If you think about it, it’s amazing that anybody ever gets a hit off major league pitching.
(Which is probably why Yogi Berra said You can’t think and hit at the same time, but that’s another matter.)
The average fastball has never been so fast. The average pitcher has never thrown so few heaters. Hitters have to brace for high velocity, and they get breaking balls instead — a recipe for swings and misses.
And when they do make contact, the fielders — informed by the data — are stationed where the ball is most likely to go.
Batting average is not the gold-standard stat for hitting that it was in the early days of my fandom, but it does get to the heart of what is increasingly accepted in baseball as the game’s aesthetic problem: lack of action. April is seldom a big-hitting month, but this April saw batting averages drop to a new low: .232.
I’m not enamored at the notion of legislating away the shift. Everybody knows that Max Kepler won’t hit three grounders to the left side of second base all year; why should the defense have to devote 22 percent of their players to covering that space?
Do we really have to make it easy for hitters to refuse to adjust? We might as well return to the original rule in which hitters could call for a high ball or low ball.
My theory: Pitchers dominate today because they don’t have to do it for long. To fix the problem, make them pitch more.
There have always been a couple of guys in each generation who not only threw as hard as anybody but could maintain it for eight or nine innings and do it for 300 innings a season. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan ... every team today has somebody who throws at a higher velocity than Johnson did, or even Ryan, but nobody tries to do it for as long.
Today’s starting pitchers generally go two times through the order, then give way to a wave of relievers who throw even harder for even shorter periods. Teams can do that because they:
• typically have 14 pitchers on their active rosters (now inflated to 26), and
• shuffle arms on and off the roster at a frantic rate.
The 2020 Twins used 23 pitchers (not counting a position player) in just 60 games. The 1970 Twins used 13 (no position players) in 162.
My notion: Set a limit on how many minor-league demotions and designated-for-assignments a team can exercise after opening day. Delvin Smeltzer had a strong long-relief outing last week; his “reward” was to be demoted to bring up a fresh arm. There is no penalty for teams playing these roster games.
Restrict roster movement, and the pitchers on the roster have to pitch more. If they have to pitch more, velocities will drop. If velocities drop, batting averages will rise, in part because it will be easier to confound the shifts.
It’s a hidden fix. It won’t be obvious. But it will be real.
Edward Thoma is at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @bboutsider.