It’s Hard Out There for a Middle-Class Pitcher
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because analytics are remaking the game.
This is the latest edition of OZY’s Huddle newsletter, which brings you a smart, flavorful conversation-starter for your next game watch party. No stale takes allowed. Add The Huddle to your OZY email subscriptions here.
Baseball’s middle class is dead. Gone are the days of the well-paid journeyman. Now, MLB roster building is about two things: superstars and cheap, young talent. For front offices, the pool of big-league quality youngsters is larger than ever before. For most players, paydays are harder to come by.
As Opening Day arrives, two star pitchers — Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel — remain unemployed, casualties of a free-agent market that players now fear. Countless veterans saw their values squeezed this winter, signing deals that previously would have gotten their agents fired, before a flurry of other big leaguers signed contract extensions in late March. No coincidence there: Players don’t want to hit free agency. Mike Trout’s $426 million extension made headlines, but deals like the one by someone named Brandon Lowe in Tampa (six years, $24 million) were more common. Why? Because the business of baseball is evolving.
Yeah, we all saw Moneyball.
This is next level. Thanks to improved development and technology that seems to extend down to T-ball, organizations are stocked with minor leaguers who are ready sooner for The Show. A record 1,379 players appeared in MLB games last season, the sixth straight annual increase. What’s better than paying large sums of money to proven free agents? Paying much less to dozens of players you’ve groomed for years. Add one blockbuster like Bryce Harper to the mix, and a dynamic young contender is born.
So tell your favorite journeyman you love him. Ten years ago, players couldn’t wait to reach free agency. Now, all that gets you is a pink slip and memories. Just ask Keuchel.
What to Watch & Pick ’Em
No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 1 North Carolina (Friday at 7:29pm ET on TBS). Two of the country’s hottest teams square off in what should be a high-scoring affair. Watch the point guards. UNC’s Coby White versus Auburn’s Jared Harper will be a battle. Who’s your pick?
No. 3 Houston vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Friday at 9:59pm ET on TBS). Will Kentucky star P.J. Washington’s potential return from a sprained foot be the catalyst UK needs for a Final Four run? Not if Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. can help it. Who’s going to take it?
Ones to Watch
Anne van Dam, LPGA Tour. Not only does van Dam have the sweetest swing on the LPGA Tour, but she might just hit the purest ball in all of golf. So says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, at least. A 5-foot-11 23-year-old from the Netherlands, van Dam is turning heads with drives nearing 300 yards — she leads the Ladies European Tour with drives of 287 yards and ranks 10th in accuracy. Van Dam has won four European Tour tournaments since turning pro at 18 and is currently No. 66 in the Women’s World Golf Rankings. Entering her LPGA rookie season, van Dam is a force to be reckoned with.
Naz Reid, LSU Tigers. The biggest off-court story heading into March Madness was LSU head coach Will Wade’s suspension after being allegedly caught on an FBI wiretap discussing payment for players. Well, if Wade was loose with the rules, it was in pursuit of big-time players: Exhibit A is Naz Reid. A 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward, the former McDonald’s All-American is shooting up NBA draft boards with his smooth handles, deep shooting range and powerful play down low. The 19-year-old could be a lottery pick and, with a potential Elite Eight date ahead, his Tigers are one of the few remaining teams that can rival Duke in terms of NBA talent.
Olympic Skateboarding. With skateboarding making its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games, the United States just announced its first-ever national team. Former preteen viral phenom Nyjah Huston, now 24, leads the way in men’s street, alongside Chris Joslin. (Side note: Need a thrilling skate documentary? Check out Joslin’s three-part series Foundation.) Tom Schaar, the first skater to land a 1080, headlines the men’s park team, while the youngest gold medalist in X Games history, 14-year-old Brighton Zeuner, leads the women’s park team. Olympic inclusion is a historic moment for skateboarding, with the rebellious sport now undeniably mainstream.
Fastballs. We live in a world where 102-mph heaters happen on the daily and MLB teams have bullpens full of cannon-armed specialists, right? Yes and no. Pitchers throw harder now than in any point in recorded history (93 mph average velocity), but according to FanGraphs, those fastballs are being thrown less than ever before. Only 55 percent of all pitches thrown in the major leagues last year were a form of fastball, down from 64 percent as recently as 2003. That same year, sliders and cutters made up 14.6 percent of all pitches thrown. Last year, that was up to 22.6 percent. Put simply, Major League pitchers have never had such diverse repertoires, making pitch prediction nearly impossible. No wonder strikeouts are at an all-time high.
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