These last few years, we’ve been living in a world of extremes. It’s not enough to say, as so many have, that scoring is at its lowest levels since the early 1990s. It’s not even enough to observe, as even more people have, that the scoring drought has been driven by the combination of record-high strikeout rates and record-low walk rates (walks were rarer in 2014 than in any season since 1968, and rarer than in any season between 1920 and that one). There are several fundamental things about the way offense worked for the last two decades that have not been true for the last two years.
Since 2012, we have seen unprecedented:
· Reward for hitters who are aggressive early in counts, relative to those who take the first pitch;
· Success for batters when the ball is put in play, relative to the offensive environment;
· Production from up-the-middle defensive players, relative to the league’s overall offensive output;
· Dominance by relief pitchers; and
· Futility for left-handed batters, especially against left-handed pitchers.
Combine these things with the pitchers’ hostile takeover of the strike zone, and the growing ubiquity of defensive shifts—the effect of which doesn’t show up at the macro level, but which changes a whole lot of at-bats—and baseball fans plunged into cryogenic sleep in 1954, 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004 would all regard the game they saw in 2014 with a near-equal level of disbelief and confusion.
It’s 2015 now, and while it’s too early to declare any of these trends either ongoing or dead, I think it’s worth checking in on them. Some are so fraught with noise that there’s just nothing to glean, but others might give us some indication of whether, over the winter, teams or players made conscious choices to change the way the game is played.
Strikeouts and Walks
2014: 20.4 % K (highest ever), 7.6 % BB (lowest since 1968, second-lowest since 1922)
2015: 20.1 % K (second-highest ever), 8.1 % BB (19th-lowest since 1922, highest since 2011)
This amounts to no change. Strikeouts are typically up a bit in April, so this could portend a real shift, but for the moment, the league rates almost perfectly mimic the ones we saw in April 2013.
2014: .299 (highest since 2009, 19th-highest in 102 seasons for which BABIP is recorded)
2015: .291 (lowest since 1992, 41st-highest on record)
This looks like a significant change, but the league posted .290 BABIP figures in April in both 2011 and 2012. Early in the season, when cold weather deadens the air and slows batters’ reflexes, BABIP is always slightly depressed. It’s notable that the league had a .298 BABIP at this time last year, but in all likelihood, that was an aberration. I certainly haven’t seen enough to dissuade me from believing the data that tell me BABIP follows a certain in-season trajectory, lower early in the year, higher during the peak summer months.
Offensive Production from Defense-First Positions (Catcher, Second Base, Shortstop, Center Field)
2014: 98 tOPS+ (fourth-highest since expansion in 1961, trailing only 2011-13)
2015: 97 tOPS+ (fifth-highest since ’61, right behind 2014)
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Kevin Goldstein started hearing from scouts years ago, back in the Up and In days, that defense was declining in the middle of the diamond. That’s probably true, and it probably partially explains the rising league BABIP, but it’s not because they don’t make shortstops the way they used to: it’s because no one selects shortstops the way they used to. Defensive metrics have augmented our understanding and appreciation for the value of glove men, but they’ve also revealed to us that there are more decent defenders than we thought at a lot of positions. Jhonny Peralta really isn’t a bad shortstop. The corollary, especially with offense down, is that it’s often worth trading some defensive prowess for a little bit of juice in a bat.
Natural selection is only part of the explanation for this shift, though. The rest is that the guys who play those positions tend to rely more on their athleticism than guys who play corner spots do, and that that athleticism is a bigger part of offense than ever. If BABIP drives offense (as it has, and likely continues to) to an unusual extent, right-handed line-drive hitters with speed are at an environmental advantage. Most up-the-middle players are just that kind of player.
Production When Swinging at the First Pitch of a Plate Appearance
2014: 98 tOPS+ (highest on record)
2015: 99 tOPS+ (higher even than 2014)
This one took me by surprise. If nothing else, I would expect the dampened value of contact—again, April sees lower BABIPs and less power on contact than any other month, historically—to make taking pitches and getting deep into counts more rewarding early in the season. Instead, we’re going the other way, however narrowly. I’m willing to call this no change for the time being, but it’s strange. The difference lives mostly in the fact that players who take the first pitch are having a very difficult time using that patience to reach base at an increased rate. In that sense, it reads as a continuation of the trend we’ve seen recently, whereby pitchers have poured the ball into the zone so reliably that batters are better off simply attacking the first pitch they feel they can handle.
Batting Against Relievers
2014: 95 tOPS+ (12th-lowest on record, with 2012 the absolute nadir, at 93)
2015: 90 tOPS+ (by far, the lowest ever)
Again, this is probably a false positive. Bullpens are susceptible to tremendous attrition as a year goes on. The early-season schedule is riddled with more off days than the rest of the docket, which permits managers to use their relievers more aggressively. We see much more from many organizations’ 10th– and 11th-best relievers during the dog days of summer. Meanwhile, starters get slightly stronger as the year progresses. For now, this is one to watch, but a probable non-event.
Lefties. Poor Lefties.
2014: 100 tOPS+ (lowest on record; left-handed batters were no better than right-handed ones, for the first time ever.)
2015: 106 tOPS+ (11th-highest on record, highest since 2002)
I can imagine almost no reason why platoon splits should be susceptible to some predictable seasonality, so there’s not much of a case for waving this away as a temporary thing. It might be noisy data—the top four hitters in the NL by OPS are lefties, and in such a short stretch such things can distort the numbers—but that would be a lot of noise. Lefties do have a .295 BABIP early on, bucking the recent trend that has seen right-handers hit as well as lefties on balls in play, which is not to be ignored. Then again, it’s not to be treated entirely as a fluke. We just don’t have enough information to tell for sure where things stand.
This is the trend for which I’m ardently rooting. It’s been frustrating, over the past several seasons, to feel like right- and left-handed batters were competing on an uneven field. There are certain differences of this general kind that make baseball more interesting, but I can’t think of any way fans are served by watching Yasiel Puig significantly outperform Jason Heyward (strictly a for-instance), when the actual gap in talent there is vanishingly small, perhaps non-existent. That’s a bug in the system, and happily, it looks like the bug might have been exterminated over the offseason.
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