From two-way star Shohei Ohtani to soaring strikeout totals, MLB’s wacky April has been full of ‘anomaly stuff’

Baseball is incredible.

Where else can you find a two-way star like Shohei Ohtani, who leads the American League in home runs and also started and won a game Monday in which he drove in or scored a majority of the Los Angeles Angels’ runs?

Baseball is terrible.

Why bother with a sport whose hitters have collectively produced a .232 batting average, which would rank as the worst ever and mark the third time in four years that number has dropped?

Baseball is incredible.

We have never seen such precision from a starting pitcher like Corbin Burnes, who has started the season by striking out 49 batters and walking nobody, his adjusted ERA an otherworldly 265, his Fielding Independent Pitching a near-invisible 0.51.

Baseball is terrible.

We’re not yet to May 1 and already we’ve seen 14 position players pitch, a record pace for a once-whimsical rarity that’s now a far too common statement on the overall dearth of acceptable pitching around the major leagues.

Baseball is incredible.

Jacob deGrom is the game’s best pitcher and, amazingly, is getting better, striking out a career-high 15 in his last start, sporting a 0.31 ERA with 50 strikeouts, breaking Shane Bieber’s days-old mark (shared with Nolan Ryan) of 48 punchouts through four starts.

Shohei Ohtani warms up before a game against the Rangers.

Baseball is terrible.

Strikeouts now comprise 25% of all plate appearances, and 2021 almost assuredly will mark the 25th consecutive season the strikeout rate has risen and the fourth consecutive year there will be more strikeouts than hits.

Baseball is incredible.

Never has a player started his career like Fernando Tatis Jr., who despite an injured list stint is on track for 47 homers and 27 steals this year, a five-tool talent and the perfect bellwether for the next generation of stars.

Baseball is terrible.

Never has there been less action in the game, with a record 37% of plate appearances ending in one of three “true outcomes” – home run, strikeout, walk – and the average time of a nine-inning game still a record 3 hours, 7 minutes despite an onerous three-batter minimum rule for relief pitchers.

So. About this first month: It is a small sample size, of course.

Greatness and mediocrity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

And it could very well be that the game is in this strange transitional stage – perhaps you’ve heard the home office is pondering significant changes to shake it out of it – where one group of players, the pitchers, exhibit too much control.

Heck, just a few moments after the more casual fan knew Burnes’ name, he was dealt his first loss by yet another relative unknown.

Next flamethrower up.

“It’s as hard as ever to score runs,” says Craig Counsell, manager of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and the guy fortunate enough to trot Burnes out there every fifth day. “And as much as anything, it’s about velocity – the velocity of the game just continues. The Marlins pitcher yesterday was really darn good – he was throwing 97 mph in the sixth inning last night. A starter, throwing 97 in the sixth inning and we don’t even talk about that, almost.

“You just don’t see that but it feels like it’s becoming – from a player who isn’t necessarily a household name – a statement about where pitching’s at in the game, where a guy like Trevor Rogers, a really darn good young pitcher, is doing special things with big velocity.

“There’s velocity all over the game. And it’s made hitting very difficult.”

Fair enough, and nothing new under the sun – velocity has been rising for decades, pitch design and execution only get nastier, the hitting environment more perilous.

At the same time, the league average ERA has not moved in a linear fashion. Sure, it’s down to 3.89 this year, but figures to tick up with the weather, per usual. The largest spikes were seen in publicly-acknowledged juiced-ball seasons of 2017 and 2019, yet it dropped in the seasons that followed.

And to be clear, there are plenty of subpar to terrible pitching staffs out there. The top three all hail from the pitching-friendly and star-studded NL West – the Padres, Dodgers and Giants all entered Tuesday sporting staff ERAs of 3.00 or better.

A majority of the clubs are north of 4.00, and it’s telling that the two worst staffs – Atlanta (4.89) and the Angels (5.16) – have not been penalized, both hovering near .500 and well in contention.

Both should normalize – we think – but also, it may just be one of those haywire years, an unprecedented 162-game slog coming off a 60-game, pandemic-shortened season.

“Playing 60 games after a very long interlude and then coming back and competing again, you’re set up for some anomaly stuff going on. And it’s happening right now,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday.

The leap from 60 to 162 was an industry concern, not just for pitchers’ workloads but regulars needing off days. Maddon’s Angels opted for hyper-protecting the staff and Ohtani a six-man rotation, a nine-man bullpen and, in essence, a two-man bench.

So the everyday guys have had to battle through it, and normalcy may have to wait until 2022.

“I want to believe that as guys get back into the groove of 162 – which may mean next year, I’m not sure – you might see more normal patterns settling in,” says Maddon.

“But for right now, guys are being pushed a little bit more than their bodies experienced based on what happened last year.”

And in this small 2021 sample, modern trends are super-sized. Not until 2018 was there a season with more strikeouts than hits, but just barely – 8.48 strikeouts per team game to 8.44 hits.

Now, the whiffs are overwhelming the barrels, 9.11 per game to 7.65.

That may not normalize over 162 games. But it may take a more normal year to determine if that change will be permanent.

Until then, enjoy 2021, in all its guts and glory. Never has a year looked so different based on the eye of the beholder.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Two-way star Shohei Ohtani, Jacob deGrom highlight MLB’s wacky April