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TREND SPOTTING

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THE SEASON IS YOUNG, BUT ALREADY SOME CLEAR PATTERNS ARE EMERGING—FROM A CONTINUING BOOM IN YOUNG PLAYERS TO A SURPRISING OVERRELIANCE ON HOME RUNS

POWER RANGERS

FIFTEEN YEARS ago baseball seemed to be in crisis, as balls left parks in numbers never before seen. The three highest league homer totals in MLB history were posted from 1999 through 2001, with '99 and '00 the highest-scoring seasons since the 1930s. Famously, the individual single-season home run record was set twice in four years, capped by Barry Bonds's 73 dingers in '01. Books were written, hearings were held, garments were rent, rules were changed, villains were created ... and the game moved on, to an era of lowered home run totals and declining run scoring.

Fast-forward to 2016, however, and you find teams are more reliant on the home run than they were even at the peak of the so-called "steroid era." In fact, they are more reliant on the home run than at any time in baseball history. Through May 1, 38.2% of all the runs scored this year have come on homers; if it holds up, that would break the previous record of 37.3%, set last year, and blow past the 36.8% figure of 2001, when Something Had to Be Done.

A hundred thousand urine samples later there is just as much power in the game as there was in 2001. The home run rate on contact is exactly what it was in '01, 4.0%. The rate of isolated power—extra bases on hits—on contact is almost as high as it was in '01. Home runs are a higher percentage of hits this year than they've ever been outside of '00 and '01. We only have data on how often fly balls become home runs going back to '02, but '15 was the highest recorded in that time (11.4%) and so far 2016 is higher than that (11.7%).

At the same time, offense that isn't produced by power is approaching all-time lows. On-base percentage bottomed out two years ago and hasn't been above .320 since 2011 (.319 this season). Walk rates have spiked in the early going this year, but only after dipping to lows not seen since the 1960s. Stolen bases haven't been this rare in 44 years (see below). Singles are an endangered species; MLB teams are hitting them on fewer than 15% of their trips to the plate, which would be a first in major league history. Strikeouts became more common than singles in the 1990s, but they are now threatening to become more common than hits: Through May 1, there had been 6,213 hits and 5,955 strikeouts.

We are watching the most stagnant version of baseball ever played, with nearly a third of plate appearances ending without a ball put in play, and it's because pitchers and their velocity are overwhelming batters. Batters are striking out on 21.5% of their trips to the plate, up from the all-time record of 20.5% set two years ago and matched last season. The dearth of singles actually has very little to do with shifting, despite what your local play-by-play guy thinks. The league batting average on balls in play was .297 back in 2010, before shifting exploded, and it's .296 this season. It has everything to do with strikeouts.

Teams have become reliant on home runs because there is no other reliable way to score. Stringing hits together has become an uphill battle. Rallies are snuffed out by strikeouts that increase in frequency as the situation becomes more important. With two outs and runners in scoring position, pitchers are whiffing 23.5% of batters. In late-and-close situations, they strike out 24.1% of them. The small-ball tactics that were developed in a game where singles were common and strikeouts rare are much less effective today.

Point to recent Royals teams if you'd like; those teams were, relative to the league, maybe the greatest contact-hitting lineups ever, and they still had just middle-of-the-pack offenses. Even they needed to hit a number of critical homers during their postseason runs. The 2016 Royals have scored 37% of their runs on homers, 16th in MLB. The Orioles' strong start to the season has been fueled by a whopping 34 homers in 24 games, with more than half their runs coming on long balls. Three teams, including the Mariners and the Mets, are scoring at least half their runs on homers; just one team in history, the '10 Blue Jays, has ever done that over a full season.

In the current game two of every five runs trots home rather than runs home. That means we get fewer mad dashes around third, fewer bang-bang tag plays, fewer displays of defensive range, fewer jaw-dropping throws. We get less baseball, even as we spend longer days at the ballpark. Maybe the game of 2001 needed to be fixed; the game of '16 certainly does.

THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

THE SIGNATURE story of the 2015 season was the arrival of a deep and talented crop of rookies who arrived young, played well and pushed their teams into the playoffs. Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard and many others exemplified baseball's turn to youth, with teams embracing inexperienced talent over veteran savvy. After a season when so many top prospects reach the majors at once, it's common to see a falloff the next year, as the minors replenish their lost talent. That has not been the case so far.

In the season's first month a slew of top 25 prospects were called to the majors. The best of the bunch, the Rangers' Nomar Mazara, hit the ground running with a .324/.380/.441 line and a ninth-inning homer-stealing catch against the White Sox on April 23. The 2015 minor league player of the year, the Rays' Blake Snell, made his major league debut that same day and held the Yankees to one run in five innings. The Twins' Jose Berrios, the A's Sean Manaea and the Tigers' Michael Fulmer, highly rated prospects all, made their debuts in a three-day span at the end of April.

