keyboard_arrow_uptop

A few weeks ago, I took stock of the dramatic changes we’re seeing across the league in terms of ERA/FIP/xFIP. We knew that good pitching was trending upward, but my thought was that we weren’t accurate in our view of just how much good pitching there was.

Today, I want to look at the inverse, and take stock of how hitting is on the decline. While there are myriad ways of attacking this issue, I’m going to focus on hitting for power because in standard leagues, hitting for power carries the most weight, affecting three categories (HR, R, RBI). While this is going to be old hat for some, it’s my hope that looking at the dramatic changes in power production over the course of two seasons will help us properly evaluate those hitters who do provide power.

Note: All rankings are based on qualified hitters, removing those with too few at-bats from the equation.

Table 1: SLG

Rank

2012

2014

1

.606

.594

2

.595

.567

3

.577

.562

4

.564

.555

5

.561

.551

6

.557

.542

7

.553

.532

8

.550

.525

9

.549

.524

10

.540

.518

To no one’s surprise, power is down across the board. The top spot isn’t suffering so much, but we see the degradation become wider and wider down the line. This shows itself even more further down the rankings, as it took until no. 30 in 2012 to find a player with a sub-.500 slugging percentage, while 2014 features only 14 players with slugging percentages over .500. Something like the 20 point gap that exists starting around no. 7 exists all the way through no. 130 or so, where things start evening out. This shows us that both the top of the scale and bottom of the scale are largely similar at least in relation to each other, but the impact of the power outage is being felt in the middle.

Table 2: ISO

Rank

2012

2014

1

.292

.287

2

.277

.275

3

.277

.273

4

.276

.272

5

.264

.267

6

.263

.259

7

.263

.245

8

.260

.241

9

.253

.240

10

.242

.235

In 2012, 47 players posted an isolated slugging percentage of .200 or better, while in 2014, that number tops out at 22. Less than half of players are hitting for the type of power that they did only two years ago, once we remove singles from the equation. For frame of reference, Albert Pujols’ .193 ISO ranks 30th in 2014, but would drop to 52nd in 2012. Once again, things aren’t that different at the edges of the spectrum, so this isn’t a case of the bottom dragging the average down, but of the middle-of-the-pack hitters failing to generate the power they did before.

Table 3: HR

Rank

2012

2014

1

44

39

2

43

37

3

43

36

4

42

35

5

41

34

6

41

32

7

36

32

8

35

32

9

34

31

10

33

31

A couple of notes: The 2014 season isn’t done, so raw totals are obviously a bit misleading here, but it’s clear that power is down at the very top of the scale. While they get closer around the back end of the top 10, the difference gets bigger further down the list. Picking some spots at random, Anthony Rendon’s 20-homer campaign thus far checks in at 40th in 2014, but would only be good for 61st in 2012, a marked difference. If that’s too far down the list for you, 20th ranked (2014) Brandon Moss’ 25 homers would only land him 36th in 2012. Things finally even out at no. 40 (three homers on both lists), but unlike our previous two categories, the raw homer totals see a decline right at the top, which only gets worse in the middle before tapering off toward the bottom of the list.

