The 2020 MLB season is less than a week old and, unfortunately, the headlines are being dominated by a COVID-19 outbreak rather than dingers and pitching performances. As many as 17 members of the Marlins organization have tested positive, .
On the field, this is the first season no team started 3-0 or 0-3 since way back in 1954. Three days into the season, 22 of the 30 teams were 1-1. At one point, every American League team was in postseason position (or tiebreaker position, technically) except the Mariners. Even in these unusual times, Seattle was on the outside looking in. Go figure.
In recent weeks we've examined players poised for a power breakout, the most improved defenders, , the best chase rate pitchers, the best pitchers at holding runners, and all sorts of other statistical minutiae. Now that the season is underway, we can break down some fresh new action on the field. Here are three notable trends from the season's first week.
1. The count workin' Padres
Offense and the San Diego Padres don't always go together. From 2004, the year Petco Park opened, through 2019, the Padres ranked dead last among all teams in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases. Their park-adjusted offense was about nine percent worse than league average during that time. The worst hitting team of the last 15 years, they are.
That is no longer the case in 2020. The Padres have scored 26 runs through five games, though what stands out most is the quality of their at-bats and their newfound willingness to work the count. San Diego has worked the opposing starter very hard in their five games:
- July 24: Madison Bumgarner: 100 pitches in 5 2/3 innings
- July 25: Robbie Ray: 97 pitches in 3 2/3 innings
- July 26: Zac Gallen: 88 pitches in 4 innings
- July 27: Luke Weaver: 79 pitches in 3 1/3 innings
- July 28: Jeff Samardzija: 75 pitches in 4 innings
The Padres lead baseball in walks (28), pitches per plate appearance (4.42), and full counts (50), and they're second in walk rate (15.2 percent) in the early going. They also have the second-lowest swing rate on pitches out of the zone (21.4 percent), behind only the Dodgers (19.0 percent) and well below the 29.7 percent MLB average. Plate discipline is the new craze in San Diego.
Last year's Padres had the fifth-lowest on-base percentage (.308) in baseball and GM A.J. Preller sought to correct that by trading for outfielders Tommy Pham (career .373 on-base percentage) and Trent Grisham (career .376 on-base percentage in the minors). Even Jurickson Profar, who hasn't lived up to the hype of his prospect days, owns a strong 9.3 percent walk rate for his career.
"It's just the mentality and the grind mindset our hitters have right now," rookie manager Jayce Tingler told reporters, including MLB.com's AJ Cassavell, during a conference call Saturday. "The important thing is we've got to do it again tomorrow, and we've got to keep doing it."
The Padres won't maintain an 15.2 percent walk rate all season (even during a 60-game season) because no team does that. That's close to peak Joey Votto plate discipline as a team for two months. Won't happen. Also, it's worth noting that while the Padres aren't swinging at pitches out of the zone, they also aren't swingin at many pitches in the zone. Their 62/1 percent zone swing rate is sixth-lowest in baseball. There's a fine line between patience and passivity.
The personnel changes (both players and coaches) suggest there is a tangible reason behind San Diego's newfound ability to work the count and wear pitchers down, and it's not simply a small sample size fluke. Replacing Hunter Renfroe (career .294 on-base percentage) and Manuel Margot (.301) with Pham and Grisham really helps! The Padres are no long a pushover with a lineup heavy on quick, easy outs.
"That's been what Jayce has really preached on, really grinding out at-bats, working good counts and really winning that 3-2 count," Wil Myers said during a conference call Saturday, according to Cassavell.
2. Several stars missing velocity
One of the great unknowns this season is how the shutdown will affect pitchers. We were a month into spring training when MLB hit the pause button. Pitchers were starting to get built up, then they had to shut down for close to three months, then they had to ramp back up again in summer camp. They kept throwing during the shutdown, sure, but there is no substitute for game action.
It's impossible to know whether the recent rash of pitcher injuries (Corey Kluber, Ryan Pressly, Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, etc.) is a result of the shutdown or whether it's just baseball being baseball. Pitchers get hurt all the time, even great ones. It's also impossible to know whether the shutdown is to blame for several pitchers missing velocity. . .
