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Is dominant pitching keeping prospects in the minors?

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Perhaps this Year of the Pitcher 2.0 is helping struggling Cleveland hitters keep a roster spot

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The 1968 season was called the Year of the Pitcher because pitching was so dominant that it forced the MLB Rules Committee to shrink the strike zone and lower the pitcher’s mound. And it ain’t got nothing on 2021.

As Lindsey Adler wrote at the Athletic last week, this year’s story is pitching and it’s become a borderline crisis. In 1968, batters hit .237/.299/.340 and struck out 15.8% of the time; one-quarter of the way through the 2021 season, batters are slashing .236/.313/.393 and are striking out at a rate of 24%. All the fans who quit watching because there wasn’t enough action in baseball, well they may have had a point. And if they were Cleveland fans it would make sense, because there’s hardly an offense more adversely affected by this trend.

Cleveland’s current West Coast road trip, in which they’ve won just one of five games and hit .229/.276/.400, seems like a perfect distillation of how the team has been hit hardest by the dominance of pitching this year. Some of the struggles in Cleveland have to do with luck, and several hitters going through a slump at the same time, which is just unfortunate timing; but in raw numbers the Cleveland offense is a mess. As a team, they rank 26th in the majors in wRC (84), 29th in batting average (.211), 30th in on-base percentage (.283), and 27th in wOBA (.291).

Although the troubles of the Cleveland offense are particularly acute, they are not occurring in a vacuum. As noted, the league-wide trend is poor offense and the culprits are unknown but potentially plentiful. In her piece, Adler noted how the changes to the ball have had quite the opposite effect of what MLB intended. Rather than deadening the ball, it has made the ball livelier for a shorter period of time, at which point it dies an unceremonious death in the outfield. Eno Sarris noted that the ball is flying shorter distances than ever even though more players are barreling up the ball, and that pitch movement is also increasing because the laces on the new ball allow pitchers to dig in and grip the ball better. Of course, there’s also the fact that pitching development is way ahead of hitting development, as highlighted in an excellent piece by Zack Meisel.

With all of this going on, it’s no wonder teams are struggling offensively. But in this situation, how is Cleveland supposed to adequately assess the progress of its young players? The team’s offense is the second-youngest in the majors, tied with Texas at exactly 27 years on average and just a bit older than Toronto (26.4 years). When you consider the context of this miserable offensive year, Cleveland's offense being even middling is something of a victory. Using FanGraphs’ plus stats they are almost exactly middling: 13th in walk rate, 20th in strikeout rate, 19th in slugging, and 6th in ISO. With the youth on the team and the overall record of 21-18, second in the AL Central, the situation certainly seems less dire.

But perhaps it’s just less dire on a team-wide basis. As individuals, Yu Chang (-2 wRC+) and Jake Bauers (56 wRC+) are the deadest of weight on the Cleveland roster, perhaps doing no more than taking up space at this point. Likewise, Andrés Giménez (46 wRC+) and Amed Rosario (61 wRC+) are similarly underperforming to an upsetting degree. But when exactly should patience run out with these young hitters?

The season is 25% gone and Cleveland is still very competitive in a bad division. Should the team be more aggressive to improve the offense by making changes right now? The easy answer is yes. But easy answers don’t really exist in this situation.

According to Baseball America, the ball is the same in Triple-A as in MLB, but the pitching quality certainly isn’t. Thus, considering the offensive environment any promoted player would be walking into it’s fair to assume they might only offer a slight upgrade. We only have anecdotes, but it’s possible the team is signaling as much.

If you prefer historical examples of underperforming younger players, consider that the Eric Stamets experience ended on April 16, 2019, and even Max Moroff was gone by May 5, 2019. Examples from farther back include giving up on Gio Urshela on May 4, 2018, and Tyler Naquin didn’t make it past May 13, 2016, before his struggles sent him to Triple-A (though he made it back up in short order). It’s May 18 as I write this and, although Chris Antonetti has acknowledged the existence of Owen Miller to the press, nothing appears imminent, as Bauers replaced Jordan Luplow and Chang appeared for the second time in three games last night against the Angels.

There’s no proof that unreal pitching in 2021 is what is keeping Bauers or Chang or anyone on the major league roster, but there certainly seems to be a pattern here. The team is letting these players ride, and perhaps it’s for the best given how atrocious offense is overall. We can huff and puff about who’s taking valuable plate appearances from whom and discourse all we want, but in this Year of the Pitcher 2.0 maybe this patient approach is for the best, after all.