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Small balls and the shift

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Thinking about the changing game of baseball before the Sox clobber Kansas City tomorrow

The White Sox open the 2018 season tomorrow at 3:15  vs. the Kansas City Royals.
Opening Day 2018: Royal Execution

Opening Day is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. Chicago White Sox ace James Shields takes the bump against those no-good Kansas City Royals tomorrow afternoon. I still can't believe the Sox traded Freddy Tatis Jr. for the chance to pay this guy $20 million a season to suck.

For real though, how is this guy the Opening Day starter? Give it to Lucas Giolito for the season opener fellas, come on. The theme we are all banking on is Ricky's Boys Don't Quit, not Jerry's Boy's Cousin We Traded an Absolute Stud For. On Opening Day? Come on, man.

OK, rant over, dang it, I wanted to be positive about the team this year and I blew it already. This was supposed to be about little balls and big dingers! Back to the first point, it isn't entirely Shields’s fault he's most likely going to get rocked again this year.

The ball changed after the All-Star Game in 2015. By all accounts the puny pearl is back, too. If you haven't read up on it, check out this study out by SABR's Mitchel Lichtman.

I'll wait.

Is there really a difference with the ball that is affecting game play these days?

Yes, absolutely there is. The ball travels 15% farther, thanks to less wind resistance and greater exit velocity.

The home run totals of the last four seasons across all of MLB:

2014 - 4,186

2015 - 4,909

2016 - 5,610

2017 - 6,105

New super balls are introduced in 2015, and those suckers fly, man. Not only that, the pitchers are getting blisters more often. And their pitches are breaking less. The ball is literally a game-changer.

But why, though? What happened?

I blame the shift as the main reason behind MLB's thinking that fundamentally changing the equipment was necessary. The shift was the first move on the chess board in this sequence.

Remember when left-handed hitters were considered to be the best bats in baseball?

It turns out the only advantage is the foot and a half head start they get down the line, because apparently not a single one of them is capable of going the other way since Larry Chipper Jones retired. As Bill James illustrates, the shift is in use at unprecedented levels never seen before, because the shift works. It has worked so well since they really started tracking it, its use has turned into a monster.

I don't think I can overstate this: The shift is out of control.

Between 2011 and 2012, number of shifts practically doubled from 2,350 to 4,577, an increase of about 95%. Smart teams started to notice they really had something going there, and sprinkle in some copycats — another big jump of 2,305, another 51% of growth! Practically the whole first year’s total lumped on top again! It continued to work so well in 2013, again, that in 2014 the number of shifts doubled, again! Insane.

In four seasons, defensive shifts went from 2,350, to 4,577, to 6,882, to 13,299!

The maniacs didn't stop there: The total jumped again in 2015, to 17,826, reaching critical mass in 2016 at 28,130, and stabilizing in the mid-20,000s last season. This terrified MLB.

Defensive metrics are still in their infancy, and they've drastically altered our game already.

Realizing they could limit hitters’ success by preventing them from seeing the starter a third time, teams started going to the bullpen earlier. High-leverage guys started getting used in high-leverage situations. This led to more strikeouts: 2014 saw a record number of strike outs, 37,441.

When the league expanded in 1998, the strikeout rate was 6.56 Ks per game. In 2014, Ks per game climbed to an all-time high of 7.70, while home runs dipped to their lowest total since 1998.

You have to go back to 1995 to find fewer home runs, back when there were 820 fewer games yet only 105 fewer dongs.

The HR/game average was 0.86 in 2014, the lowest total since 1992.

So the shift is at an all-time high, strikeouts are at an all-time high. and homers are at a 26-year low, or, rather, just before the arrival of the anabolic era. Major League Baseball wasn't having any of it. They doctored the ball.

For that one glorious year, it was like the baseball cards of my youth, where a 30 HR season meant something. Hell, 20 was good back then. This new ball drastically moves the goal posts for what a baseball season is supposed to be.

The ball is so different now Rougned Odor actually managed to have a worthless 30 HR season last year (-0.2 WAR, 30 HR). That's almost as amazing as the fact that he has a brother, also in the Texas Rangers organization, also named Rougned Odor.

Baseball couldn't have known how drastic the results would be from some small changes, yet here we are, with a surplus of all the things: Swings and misses, defensive shifts and home runs.

Making the baseball smaller just doesn't sit well with me, I wish MLB would have given things more time to work themselves out before doing something this drastic to the game. Jay Bruce tried to lay down a bunt last week in Florida, proving that the big galoots can learn new tricks if you let them. They would have learned to slap the ball down the third-base line and possibly take the shift away, but instead now everybody just adds a little more lift to their swings and tries to smack the pebble as far as they can, as hard as they can. But how impressive is a 20-bomb season when everyone has 20 blasts?

We've made appeals to White Sox brass on South Side Sox in the past, but this time I'd like a word with Rob Manfred.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, commish.

Knock it off with all this no-pitch IBB nonsense. Although I am on board with limiting the catcher’s mound visits, quit screwing around with everything, man. You can add your baseball-shaped bullpen carts, but after that, just settle down already.

And give the pitchers some laces back.


This is my first real front page post since Jim Margalus left and kicked his can back down the road to Sox Machine. As an homage to the former editor-in-chief, here's a Simpsons clip that loosely ties in to this post, but not as seamlessly as he would have done it. Your run at SSS was really impressive, man. Cheers. SBN really dropped the ball, and that's the terrifying truth.