Saturday, 30 September 2017

Closing Time, 2017 Edition

Time for you to go out to the places you will belong
Sports has been in the news a lot recently - not because of Aaron Judge's quest to overcome a 30 year old rookie home run record (he recently eclipsed Mark McGwire's 1987 total of 49) or the start of the NFL season.

Much of the focus has been around the controversy of whether football players will stand for the national anthem, 'take a knee' on the field, or hide in the tunnel to avoid the whole thing. The decision by American President Donald Trump - never one to avoid a camera or photo-op to insert himself into the mess has had the effect of casting the debate more as a proxy fight over whether one loathes or supports the president.

The definition of something that is "polarising" is an object, question, or concept that takes a collection of disparate, even random items and focuses them into sharply contrasting ends - poles, as it were. Prior to the tweet of Trump, there were few people beyond actual football fans talking about it. Now, it seems that everyone has an opinion - friends I know who went out of their way to declare their disinterest in football and (in some cases) animus towards football players, suddenly find themselves declaring, openly, their "sincere" respect for a group of men who, until six months ago, were often the targets of attacks of being the epitome of "toxic masculinity."

Prior to the controversy, I thought of football, when I bothered to consider it at all, as a brutish, boring game played by cartoonishly hulking men. The object was nominally to advance the ball down the field, but from how friends described it, the real object was to inflict as much physical damage ("look at the HIT that got put on that guy!") as possible. 

And to sell beer.

That view hasn't changed. I've already said my piece last year about Colin Kaepernick, a fading former star (subsequently cut by his team) here, but to recap
Kaepernick is an entertainer. He's an entertainer of a particular sort - a modern day gladiator. He’s paid to throw a football (when he plays). He's paid very well to do this. His views on politics are as relevant to me as his views on the Academy Awards, the weather in Nebraska, or whether “We Built this City on Rock and Roll” really is, as Rolling Stone magazine claims, the worst song ever.
Colin Kaepernick has every right to his opinion about any of these topics. I respect his right to say what he pleases, and in a sense, the freedoms we have in this country to speech and belief are nothing if they do not protect unpopular opinions.  As I've said before, it's easy to defend speech we like; the acid test is whether we stand up (or sit down) for views that are unpopular, or indeed, are ones we personally do not like. 
We pay to see our gladiators compete on the field. Or, in the recent history of Colin Kaepernick, sit on the bench.
That is their job. They should leave the singing to the vocalists.

So no more on that.

No - I am more interested in the end of the baseball season, which for most of us will be this Sunday. My team, the Toronto Blue Jays, has blundered more or less in a sort of random walk through mediocrity all season. They started off with their worst April in the 40 year history of the franchise, rallied a bit in May, getting to within a game of even, but never quite achieving it, and then settling in to an utterly forgettable season.

They won't be truly awful - likely to settle in with a loss total of 85 or 86, avoiding the 90 loss level that seemed within reach. Their fading star, Jose Bautista, had a shot at the famous Mendoza Line (named for light hitting Mario Mendoza) - a sub .200 batting average. This is something no Blue Jay regular has ever accomplished. Joey Bats got close, but then last Sunday had a 2 for 4 day, and is likely going to have to settle for just setting the team record for poorest batting average for a regular (set some years ago by Aaron Hill, .204). He did manage to set a team record for strikeouts in a season.

It was a dismal season punctuated by one brief moment of sunshine.

Speaking of strikeouts, came across a discussion today: It seems that players today are again hitting a lot of home runs - Aaron Judge has overtaken McGwire's rookie record, and the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton has 59 total, needing just one more to become the eighth player (and third tossing out the Steroid Era) to reach 60.

They also are striking out a lot.

Why is this? Is there some fundamental reason why so many strikeouts?

Looking at the Baseball Reference book here, in 2017, there is an average of 1.26 home runs per nine inning game. If that stands, it would beat the old record of 1.17 set in 2000 (at the peak of the Juiced Era). That's a bump of less than 10 per cent, but still. It would eclipse the 2016 number of 1.16 per game that is a close third.

But strikeouts are the real eye opener:

While there has been, over the past 25 years, a general trend up in home runs per game (blue), the trend in strikeouts is even more obvious. In fact, the number of strikeouts has increased, year on year, every year for 13 straight years

Never, in the history of baseball, have people struck out as frequently as they now do. Not in Nolan Ryan's time. Not in the 1968 Year of the Pitcher. Never.


One suggestion is that pitching is just better now. The argument is that in the old days, pitchers would go whole games, which required them to "save" their best stuff for when it was really needed.

That surely is part of it – pitchers were expected to go 9 unless they got knocked out early. The idea of short, late innings relief specialists was evolving by the 1960s, but it was still not a common strategy.

Now, the bullpens not only have their big relief ace, but it's even more been a speciality to have the guy who can come in and dominate the 8th (and maybe even get an out or two in the ninth). Just look at how the Cleveland Indians got to the World Series last year. Andrew Miller (a guy making $10 million per year), pitched in 70 games last year, finishing only 15 of them. This year, he’s finished 5 of 55. Over those two seasons, he’s 14-3 cumulatively, with ERAs of 1.45 and 1.47, and in incredible 215 strikeouts in just 136 innings pitched.

I do wonder if batters are just less inclined to shorten up as well, and are taking more pitches to work counts? With the advent of so-called “SABREmetrics,” people now look at OBP as much as batting average, and working high pitch counts is part of the strategy.

Again, looking at the year on year batting stats, and sort by strikeouts per game.

13 straight years. 

The odds of that are pretty low, without some underlying, systematic change. 

But it cannot be the pitching alone: if it were true that it were simply a case of pitching being tougher, then you would expect similar data for batting averages, wouldn'y you?

It is not the case – the lowest cumulative average in professional baseball was 1968 (the “year of the pitcher”).The past 13 years – with record whiffing – has had averages between .250 and .265, which are very close to the historical averages.

Batters are still hitting at the same clip more or less (with obvious year on year variance). But they are striking out a lot more frequently.

I suspect that the players know that the fans want to see a home run, and they are swinging from the heels, even with two strikes. There's just less running and more hacking. Brute force of a sort.

So, the football mind-set has infiltrated.

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