not created by 2020, they were simply exacerbated by that. For the past decade, MLB had already had a trend toward shorter starts and bigger bullpens, and pandemic baseball had only sped it up. So will 2021 continue on that fast track? Or would it go back to where it had been before?
So far, it seems like the latest. Average start length has climbed back up to 5.1 IP, up from where it was last season, but just below where it was in 2019 (which puts it below every other season in history). In other words, 2020 does not appear to have intensified the momentum towards shorter starts and a greater reliance on bullpens. Instead, it has continued more or less at the rate it was before the pandemic.
Thefts are disappearing …
Among the other quirks of 2020: Stolen bases, which had otherwise been on a steady downward trend for about a decade, actually rose! In 2019, robberies had fallen below a team rate of one for every two games for the first time in nearly half a century. But in 2020, they fell back little by little, perhaps indicating that the number would not continue to fall.
Or not. Teams have stolen 0.46 bases per game so far in 2021, the lowest rate since 1971. And the most notable feature here? The current incidence of unsuccessful robberies is the lowest in history. (That’s 0.14 players caught stealing per game.) Which indicates that teams are becoming increasingly demanding about when they steal. The old statistical wisdom is that attempting to steal is only worth it if the probability of success is greater than 75%; In recent years, as teams have become more sensitive to this ideal, the stolen base rate across the league has oscillated. since july below that, to 72% or 73%. Now? It has crossed that mark for the first time and stands at 77%. Teams are stealing less but more successful.
… and so is control (sort of).
The walks have not increased this year. But unstoppable pitches and wild pitches have. (Baseball prospect wrote about the former at some length earlier this week). The number of shots per pitch, one for every two games per team, is the highest ever. The previous record was a tie between 1898 and 1899, you know, a time when the ball was frequently dirty or hard to see and the pitchers didn’t have much finesse. MLB is now hitting more hitters than before soon. Meanwhile, the wild toss rate is not currently on track to set an all-time high, but it is the highest since 1891, so … take it however you like. (It’s now 0.41 wild pitches per team per game.)
Given those two figures, it is to be expected that walks will also increase, indicating a loss of control across the board. But again, that is not happening! What we have here suggests something different: that pitchers usually be in control, but they’re pitching really hard, and hitters have less time to get out of the way if necessary.
The American League is upside down.
No, one month is not long enough to say something definitive about qualification. But it’s surprising how scrambled the classification is in the American League. If you were expecting the Yankees, Twins, and Astros to show up in their respective divisions … congrats, they’re all in fourth place! If you expected the Red Sox and Royals to have problems… two first-place teams! There should be some recalibration here; New York bats cannot remain this ice cream for what For much longer, Minnesota shouldn’t continue to fall apart so disastrously at the end of games, and so on. But it suggests that perhaps there is a greater chance of surprise here than originally expected.
Which is not to say that everything is gone exactly according to plan in the National League. But in comparison, the Dodgers in the West (although the Giants actually enter the game on Friday first), the traffic jams in the East and the Center! – is a model of order.
Is this Mike Trout’s year?
Sure, in a sense, Mike Trout’s year is each year. Mike Trout enjoys a Mike Trout year just by stepping on the field. But this is his best moment so far, he has never started the season like this before. His previous April record for OPS was 1,151 in 2017, a year in which he finished as the best hitter in baseball and, had his season not been interrupted by injury, he probably would have been the MVP.
Your OPS for April this year is 1,306. It’s hitting like never before. This year will mark a decade since his debut, but in case you’ve forgotten, he’s brought you a reminder: yes, he’s still the best baseball player.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.