It wasn't just the biggest prospects making news. Two lesser-known players, the Astros' Tyler White and the Rockies' Trevor Story, won player of the week honors in their first week in the majors. White hit .556 with three homers, and Story blasted seven homers in six games. Both have cooled off since, but remain productive.

There are even more young stars on the way. By midseason we could see as many as five of the top 10 prospects in baseball playing for contending teams, led by two Nationals: righty Lucas Giolito, one of the best prospects in the game, and shortstop Trea Turner, who is tearing up the International League. The Rangers (3B/LF Joey Gallo), Pirates (RHP Tyler Glasnow) and Dodgers (LHP Julio Urias) could all turn to prospects to bolster their pennant-race rosters.

This is the new normal. Young players arrive in the pros with better training and more baseball experience than ever before, allowing teams to push them through the minors quickly. Studies show that young players today tend to hit the ground running in the majors, playing well and then falling off as they age, rather than slowly improving to a mid-career peak. When you consider the financial incentives—league-minimum salaries—it's clear that teams will continue to turn to their farm systems early and often, not just to rebuild, but to win.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE STOLEN BASES GONE?

CRIME IS down in our cities ... and in our ballparks. The rate of stolen bases sits at just over half a steal per team per game through Sunday—the lowest since 1972. After a brief surge in the late 2000s and early '10s, steal rates have plummeted.

While statheads and their purported aversion to steals are often blamed for the lack of baserunning derring-do, there's a more basic reason that predates Billy Beane or even Bill James: You can't steal first base. Today's game features historic lows in both singles and walks. When base runners do get to first, they're challenged by slide-stepping hurlers who throw harder than ever before, slicing precious fractions of a second off the time it takes to get the ball from the mound to the plate to second base. Those pitchers are delivering to catchers who are increasingly selected more for their defensive skills than their bats. The stolen-base success rate slipped under 70% last year for the first time since 2004 and has stayed there in this season's early going. The lack of steals isn't about sabermetrics, but a dearth of opportunities combined with improved stolen-base prevention.

SO RELIEVED

THE EVOLUTION of bullpens has led to a game in which the average relief appearance lasts just one inning. And training pitchers to work in this way, throwing 15 to 20 pitches at maximum effort two or three times a week, has created a generation of relievers who regularly work in the mid-to high 90s. This season 29 relief pitchers are averaging at least 95 mph on their fastball.

The Yankees feature two of the top three members of this class. Dellin Betances has faced 46 batters and whiffed 24 of them, a 52% rate. Andrew Miller, the soft-tossing lefty in this crowd at 95 mph, has struck out 52% of batters. New Yankee Aroldis Chapman, currently serving a 30-game suspension under the new domestic-violence policy (he's due back May 9), is one of two pitchers ever to strike out at least half the batters he faced in a full season—52% in 2014. (Craig Kimbrel is the other, back in '12.)

Along with the Cubs' Hector Rondon (50%), these pitchers are posting strikeout rates that were unheard of until just a few years ago. As a group, relievers are whiffing 23% of the batters they face, nearly one of every four. Dozens of relievers are striking out over 30% of the batters, a rare marker of excellence just a few years ago. Even more than the last few years, when the Royals' relief corps helped the team to two straight World Series appearances, winning baseball now means getting a lead after six innings and then turning the game over to your fire-breathing bullpen.

HIGHEST % OF RUNS ON HR

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

YEAR

%

2016

38.2%

2015

37.3%

2004

37.0%

2012

37.0%

2000

36.8%

LOWEST SB/GAME SINCE 1969

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

YEAR

SB/G

1B/BB%*

1971

.46

24.9%

1969

.48

25.1%

1970

.49

25.2%

1972

.49

24.5%

2015

.52

22.9%

2016

.52

23.1%

*1B/BB%: Singles and walks as a percentage of total PAs; runners are reaching first base less often than ever before.

SB SUCCESS RATES

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

YEAR

SB%

2016

68.3

2015

70.2

2014

72.8

2013

72.8

2012

74.0

PHOTO

JIM DAVIS/THE BOSTON GLOBE/GETTY IMAGES

TATER TOPS Teams are more dependent than ever on homers—and while it's working for Chris Davis (left) and the O's so far, there are also drawbacks.

PHOTO

DENIS POROY/GETTY IMAGES

HIGHS AND LOWS Base stealing is way down, while youngsters like Mazara (below left) and smothering bullpen arms like Miller (below right) are thriving.

PHOTO

OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (MAZARA)

[See caption above]

PHOTO

JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (MILLER)

[See caption above]