All is bright: Prep for smart MLB holiday talk

Key trends of note include increase of curveball, rising launch angles

December 22nd, 2017

Picture this: You're gathered with your family for the holidays, and you've run out of small talk.
Naturally, the conversation could break off into multiple topics, and one group might find itself in a sports discussion -- let's say baseball. The sport is timeless, of course, with many of the same rules that were in place 100 years ago. But the strategies and gameplay can change rapidly, by the year or even by the month, and it can be hard to keep track.
Even if you're an avid fan, it never hurts to brush up on a few conversation pieces. Below are some talking points about where baseball is going in 2018 to help you sound smart in front of friends and family. Pass them around with another glass of eggnog.
Uncle Charlie is having a moment
Major League pitchers threw a curveball on 8.8 percent of their pitches in 2010. Just seven seasons later, they went with the hook 10.8 percent of the time. A 2-percent spike doesn't seem like a whole lot, but there are upwards of 700,000 pitches thrown over the course of a big league season. A 2-percent spike means we're seeing thousands more curveballs than we did less than a decade ago.

Yes, pitchers are throwing harder than ever, but the more hitters see upper-90s heat, the more they're able to adjust. Pitchers are turning to curveballs to keep hitters off-balance, and no one exemplified this better than Houston's You might remember McCullers from his four scoreless innings in the Astros' 4-0 win in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, in which he threw the Yankees 24 curveballs in a row to earn the save.

Welcome to the spin zone
McCullers wasn't the only Astros pitcher who dominated with a curveball in 2017. The Astros prevailed in back-to-back Game 7s in October thanks in large part to Charlie Morton, who just a year ago was coming off surgery at age 33. Most teams stayed away from Morton, but Houston saw a pitcher who was throwing his fastball harder and had a curve that featured one of the highest spin rates in the game. The first three years of Statcast™ data show that curveballs with above-average spin tend to elicit more grounders and swings and misses, and Morton racked up plenty of both while helping the Astros win their first world championship.

High-spin curveballs have been part of scouts' vernacular for decades, whether it be a hook with "good bite" or one that "drops off the table." But today's player-tracking cameras provide raw data to back up those observations. Pitchers with high-spin four-seam fastballs (e.g. , Max Scherzer and ) and curveballs won't be hidden in the rough from this point forward; teams are now searching for their own Morton. The Cubs may have already found theirs, giving a three-year, $38 million contract earlier this month -- despite his injury history and pedestrian numbers with the Rockies -- in no small part because of the elite spin on both his four-seamer and curve.
"His stuff is top-notch," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Chatwood. "He's a guy we've been after for a while."

Hitters are taking to the air
How does a player go from 39 home runs over his first seven Major League seasons to 22 in a single year? For , an adjustment to his swing path went a long way. Stars like J.D. Martinez and had already turned their careers around by revamping their swings to lift the ball, and MLB hitters as a unit have steadily raised their launch angles.
Average launch angle
2015: 10.1 degrees
2016: 10.8 degrees
2017: 11.1 degrees

No player raised it more last year than Alonso, from an average of 10.3 degrees in 2016 to 19.3 degrees in '17. Ground balls can't be home runs -- at least not the over-the-fence variety -- and Alonso, who sported a career .387 slugging percentage in his first seven big league seasons, slugged .501 last season. Expect more and more players to make changes to their swing paths to try to repeat the success of Alonso, Turner, Martinez and many others. Mets center fielder is already on record as saying he hopes to make that adjustment this offseason.

More dingers, fewer singles
Sacrifices have been made as players swing for the sky. While hitters clubbed a Major League-record 6,105 home runs in 2017, the MLB batting average remained at .255 -- the same number as 2016 as well as five years before in '12 -- while the MLB slugging percentage jumped a modest nine points from .417 to .426. Big league clubs averaged 4.65 runs per game last year, marking a small increase from 2016 but also a return to scoring levels from a decade before. Long story short: As homers increased, doubles and singles went down. In 2007, there were 29,985 singles hit. That figure dropped to 26,918 this season.

Rangers slugger Joey Gallo was the Majors' most prominent example of this phenomenon. In his first full season, Gallo belted 41 homers and drove in 80 runs, but he also batted .209 with a total of 32 singles. He joined Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire (twice) as the only qualified hitters in MLB history to hit more homers than singles.

Quality starts are being redefined
The election of Jack Morris to the National Baseball Hall of Fame this month may have closed the book on a starting pitcher type we might not see again: a guy who took the ball every fifth day, no matter what, and often pitched well into the later innings, even if he had given up some runs. 's five complete games last season (including three shutouts) made him a throwback in this day and age, as Santana alone accounted for roughly 8 percent of 59 complete games across the Majors, an all-time low.

The starter of the future more likely resembles someone like Rich Hill, who led MLB with nine different starts in which he permitted three or fewer earned runs while also facing 20 batters or fewer -- in other words, not going much past two times through the opposing lineup. There were 444 starts of that nature with relative quality recorded last season, the most in any Live Ball Era season dating back to 1920. It wasn't long ago that not getting through the sixth or seventh inning was considered a failure, but a five-inning, two-run start will hardly bat an eye in 2018.