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What is Going on with Baseball?

What is Going on with Baseball?

What is going on with baseball? The game has changed from what it was when we were kids, and many think not for the better. Balls in play are down, strikeouts are up, and every hitter seems to be swinging for the fences all the time. The sexy big-ticket stat is that last season, for the first time ever, there were more strikeouts than there were hits.

What is going on with baseball? If you follow the baseball press you have probably read about hitters taking uppercut swings to get launch angles producing towering fly balls, and exotic bullpen strategies using more and more pitchers in ever-shortening outings. All this stuff is true and relevant so far as it goes, but takes a narrow view of what is happening. What is going on with baseball is in fact nothing new at all.

What is Going on with Baseball?

Figure 1. Hits (red) and runs (blue) per nine innings, 1918-2018

Take a look at Figure 1, showing the average number of hits (red) and runs (blue) per nine innings, from 1918 to 2018. Why 1918? That is the end of the dead ball era: the year that Babe Ruth got serious about hitting home runs, with everyone else soon to sit up and take notice. This graph is pretty boring. It shows us that for the past century teams have scored between four and five runs a game. Sometimes it goes up a bit, and there is that dip in the late 1960s, but the overall trend is pretty much a horizontal straight line. The rate of hits is even more uninteresting, correlating even more strongly than I would have guessed with runs. It is no accident that this graph is so boring. The offensive production rate is kept steady by intent. The Powers That Be responded to that late-60s dip by lowering the pitcher’s mound and the AL instituting the designated hitter.

What is Going on with Baseball?

Figure 2. Strikeouts per nine innings 1918-2018

Now look at Figure 2, showing strikeouts per nine innings. This is much more interesting. It turns out that strikeouts being up isn’t a new phenomenon at all. They have been rising for the past century, except for the dip in 1970s What happened then? The aforementioned lowering of the mound and addition of the DH. Then about 1980 the rise resumed at the same rate as previously, and was higher than ever. This has been going on ever since, with no sign of slowing. We now see about three times as many strikeouts as a century ago.

Finally we get to Figure 3, showing home runs per nine innings. The data is a lot messier, but follows the same general upward trend as strikeouts, with about six times more home runs than a century ago.

What is Going on with Baseball?

Figure 3. Home runs per nine innings 1918-2018

So my point about launch angles and bullpen strategies is that they explain, to the extent that they explain at all, the right side of those graphs. Something bigger is going on here than just the past few years.

What is going on with baseball? Pitchers and managers and owners a century ago decided that emphasizing strikeouts was the optimal winning strategy, and have been acting on that conclusion ever since. At the same time, batters and managers and owners similarly concluded that emphasizing home runs was the optimal winning strategy, and have similarly been acting on that conclusion ever since. Nothing is going on that hasn’t been going on for a hundred years. All that has changed is that the trends have reached the point where you can’t miss them.

Are pitchers and batters right? Are these indeed the optimal strategies? Is it even possible for both propositions to be true simultaneously? Emphasizing home runs, after all, means accepting more strikeouts. If increasing strikeouts is the optimal pitching strategy, can increasing strikeouts also be the optimal batting strategy? This is a great topic for another day. What matters here is that teams have been acting this way.

The next thing that has been going on is that players individually and teams collectively are better than ever. This is heresy for the shout-at-clouds faction of baseball fans, but these people deserve nothing more than a good eye-roll. (It is worth keeping in mind that the earliest known case of a geezer complaining that kids today aren’t playing the game the right way comes from 1858. However they played the game when you were a kid, some old coot was complaining about it.)

Consider personal fitness. A top athlete nowadays has an expertly designed nutritional program, a team of trainers to help him with conditioning, and strong economic incentives to stick to the program. Babe Ruth had kids he would tip to bring him hot dogs. Or consider video tape, a great unheralded revolution in sports. In the 1970s video technology reached the point where a coach could put a camera on a tripod so a pitcher could see his delivery, or a batter his swing, and work on adjustments. This was itself a revolution. Nowadays a batter can duck into the video room between innings to see his previous at bat. How about data analysis in general? In the late 1980s, Orel Hershiser recorded each batter he faced on a laptop in the dugout. This was regarded either as forward thinking or eccentric, depending on who you asked. Nowadays pitchers don’t do this because clubs have dedicated personnel providing far more detailed analysis than Hershiser could do on his own. And the shift? Love it or hate it, it is backed up by data. Even apart from the shift, Wee Willie Keeler’s dictum to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” is superceded by spray charts and fielder placement optimized for each batter they face.

