The 2021 MLB regular season is roughly one-quarter complete and things are beginning to look normal. For example, there are no longer any qualified batters hitting over .400., and that is decidedly not normal. A no-hitter a week the rest of the season would be something else.
Our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues with a look at an improbable Mets hero, a Blue Jays pitcher whose slashed his walk rate, and the uptick in offense league-wide. Last week we broke down a future Hall of Famer's limp to two historic milestones, a top closer's missing strikeouts, and MLB's most perfectly average team.
Mazeika's improbable week
Nowhere on a top prospects list will you find New York Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika. The 27-year-old former eighth-round pick spent parts of three seasons in Double-A before the pandemic canceled the 2020 minor-league season, hitting .241/.321/.405 in 209 games at the level. The Mets called Mazeika up for one day last August, though he did not appear in a game.
Mazeika rejoined the Mets earlier this month when Brandon Nimmo landed on the injured list with a finger issue. As the No. 3 catcher behind free agent addition James McCann and incumbent backup Tomás Nido, Mazeika didn't figure to play much, though he has had a big impact when he has played. An unprecedented level of impact, really.
On May 5, Mazeika made his MLB debut as a pinch-hitter against the Cardinals and grounded out. Two days later he pinch-hit again, this time with the bases loaded and one out in the 10th inning against the Diamondbacks. Mazeika walked the game off with a swinging bunt dribbler back to the pitcher. He was appropriately mobbed (and disrobed) by teammates during the celebration.
Two days after that, Mazeika again pinch-hit with the bases loaded, this time drawing a walk to score an insurance run in the sixth inning. Two days after that, Mazeika pinch-hit yet again, this time with runners on second and third with one out in the ninth inning against the Orioles. A fielder's choice to first base won the game and gave Mazeika another walk-off.
"Mazeika, just knowing him from the past, he's known for taking quality at-bats," Mets manager Luis Rojas told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, following Mazeika's second walk-off fielder's choice. "And that's what he's done every time he's up there, right? He's put the ball in play."
In his first real week as a big leaguer Mazeika had two walk-offs and a bases-loaded walk. That's three hugely important runs driven in without the benefit of a hit. He was 0 for 3 with a walk and three RBI at the time of the second walk-off, and up to that point, he was the most impactful hitter in major league history with a career .000 batting average.
Here's the win probability added leaderboard among hitters with zero career hits:
- Patrick Mazeika: +0.430 WPA
- Jim Geddes: +0.345 WPA (two career plate appearances)
- Jean Machi: +0.310 WPA (seven career plate appearances)
- Mario Feliciano: +0.173 WPA (one career plate appearance)
- Herb Washington: +0.157 WPA (zero career plate appearances)
Geddes and Machi were pitchers. Feliciano made his MLB debut with the Brewers earlier this year and he drew a walk to load the bases with no outs in the 11th inning of a tie game against the Dodgers. Washington was a world-class sprinter and famed pinch-running specialist with the 1974-75 Athletics. He went 31 for 48 stealing bases in his career and scored 33 runs, but never took an at-bat or played the field.
Fortunately for Mazeika and unfortunately for fans of weird stats, Mazeika no longer qualifies for the above leaderboard. He socked a home run against Rays flamethrower Diego Castillo for his first career hit this past Sunday. Alas, it came in a blowout loss, so it didn't help the Mets to another improbable win. Still good that Mazeika got into the hit column though.
The Mets have been ravaged by injuries the last few weeks (Nimmo, Albert Almora Jr., Michael Conforto, JD Davis, Luis Guillorme, Jeff McNeil, and Kevin Pillar are all on the injured list and that's just the position players) so Mazeika's spot on the roster is safe. He'll pick up more hits and maybe even more walk-offs in the coming weeks, though his first few days as a big leaguer were as impactful as it gets without actually, you know, getting a hit.
Ray back in control
In the first major-league transaction of the 2020-21 offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays re-signed left-hander Robbie Ray to a one-year contract worth $8 million. Ray, 29, pitched to a 6.62 ERA with 68 strikeouts but also 45 walks in 51 2/3 innings split between the D-Backs and Blue Jays last year. He had a 4.79 ERA in 20 2/3 innings with Toronto, which was enough to earn a new contract.
Ray cut his walk rate from 20.1 percent with the D-Backs to 14.4 percent with the Blue Jays, which is a) a significant improvement, and b) still well above the league average 9.2 percent walk rate. He's always been a high walk pitcher (11.6 percent walk rate from 2017-19), but the Blue Jays were banking on Ray getting back to his pre-2020 form in 2021.
