The 2021 MLB regular season is roughly five weeks old and although I know no one wants to hear it, it's still early. How early? So early that there is still one qualified hitter hitting over .400. That hitter: Mike Trout at .407. As a rule of thumb, you can keep saying it's still early as long as someone is hitting .400.
Anyway, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues with a look at the most fun player in the game, an obscure franchise record, and the death of the hitter's count. Last week we looked at Dustin May's strikeout potential (before the Dodgers' righty needed Tommy John surgery), the Twins struggling in Manfred rules games, and pitchers performing poorly at the plate.
Ohtani's two-way excellence
Fun is subjective, but I can't think of a more fun baseball player than Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani owns a .939 OPS in 114 plate appearances as a designated hitter (plus one appearance in left field), and he's thrown 13 2/3 innings with 23 strikeouts and a 3.29 ERA. The 13 walks are an eyesore, but the Mona Lisa's smile isn't symmetrical. Nobody's perfect.
Over the weekend Ohtani took a pitch to the elbow, forcing the Angels to scratch him from Monday's scheduled start on the mound. No matter. Ohtani was in the lineup at designated hitter, and he contributed a double on a ground ball to the shortstop, and also a 427-foot home run. That came one day after he stole second and third in the first inning. Elite speed and elite power.
"He's very impressive. Carries himself well. Ginormous human being. He's a good player, for sure," Rays ace Tyler Glasnow told reporters, including MLB.com's Justice delos Santos, after giving up the hustle double and home run to Ohtani on Monday.
Ohtani's nine home runs are tied for the second most in baseball. His under-the-hood numbers are incredibly impressive:
- Sprint speed: 29.1 feet-per-second (14th highest in baseball)
- Average exit velocity: 91.4 mph (well above the 88.4-mph league average)
- Max exit velocity: 119.0 mph (best by someone other than Giancarlo Stanton)
- Barrel rate: 24.0 percent (best in baseball)
Only five players in baseball currently sport a 91 mph average exit velocity and a 29 feet-per-second sprint speed: Ohtani, Ronald Acuña Jr., Byron Buxton, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Mike Trout. That is some company, eh? Offensively, Ohtani is doing things typically reserved only for the game's very best players. It's a rare power/speed combination, truly.
Ohtani the pitcher isn't so bad either. He's pretty good actually, though he'll have to get his walk rate under control to make the jump from exciting pitcher to bona fide ace. Here's what Ohtani is doing on the mound:
- Strikeout rate: 37.1 percent (eighth highest among starting pitchers)
- Average fastball velocity: 97.0 mph (ninth highest among starting pitchers)
- Max fastball velocity: 101.1 mph (third fastest pitch by a starter this season)
- Swing and miss rate: 16.3 percent (ninth highest among starting pitchers)
Ohtani's velocity and ability to miss bats is on par with guys like Glasnow and Dustin May. Also, hitters have missed with over 50 percent of their swings against his slider and splitter, so he's not a one-trick pony who leans on velocity. The secondary pitches are really good too. Too bad a blister and now a pitch to the elbow have limited him to 13 2/3 innings so far this year.
On both sides of the ball, Ohtani is doing special things. His numbers as a hitter are outstanding and his power/speed talent is up there with anyone in the game. On the mound, Ohtani's a bat-missing extraordinaire with velocity and quality secondary pitches. The only question is durability. Can he do this all year? I sure hope so. Ohtani at his best is as fun as it gets in this game.
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Canha sets an A's record
An obscure record, but a record nonetheless. This past weekend Oakland Athletics outfielder Mark Canha set a team record with his 60th career hit-by-pitch. No player has been plunked more since the franchise moved from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. Canha was then hit by another pitch Monday to extend his record.
