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5 Questions For MLB (That Don’t Involve Sign-Stealing)

After an offseason focused on the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, pitchers and catchers have reported to camps across Florida and Arizona this week, and Major League Baseball is hoping to turn the page — though that figures to be difficult. The sport is facing challenges beyond electronically aided theft, including the gathering threat of a work stoppage, the uncertainty over the future of the sport’s feeder system and continued declines in attendance.1 But the game is also in the midst of a golden age for young position players, it has broken down gender barriers this offseason, and it is perhaps on the cusp of more compelling seasons for some previously sub-.500 clubs. As camps open, FiveThirtyEight examines five of the most interesting on-field questions this spring:

Will baseball be more competitive?

The gap between the best and worst teams in the majors has grown substantially. From 2010 to 2016, an average of 4.9 teams per season had scoring differentials of 100 runs or greater. Eight teams accomplished the feat in 2017 and 2018, and nine recorded the benchmark in 2019. Meanwhile, the worst teams have become weaker. Last year marked the first time there were four 100-loss teams and four 100-win teams in the same season.

But this could be a more competitive season. When the hot stove warmed this winter, four of the top 10 total spenders were losing clubs last season: the Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds. The Angels signed star Anthony Rendon in December, instantly giving Mike Trout his best teammate. The White Sox signed an elite catcher in Yasmani Grandal and a former AL Cy Young winner in Dallas Keuchel, and have already secured uber prospect Luis Robert — dubbed “the next Mike Trout” by teammates — to a long-term deal, ensuring he’ll open with the club. The Blue Jays added Hyun-Jin Ryu to their rotation and have one of the better young infields in the game, featuring legacy stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. The 87-loss Reds spent $164 million on free agents. Last year’s lower-tier teams cycling into competitiveness ought to be good for baseball.

Will the ball keep jumping?

Last year saw a record 6,776 home runs. Major League Baseball’s own study into whether the ball was juiced, released in December, found that the ball accounted for about 60 percent of the home run surge from 2018-19. But the study also found that 40 percent of the home run increase was tied to “changes in player behavior,” with more and more batters aiming to hit fly balls. The average launch angle for MLB batters has increased every year in the Statcast era. Hitters are also improving their batted ball quality in other ways, like reducing their spin and pulling the ball. Hitters like Justin Turner and J.D. Martinez, who once hit for little power, had already transformed themselves before any changes to the ball.

So the home run environment might be here to stay. After all, owners typically bring the fences in — as they have done in Miami for 2020 — not push them farther away. Whether the current ball remains in play could determine whether more home run records fall, but if MLB deadened the ball dramatically, it would represent a major curveball.

Can the best teams be stopped?

The Yankees added ace Gerrit Cole in December and are projected to win 105 games, according to an Out of the Park Developments simulation run for FiveThirtyEight. In Los Angeles, even before the Mookie Betts megadeal finally went through this week, OOTP had the Dodgers winning 112 games. OOTP projects the defending champ Washington Nationals to exceed 100 wins, along with other 2019 playoff teams in the Twins, Rays and Astros. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA forecast has the Yankees winning 99 games, the Dodgers 103 and the Astros 98.

The Astros’ forecasts, though, won’t account for the effects of the ongoing sign-stealing scandal, and the 2020 season should be uncomfortable for them, to say the least. There’s already been on-field retribution threatened by other players for their trash-can scheme. Perhaps the most awkward situation for baseball would be for Houston to again be playing deep into October.

Will skill growth keep accelerating?

Last year, MLB batters produced a record exit velocity (88.1 mph), according to Statcast data. Pitchers set a record with their fastball velocity (93.7 mph), which has increased nearly every year of the pitch-tracking era. Breaking balls are moving more, as pitchers use tech to design better pitches. While teams are working ever harder to optimize player development, these trends have also led to fewer balls in play, which some argue makes the game less watchable. That’s why MLB is partnering with the independent Atlantic League this summer to see what happens to play when the mound is moved back to 62 feet, 6 inches.

Teams are looking for every advantage they can find in building better players, adding new technology and hiring coaches who were once outside the pro game to help build skills, a trend that accelerated this winter. That in part led three teams — the Giants, the Yankees and the Cubs — to hire female coaches, breaking down a new barrier. Alyssa Nakken will be on Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco staff, the first full-time female coach in MLB history.

Can the game speed up?

In 2019, the average time between pitches slowed to a pitch-tracking era record of 24.4 seconds between pitches. The average game length increased to a record three hours, five minutes and 35 seconds per contest. Baseball delivers about as much dead time as the NFL but plays a far greater number of games. MLB is implementing one new rule this year specifically to speed up the game: Pitchers will have to face a minimum of three batters, or complete a half-inning, before a manager can change pitchers. But will that make much a difference?

Baseball limited mound visits for the 2018 season, and the game got even slower. Moreover, 2019 saw just the 12th-greatest volume of relief pitches to face two or fewer batters in the game’s history (2,164), more than 400 less than the 2015 record (2,585). The game is slowing for other reasons: Pitchers take their time on the mound, and batters often step out of the box. (Interestingly, when baseball forced batters to stay in the box during part of the 2015 season, there was a quickening of play.) There are also fewer balls in play, including an increase of foul balls. More drastic measures are likely needed, meaning 2020 could be one of the last seasons without a clock on the field.

Footnotes

  1. Attendance was down in 2019 more than 5 million fans from its 2015 level.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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