Bizarro Baseball

Larry Levin

By Larry Levin, Publisher & CEO

Well, just as Superman had his Bizarro dimension clone and Jerry Seinfeld and his gang paid homage to same in the classic TV series, now we have the Bizarro Baseball World.

A Bizarro world where everything’s upside down or backwards. And in the case of MLB, it comes down to the strange, strange flipflop of hitting and pitching success.

We thought we were experiencing an era of pitcher dominance mostly unequalled for several decades. Maybe not to the extent of the Dead Ball Era, dating back to Babe Ruth, but since the Pre-Steroid Era, indeed.

Flamethrowers abound across MLB, and it’s not just in the early innings with starters. It seems like half the bullpens in the majors have multiple arms capable of hurling 95 mph or above.

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Last year’s Cardinals, for instance, had an ERA below 3.00 for the entire staff for the entire season. That was what propelled the team to 100 wins despite universally recognized deficiencies in their everyday lineup.

But this year, the Redbirds are punching it out as though they were the 1927 Yankees, averaging a ridiculous seven runs per game.  And surprisingly, they’ve so far outslugged the dreaded Chicago Cubs, who, even without the injured Kyle Schwarber, are expected to produce enough offense to cause upcoming pitching opponents to double up on their Xanax.

We’re thrilled, of course, about the hometown boys muscling up (assuming there’s no funny business involved—let’s hope that the next round of testing-avoidant drugs hasn’t shown up yet).

But we wonder: Whether it involves our team or others, what the heck is happening around MLB?

Well, on MLB Radio Monday morning, analyst and former National League Rookie of the Year Todd Hollandsworth (one of five consecutive Dodgers to win that title), offered at least a partial explanation: Hitters are having to get smarter, and given that they’re pretty great athletes themselves, they’re doing so.

But how? What’s giving them the newfound edge that can keep up with the power arms?

Hollandsworth took a gander at Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright as an example. It’s no great secret that Waino has struggled mightily at the outset, with three starts that whet no one’s whistle and an ERA of over 8.00.

But when one drills down to the substats, as Hollandsworth did, you start to see some of the plot lines in this bashing frenzy.

For instance, he noted that first-pitch swingers were hitting 12-for-17 off the ostensible Cardinal ace. But that those batters who fell to n 0-1 count were barely touching a .100 average against him.

Huh?

It turns out, Hollandsworth noted, that batters are understanding something quite significant. And that is this: The best chances against a top-flight starters lie with an aggressive approach.

Hitters don’t want to be sitting behind in the count against those who can send them back to the bench with their ferocious out pitches. For Waino, that might be his often-ridiculous 12-6 curveball, or his cutter that can also paralyze a righty by swinging from high and inside to low and out.

So it makes more sense to swing early often.  And this is particularly true against Wainwright, who has struggled with both command and velocity early in the year. If a smart and capable batter sees an 89 mph fastball crossing the plate, he’s gonna take a whack, or at least he should.

But there’s a second rationale for this aggressive approach that harkens back to my earlier comments about burners in the bullpen.

It used to be a better strategy to build up the count on a starter to get him out of the game and make way for the middle inning relief corps of the opponent. But now that same group of pitchers often comprises guys who can bring it as hard or harder than either the starter or the closer.

So if there’s little upside in building the count on the starter, and there’s a disincentive to wait in the count to swing, the seemingly logical conclusion is to swing earlier to effect a higher likelihood of success.

It makes sense. And it’s been evidenced the last couple years by a team that was rarely known as an offensive juggernaut–the defending World Champion Kansas City Royals (who also have the middle-inning heaters in the pen discussed above).

Let’s hope the Cards’ success at the plate continues, and is informed by some of these Bizarro developing trends. And as for the pitchers, well, they had their moment in the sun as the steroid pills and injections faded into the sunset.