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June 1, 2011
The Changing Landscape of Baseball
If we have heard it once this season, we have heard it a thousand times: offense is down this season. Last season, there were 309 team shutouts in the major leagues in 4860 contests, which equates to six percent of the games. One-third of the way into 2011, there have been 113 team shutouts in 1606 games, or roughly seven percent of all contests. Presently, 22 different starting pitchers have an ERA below 3.00; that figure is just four less than the total amount of pitchers that posted an ERA below 3.00 in the previous two seasons combined.
Rather than just talk about how offense is down, let’s take a look at some of the metrics and see just how much offense has changed in 2011 compared to both recent seasons and historical ones. Is baseball experiencing an outlier, or is this a trend back to more normalized numbers after years of major league stats resembling stats from the Pacific Coast League’s Western Division?
I had my twenty-year high school reunion last summer and it appears that baseball is having a similar reunion with its league-wide batting average. After a long span of years in which the league hit above .265, baseball has a current league-wide batting average of .253. I posted the BABIP picture on Twitter last night before calling it a night and @stealofhome made an interesting observation that the lower league BABIP could have something to do with the increased emphasis on defensive shifting, particularly with the American League. J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, and Luke Scott are just a few of the hitters in the league that are extreme pull hitters, and managers such as Joe Maddon, Terry Francona, and Mike Scioscia have made it a habit to implement infield and sometimes even outfield over-shifts to make it harder for those hitters to get hits safely through the right side.
Casual analysts have been conditioned to think of .300 as a league average BABIP when looking at pitchers that will regress to the mean, but in the American League, it appears there is a new mean developing and it is much lower than the standard .300. Last season, Wade Davis, Matt Garza, David Price, and Jeff Niemann all had BABIP’s of .274 or less as members of the Rays’ starting rotation while James Shields was at .344 pitching with the same defense behind him as the other four pitchers. That quietly flew under the radar last season as a harbinger of what was happening across the league.
Here, the two leagues are rather similar after diverging for a bit some years ago. That said, a 25-point drop in the league on-base percentage over a 12-year period is a rather noticeable event, and fewer runners on base will lead to fewer runners ultimately crossing home plate.
In these areas, the drop-off is most noticeable in regards to hitting. The American League–with its extra hitter–has seen a 40 point drop-off in league-wide slugging percentage from 1995 to 2011 while the National League has seen its Isolated Power rating drop nearly 30 points in just the past four seasons. Roy Halladay coming over from the American League has only so much to do with that, but the wave of talented young pitchers in the National League in recent years is a much larger factor.
One way to supplement a declining offense is to put the wheels in motion more often on the base paths. Despite league-wide efforts to shorten times to home plate and improve pickoff moves, over the past few seasons steals are being converted at a higher rate than ever. Of course, they are not being attempted as frequently these days as enough teams have received the message about needing to be successful on 70 percent of their attempts to make it worth the risk.
Today’s American League is not the one some of us went to college with. Twice from 1995 to 2000, the league-wide ERA was over 4.90; one of those years can be blamed on expansion, but the league has seen a full run drop off its ERA in just 12 seasons. Looking back on the period from 1980 to 1992, the year of the live ball spike is obvious, and the leagues are currently returning toward that level of performance.
Again, the American League shows a drastic decline in these measures as the league is averaging a full hit less per nine innings than it did just six seasons ago while the National League’s decline has been a bit softer. This season, some have speculated that 2011 might be the ‘year of the cut fastball’ and that this could account for the deflated offense around the league, but as you can see, this trend is a continuance of something that was already underway with an increased emphasis on defensive measures a more likely culprit than a perceived increase in the use of the cut fastball. You will recall that the split-fingered fastball enjoyed its moment in the sun back in the 80’s as Roger Craig taught it to all of his pitchers and it spread out across baseball, but the graphs above lack the noticeable blip on the line graph to represent any true gain that the pitch alone provided to pitchers as a whole.
The leagues have remained rather stable in their respective walk rates (minus the few years where teams were clearly willing to pitch around the bigger bats of the mid to late 90s). A large portion of this new era of run prevention comes from the steady growth both leagues have seen in their strikeout rates, which have been on the rise since the late 1970’s. That is about the same time the complete game went the way of bullpen specialization, so pitchers that previously were concerned with making their stuff last throughout a game could now focus on giving it their all for 100-120 pitches and handing the ball over to the bullpen to finish off the game. The increased bullpen usage has also led to managers utilizing more advantageous lefty-vs-lefty and righty-vs-righty matchups as well as receiving the obvious benefit of using fresh arms who need only throw a few pitches.
The power spike in 1987 and again from 1993 to 2001 jumps off the chart, but the home run decline in both leagues has been more gradual than in previously addressed metrics. Both leagues are currently averaging approximately 0.9 home runs per nine innings, but that is still a higher rate than anything outside of the 1987 outlier dating back to 1970 when the leagues expanded. While home run totals may not be at the insane rate they were 10-15 years ago, they are still flying out at a higher rate than many of us grew up with, in part because today’s smaller parks accommodate today’s bigger hitters rather well.
Offensively, it is clear that we need to adjust our expectations of players because the league is trending toward a return to normalcy after many years of inflated numbers. The art of the stolen base and the art of the strikeout are still alive and well in the major leagues as managers continue to implement strategies in each area, just as they are doing defensively to make it tougher for hitters to hit a ball safely in play. Today’s brand of baseball may be a residual effect of increased activity by strategic managers willing to step outside tradition to find an extra advantage just as much as it is a cleaning up of the game.
George Bernard Shaw once said that “all evolution in thought and conduct must first appear as heresy and misconduct.” Managers that were once mocked for over-shifting infielders, playing five infielders, using three or more pitchers in a single inning, or walking a batter with the bases loaded are now being mimicked as the game of baseball evolves into its next form.