Monday, July 4, 2022

MLB trends: The home run rate is back up, but in an unusual way; Hunter Greene cuts back on the gas

The 2022 MLB regular season is two months old and the contenders are separating themselves from the pretenders. Several clubs that started out hot are coming back to Earth (like the Angels) and others that started slowly are climbing up the standings (like the Red Sox). That said, there’s still a lot of season to be played and a lot of time to decide postseason races.  

With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at a young pitcher’s recent success, a veteran pitcher’s down season, and the league-wide home run rate. Last week we examined Marcus Semien’s power outage and the rise in position players pitching and four-man outfields.

Greene cutting back on his triple-digit fastball

Coming into the season, Reds righty Hunter Greene was one of the best (and most hyped) pitching prospects in the game. The No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft is one of the hardest throwers on the planet — his 98.5 mph average fastball is nearly a full mile-an-hour better than any other qualified starter — but despite the radar gun reading, there are concerns about the pitch’s effectiveness.

Here’s what our R.J. Anderson had to say about Greene when he ranked him baseball’s No. 26 prospect before the season:

Greene made his first regular-season appearances since 2018 after missing time because of Tommy John surgery and the pandemic. He didn’t disappoint; rather, he posted a 3.30 ERA and a 3.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 106 innings, with most of those coming in Triple-A. Greene still has big-time arm strength, but there’ve long been concerns about the pitch’s lack of movement. He still needs to work on his command and his changeup, too. Greene’s pure velocity and promising slider should help him survive until he can make up for lost reps.  

Concerns about the fastball were evident early this season. Greene allowed 21 runs and 10 home runs in his first five starts and 20 2/3 innings, and opponents hit .448 with a .983 slugging percentage against his heater. That seems impossible, but it happened. The Brewers tagged Greene for eight runs, including five home runs, in only 2 2/3 innings on May 5. That forced Greene to go back to the drawing board.

“Obviously, I had to make adjustments from my last outing,” Greene told MLB.com after holding that same Brewers team to two runs in 5 1/3 innings five days later. “I want that to lead into today, but that’s what the game is all about is making those adjustments and being able to bounce back. That’s the beautiful thing about the game is there is always another day. Looking at it that way puts you in a really good place.”

Monday night Greene held the Diamondbacks to a bunt leadoff single in a rain-shortened seven-inning complete game. He allowed the bunt single, the runner was thrown out trying to steal second, and Greene then retired the final 20 batters he faced, eight via strikeout. His 79.5 mph average exit velocity allowed was one of the 20 best single-game marks in 2022 (min. 10 balls in play).  

In his first five starts the 22-year-old Greene had an 8.71 ERA and opponents hit .311/.388/.700 against him. In his last six starts — the six starts since that five-homer disaster against Milwaukee — Greene has a 3.41 ERA and has held hitters to a .176/.254/.336 batting line. The key has been backing off that high octane fastball a bit, and throwing more sliders. A lot more sliders:

hunter-greene.png

Hunter Greene is throwing more sliders than fastballs these days. Brooks Baseball

“Creating those uncomfortable at-bats and keeping guys off balance, I’m starting to figure that out a little bit more,” Greene told the Cincinnati Enquirer following Monday’s start. “I still have a lot of work to do. For me, it’s like you throw too hard to not have uncomfortable at-bats. There are guys who have uncomfortable at-bats at 88-90 mph. For me to understand that and use my weapons, and just continue to perfect that is my focus.”  

Because he throws so hard, hitters have no choice but to respect Greene’s fastball, and when they have to respect the fastball, it makes the slider (and changeup) more effective. Early on this season, Greene was a bit predictable, and major-league hitters can handle 100 mph if it’s straight and they’re expecting it. Using that triple digit heater less has led to Greene’s success.

In a lost season for the Reds, Greene’s development is the top priority, and sometimes a disaster start like the one he had against the Brewers can be the best thing for a young player. Getting punched into the mouth like that forces the player to adjust in a way a string of mediocre but not truly terrible performances may not. A little adversity never hurt anyone, and that disaster game against the Brewers pushed Greene to make the adjustments that have sent him on this very good six-start stretch. 

Morton’s trouble with the curve

To date, the Braves‘ World Series title defense has not gone according to plan. The club has hovered around .500 all season — they didn’t win (or lose) more than two games in a row until this past weekend — and they’re still waiting for guys like Ozzie Albies, Ian Anderson, Adam Duvall, and Marcell Ozuna to really get going. It has been a grind through the first two months.

Atlanta is also waiting for erstwhile ace Charlie Morton to get going. The 38-year-old allowed four runs in five innings against the Rockies on Sunday, the sixth time in 11 starts he’s allowed at least four runs. He allowed as many as four runs in a start only eight times all last season. Morton owns a 5.63 ERA through 54 1/3 innings, and opponents are hitting .275/.366/.441 against him.

“He really was grinding through those five innings,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told The Athletic about Morton’s outing Sunday. “Any positive steps forward are big.”

There are red flags abound with Morton’s performance. Last season he struck out 28.6 percent of the batters he faced while walking 7.7 percent. Those numbers are 22.0 percent and 10.2 percent this year, respectively. His swinging strike rate has dropped from 12.3 percent to 9.8 percent, and his ground ball rate has dropped from 47.8 percent to 35.2 percent. Morton’s gone from elite to ordinary, if not below average.

