What better time for introspection than the end of the year? Simple: the end of the year in a locked-out game. Here are a few takeaways from MLB in 2021:
Remember when it seemed like this would be the season’s big story? There were three days when it appeared that the crackdown on sticky stuff would devolve into a huge, disruptive shambles. Everyone eventually grew accustomed to it. Pitcher checks by the umpires became routine and faded into the background. Even if the enforcement became easy to ignore, the impact on the game was very real. The league hoped that by cracking down on foreign substances, pitchers would appear more human and, as a result, flagging offenses would get a boost—and it worked. When the new standards were announced on June 15, league statistics began to shift, indicating that pitchers stopped using substances right away, despite the fact that umpires would not begin testing for another week.
That increase in league batting average was sufficient to move the offense from “worst offense since the Year of the Pitcher” to “notably bad but far less frighteningly weak.” Not all of this can be attributed to the crackdown—as the weather warms up in the summer, offense increases—but the boost this year was a little more extreme than it had been in recent years. The tell-tale sign of foreign-substance use is an increase in spin rate, and just as league spin rate had steadily risen as sticky-stuff use had increased over the last few years, it dropped significantly once the crackdown was implemented.
In the end, sticky-stuff enforcement was not the season’s main story. By July, you might not have even realized it was happening. Nonetheless, it made a significant difference in the game.
The decrease was slight (36.1 percent to 35.1 percent), but the rate of three true outcomes remained historically high. It should be taken with a grain of salt because it was a decrease from 2020, which, as you may recall, was unusual: Pitchers were subjected to a variety of unique stresses as a result of the shortened season, which were reflected in various statistics.
Another twist in a long-running conversation. The stolen-base rate has been steadily declining for some time, and it reached its lowest point in half a century in 2021. However, this coincided with an intriguing milestone—a testament to how astute teams have become when it comes to base stealing.
According to some conventional wisdom, a stolen base attempt is only worthwhile if the chance of success is greater than 75%. For years, as teams have become more selective about when to steal, the league-wide stolen-base percentage has been creeping up on that figure. Perhaps base stealing isn’t so much a dying art as it is an ever-improving science.
Recovering from a pandemic-shortened, scrambled season like last year was always going to be difficult. There is no blueprint for that, and as the effects of 2020 continued to reverberate through 2021, it stood to reason that bringing in extra players to manage workloads and accommodate injuries would be part of the solution. When you combine that with 26-man rosters and pre-existing trends of maximizing every spot by shuttling players up and down, you can see where this is going.
The additional players were, of course, only one small difference between the 2021 and 2020 seasons. MLB was able to reclaim some of its core functions in 2021 after a year of empty stadiums, artificial soundtracks, and logistical nightmares. This season reintroduced baseball as a community—as a physical and virtual gathering place and a shared reference point—as well as baseball as a calendar. Perhaps we didn’t need to be reminded of this. But we all got one—of how incomplete baseball can be without those functions, and how special it is to have them back.