Over the winter, Ray cited the club's resources as a reason for re-signing with Toronto. From the Toronto Star's Gregor Chisolm in February:
"Technology has gotten way better and we have slow-mo cameras. They can break down your delivery in very, very small increments of, like, frames per second," Ray said. "So, it is a lot different now, and it's really cool to see that technology and be able to go pitch-to-pitch and see the difference: OK, this ball was here and this is what my delivery looked like, and this ball was here and it looked different."
Seven starts into 2021, Ray has been a revelation for the upstart Blue Jays, pitching to a 3.79 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. The most important number: 11, as in 11 walks in those 40 1/3 innings, or 6.6 percent of batters faced. One hundred and thirty pitchers have thrown at least 40 innings in 2021 after throwing at least 40 innings in 2020. None have cut their walk rate from 2020 more than Ray, and it's not close either:
- Robbie Ray, Blue Jays: 11.3 percentage point decrease in walk rate
- Julío Urias, Dodgers: 4.4 percentage points
- Aaron Nola, Phillies: 3.9 percentage points
- Frankie Montas, Athletics: 3.8 percentage points
- Zach Eflin, Phillies: 3.7 percentage points
"Man, he's throwing nothing but strikes," Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said after Ray threw 6 2/3 walk-less innings against the Braves on April 30 (video link). "He's got good stuff, and if he's around the zone, he's going to get people out. And that's what he did again today, threw strikes with all his pitches and gave us a chance. He was outstanding."
Ray already has more walk-less starts this season (four) as he had from 2018-20 combined (four). The only other year he's had four walk-free starts in a single season was 2017, when he had five. He's one away from tying his career high with more than four months to play. In his last five starts, Ray has walked one of the 122 batters he's faced, or 0.08 percent. Incredible.
Ray's improved control stems from a cleaner, more simplified delivery. He shortened up his arm action a la Lucas Giolito last year and it was a disaster. He's undone those changes and streamlined everything, and the result is not only more pitches in the zone, but greater velocity as well. A graph is worth a thousand words:
Similar to the decline in walk rate, no pitcher has increased his zone rate from last year as much as Ray (plus 13.6 percentage points), and his 1.5 mph increase in average fastball velocity is a top 25 mark in the game. Credit Ray for the improvement, first and foremost, but also credit pitching coach Pete Walker. He's helped unlock the best, most in-control version of Ray we've ever seen.
"I think there's a lot of confidence and faith in him from his teammates, which says it all. He's been a great addition. It's also great to see how he goes about his work and the influence he has on the other pitchers on our team," Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins recently told TSN's Scott Mitchell. "The fastball's as good as it gets and the slider has, obviously, been effective. He's mixed in that changeup, but you hit the nail on the head with his command, he's throwing the ball over and he's also, at times, really commanded a well-above average fastball."
MLB offense trending up
Not long before spring training, word got out that MLB was deadening the baseball for the 2021 season. The thinking was lowering the home run rate would force hitters to focus on making contact, and that would lead to more action on the field. A good idea and a noble cause, I think, except hitters were never going to make that adjustment overnight.
Thanks to the new baseball, a bunch of home runs have turned into fly outs, and there is some evidence the higher seams on the new ball give pitchers a better grip, and have increased spin rates and thus strikeout rates. As a result, MLB hitters went into Tuesday's action hitting .236/.313/.393 overall. That would be the league's lowest batting average ever, the lowest on-base percentage since 1968, and the lowest slugging percentage since 2014. Yuck.
I bring good news, however: offense is trending up around the league. Six full weeks have been played this season and each week batters are performing a little better. Here are the numbers:
April 26 to May 2
Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is a souped up version of OPS+ that drills offensive production down into a single context-neutral number (i.e. adjusted for ballpark, etc.) in which 100 is average and the higher the number, the better. Last week, MLB finally had a week that was above average compared to the weeks that came before it. Batting average is on the rise and strikeouts are on the decline too. The gains are incremental, but they exist.
This all makes sense historically. Offense is typically down in April because the pitchers are ahead of the hitters coming out of spring training, and because it's cold in so many MLB cities. Once the weather heats up in the summer months and hitters get into a rhythm, offense picks up. July and August (and September thanks in part to the old roster expansion rules) are typically the highest scoring months of the season.
Offense is up and that's good, because MLB has been so low-scoring in the early going that it is detrimental to the quality of the product. This is the entertainment business and that little offense isn't entertaining. That said, offense is still way down compared to the last few years. Fewer home runs are being hit and strikeouts are up, so batting average is way down. Yes, we should expect to see more offense in the coming weeks than we have seen to date. It's unlikely we will see 2018-20 levels of offense, however.