Season of the Slump: Baseball keeps swinging and missing

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Colorado Rockies' Charlie Blackmon heads back to the dugout after striking out against Houston Astros starting pitcher Luis Garcia during the second inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

NEW YORK – Don Mattingly starred in the action-packed 1980s.

Now the Miami Marlins manager, Donnie Baseball worries about a record lack of hits -- and not just from his team’s bats.

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“I don’t think it’s cyclical at this point,” he said. “There’s so much swing and miss, it’s kind of off the charts. I think it’s something that we have to address.”

It’s the Season of the Slump, even for All-Stars like Marcell Ozuna (.202), Charlie Blackmon (.184) and Francisco Lindor (.189). Miguel Cabrera, the only Triple Crown winner in a half-century, is batting .140.

Major league batters are hitting just .232 overall through April, down from .252 two years ago and under the record low of .237 set in the infamous 1968 season that resulted in a lower pitcher’s mound.

The Mendoza line may not mean what it used to.

Strikeouts have averaged 9.06 per team per game, on pace to set a record for the 13th consecutive full season — up from 8.81 two years ago and nearly double the 4.77 in 1979. Strikeouts already are 1,092 ahead of hits, just three years after exceeding hits for the first time over a full season.

Hits are averaging a record-low 7.63 after fluctuating from 8 to 10 from 1937 through last year, excepting 1968′s dip to a then-alarming 7.91.

While it's a bear market for batters, pitchers are on bull runs.

Joe Musgrove of San Diego and Carlos Rodón of the Chicago White Sox became the second pair of pitchers in a half-century to throw April no-hitters, the first since Atlanta’s Kent Mercker and Minnesota’s Scott Erickson in 1994. Arizona's Madison Bumgarner pitched another, but the shortened seven-inning gem in a doubleheader was not recognized by MLB.

Mattingly, a six-time All-Star, never struck out more than 43 times in a season during a career from 1982-92.

Texas slugger Joey Gallo already has whiffed 40 times, as has Cincinnati’s Eugenio Suárez.

“Pitching has always been further ahead in the analytical world, and applying information to the competition has been much faster on the run- prevention side than the run-production side,” said Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, a former big league catcher.

“I have great concern that our sport has turned into a lack of offense and the strikeout-homer-walk Three True Outcomes is not our best entertainment product. ... We’re trending in the wrong direction. It doesn’t mean we can just snap our fingers and make a rule change or do one simple thing and all of a sudden we’re going to turn into a more balanced sport.”

Detroit finished April with a .199 batting average, on track to shatter the low of .211 set by the 1910 Chicago White Sox.

Just 16.6% of pitches have been put in play this season through midweek, according to MLB Statcast, matching last year and down from 18.6% in 2015.

Perhaps it’s the Rawlings baseballs, which were slightly deadened this year in a change MLB said an independent lab found would cause balls to fly 1 to 2 feet shorter when hit over 375 feet. Or maybe it’s the five teams that added humidors to their stadiums, raising the total to 10 of 30 with humidity-controlled storage spaces.

Home runs have dropped from a record 1.39 per team per game in 2019 to 1.28 in 2020′s shortened season to 1.14 this year, the lowest since 2015.

Data shows pitchers are throwing harder in the analytic age, where many big leaguers have had their mechanics analyzed at Driveline Baseball, Cressey Sports Performance or the American Sports Medicine Institute in an effort to gain velocity, efficiency and durability.

The average four-seam fastball velocity was 93.5 mph, according to Statcast, up from 93.4 mph last year and 92.9 mph in 2015.

And batters have refined their swing paths in an effort to hit home runs, less distressed about strikeouts than Ruth & Gehrig or even Willie, Mickey & the Duke.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred declined comment, saying it was only one month. Union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman, also declined comment.

Many baseball veterans try not to draw conclusions from Aprils, when cold and blustery weather can hold down offense. Still, a comparison to previous seasons through April is startling.

The batting average was the lowest through April since .230 in 1968, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The .309 on-base percentage was the lowest since .294 in 1968 and the .3894 slugging percentage a mark not seen since 2014′s .3389, Elias said.

“It’s an inconsistent weather month, which tends to depress offense a little bit. I tend to kind of hold off judgment until we get into the summer months,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

“I would say pitching now is as good as it’s been and as specific as it been. I think people really know better than ever what makes a pitcher really good and what their true strengths are other than what you think their strengths are and how you can target different matchups.”

Jacob deGrom of the Mets has a 0.51 ERA, on track to break the post dead-ball era record of 1.12 set by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson in 1968.

“You see deGrom -- you can see guys go out and punch out 14, 15, you’re like, OK, it’s not like not that big of a deal anymore,” Mattingly said. “It seems like teams are striking out 12, 15 times a night, and that’s just normal.”

MLB instituted a new rule in 2020 requiring a pitcher to face three batters or complete a half-inning. Among the experiments in the minor leagues that start Tuesday are requiring Double-A infielders to keep both feet in the infield at the start of every play; and expanding bases from 15-by-15 inches to 18-by-18 at Triple-A. In the independent Atlantic League starting Aug. 3, the pitching rubber will be moved back 12 inches to 61 feet, 6 inches.

In a sign of pitching dominance, there have been 69 team shutouts this season, a pace that would total 439 and smash the record of 359 in 1915. Even accounting for additional games caused by expansion, the percentage of games in which a team failed to score would trail only 1972 and 1968 since the end of the dead-ball era in 1919.

“I think the big thing nobody talks about is the proliferation of the breaking ball," Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon said. "Everybody’s worried about velocity. It’s about the breaking ball to me. That’s where a lot of the numbers have gone to. Hitters normally could catch up to the velocity, if that’s all they’re going to see.”

Maddon is against rules changes to boost batters.

“I don’t like legislating hardly anything," Maddon said. “I’m much more that things change based on people making adaptations and adjustments based on what they’re seeing.”


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