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Batters Try To Keep Up In The MLB's 'Year Of The No-Hitter'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Major League Baseball season is not even two months old, and already it's being called the year of the no-hitter. There have been six so far, and pitchers are on pace to smash the record of eight set in 1884, not in this century, not even in the past century, 1884. But the no-hitters are exposing an ongoing problem - a dearth of crowd-pleasing hits. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In the pitcher-hitter faceoff, it's always been advantage pitcher. They know what they're going to throw, where they're going to throw it, giving the batter fractions of a second to react. It's one of the reasons Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams said there's nothing harder in sports than hitting a baseball. And he said that decades before it became really hard. Teams now covet flame-throwing pitchers and their 100-mile-an-hour-plus velocity. High-Speed cameras help develop arm action. Machines track pitch physics. You wonder what Ted Williams would say today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Ground ball to Gleyber Torres, and that'll do it - a no-hitter for Corey Kluber.

GOLDMAN: Last week's gem by the New York Yankees, Kluber was the second no-hitter in as many days. There's still the exception, but they amplify pitching's supremacy. Baseball's strikeout rate has increased for 15 straight years, and MLB is trying to fight back. Morgan Sword is executive VP of baseball operations.

MORGAN SWORD: Reducing the strikeout rate hopefully translates to more action within the game, more balls in play, more defense and more of an opportunity for our players to display their athleticism.

GOLDMAN: In August, MLB will partner with the independent Atlantic League to try an experiment - moving back by a foot the rubber the pitcher stands on. The theory is more distance, more time for hitters to react, more hits. If it works there, it would take time before MLB tried it. For now, hitters and hitting trainers are doing what they can.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT HITTING BASEBALL)

TANNER STOKEY: Way better.

GOLDMAN: At Driveline Baseball, a prominent data-driven training facility near Seattle, Tanner Stokey stands outside a batting cage, critiquing college player Caleb Severson.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT HITTING BASEBALL)

STOKEY: What's the difference? Do feel anything specific?

CALEB SEVERSON: I mean, I feel like I'm rotating better in the lower...

GOLDMAN: Stokey and his staff train hitters as young as 8 all the way to major leaguers. And he admits they're playing catch-up.

STOKEY: The training for pitchers is probably four or five, six years ahead of where hitting is.

GOLDMAN: Undaunted, Stokey is committed to churning out productive hitters. He and instructors follow a general trend toward teaching how to hit a baseball hard and high and far, a single hit that can do more damage since lots of smaller hits are harder to come by in an age of pitching dominance. At Driveline, they're trying to build good hitting also based on individual tendencies - how fast someone swings, what pitches they swing at. But Stokey and his team are adamant about one thing - hitters need to train better, in the off season and pregame when batting practice usually consists of a pitching coach throwing easy from a shorter distance. Andrew Aydt is a pitching manager at Driveline.

ANDREW AYDT: So they go from seeing, like, velocity of, like, 40 or 50 miles an hour to then getting into a game of seeing 100 miles an hour with a lot of movement.

GOLDMAN: To counter this, some major league teams use what Driveline uses - an iPitch machine with a touch screen that allows them to program anything from a 90-mile-an-hour fastball to a slider. There are lots of swings and misses in the iPitch cage because hitters don't know which pitch is coming, like in a real game. Tanner Stokey says the whiffs are good. You can't be afraid to fail in a training environment, he says, because failure can breed success, which hopefully can help deliver more action to a game that needs it. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Kent, Wash.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION:In this report, we incorrectly refer to Andrew Aydt as a pitching manager. He is a hitting manager.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ENEMIES' "MORSE CODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 3, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly refer to Andrew Aydt as a pitching manager. He is a hitting manager.