Early Trends Emerging at the Start of Historic 2020 MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 2, 2020

Early Trends Emerging at the Start of Historic 2020 MLB Season

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    Among other things, these are hard times for pitchers.
    Among other things, these are hard times for pitchers.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Before it began, exactly how the first 60-game season in Major League Baseball's long history would unfold was anybody's guess.

    Now that we have more than a week's worth of data, let's dive into it.

    It's obviously too early to read too much into anything, but a few trends are emerging. We spotted seven that cover what's happening within the actual games, including how long it's taking to play said games. There are also some trends influencing the injured list.

    Let's get into the details.

    Note: Stats are current through Friday, July 31.

An Alarming Number of Pitcher Injuries

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    Justin Verlander
    Justin VerlanderDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Even before MLB finally implemented a shortened season July 6, there were concerned whispers that such a thing could result in a sudden onset of injuries.

    As Dr. Joshua Dines, an orthopedic surgeon from the Hospital for Special Surgery, told Tom Keegan of the Boston Herald in June, "A big concern for me is that kind of acute vs. chronic workload ratio, where even if you've been doing a little, if you ramp up too quickly over a short period of time, that's where you become at the highest risk for injury."

    Time has proved Dines wise, specifically with regard to pitchers. Dozens of hurlers have landed on the injured list just since July 23, including Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber.

    In a perfect world, this will be as bad as it gets. But in this very much imperfect world, teams may be dancing around injuries to their pitchers all season.

The Healthy Pitchers Are Sloppy

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    Shohei Ohtani
    Shohei OhtaniAssociated Press

    Despite all the injuries, the league's pitchers are actually off to a promising start. Sort of.

    On one hand, runs per game and the three triple slash categories (average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) are all down from 2019. Even though the ball seems like it's juiced again, the home run rate has also dipped.

    On the other hand, pitchers sure are giving up a lot of walks.

    So far, they've issued free passes to 9.4 percent of the batters they've faced. That's not only up from 8.5 percent in 2019, but it's also on track for one of the 10 highest single-season walk rates in MLB history.

    In theory, this could be traced to relatively inexperienced umpires who've replaced the 11 veterans who opted out of working this year. But since the actual data there is inconclusive—balls inside the zone are up slightly, but so are strikes outside the zone—it could be that pitchers are simply rusty from their long layoffs.

All Starting Pitchers Are Openers Now

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    Mind you, rust isn't the only thing contributing to the league's high walk rate.

    Not all pitchers are the same when it comes to hitting the strike zone. Relievers are usually worse at it than starters, to a point where they saw starters' 7.7 percent walk rate in 2019 and raised them a 9.6 percent walk rate.

    Though starting pitchers have thus far raised their walk rate to 8.9 percent in 2020, that number has applied to relatively few batters. Starters and relievers have split the league's 1,838.2 innings fairly close to down the middle, with the former pitching 963.2 (or 52.4 percent) and the latter pitching 875.

    Even in an era in which relievers are handling greater and greater workloads, this is a departure from the norm. Last year, for instance, the split between starters and relievers was a lot closer to 60-40 than to 50-50.

    This trend may only last as long as the starters need to get their arms in shape after the league's rush to Opening Day. But if it proves effective, there may be some teams that lean in to it.

Home Runs Aside, Batters Can't Buy a Hit

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    Christian Yelich
    Christian YelichAssociated Press

    Though home runs aren't flying out of parks at the same rate as last season, teams are still averaging 1.2 long balls per game. That would mark the third-highest rate in history after 2019 and 2017.

    And yet hitters have a collective batting average of just .233. As bad as that sounds, the reality is even worse. If it holds, it'll be the lowest single-season average in all of baseball history.

    Unsurprisingly, the strikeout rate is still going up. However, the rise from 8.8 strikeouts per game in 2019 to 8.9 this year doesn't quite explain the league's 19-point drop-off in batting average.

    A bigger issue is the league's .279 batting average on balls in play, which marks a huge departure from last year's .298 figure. There might simply be bad luck at work there, as hitters are trending well below their expected average on balls in play.

    It's also possible, however, that we've entered a peak year for defensive shifts. To wit, ground balls against shifted infields have yielded only a .196 average, a 32-point downswing from 2019.

The National League Is Outscoring the American League

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    Wil Myers and Manny Machado
    Wil Myers and Manny MachadoAssociated Press

    In 2019, American League teams scored 4.9 runs per game, while National League teams averaged 4.8 runs per game.

    That was nothing out of the ordinary, as the AL also outscored the NL in 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and so on and so on. It's as if one league has had the designated hitter and the other hasn't.

    That's obviously changed this year, and so have the two league's respective scoring environments. As AL clubs tally 4.5 runs per game, NL clubs are easily outpacing them with 4.8 runs per game.

    However, this isn't because National League DHs are outhitting their American League counterparts. The opposite is true, to the tune of a .690 OPS against a .639 OPS. The AL is also producing more frequent home runs, averaging 1.3 per game to the NL's 1.2.

    For the NL, the big difference is greater success with runners in scoring position (i.e., an .806 OPS versus a .783 OPS) and a smaller rate (i.e., 55.3 percent to 60.0 percent) of solo home runs. Such things might not last, in which case this "trend" would go poof. But for the time being, it's nothing if not interesting.

Games Are and Aren't Moving Faster

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Before 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred's most pressing crusade was to speed up the pace of play.

    "Pace of game is a fan issue," he told reporters in 2018. "Our research tells us that it's a fan issue. Our broadcast partners tell us it's a fan issue. Independent research that our broadcast partners do confirm the fact that it is a fan issue."

    To this end, there's good news and bad news.

    The good is that the overall time per game is down from 3:10 in 2019 to "only" 3:09 in 2020. The bad, however, is that the average time for nine-inning games has actually ticked up by two minutes to 3:07.

    The disparity has to do with how the new rule for extra innings—in which each frame starts with a runner on second base—has kept games from going too long. But despite other new rules, such as the three-batter minimum for pitchers, it's clear the actual pace of games is still an issue.

Postponements Are Going to Be Sudden and Frequent

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    Michael Hill and Don Mattingly
    Michael Hill and Don MattinglyAssociated Press

    In any given MLB season, the schedule is set until it isn't. Typically because of rain, postponements happen as needed.

    Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the 2020 schedule will be more fluid than any that's come before.

    Because of an outbreak that's thus far afflicted 18 players, the Miami Marlins had an entire week's worth of games postponed. That situation also affected the Philadelphia Phillies, Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, and now the St. Louis Cardinals are dealing with their own possible outbreak.

    Altogether, a whopping 15 games had to be pushed back just in the season's first week. It's little wonder, then, that MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed to limit double-headers to seven innings for each game. Per Britt Ghiroli of The Athletic, expanding the usage of 30-player rosters is also on the table.

    If you're sensing that MLB and the MLBPA are making things up as they go along, well, you're not wrong. And if things don't improve, it's indeed possible the season will be canceled.

        

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.