Why MLB pitchers still have the upper hand on hitters

Why MLB pitchers still have the upper hand on hitters
It’s something of a complicated puzzle, but several Blue Jays players agree that pitchers are using the strikeout to win their battles against hitters.

The Jays just split a four-game homestand with the Detroit Tigers in which Toronto pitchers struck out 50 batters — a franchise record for a regular-season series.

It’s the continuation of a trend across the majors: a record 41,207 strikeouts in 2018, topping the mark of 40,104 set the season before. There are more Ks than hits. Pitchers — throwing harder and armed with more data than ever before, especially spin rates — have had the advantage for a while now.

But the Jays see hitters as somewhat complicit, with a record number of home runs considered a fair trade-off for striking out more often.

“Good pitching has always beat good hitting, no matter what,” Jays catcher Luke Maile said before Monday night’s series opener against the Baltimore Orioles at the Rogers Centre. “I think as physical as (pitchers) are now, as hard as they throw, it’s really tough to defend all quadrants of the strike zone ...

“I honestly believe you’ve just got these specimens out there and all of them throw 95 (m.p.h.), for the most part, and hitters are kind of put in a position where, if you are just trying and make contact — put the ball in play no matter where it’s thrown — you’re not gonna have success anyways, so you’re better off trying to pick a spot (to swing for the fences). And when you do that, you’re gonna miss some times.”

Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, addressed the strikeout issue during the season-opening Mariners-A’s series in Japan, including the effect on fans who are seeing fewer balls in play.

“Everyone is throwing 98, 99 m.p.h. and everyone is trying to strike people out … it’s all a concern to me,” Torre said.

Add to that the prevalence of advanced statistics, which influence how pitching staffs are used (such as the “opener” strategy) as well as infield shifts that help suffocate offence, and hitters posted a collective batting average of .248 last year — the lowest since 1972 and a drop of seven points from 2017.

But Maile also sees hitters taking advantage of analytics — launch angles, exit velocity.

“You look around the league and there’s a lot of players who don’t get everyday at-bats,” said Maile, “and maybe 30 years ago they were expected to put balls in play and have good at-bats, but now they come in (and) there’s no shame in trying to leave the ballpark every time. So, it’s sort of evolved into an approach that suggests that, I want to have guys who can do damage, because there’s very few guys these days who can go up there and really just consistently find contact.”

While pitchers are always looking for a new edge on hitters, many have also gone back to an old favourite: the elevated fastball, which propelled the careers of former Jays ace Pat Hentgen and one-time Cubs phenom Kerry Wood. Pitchers such as former Jays Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ became poster boys for the importance of spin rate, but both also based a large part of their success on elevating fastballs, with a focus on back spin.

“The pitchers, they do a really good job of adjustment,” Maile said. “A lot of pitchers throw a lot of fastballs up, and sometimes it seems harder than what it is — sometimes 92, 93 m.p.h. can seem like 97 (when it’s up in the zone). I think in the last couple of years, the pitchers have made a lot of adjustments. The hitters were going to try and get the ball up in the air, and pitchers just try to pitch up in the zone. I think that’s the way they’re coaching a lot of pitchers.”
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