The curveball seems to be at the root of Morton’s struggles. Last year batters hit .127 with a .187 slugging percentage against his curve, and they missed with 40.1 percent of their swings. This year they’re hitting .292 with a .542 slugging percentage, and missing with 34.4 percent of their swings. Morton gave up eight extra-base hits on the curve in 2021. He’s already allowed 13 in 2022 (note that, in the video above, Brendan Rodgers doubled and homered on loopy curves Sunday).

“There have been games where it’s been really good, where I’ve thrown the same breaking ball that I’ve been throwing,” Morton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “But the macro numbers would say that the curveball would be the deciding factor between me being an average-to-mediocre pitcher and me being a good-to-great pitcher. That’s just been my reality for the past five years. I’ve lived and died by that pitch. And right now, they’re hitting like .300 off of it.”

The velocity (81.1 mph on average) and spin (3,026 rpm on average) on Morton’s curve are almost identical to last season (80.6 mph and 3,053 rpm), so the shape of the pitch hasn’t changed. More than anything, the location is the problem. Morton’s left a few too many curveballs over the plate this year, where as last year he consistently buried it at or below the bottom of the zone. Here are his curveball location heat maps (the brighter the red, the more pitches in that location):

charlie-morton-curveball.png

Charlie Morton has left too many curveballs up and out over the plate in 2022. MLB.com/CBS Sports

“It’s hard for me because it’s like, What do I do? What is the problem?” Morton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Is the problem that I’m just too old and my stuff is just declining? Or is it just that I’m throwing the ball differently? I would say the latter. I would say I’m throwing throwing plenty hard, and my curveball, it’s spinning well … The spin’s been there; the speed has been there on it. It’s just not been performing the same for me.”

Given his age and all the innings on his arm, it’s entirely possible Morton’s curveball issues are a function of age-related decline. It happens to everyone. The arm doesn’t work the way it once did and executing pitching is more of a challenge. But also, remember Morton broke his leg in the World Series last year, and the recovery disrupted his offseason routine. Combine that with the lockout and the weirdness of the short spring training, and Morton had far from a normal build up to this season.

The fact Morton’s curveball (and fastball, for that matter) is showing the same velocity and spin as last season is encouraging. In theory, it’s easier to fix a mechanical/location issue than it is to rediscover missing velocity, especially at 38. We are two months into the season and Morton still hasn’t figured it out, which is worrisome. At this point though, the track record says to stick with him and hope he rights the ship. Atlanta will need him to do exactly that to have a chance to defend the title in October.

Home runs on the rise

The weather is heating up and so is the league home run rate. In April, teams averaged 0.93 home runs per nine innings and saw 10.0 percent of their fly balls carry over the fence. Those numbers rose to 1.09 and 11.5 percent in May, respectively, and to 1.21 and 12.2 percent so far in June, again respectively. Dingers are back, baby.

The league home run rate is always at its highest in the hot summer months, though this season’s home run rate increase is … unusual. Unusual in that it happened all at once. The month to month numbers suggest a gradual increase and that’s not really what happened. The home run rate was flat the first five weeks of the season, then it jumped in the sixth week. 

Here are the home run rate numbers (using full weeks only, so not this week and the partial opening week):

April 11-17

0.94

10.0%

April 18-24

0.81

9.2%

April 25 to May 1

0.97

10.3%

May 2-8

0.97

10.1%

May 9-15

1.15

11.9%

May 16-22

1.09

11.6%

May 23-29

1.14

11.8%

May 30 to June 5

1.21

12.4%

From April 11 until May 8, about 10 percent of all fly balls left the yard. That number jumped to nearly 12 percent the week of May 9 and has stayed there since. The home run per fly ball rate jumping two percentage points from one month to the next is pretty significant. Jumping that much from one week to the next is pretty remarkable. Remarkable enough to raise questions.

If you want something more rigorous than home run rates, the fine folks at Ballpark Pal modeled expected fly ball distances using exit velocity, launch angle, launch direction, ballpark, and weather. Their full Twitter thread on the subject is worth a read, though here’s the most relevant graph. Fly ball distances shot up in the middle of May, right when the home run rate rose:

We know MLB used two different baseballs without telling us last season, and earlier this year several players complained the ball is not consistent from game to game, or even inning to inning. Here’s what Mets starter Chris Bassitt said back in April:

“The MLB has a very big problem with the baseballs — they are bad,” Bassitt said after his team’s 3-0 victory over the Cardinals. “Everyone knows it. Every pitcher in the league knows it. MLB doesn’t give a damn about it. They don’t care. We have told them our problems with them, they don’t care.”

Bassitt said there is too much inconsistency among the baseballs being used this season, and the problem is exacerbated in different climates.

“There is no common ground with the balls,” he said. “There is nothing the same, outing to outing.”

Did the baseball change in the middle of May? That would be the simplest explanation for the sudden increase in home run rate, and we know MLB has changed the ball in the middle of the season in the past, so it’s not some far-fetched conspiracy theory. The league doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the baseball. They haven’t exactly been transparent.

MLB deadened the ball this season in an effort to reduce home runs and increase the emphasis on contact and balls in play. That’s all well and good, but hitters were never going to make that adjustment overnight, the offense was way down in April. MLB changing the ball to spark offense and add excitement seems plausible, and hey, if they did, it worked. Offense is up the last few weeks.

Whatever the reason, the league home run rate is on the rise. More accurately, the league homer rate rose significantly from one week to the next in the middle of May, and it has stayed there since. The home run rate is still south of last year’s (1.26 HR/9 and 13.6 HR/FB%) but it’s much higher than the dead ball stuff we were seeing in April and early May.

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