MLB's average fastball velocity (93.3 mph) is up a bit from last year (92.6 mph) thus far but several pitchers did not have their normal velocity in their first outing this season. Some examples:
|2020 average (max)||2019 average (max)||2019 first start average (max)|
Madison Bumgarner, D-Backs
87.9 mph (89.4 mph)
91.7 mph (94.3 mph)
91.2 mph (92.8 mph)
92.4 mph (94.0 mph)
95.1 mph (98.1 mph)
95.4 mph (97.5 mph)
92.5 mph (94.4 mph)
93.5 mph (96.8 mph)
92.8 mph (95.5 mph)
In their first starts this year Bumgarner and Morton did not throw a fastball as fast as their average 2019 fastball. Bumgarner topped out at more than 2 mph below his average 2019 heater. Nola's velocity was down relative to last year's average but it was in line with his first start last year, which is a bit reassuring. Still, those are some noticeable velocity dips.
There are reasons besides the shutdown that could explain Bumgarner's and Morton's missing velocity. Bumgarner is 30 now and he has close to 2,000 big league innings on his arm. Morton is 36 with a history of arm injuries. You'd expect some velocity loss at that point in their careers, though that makes their Opening Day readings no less worrisome.
It's still early, of course, and it's important to keep in mind pitchers did not have a proper spring training to build up prior to Opening Day. That could certainly affect their readiness and velocity. And I should note several pitchers are even throwing harder this year. Twins righty Jose Berrios averaged 95.3 mph with his fastball on Opening Day. It was 93.5 mph last season.
The sample size is small and the conditions are unprecedented this year. The only thing we can do right now is monitor these guys to see whether their velocity returns as the season progresses. We need more information. For some though, the early returns are not promising. Guys like Bumgarner and Morton (and Paxton) showed significant velocity declines in their 2020 debuts.
"I didn't feel the stuff coming out of my hand was great," Morton told reporters, including MLB.com's Juan Toribio, following his Opening Day start. "I didn't feel like my fastball was very threatening. It could be a few things. I'll get with (pitching coach Kyle Snyder) and see what those pitches are actually doing."
3. Sac bunts going extinct
So, is everyone enjoying the universal DH one week into the new season?:
Thus far National League DHs are hitting an underwhelming .219/.309/.364, which is roughly eight percent below league average overall, though I think that's understandable. The universal DH was dropped on NL teams during the shutdown, so they couldn't prepare during the offseason. Many NL teams lacked quality internal DH options.
An early byproduct of the universal DH is the sacrifice bunt being abandoned as an offensive strategy. Sac bunts were already going out of style -- there were 776 sac bunts last year, down from 1,200 as recently as 2015 -- and approximately 56 percent of all sac bunts were laid down by pitchers in recent years. With no more pitchers hitting, bunts have become rare.
How rare? There have been sacrifice four bunts in 2020. Four in 69 total games. As recently as 2015 a team had four sac bunts in a single game. There have been so few sac bunts this season that we might as well recap them one-by-one:
tied 2-2 (top 10th)
Runner on 2nd, no outs
Bunted runner to third, run scored on the next batter's sac fly and proved to be the game-winning run
2-1 lead (top 7th)
Runner on 2nd, no outs
Bunted runner to third, run scored on the next batter's single and proved to be the game-winning run
3-1 lead (top 4th)
Runners on 1st and 2nd, no outs
Bunted both runners up, first scored on sac fly and second scored on a homer to break the game open
|July 28||John Ryan Murphy, Pirates||tied 6-6 (bot 8th)||Runner on 2nd, no outs||Bunted runner to third, run scored on the next batter's home run and proved to be the game-winning run|
Mejia is not much of a hitter and he bunted the automatic runner at second base over to third base in extra innings. I don't love it as the road team -- you can't assume one run will be enough, though in this case it was -- but I get it. Butera and Murphy aren't all that dangerous with the bat, though the runner was already in scoring position. Bunting there was a conservative play that worked out.
The Stewart bunt is easily the most curious and only partly because he is a bat-first prospect whose game is hitting homers, not laying down bunts. Here's the video. It seems possible Stewart was trying to bunt for a hit with the second baseman playing back, but I'm not convinced. Playing small ball in the middle innings at Fenway Park certain qualifies as unusual.
Point is, that's all the sacrifice bunts so far this season. Four through 69 games. There have been failed bunt attempts -- Pirates speedster Jarrod Dyson was unable to get a sac bunt down in extra innings Monday -- but last year MLB averaged one sac bunt every 3.13 games. So far this season it's one every 17.25 games. The universal DH has turned sac bunts into an endangered species.