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FULL SWING

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An epic MVP race in the making (who you got: Belli or Yeli?), a home run surge (what's up with the ball?), an unprecedented collection of young talent (hello, Pete Alonso) ... The first quarter of the season has shown us where baseball is—and where it's headed

BASEBALL LIKES to cling to the notion that the game is timeless, that a time-traveling fan would instantly recognize the game of any era as familiar. The current version is blowing up that quaint belief. Baseball today hardly resembles what it did even five years ago.

With the season at the quarter pole, several deepening trends show the sport continues to evolve into a boom-or-bust game, with great yawning gaps of inaction punctuated by the quick dopamine hit of the home run. The subtleties, strategies and nuances of the sport are being sandblasted away. Chess becomes checkers; poker becomes blackjack—only with every hand beginning with 16.

Strikeouts, up for a 14th consecutive season, are on pace to reach another all-time high. Walks have reached their highest rate in 19 seasons. Home runs are at a record level (2.6 per game). Four of the five seasons with the greatest rate of home runs have occurred in the past four years, and those so-called Three True Outcomes (strikeouts, walks and homers) now account for 36% of all plate appearances, up from 31% in 2015. The most contested piece of real estate in a baseball game always has been the 60 feet, six inches between the pitching rubber and home plate. The confrontation between pitcher and batter is the ignition switch to the action. But increasingly in today's game, it is the entirety of the action.

Teams use a bucket brigade of pitchers not just to get hitters out but also to keep the ball out of play—or at the very least, in the ballpark. Hitters, knowing that multiple-hit rallies are scarce against such a phalanx, hunt for one mistake they might be able to hit over the fence. This dance of passive aggression leads to longer and longer at bats, more of which end without the ball being put in play—without players in motion.

The Dodgers, Brewers, Twins and Rays—all in first or second place in their divisions—play the modern boom-or-bust game as well as any team. The Dodgers ran out to the best record in the NL with the second-most home runs while letting their starting pitchers throw an average of just 85 pitches; only the Braves' and Padres' rotations had shorter leashes. The Brewers hit even more homers (65) and averaged the fewest innings per start in the league (4.8). The Twins lean so heavily on the home run (fourth in baseball) that they had the best record in baseball with the second fewest singles in the AL. Rays pitchers are masters at avoiding home runs (33, the fewest in the league).

It's easy to see where this style of play began. Owners have turned over control of how their teams play from the manager to the chief baseball executive, who relies on analytics. Simultaneously, boom-or-bust baseball became a tenable model because of a huge growth in the inventory of quality pitchers. The flood of information and skill-specific training both heavily favors the side that initiates the action (the pitcher), not the one that reacts to it (the hitter).

The pipeline of arms gushes. The latest wave of young pitching talent is led by Padres rookie righthander Chris Paddack (above), who has a 1.55 ERA in seven starts. In April 2015, 82 pitchers threw at least one pitch 97 mph. This April, 111 pitchers threw that hard. Less certain is what baseball does about how this game is being played. It is clear that the narrowing of baseball to a protracted two-man battle of inertia has been a five-year slog, not a small-sample trend. This year, MLB is using the independent Atlantic League as a test lab, trying such remedies as a ban against defensive shifts and, eventually, pushing the pitching rubber back two feet in hopes of getting more balls in play. In the meantime, enjoy the push-pull between strikeouts and home runs. The season is just getting warm.

2019 VS. 2015

TREND SPOTTING

The game has changed dramatically—just over the last five years

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

WHAT'S GONE UP*

2019

2015

PLATE APPEARANCES

76.2

75.6

RUNS

9.25

8.50

HOME RUNS

2.59

2.02

WALKS

6.88

5.79

STRIKEOUTS

17.7

15.4

FULL COUNTS

15.6

13.4

BREAKING PITCHES

29%

25%

* PER GAME

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

WHAT'S GONE DOWN*

2019

2015

BALLS IN PLAY

47.9

51.2

HITS

16.5

17.3

SINGLES

10.2

11.5

BATTING AVERAGE

.244

.254

BABIP

.291

.299

BALL IN PLAY %

63%

68%†

FASTBALL USAGE

58%

53%

† PERCENTAGE OF PLATE APPEARANCES

BELLI AND YELI

A CUT ABOVE

Two sluggers set the stage for a memorable MVP race

IN A blow to Central Casting, the two most dynamic sluggers in the game are lean, long-levered lefthanders who are not supposed to be playing this role.

CODY BELLINGER (6'4", 203) hit one home run during his senior year at Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz. "And it bounced off the top of the fence," he says.

