Pitching in the homer zone

As we speed toward spring training and opening the 2017 season, it’s worth it to take a look at a few numbers and what it could mean to the current iteration of the Seattle Mariners.

With the team now seeming fully assembled with few issues left to be sorted out among the players, it’s useful to look at some trends in baseball and how it might impact this team.

First and foremost, there are some huge shifts in the offensive universe.  After a few years of records set for no-hitters and perfect games, things seem to have turned in a different direction.  These numbers are MLB averages, not just for the Mariners or the American League

Runs scored     HRs              Slash         Total K’s    HR/9 allowed

2016          21744             5610   .255/.322/.417      38,982                1.2

2015           20647            4909   .254/.317/.405      37,446               1.0

2014           19,761            4186   .251/.314/.386       37,441                 .9

2013           20,355           4661  .253/.318/.396       36,710               1.0

2012           21,017           4934   .255/.319/.405      36,426               1.0

2011            20,808          4552   .255/.321/.399      34,488                .9

2010           21,308          4613    .257/.325/.403     34,306              1.0

As you can see, going back to 2010, the number of runs scored has jumped considerably, and that is accompanied by a dramatic increase in home runs since 2014.  Other offensive characteristics in the slash have varied somewhat, but not to the same degree as home runs and strike outs since 2010.

Few years have seen back to back increases in long balls of 600 per year or more like 2015-16.  The last year 5,000 home runs were hit in the major league was 2009 with 5042 HRs. Only in 2000, during the height of the steroid era have were more homers hit in a season, 5,693.

Why so many dingers?  Nobody has pinned down an exact explanation, but there are several theories.  Fences were moved in at several parks, including Safeco Field in 2013. Some have suggested livelier baseballs.  Younger ballplayers are bringing a different approach to hitting-hitting earlier in counts looking for fastballs, unafraid to strikeout, and generating more lift in their swing.

Five Thirty-eight blog ran an interesting story about the increase of home runs, and suggested it could the result of “juiced” balls.  New York Times writer Tyler Kepner tried a broader view and more player-centered approach in his explanation of the phenomenon.  Both make for interesting reading.

The result is more swings with less caution and a 12% increase in strikeouts since 2010.

The acquisition of Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly, fly ball pitchers, have been accompanied by reassurances of how much better they’ll do in Safeco Field’s roomy pastures, with it’s improved outfield defense. Last year Seattle pitching allowed 1.3 home runs per nine innings (HR/9.) This is above the league average of 1.2 HR/9.  No outfield can catch what can’t be caught.

In fact Safeco is no longer the homer-immune ballyard it was before the 2013 renovation that moved the fences in.  These are the leading home run havens in major league baseball from 2010-2016.  Note which ballpark leads the league in taters for 2016.

2016 Safeco Field 234*  Yankee Stadium 230, Great American Ballpark (Cincy) 228,  Chase Field (Ariz) 221, Camden Yards (Balt) 219

2015  Camden Yards 222, Yankee Stadium, 219, Rogers Centre (Tor) 203, Coors Field (Den) 202, Minute Maid Park (Hou.) 198, Safeco Field 180  (8th*)

2014 Coors Field 208, Rogers Centre 186, Yankee Stadium 185, Camden Yards 175, Great American Ballpark 165, Minutemaid Park 163,  Safeco Field 140  (14th)

2013 Camden Yards 232, Rogers Centre 214, Minute Maid Park 187, Miller Park (Mil) 185, Great American Ballpark 184, Safeco Field 170  (9th)*

2012 Yankee Stadium 231, Miller Park 230, U.S. Cellular Field (ChW) 228, Camden Yards 226, Rogers Centre 204, Safeco Field 116 (26th)

2011  Rangers Ballpark at Arlington 228, Camden Yards 214, Yankee Stadium 209, Great American Ballpark 209, Rogers Centre 198, Safeco Field 134 (21st)

2010 Rogers Centre 226, Yankee Stadium 224, Chase Field 201, Miller Park 196, U.S. Cellular 191, Safeco Field 103 (30th)

*Safeco Field moves in fences.

The upward rate of home runs also factors into Seattle starting pitching and you can detect a disturbing trend their HR/9 rate over a five year period.

Name                                                       2012     2013     2014     2015     2016

Felix Hernandez                                  0.5*       0.7         0.6       1.0        1.1

Hisashi Iwakuma                                 1.2          1.0          1.0       1.2        1.3

James Paxton                                                       0.8          0.4        1.0      0.7

Giovani Gallardo                                  1.1          0.9        1.0         0.7        1.2

Drew Smyly                                            1.1          0.5         1.1         1.5        1.6

*Lowest in American League

With the exception of James Paxton, each of the Mariners projected starters have an upward arc for their rate of home runs allowed. In the case of Iwakuma and Smyly, their rate exceeds league average.

Home runs and their increasing frequency seem to be a part of the game.  The M’s pitching staff will simply have to insure they occur as rarely as possible, but most importantly insure they are solo homers.

The league average for WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched) in 2016 was 1.322.  These were WHIP rates for Mariners pitchers in 2016

Felix Hernandez         1.324

Hisashi Iwakuma        1.327

James Paxton                1.306

Giovani Gallardo          1.585

Drew Smyly                    1.272

Except for Gallardo, these pitchers are at about league average or slightly below.  Commanding pitches, reducing walks, and limiting home runs will contribute to their success.  It’s not like this is new, but in an environment which finds balls whizzing out of the ballpark at an increasing rate, one that suggests increased homers are a fact of life and not likely to change with a new drug testing regimen, that simple reminder has never been more true.

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