Here is the Oakland A's all-time hit-by-pitch leaderboard:
- Mark Canha: 61 in 2,001 plate appearances (and counting)
- Sal Bando: 59 in 5,909 plate appearances
- Reggie Jackson: 57 in 5,297 plate appearances
- Jason Giambi: 55 in 4,411 plate appearances
- Rickey Henderson: 55 in 7,481 plate appearances
Including the Philadelphia and Kansas City years, Jimmy Dykes is the franchise's all-time leader with 93 hit-by-pitches in 6,994 plate appearances. Banda and Jackson are second with 62. Canha should move into sole possession of second place before the end of the season. Considering the plate appearance totals, he is the most prolific hit-by-pitch artist in A's history.
"I've stuck around long enough to have a franchise record. Maybe it's not the franchise record I would have picked as a kid, but I'll take it nonetheless," Canha jokingly told reporters, including Jacob Rudner of the Mercury News. "... I take pride in my ability to get on base, and if that's one way I can do it and help the team, then I'm going to do it."
Similar to strikeouts, we're seeing a record number of hit by pitches with each passing year. Early on this season there have been 0.48 hit by pitches per game. The previous record was 0.46 per game, set last year. The record before that was 0.41 per game, set in 2019, and the record before that was 0.40, set in 2018. The last time MLB did not set a hit-by-pitch rate record was 2015.
The increase in hit by pitches can be attributed to a few things. The emphasis on velocity means we see quite a few hard-throwing, max effort pitchers who don't always know where the ball is going (the added velocity also gives hitters less time to get out of the way), plus hitters wear so much protective gear that leaning into a pitch isn't as painful as it once was.
I suppose the good news is that although batters are being hit more than ever, they're being hit by fewer fastballs. In 2008, the first year of the pitch tracking era, 69.7 percent of hit by pitches came on fastballs. This year it's 59.7 percent. Also, the average hit-by-pitch velocity is 88.1 mph, same as 2008, so the league-wide rise in fastball velocity hasn't translated to faster hit-by-pitch pitches.
That said, hit by pitches are inherently dangerous,. Has the hit-by-pitch rate increased to the point where MLB should intervene? I don't know, though I believe anything that makes the game safer is at least worth a conversation. Curbing hit by pitches without taking away the ability to pitch inside would not be easy.
There's no such thing as a hitter's count
Never before have the scales been so tilted in favor of pitchers. Pitching analytics are years of ahead of hitting analytics (teams are building literal pitching labs these days), plus there are the traditional advantages given to the pitcher, like four balls to a walk but only three strikes to a strikeout, and four bases to score a run but only three outs to end an inning.
Because all that isn't enough, MLB pitchers are taking something else away from their hitting counterparts: the hitter's count. Once upon a time pitchers were so predictable that hitters could keyhole in on certain pitches in certain counts, and look to really drive the ball. Not too long ago a 2-0 count or a 3-1 count was close to an automatic fastball count. That is no longer the case.
Pitching tracking launched in 2008 and since then pitchers have thrown fewer and fewer fastballs in so-called hitter's counts. Here are the fastball rates in 2-0 and 3-1 counts, historically the most hitter-friendly count, as well as the first pitch fastball rate.
In 2009, pitchers threw a fastball in a 2-0 count 78.7 percent of the time, and 84.5 percent of the time in a 3-0 count. In 2021, those rates are down to 73.5 percent and 79.3 percent, respectively. First-pitch fastballs have gone from 66.7 percent in 2008 to only 61.8 percent in 2021. The decline has been gradual, but looking at the graph, the drop from 2018 to 2021 is pretty stark.
To be clear, 2-0 and 3-1 are still good hitter's counts. They're just not as advantageous as they once were. For example, batters hit .368 with a .667 slugging percentage in 2-0 counts in 2009. In 2021, it's .332 with a .585 slugging percentage. In terms of OPS+, it was 170 in 2009 and is 153 so far in 2021, so still down even after adjusting for the league's offensive environment.
We've had pitch tracking data for only a small chunk of baseball history, though it's still sort of amazing it took the league this long to adjust and throw fewer fastballs in hitter's counts. Hitters could sit on a 2-0 fastball or 3-1 fastball for close to a century. That is no longer the case, and it's one more reason why stringing together base hits is becoming more difficult with each passing year.