He hit four home runs in his first two pro seasons. But under the tutelage of Dodgers minor league coaches, he underwent a major swing change in Class A in 2015 to generate more lift. It worked immediately. He smashed 30 home runs that year and debuted two years later in the bigs with 39. After a downturn last year that found him on the bench for three of the five World Series games, Bellinger and hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc and Brant Brown dived into video study to get his groove back. "We didn't look at anything from last year," Bellinger says. "It was all from 2017."

Bellinger, 23, returned to his 2017 setup—bat held flat rather than upright—and created a quicker path to the baseball. The results have been beastly. After hitting .206 on inside strikes last year, Bellinger is smashing .400 on those pitches this year. He leads the majors in hits, runs, RBIs and OBP.

The major league home run lead belongs to CHRISTIAN YELICH (6'3", 195), whose 15 homers by the first week in May topped by two his output from his first two years. As Yelich, 27, filled out, became more aggressive and was traded before last season out of spacious Marlins Park to cozy Miller Park, his slugging soared. Beginning on July 21, 2018, Yelich crushed 41 homers in 97 games.

The guy is wearing out pitchers and Bernie Brewer, the mustachioed mascot who descends a corkscrew slide whenever a Brewer hits a homer at Miller Park. Of the first 20 fly balls Yelich hit at home this year, 14 of them left the yard.

HOME RUNS

FLYING START

One reason for the surge in homers? A livelier ball

WHO CAN blame a hitter for trying to lift the ball in the air? Pitchers are throwing more breaking balls, managers are making more pitching changes, defenses are shifting more, and it's never been harder to get a single. With so much conspiring against the hitter, he can try to leverage the one change in his favor: The baseball is flying farther. It started in the second half of the 2015 season, which led to a record home run year in '17, which led to an investigation into the baseball's properties by a panel of scientists commissioned by Major League Baseball. The report, released in May 2018, confirmed that the baseball was livelier—it produced less drag as it cut through the air—but could not firmly establish a root cause. The report hinted the more aerodynamic baseball could be due to a change in the surface texture of the ball or the center of the ball's gravity. One year later, the baseballs are even livelier. Home runs are flying out of parks at a record pace—22 players, including Mets first baseman Pete Alonso (right), are on pace for 40 home runs, which would be the most ever—and home runs typically pick up as the weather warms.

NEXT GENERATION

SONIC YOUTH

An unparalleled collection of young stars is moving the game into a new era

THE PLAYERS' association has been concerned the past two offseasons about teams' lack of enthusiasm for veteran free agents. But this season continues to affirm why clubs are trusting young players more: They simply are better. We are looking at an unprecedented era in the history of baseball when it comes to production from young players. tOPS+ measures the adjusted OPS of an individual hitter or group of hitters relative to all others. A number greater than 100 indicates that a hitter performed better than the league.

Players 25 and under have posted a tOPS+ of 101 this year. This could be the first time in the game's history that U25 players were at 100 or better for four consecutive seasons.

In just the past two seasons, rookies such as Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Gleyber Torres, Shohei Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Víctor Robles and Nick Senzel have made an instant impact on the big leagues. This year, the six position players with the highest WAR are between 23 and 27 years old. Because of their youth and because half of them have signed extensions, none will be free agents for at least three years.

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

WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT FREE LEADERS, 2019

AGE

WAR

FREE AGENT IN...*

1. CODY BELLINGER Dodgers

23

4.4

2024

2. MIKE TROUT Angels

27

3.0

2031

3. PAUL DEJONG Cardinals

25

2.7

2026

4. JAVIER BAEZ Cubs

26

2.5

2022

5. JORGE POLANCO Twins

25

2.4

2026

6. ALEX BREGMAN Astros

25

2.3

2025

7. GEORGE SPRINGER Astros

29

2.3

2021

8. CHRISTIAN YELICH Brewers

27

2.2

2023

9. MOOKIE BETTS Red Sox

26

2.0

2021

10. MATT CHAPMAN A's

26

2.0

2024

* INCLUDES CLUB OPTIONS

MIKE TROUT

PRIME TIME

How baseball's best player is better than ever

IN SIX of his first seven full seasons, Mike Trout either won the MVP award or was the runner-up. The one time he didn't? He finished fourth. Believe it: the definitive top player in the game is, at 27, having the best season of his career. Thanks to a career-low rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone (17%), Trout had nearly twice as many walks (34) as strikeouts (19). At this rate, Trout is headed for 30 homers and 148 walks with just 83 K's. Only three hitters have ever hit those thresholds: Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Trout has struck out on a pitch outside the strike zone only three times this year, something he did 56 times last season.

2019 BY THE NUMBERS

3.93

Pitches per plate appearance, highest since pitch recording began in 1999

51

Number of foul balls per game—higher than balls put in play

252

Pitches per game on which the ball is not put in play, up from 238 in 2015