Column: One simple fix to speed up baseball: call more strikes


By Joe Knowles - Chicago Tribune



“He’s a looker!”

When my Little League coach yelled that to our pitcher, we got the message loud and clear: The batter was waiting for a walk, so just throw strikes and make him hit his way on base.

It was good advice then. It’s good advice now.

If baseball really wants to fix its pace-of-game issues, it needs to make only one simple change.

Have the umpires call more strikes.

This doesn’t require a rule change. Just order the umpires to enforce the actual strike zone, which theoretically extends from the armpits to the knees. Too often, umpires don’t call the high end of the strike zone consistently. Instruct them also to be generous when it comes to pitches on the corners, and watch the game get quicker and more exciting instantly.

Thanks in part to advanced metrics and the value placed on stats such as on-base percentage and pitches seen per at-bat, far too many hitters are becoming lookers. How many general managers and managers have we heard extolling the virtues of players who “grind out” at-bats and see a lot of pitches? Too many.

“It’s definitely something we used as a focal point trying to build our offensive club,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a recent interview on the team’s website. “You can grind out at-bats and lengthen the lineup.”

And lengthen the game.

Who really wants to see more walks, intentional or otherwise? A base on balls is perhaps the most boring of all possible outcomes in an at-bat.

Walks drive up pitch counts and in turn force more pitching changes. Fielders — and fans — slump and drift during long at-bats. Innings become interminable.

How does “grinding out” at-bats translate into performance? It’s a mixed bag.

Here are the top six teams in most pitches seen per at-bat by hitters in 2016, according to baseball-reference.com:

Blue Jays, 4.03

Brewers, 3.97

Pirates, 3.97

Cubs, 3.96

Red Sox, 3.94

Twins, 3.94

Three of those teams — Blue Jays, Cubs and Red Sox — made the playoffs; the Cubs (103-58) had the best record in baseball. The other three teams finished below .500; the Twins had the worst record (59-103) in MLB.

Who saw the most pitches per plate appearance (PPA) among regular players in 2016? That would be the Nationals’Jayson Werth, with an average of 4.6. Werth had a slash line of .244/.335/.417 for an OPS of .752 — decent, but definitely not great. Werth struck out 139 times and drew 71 walks, a ratio of almost 2-to-1.

Next on the list was the Indians’Mike Napoli, now with the Rangers. Napoli saw 4.57 pitches per plate appearance. His numbers were .239/.335/.465 for an OPS of .800. Napoli struck out 194 times and drew 76 walks, a ratio of about 2{-to-1.

The rest of the PPA leaders’ list includes some very good players and a few indisputable stars: Mike Trout of the Angels, the AL MVP and the MLB leader in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), is No. 3 with 4.43 PPA, followed by Dexter Fowler of the Cubs (now Cardinals) at 4.40 and Joe Mauer of the Twins and Joey Votto of the Reds both at 4.28.

But Kris Bryant of the Cubs, the NL MVP, didn’t crack the top 50 in PPA, and neither did Mookie Betts of the Red Sox or Jose Altuve of the Astros. What else do those three players have in common? They finished 2-3-4 in WAR behind Trout last season.

Stats maven John Dewan did a study in 2008 about the outcomes of long at-bats vs. short at-bats. Short at-bats were defined as three or fewer pitches, long at-bats were four or more pitches. The average slash line for short at-bats was .301/.317/.467 for an OPS of .784. For long at-bats it was .223/.352/.348 and .700.

He also dug further to look at the extremes: One-pitch at-bats vs. at-bats with seven or more pitches. For one-pitch at-bats the slash line was .344/.349/.543 for an OPS of .892; for seven or more pitches, it was .230/.406/.372 and .778.

What these numbers seem to indicate is there is no direct correlation between pitches seen and offensive performance. It seems to work for Trout, yes, but a lot of things work for Trout. He’s an exceptional player, period, and if umpires started calling a more liberal strike zone, I would bet he still would be an exceptional player, period.

What is clear, however, is that long at-bats lead to long games. Baseball can fiddle with things like intentional walks and time between innings, but if it wants to speed things up, the answer is right there at home plate, simple as 1-2-3:

Call. More. Strikes.

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By Joe Knowles

Chicago Tribune