"Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" was published in 2003. Michael Lewis' book was then turned into a movie that was released in 2011. And yet, in 2021, there are still so many people out there with the misconception that playing "Moneyball" was about a specific stat ("Moneyball is on-base percentage!" the ignorant will cry out) or even some sort of "sabermetrics" revolution to make people hate the stats they long held near and dear in favor of "newfangled" stuff.
I'll pause for laughter.
No, it's actually about finding market inefficiencies. That is, what skillsets are other teams undervaluing and how can we acquire players -- mostly cheaply -- to exploit this for our gain. There have been several iterations since the initial movement from average to OBP and slugging. Defense is certainly up there, a combination of shifting/positioning and getting undervalued defensive players. Things have obviously been done on the pitching side, such as shortening the game with super bullpens and using openers, among other things.
In light of where things are headed right now in baseball, I'm wondering if we're coming full circle very soon with what type of hitter is undervalued.
That is to say, while the initial "Moneyball" movement set baseball on a path, where average was less important than the other two main rate stats (meaning more emphasis was put on drawing walks -- and, in related matters, working deep counts -- and hitting for power). In the process, we have seen a great shift toward the so-called Three True Outcomes (home runs, walks, strikeouts).
As a result, who got left a bit behind? The high-average, high-contact hitters, possibly with low power.
I said I'm wondering if we're about to come full circle because not only do I believe there's a chance at a market inefficiency in there, I also think the forces of the game are swinging toward this type of hitter being undervalued.
Strikeouts continue to rise. More and more, it seems like whichever team each game hits "the big home run" is the one that goes on to win. Here are the lowest batting averages in MLB since World War I:
- 1968: .237
- 1967: .242
- 1972: .244
- 2020: .245
If we're wondering about the small sample or want to blame the pandemic, the 2019 average was .252 and the league hit .248 in 2018.
If some of those years above jumped out, it's for good reason. After 1967-68, the pitcher's mound was lowered. After 1972, the American League added the DH.
Meanwhile, in 2020, strikeouts per team game actually dropped -- to the second-most all-time -- from 2019, but 2020 marked the first year it wasn't a new strikeouts per game record since 2007.
It's gotten to the point that it isn't just a small subset fans or curmudgeon broadcasters whining. Many baseball fans acknowledge the game needs more on-field action. At this point, pretty open-minded and even-keel people are discussing that something has to change. Home runs are great. Walks were far too long an underappreciated part of the game. Big strikeouts are excellent to watch. It's just that we should have more than those things along with groundballs and fly balls going right at nearly perfectly positioned defenders.
On one hand, the pitchers and defense are very good. On another, maybe the shift in philosophy left too many different types of hitters behind. Maybe things should tilt back a bit the other way?
After stepping down from his perch as Cubs president, Theo Epstein took a job with the commissioner's office and said something along these lines (emphasis mine).
"As the game evolves, we all have an interest in ensuring the changes we see on the field make the game as entertaining and action-packed as possible for the fans, while preserving all that makes baseball so special. I look forward to working with interested parties throughout the industry to help us collectively navigate toward the very best version of our game."
He had recently sort of lamented his own role in shaping the game, too. Via The Athletic:
"There are some threats to it because of the way the game is evolving," Epstein said. "I take some responsibility for that. Executives like me who have spent a lot of time using analytics and other measures to try to optimize individual and team performance have unwittingly had a negative impact on the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game in some respects."
The hunch here is Epstein will have commissioner Rob Manfred's ear pretty strongly in the next few years. We've also already seen Manfred discussing things like either banning or limiting the shift along with something to curtail strikeouts, such as lowering and/or moving back the mound.
Zeroing in on the possibility of shifts going away, and low-strikeout guys become even more valuable. It doesn't take an Epstein-savvy front office member to figure out the chances of finding a hole without the defense perfectly crafted to a spray chart increase.
Further, after seeing so many strikeouts in huge spots with runners on base over the past several years, I can't help but think that even if a hitter that sits something like .230/.340/.500 can be valuable, evening that out with a high-average contact hitter to keep the line moving at times would be beneficial in creating a more well-rounded lineup.
