At the end of last season, there was nothing left for the San Francisco Giants but to dream of making it to the playoffs, which they did four weeks later. While it was a nice run, the team has now retrenched and is in a full-blown rebuilding phase. One of the first major additions to the team this offseason was Brandon Belt, a hard-working, defensive-minded third baseman who brings a unique perspective to the table. Belt is a bit older (in terms of career experience) than some of the players he will be joining in San Francisco, but he is a well-traveled, polished veteran who could prove valuable.
Front Runners In Designated Hitter Markets
Belt’s presence indicates that the Giants are cognizant of the fact that designated hitter markets have shifted. The use of the designated hitter is a very traditional way of allowing a team to rest its most valuable player, and since the start of this season, 16 teams have used the strategy, as opposed to 14 last season. This change has made Belt’s role more important and expedited his learning curve.
More Power In Hitter-friendly Balks
Speaking of learning curves, Belt will enter the lineup behind one of the most lethal power hitters in the game today in Buster Posey. This season, major league baseball has evolved to the point where even during an exciting game, fans can take a break from the action, grab a drink, and still watch the highlights on their phones later. As a result, the first year of a scheduled day game has become popular, and since the All-Star break, 77 games (including Friday night games) have been played in the afternoon, with an emphasis on offense. This format promotes offensive creativity, and it also allows batters to take a longer stroll to the plate, giving them more at-bats and thus more opportunity for big hits. Having more at-bats in an afternoon game is similar to running in a track meet, and since the start of this season, batters have hit for an average of 0.59 more balls per game in the afternoon than at night. This trend is also evident in terms of extra-base hits, as there have been 22% more of those in the afternoon.
Increased Focus On Defenses
With an emphasis on offense come considerations of defense. Due to the trend of more baseball being played in the afternoon, the game has evolved to the point where hitting alone no longer cuts it. Teams are now asking themselves how many runs they will allow, and they are answering that question by focusing more on defense. Since the start of this season, total team defensive runs saved is up 10%, and the number of runs prevented from scoring on defense is up 14%. Overall, the data supports this emphasis on defense.
Home-Field Advantage In Greater Effect
Even before the day game evolution, home-field advantage was already being reflected in scheduling decisions, as evidenced by last season’s World Series. With a greater emphasis on offense and the need to keep players fresh, more teams are using the home-field advantage to their advantage. Home runs are up 8% in 2020, which is partially a result of the increased scoring, but it is also a testament to how well teams have adjusted to the evolving baseball environment and adopted this more aggressive approach.
This season, the Minnesota Twins are the example to follow. Not only do they use their home ballpark to their advantage, but they also take the additional step of having a player handle the pitching duties, which they have entrusted to Braden Shipley. If you recall, the Twins were one of the 2018 World Series combatants that used a hybrid approach, with many of their regulars handled by a combination of pitchers and catchers. While the strategy worked for them, it also made it more difficult for the second-year players to learn the nuances of the position.
With more offense comes more opportunity for blowouts. As a result, the number of blowouts has dropped by 36% in 2020. The most notable example of this involves the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics. On multiple occasions this year, blowouts in the first inning have been averted by either a strong start from a starter, a comeback performance by a reliever, or a combination of both.
Fewer Victories By Closer Scoring
The most recent Baseball-Reference.com article puts a bow on the discussion of how baseball has changed in this new normal:
“Overall, across the majors, runs per game are up this year, walks are down, and hits are about back to normal. The result is an overall scoring increase which, in turn, makes for a more exciting game. While the traditional ways of winning baseball games may be gone, the desire to win is still very much alive.”
With many of their competitors in the market, the Giants are certainly aware of this trend and are responding by placing an emphasis on the formula for success: pitching and defense.