The No-Spin Zone

It’s the start of a holiday weekend, so let’s talk baseball!

Now, most of our readers are in Wisconsin, so I have to be sensitive to the fact that due to a half decade of baseball absence in Milwaukee or to the dominance of Chicago media in the southeast corner of the state or to baseball-dysfunctional families (BDF’s) in which a family member corrupted an innocent generation, some of you will be Cubs fans.

So, I’m not going to bring up this last series with the Brewers. I won’t mention game one when the Brewers scored 10 runs in the eighth inning to turn a tie game into a laugher. Nor will I make Cubs fans relive the pain of game two when the Brewers had only two hits and still managed to eek out a 2-1 victory. And I certainly will not go anywhere near game three. Just to inform readers who might not have caught that game, what happened there was that the Cubs jumped out to a seven run lead in the very first inning… only to drop an embarrassing 15-7 decision to the Crew.

No, I’m far too a classy a guy to bring up any of that, so just suffice it to say that the Brewers have won nine straight — three at the expense of the Cubs — and now enjoy a six game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central. Let’s just leave it at that.

It was like this for the Cubs this week as they dropped three to the Brewers.

What I really want to talk about today is spin rates. You may have noticed that baseball is a game obsessed with statistics. It always has been, but now with huge data bases accessible in fractions of a second on laptops, combined with speed guns and other tech, there’s been an explosion in wonkiness.

It’s come to this: we can now measure the number of rotations on a ball after it leaves a pitcher’s hand. To quote a story from today’s Wall Street Journal:

“Over the last 10 days through Wednesday, the average rotations per minute on sliders across MLB was down 3.7% from the 10 days ending June 3, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of MLB pitch-tracking data. The RPM on four-seam fastballs dove even further, by 3.9%. 

“Comparing those same two time periods, something curious happened: leaguewide hitting surged. While those spin rates decreased, slugging percentage increased by 24 percentage points, or 6.2%. Hitters also have a .246 batting average since June 3, a sizable leap from the start of the season.”

What’s going on? The decline in spin rates — and the resulting increase in hitting — coincides with Major League Baseball’s crackdown on substance abuse. The substances in question here are not ingested, but applied to the surface of baseballs by pitchers to improve their grip and thus produce more spin. Simply put, a baseball that spins more, moves more and befuddles hitters more.

The bottom line is that scoring has, all of a sudden, taken off. Just to give two random examples, the Brewers scored 14 runs off of Cub pitching in the opening game of their series last week and scored another 15 runs against the hapless Cubs in the final game of the series. The outlier here was that in game 2, the Brewers scored only two runs, but they still managed to defeat the Cubs, 2-1.

All sports have their statistics, but baseball stands out, I think because of its sheer volume of data. Every team plays an enormous 162 game schedule. In a given season, about 750,000 total pitches are thrown. These days, every one of those pitches is documented for its speed, spin rate, type of pitch, location and result.

On average, each team’s pitchers throw 146 pitches per game, up by 11 in the last couple of decades. In fact, just as an example, in last week’s series between the Brewers and Cubs, more than 300 total pitches were thrown in each of the three games, which the Brewers won 14-4, 2-1 and 15-7, respectively.

Baseball is always managing the power balance between pitchers and hitters. When pitchers have the edge, MLB fears that the lack of scoring excitement will drive people from the game. In periods when batters have the upper hand, purists complain that the game has just become an inelegant slugfest.

So, in baseball, as in life and politics, the secret is to keep things in the middle, to make an incremental adjustment here and there in order to keep the games interesting. What we certainly don’t want too much of is a series like the Brewers-Cubs matchup this week in which the Crew outscored the Cubbies 31-12… just as a random example.

Welcome to the 136th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

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