Baseball Dystopia Watch

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I love baseball and you love baseball and even less-than-ideal baseball is better than most things. Still, baseball is not beyond criticism, and there’s a lot to criticize in today’s game.

You’ve heard me talk in recent months about some of these things. Developments of which I am not a big fan. A lot of them have to do with specialization and strategy that take action away from the game in favor of home runs, which are cool of course, and also strikeouts, which are not quite as cool. As in most things, balance is important and baseball seems to be out-of-balance of late.

Rather than go on rants every time this imbalance bugs me — rants get old — I’m going to use the “Baseball Dystopia Watch” to highlight factoids and articles which get at it this phenomenon as a means of keeping track of it, at least passively. Today I have three items to highlight.

First, a tweet from Joe Sheehan which positively boggles the mind:

The story is simple: a cascading failure of overlapping systems: (a) velocity being favored above all else; (b) increasing use of relief pitchers leading to more max-effort pitches from guys with no need to pace themselves; (c) strikes being called pretty dang low in the zone compared to past eras; and (d) most recently, uppercut swings being encouraged to max out homers. Pitchers want to strike guys out, and they’re doing it. Batters are OK with striking out if they can hit more home runs and they’re doing that. The result, though, is far less baseball action involving players who aren’t batting, pitching or catching than ever before.

Second, an article from Yahoo’s Jeff Passan expands on this, ushering in what he calls “The Strikeout Era.” The article talks up some of the eye-popping strikeout rates of both hitters and pitchers. When you see that sort of thing, it’s tempting to roll your eyes and say “oh, there goes a ball writer talking about strikeouts as if they’re a moral failing again.” I get that, and that has always bugged me, because unlike some old timers did and still do, I do not think it’s particularly useful to talk about strikeouts as something shameful or to be avoided at all costs in and of themselves. There are always tradeoffs, and I’d rather a guy capable of hitting for power strike out in an effort to do some damage than shorten up or bunt, for example. I don’t think Passan’s doing that sort of complaining, though. He’s merely explaining where the game is now, and he’s right. Personally, I find it a less-than-great aesthetic product, and one can say that without getting too preachy about strikeouts.

Finally, on a different topic, Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchick writes about the Rockies’ method of creating what they believe to be an unbreakable code for signs to their catchers. They use a random number generation system and little wristbands to tell catchers how to call the game, when to have the pitcher throw over to first or what have you. On one level it’s pretty ingenious. A great way to combat sign-stealing which is and always has been a part of the game. On another level, though, it’s just the latest bit of analytical-driven automation which takes instinct and feel for the game out of the hands of the athletes and puts into the hands of some baseball operations guy. Yes, I’ll grant that this is an esoteric complaint — if a pitcher catches a base runner napping and picks him off it’s still a great play — but part of me hates to see catchers wearing code-laden wristbands like some backup quarterback for a college football team. It reminds me that so much of what goes on on a baseball diamond these days is a function of a coach’s or analyst’s decision and not that of the players, who are the reason I’m watching.

OK, that’s it for now. And again: I’ll try not to turn this feature — which will show up every once in a while, not every day or anything — into a complaint-fest. If you’ve been reading me for any amount of time you know I am not a curmudgeon or a luddite and that I am not beholden to nostalgia. The idea is not to give any new innovation or development in the game the raspberries and pine for the game I enjoyed in my youth.

I do, however, think it’s useful to think about how the game is changing and to make note of the fact that, contrary to what some folks will tell you, change is not always for the better. That’s what we’ll be doing here from time to time.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.