The poster boy here is D.J. LeMahieu. Believe it or not, Epstein actually inherited him with the Cubs, but traded him away his first offseason with Tyler Colvin for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers. Stewart looked like the high-walk, high-power guy teams coveted at the time (important update: He wasn't). Despite winning a batting title, winning three Gold Gloves and making two All-Star teams, LeMahieu only got a two-year, $24 million deal with the Yankees after the 2018 season as mostly an afterthought in a huge offseason. He went on to finish fourth in AL MVP voting. Then he finished third last season, leading the majors with a .364 average while also pacing the AL in OBP, OPS and OPS+.
Finally heavily sought after, LeMahieu got six years and $90 million to stay with the Yankees this offseason. Yes, he's developed his power, but he only struck out 90 times in 655 plate appearances in 2019 and 21 times in 195 plate appearances in 2020.
With everything conspiring in this direction anyway, I think LeMahieu is starting a wave.
Here are some others (in a non-exhaustive list) who could become increasingly valuable moving forward into the next decade of baseball evolution.
Tommy La Stella - A broken leg cost La Stella half the 2019 season in what looked like his career year. He already had 16 homers, yet had still only struck out 28 times in 321 plate appearances. Last year, he had the lowest strikeout percentage in baseball while hitting .281 with a .370 OBP.
Ketel Marte - Pay too much attention to the loss of power in just 45 games last year at your peril. He still hit .287 and was tough to strikeout. I'm not expecting a full bounce-back to MVP-caliber levels of 2019, but his bat-on-ball skills have pretty steadily improved for five years straight.
David Fletcher - He's improved all three years in all three rate stats and sports a career .292 average with just 123 strikeouts in 1,190 plate appearances. He also ranks near the very bottom of the league in stuff like barrel percentage, exit velocity and hard-hit percentage. Sending some conventional 2019 people running for the hills is a good trait for someone to have when looking for market inefficiency, right?
Jeff McNeil - Why pick between McNeil and a Pete Alonso type when you have both? McNeil in 248 career games is a .319 hitter with only 123 strikeouts in 1,024 plate appearances. Like Fletcher, his "batted ball profile" leaves a lot to be desired, too.
Trea Turner - We've seen former Turner teammates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon strike it very rich in free agency while his current teammate Juan Soto rightfully will garner a ton more attention here in the short term. Just don't forget about Trea. His strikeout percentages aren't excessive -- remember, as a leadoff man he takes tons of plate appearances -- and he's a career .296 hitter. He makes consistent contact, has some power and can fly.
Kevin Newman - Newman had a dreadful 2020 season, but it was only 45 games in the middle of a pandemic. I'm not going to harp on that when we've got 130 games of a .308 hitter in 2019 who only struck out 62 times in 531 plate appearances. Don't sleep on him.
Jean Segura - Segura became a different hitter in 2020. His strikeout percentage jumped from 11.8 to 20.7. Along with it went his previously high average. But he walked a lot more and his OBP went up. It was weird. Regardless, keep in mind what a fluky season 2020 was. Segura was in the top five percent of toughest hitters to strikeout in 2018 and 2019 while topping a .300 average 2016-18. He's 30. I have faith in him being productive with a good average and lower strikeout rate in 2021. And hey, maybe he'll even keep walking. I never said it was bad.
Jake Cronenworth - As a rookie last year, Cronenworth put together a season in which he would've struck out around 90 times in a full year while hitting .285. His minor-league and amateur profile has long shown someone with good contact skills capable of a higher average. He was never a top-100 prospect in the minors, but he now heads into territory where he can have an impact simply by being differently valuable than the 2010s prototype.
To be clear, this premise isn't even remotely saying teams should load up on only these types of players. The best lineups are the most well-rounded. Get you a few of these types to pair with some big boppers and things would be looking pretty damn nice. The conditions are ripe for a bit of a sea change in how hitters are valued in these next few years. Watch LeMahieu, La Stella and company for a guide while someone like Cronenworth carries the torch to the next generation.