MLB Teams Bucking League-Wide Trends

MLB

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

MLB has been in an interesting place over the past few years. The growth of statistical data has been exponential, with new and (hopefully) improved metrics hitting the open market each and every season.

One has to imagine the proprietary data that MLB teams make sure to keep private is even more advanced and potentially nuanced.

With this wealth of data, league-wide trends seem to be headed further and further to extremes. Nearly every team is telling their hitters to sell out for power and their pitchers to go hard after hitters to get the strikeout. Starting pitchers are being pulled earlier in games than ever before and defenses are being moved around before seemingly every at bat.

The league as a whole looks vastly different than not only the 1980s, but even 2010. With the vast majority of these changes, the results have been positive and so the league has shifted (no pun intended) to mimic these new tendencies.

However, we all know history is cyclical and, to quote Meredith Grey, “just when we think we figured things out, the universe throws us a curveball” or maybe, in this case, a heavy sinker. So which teams are bucking the league-wide trends in 2017? Which teams are going for contact over power? Which teams are running the bases like it’s the 1980s all over again?

Let’s take a look at some of those teams, with the necessary caveat that it is still early in the 2017 season, and some of this “rogue nature” of raging against the machine might simply be noise from a 20-game sample to start the year. We’ll also check to see whether these teams are having any success by going against the grain.

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Tampa Bay Rays – We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Strikeouts

The league-wide strikeout rate has increased in each of the past 13 seasons. Over that time, the league-wide ERA has gone from 4.32 to 3.91. While the decrease in ERA has not been a perfect trend downwards (last season saw a bounce-back to a 4.19 ERA), there is a belief in baseball right now that the best thing a pitcher can do for himself is get strikeouts. If you are a pitcher for the Blue Jays you might rely on getting pop ups, and if you’re CC Sabathia you might rely on getting soft contact, but the safest way to get an out is to get the strikeout and remove fielders from the equation all together.

As such, it’s strange to see the Rays sporting a mid-2000s-esque 6.86 strikeout per nine rate so far in 2017. The Rays are the only team in baseball striking out less than seven batters per nine innings this season, a “feat” no team achieved in 2016. What’s most interesting about the 2017 Rays allergy to strikeouts is that the team finished eighth in the league in strikeout rate in 2016, coming in at a far more modern 8.56 strikeouts per nine.

The biggest culprit this season has been the bullpen. While the rotation averages a run-of-the-mill 7.47 K/9 (17th in MLB), the bullpen is a throwback, totaling just 5.88 K/9. The second-lowest K/9 among relievers this season belongs to the Pirates at 7.35 K/9 – that’s a massive gap.

It is among relievers where strikeout rates have truly shot through the roof in recent seasons, as teams load up on big arms who can give it their all for a few batters before moving on to the next big arm to do the same. The Rays have veered away from that model in 2017, with not a single reliever averaging more than a strikeout an inning.

Right now the Rays bullpen ERA (3.74) ranks right in the middle of the pack (16th in MLB), but they appear to be getting a bit lucky on their opponent BABIP and home run rate. Bullpen sample sizes are always small, especially this early in the season, so it will be interesting to see if the Rays keep up this trend and relative success.

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New York Mets – No Shifts for You

Shifting in the infield has been arguably the fastest-spreading of these recent league-wide trends, with the year-to-year data on total team shifts on the past six years looking as steep as the toughest stretch on Mount Kilimanjaro.

What was once a rare sight – three infielders positioned all on one side of second base – is now a commonality, like the acceptance that we have come to as a society that the once-rare sight of sandals and socks is now common place among the youth of America. (Get off my lawn with those socks and sandals!) So far in 2017, teams have already shifted more than they did in all of 2011, and the league is on pace to shatter the previous record for total shifts once again.

One team that is passing on this new-fangled strategy, however, is the New York Mets. The Mets have shifted just 43 times in 2017, 13 fewer than the Cubs and Cardinals who are tied for second-fewest times shifted in the league. The Mets have shifted more than 200 times less than the league-leading Tampa Bay Rays, who have shifted an incredible 248 times already this season. (The Rays, as a team, are on pace to shift more than the entire league did in 2011.)

So how is this traditional defense treating the Mets? It’s a little hard to tell for a couple reasons. First of all, defensive metrics are the shakiest of all baseball metrics right now. Progress is being made on the defensive front, but pitching and hitting metrics are far more trustworthy at this point in time. Second, defensive stats, in part because of their overall weakness, take the longest time to become useful. Their “stabilization points,” so to speak, don’t arrive until much later in the season, even on a team-wide scale. Finally, the most logical way to determine whether shifts are having success or not – measuring opponent BABIP – has proven to not really be affected by the shift, for reasons not entirely clear right now. Yeah, defensive stats are tricky.