In all cases, we’re reminded that hitting is suffering throughout the game right now, especially so in the case of hitting for power. This means we need to readjust what it is to be a power hitter in fantasy leagues. The league average SLG in 2012 was .405, compared to .387 in 2014. For ISO it was .151 in 2012, with 2014 at .136. This means we need to consider a .400 slugging percentage actively good, which is something I’m still grappling with as a fantasy owner. Despite knowing that power hitting is in decline, it’s hard to accept that someone barely cracking .400 in SLG is “hitting for power.” Certainly, they’re not elite, but that’s not where the margins are large in this type of comparison. The middling guys are the ones for which we need to adjust.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
JoshC77
9/19
Good article and one that really sums up this season. I'm curious about two things: Has there been a corresponding uptick somewhere (such as walk rate or OBP) that would possibly suggest that the sluggers are getting pitched around more often? Has there been a drop in average flyball distance this season (if that is measurable in both 2012 and 2014)?
TheArtfulDodger
9/19
Thanks! I was considering doing a third iteration looking at AVG/OBP and maybe a third category so I'll hold off on that answer for now (but OBP is down from a league perspective, just not by as much). As for average fly ball distance, I'm not sure where I'd find that league wide, much less top 10s for each year. If someone knows where to go, I'd look into it.
myshkin
9/19
Here you go, back to 2007. I don't know anything about the data sources, methodology, or accuracy here, though. http://www.baseballheatmaps.com/graph/distanceleader.php
TheArtfulDodger
9/19
Thanks!
Cronfordox
9/21
Your article does not speculate on why this change is taking place. Do you think the more strict enforcement of rules against performance enhancing drugs is a causal factor with statistical significance in bringing about this change, or what other factors could be contributing to the trend you have analyzed?
TheArtfulDodger
9/21
In all honesty, I wasn't concerned with the whys so much as focusing on adjusting expectations based on the new offensive environment. I don't think PEDs are as big a reason as most, but I can't exclude them as a factor either. The honest answer is I just don't know.
Cronfordox
9/21
Yes, I understand. The causes of these recent changes would be difficult to pin down scientifically. However, without a short list of possible factors contributing to the fluctuation, one is left at a loss in thinking about whether or not these swings are "natural fluctuations" (and therefore of a more ephemeral nature) or "the results of human activity" (and so more likely to become permanent features of the game, without oversight or intervention in the form of forthcoming rule changes). Not that I want to compare offensive cooling to global warming.......hah.
TheArtfulDodger
9/21
I think the increased usage of shifts as well as defensive players being recognized as valuable, there's more rope for guys who don't hit but add value with the glove. More weak bats playing would bring down the offensive stats...
Cronfordox
9/21
It is a shame that major league baseball franchises are not run with the cost/benefit analysis of roto geeks front and center, as they bloody well should be.
Cronfordox
9/22
I've been thinking about this more, and it seems to me that the defensive changes you mentioned as well as increased PED enforcement too, are not likely to go away any time soon. If this is true, the power outage would continue, or worsen, indefinitely. But major league baseball knows it is more profitable to show their fans an offensive show than making people pay the special attention that is required to appreciate good pitching. So, as far as I can tell, we're at the beginning of this trend with no end in sight, barring intervention in the form of possible rule changes to give hitters some kind of better advantages over pitchers in the future. If I'm playing this hunch as an owner, I may bump up hitter values next year as much as 10 percent, maybe even more in keeper leagues. Do you think this is warranted?
TheArtfulDodger
9/22
I do think there's a good chance MLB does something to adjust for the decline in offense, but in the near-term, yes it makes sense to value *good* hitting over pitching even more than we already were. From a replacement level standpoint, there's a massive amount of pitching, so grabbing the elite hitters is even more vital.
Cronfordox
9/22
I've been thinking about this more, and it seems to me that the defensive changes you mentioned, as well as increased PED enforcement too, are not likely to go away any time soon. If this is true, the power outage would continue, or worsen, indefinitely despite the fact that major league baseball knows it is more profitable to show their fans a flashy offensive display rather than making people pay the special attention that is required to appreciate good pitching. So, as far as I can tell, we're at the beginning of this trend with no end in sight, barring intervention in the form of possible rule changes to give hitters some kind of better advantages over pitchers in the future. If I'm playing this hunch as an owner, I may bump up hitter values next year as much as 10 percent, maybe even more in keeper leagues. Do you think this is warranted?
ravenight
9/22
At the end you say that the HR numbers even out at number 40 - was that supposed to be 140 or 240? Since number 40 you already said was Rendon with 20 HRs, I'm just curious how far down the list we have to go to get to parity with previous seasons. League-average is easier to calculate, but it accounts for a lot more people than are typically in a fantasy league. The average SLG for the top 120 or so sluggers would be a more interesting number, though also potentially misleading in that some of those guys would be SLG-only dudes you wouldn't want to start unless you were desperate. It's encouraging that Xander's .362 SLG is only a little below league average, though. As for factors, I think one thing that should be considered is expansion. Offense skyrocketed in the 90s, and it might have been the case that PEDs were more prominent or more effective then than previously, or that workout routines were suddenly much better and the exploding salaries allowed the hitters to be in much better baseball form than previously, but really a lot of those things should affect pitchers as well as hitters - being able to work out more both because your muscles are juiced and because you don't need an off-season job / have access to far better nutrition and exercise expertise should be helpful regardless of your role. The factor that everyone predicted would lead to the single-season HR record being broken, though, was expansion. The league added 4 teams in 5 years, creating about 15% more pitching jobs. The result should have been two-fold: pitchers who would have been in the majors with 26 teams should have gotten better, but also all hitters should get better, and especially those at the top, who can really feast on AAA-quality pitching. What we saw was actually that - guys like Pedro, Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, etc, and guys like Bonds, Griffey, McGuire, ARod, and so on down the line to the guys in the middle having better years. Pitching lagged behind because it's harder to do and because development of it was less important previously. When hitters started going nuts, and all these new pitchers were needed, teams began to realize how far behind their pitching was and how much more of it they needed to insure against injury. So teams got better at scouting and developing pitching talent, and they put a focus on stockpiling and preserving arms (for example, the development and application of pitch count limits and innings limits). I also wouldn't be surprised if the draft, especially outside the first round, put more emphasis on getting players with the raw ability to pitch in the majors, letting fewer of them slip to other sports or end up delivering pizza. Now we are seeing the benefits of that emphasis as the league has grown into its size.
TheArtfulDodger
9/22
140 -- good catch. Yes, expansion definitely diluted pitching talent and made hitting numbers go up. I'm not as willing to give so much credit to pitch counts and innings limits, but I wouldn't dismiss them either. Good stuff.