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A Rising Offensive Tide and Increasingly Valuable Arms

Offensive production is up and teams are paying top dollar for middle of the line arms. A look into the current trends and beyond

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The past couple of years there has been an interesting trend in the price of starting pitching; both in terms of prospects and monetary value of their contracts. A rental pitcher who may have gone for a mid-level prospect and change is now going for an upper tier prospect plus. Jeff Samardzija, a veteran middle of the rotation pitcher coming off of a below average season, was given a 5 year/$90 million contract, a decision that has been having me asking myself why ever since.

On a seemingly unrelated note I have been paying attention to the current influx of young talent in the MLB who immediately see fantastic results, and I found an interesting trend: a great deal of these young players are coming into baseball with very similar swing mechanics. It's not just one or two players; out of the top 30 hitters by, by wRC+, 7 of them are 25 or younger. The next crop of hitters coming through are already hitting; Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Andrew Benintendi, and Alex Bregman to just name a few. Hitters are getting better and they are getting better younger. 2016 was the best offensive season since the major crackdown and testing for performance enhancing drugs. This time there's a different perpetrator though. It's not steroids, HGH, or juiced balls. It's the increased maturity, both in swings and approaches, of the young hitters in baseball.

Hitters are getting better at making pitcher's lives miserable and the organizations are starting to realize it. As the average hitter gets better the premium for quality pitching will only go up. With the reoccurring trend of young hitters coming into the league and producing immediately, the trend is only going to get more prevalent.

The Data

Between 2010 and 2012 the average offensive production was stable around .255/.319/.405. Baseball was recovering from a long era where power hitters were as common as sand on a beach. 2013 saw a noticeable drop in offensive production and it fell off a cliff in 2014, where the average was .251/.314/.386. For the first time in almost a century the average OPS of the MLB almost dropped below .700.

Then, in 2015, offense suddenly spiked; names like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, the emergence of Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado had an immediate influence. Following that up, in 2016 it all broke loose, and the MLB had an average offensive production of .255/.321/.417. Batting averages were still holding steady, but on base percentage and slugging were way up and as a result in two seasons the average OPS was up from .700 flat to .740. You can also see the influence of the new approach and swing philosophy of the newer generation. Strike outs were up in 2016, sacrifice hits were down, and walks were way up. The focus of the new generation of hitters is to drive the ball hard or get on base and striking out is a necessary evil that comes with swinging hard.

The second important data set is to look at what age groups are performing well and to see if the trend is actually towards the younger players performing better. In order to do this I split the major league total stats into two groups: players who are 25 and younger and players who are between 26 and 30 (peak offensive seasons). I found a trend: starting in 2014 the players younger than 25 started to close the gap with the players in their peak seasons in offensive production. Their markers were there too with increased K rates, increased walk rates, increase isolated slugging, higher fly all rates, lower ground balls rates, higher pull rates, and higher hard hit rates.

The Mechanics and Philosophy

The trends are seemingly in the data on the scales of the entire MLB and when you break the data up by age group, but that leaves the" why?". Simply put I think the philosophy of developing young hitters is moving away from the traditional worries of simply making contact and batting for a high average and towards an understanding of what style of hitter produces the optimal offensive output. This new philosophy revolves around hitting the ball hard in the air to create extra base hits while having a patient approach at the plate in order to get on base via the walk.

In order to adhere to this style, hitters are tweaking their swing mechanics to create a powerful swing with an ideal launch angle for hitting line drives and hard fly balls. This trend in swing mechanics is ultimately why hitters are producing more offense and the increased influx of young hitters who have been developed with those ideals. Here are the trends in the mechanics that are causing this shift: an increased tension in the hips during the load to increase bat speed during swing, releasing the hips first and transferring weight from the back leg to the front leg at with the momentum moving forward at the point of contact, the back elbow dropping down to the waist to ensure the bat comes around at a slightly upward angle for more loft, a straightened leading arm that pulls the bat through the zone instead of the hands pushing the bat through the zone, and increased separation between the hips and the hands during which allows a hitter to stay back on a ball longer and help the hitter generate more power.

Here are a few examples of young hitters with these mechanical tendencies as well as some of the other players in the top 30 in offensive production. Each has his own unique rhythm and mechanics, but the all of the general tweaks and mechanical markers are there. If you were to go through and look at every top performer you would find these mechanical markers in a significant portion of the players.









Final Thoughts

The implications of this if the trend indeed does continue are pretty big. Offensive production should continue to increase from year to year as this philosophy saturates the MLB and with each new generation of young talent, players should be able to play later in their careers as quickness in the hands becomes a slightly lesser issue, and the gap between the relative value of a good offensive player and a pitcher able to get those good offensive players out consistently will increase. It is no surprise that pitchers the majority of us did not see getting big contracts were all of a sudden commanding money once given to top tier players. With the dawn of the age of information it is a truly interesting time to be involved in the baseball world and the trends and counter-trends that arise over the next few decades of baseball are going to surprise and interest us all. Most of all baseball will probably surprise us and find a new way to show us how we know nothing because as Tepid is so fond of saying, "baseball exists to F with you".