All that being said, if we go by the most basic of stats, the Mets have the fifth-best ERA in baseball this season. A lot of that run prevention has to do with their elite rotation, but it’s worth noting that their opponent BABIP (.293) isn’t far off the league average (.282). The Mets ERA minus FIP, a metric that can be telling for a poor defense, ranks just 11th in baseball, and by FanGraphs defensive metrics, they rank 21st – not great, but not at the bottom of the barrel, either.

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Cincinnati Reds – Stealing Your Heart

One of the trends that has been in the more slow-and-steady mold over past seasons is the decline of the stolen base. Over the past 40 seasons, the two lowest season totals for league-wide stolen bases (excluding the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons) have been 2015 and 2016. Once managers (and maybe front office folks leaning on managers) realized the cost of being caught stealing teams began to attempt fewer steals. (They really could’ve just listened to Jane’s Addiction about 25 years ago.)

Through that modern lens, the 2017 Reds look like a 1980s throwback. The team has 20 steals already this season, enough to lead the league by a 15 percent margin, and that total is more already greater than the entire 2016 Baltimore Orioles had.

Now for the Reds, this is due in large part to their personnel. In Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza, the team has two of the fastest players in the league, and, unsurprisingly, those two have combined for 15 of the team’s 20 steals this season. It’s fair to say that without those two, the Reds would look a lot more like the rest of the league, cautious in their attempted steals and relying more on power than speed to propel their offense.

The Reds certainly won’t be complaining about their speedy duo, however, as Hamilton and Peraza have combined to be caught stealing just once, and given the fact that both hitters are hitting below their projected rate, those stolen base numbers may actually increase once those two start to reach base at a higher clip as the season goes along.

Of all the trends so far, this is the most personnel-based, and therefore, we can’t read too much into whether a counter-revolution is taking place. This next team, on the other hand…

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Boston Red Sox – Contact High

Before the 2017 season, many pundits were predicting the Boston Red Sox lineup to be among the best in baseball. So far in 2017, they have lived up to the hype for the most part, with their wRC+ of 104 landing them in the top ten in baseball.

However, they are doing it a bit differently than many would have thought.

For years, the Sox lineup has been described with words like “powerful” and “home-run heavy.” The Sox finished ninth in baseball with 208 home runs in 2016 and their slugging percentage (.461) was the best in all of baseball. They boasted a lineup that put fear into opposing pitchers and they played to their home-run-friendly home stadium with a lineup full of big boppers.

What a difference David Ortiz makes, huh?

So far in 2017, the Red Sox have the lowest strikeout rate, highest contact rate, and lowest home run to fly ball rate in all of the major leagues.

Mookie Betts might take credit for that low strikeout rate thanks to avoiding the “K” entirely for the first two weeks of the season, but it has really been a team effort. In addition to Betts’ league-leading 4.2 percent K rate, the Sawks have Dustin Pedroia (10.0 percent) and Andrew Benintendi (12.2 percent) joining him among the 25 lowest strikeouts rates in baseball. Among Red Sox with at least 40 plate appearances, only Mitch Moreland has a K rate over 20 percent, a rarity for a time in which the league-wide K rate is 21.9 percent.

Going right along with those excellent K rates is the fact that the Sox are tied with the Cleveland Indians for best contact rate in baseball this season (81.3 percent). While teams like the Tampa Bay Rays are barely making contact at better than 70 percent (71.9 percent, to be exact), the Sox are over 80 percent, along with just three other teams.

The flip side of this coin is that the Sox aren’t hitting for power. Their 11 home runs rank last in all of baseball, and their .388 slugging percentage is down noticeably from last season.

So is it worth it? Are the Red Sox trying to pull off some sort of “2015 Royals” magic with their offense this year? In a land full of teams abandoning contact, can swinging the other way be beneficial?

The answer is split. The Sox still do have a slightly above-average offense as noted earlier (104 wRC+), but they are 18th in runs scored so far this season. They have been, by most metrics, right around a league-average offense, which is a bit surprising considering the expectations coming into the season for this offense.

Would they be better-suited in trying to swing a bit harder while giving up some of that contact rate? The current baseball intelligentsia would certainly say so, but the team has a .579 winning percentage so far this season, so we might just get to see them stick this thing out. Given the Red Sox history of being on the cutting edge of baseball trends, should the Sox succeed with their high-contact approach maybe we’ll see the league follow suit.

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