Today’s players and teams are better than yesterday’s players and teams, who were better than those before them, and so on going back at least a century (and really, a century and a half). Now combine that with a century of pitchers trying to strikeout batters, and of batters trying to hit home runs. We now have the explanation for Figures 2 and 3. Batters are trying to hit home runs. Pitchers are trying to throw strikeouts. Both sides are constantly getting better at achieving these goals.

The problem is that optimized strategy doesn’t necessarily make for attractive play, and rules which work just fine at lower levels of play can produce gridlock when the best players are using the best strategies. Does anyone really think that a soccer game ending in a 0 – 0 tie is exciting? Maybe the most dedicated afficionados admire the brilliant defensive play, or perhaps they are just posing. And even if they are sincere, how general is this admiration, and for how many games before it gets old?

The same is happening, I think, with baseball. Yes, chicks dig the long ball. This is a timeless truth. But there is a reason they only televise a home run derby once a year. And while it was exciting to see the line of “K” placards in Dwight Gooden’s day, enough is enough.

What to do about it? Is there any remedy? Actually, I think it wouldn’t even be all that hard, given the will. Players and teams respond to incentives. Don’t like the result? Change the incentives. But be sure to work both sides. Mess with pitching while not touching hitting, or the other way around, and you end up throwing the runs per game numbers out of whack.

Consider those exotic bullpen strategies we are seeing nowadays, or even the less exotic but still aggressive bullpen strategies of ten years ago. These are the late stages of a long term trend for pitchers throwing fewer innings, and therefore being able to go all out all the time. Dial back the bullpen usage and pitchers will have to pace themselves a bit. One way to do this would be to limit pitching changes during the inning. Change pitchers all you want between innings, but you only get one (or two, or zero–I don’t much care) mid-inning change per game. Use it wisely.

Batting incentives are actually dead easy to change, again if baseball has the will. Deaden the ball. There is a mystical air to the ball as an inviolate constant in baseball history. This is utter nonsense, of course. Back in the day, using a livelier or deader ball was an unexceptional topic of conversation. Now any hint of the ball having different physical characteristics has a conspiratorial air to it. So when it was suggested that the up tick in home runs of the past few years (though not this one) was due to the ball, MLB reflexively denied any such thing. It turns out that it was the ball, though not intentionally, and not in its elasticity. Rather, the seams were just a hair lower than before, and this changed its air resistance. Why were the seams lower? Who knows? Maybe a slightly different thread entered the supply chain somewhere. Maybe the people in the factory sewing the seams adopted a slightly different technique. Maybe three people in the factory retired, and their individual sewing techniques had happened to produce higher seams. In any case, there is no need for a conspiracy theory when slight random changes can produce the results.

If we get past the mysticism about the ball, we can intentionally deaden it to some modest, measured degree. This will change the batters’ incentives. A fly ball that today ends up in three rows back would be caught at the back of the warning track. The blast into the upper deck is still a home run, and indeed is probably still a blast into the upper deck. This is good, because as aforementioned, chicks dig the long ball. So, come to it, do the dudes. The deader ball wouldn’t eliminate home runs, much less the really exciting ones, but it would make them a bit rarer. The guy hitting forty to fifty home runs will keep doing what he is doing, but the guy hitting fifteen or twenty will find many of them turning into fly outs. He will eventually come to the conclusion that this is not the best way for him to make a living, and will switch to hitting line drives.

Will MLB make these changes, or other, better ones that I didn’t think of? I think it will have to eventually, but I don’t expect much in the short term. There is a lot of reflexive conservatism and many veto points in implementing changes. This season we saw 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. It was 8.3 last season, and 8.1 the season before that. If I had to guess, my money would be that it will be 8.7 next year. But this trend cannot go on forever. Something will have to give.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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21 thoughts on “What is Going on with Baseball?

  1. Improved athletes and equipment have rendered many old classic golf courses obsolete: they simply lack the real estate to keep lengthening the holes to compensate. From time to time the PGA discusses using a “dead” ball for its events. For a variety of reasons these never go anywhere. Everyone — not just chicks — digs the long drive. Manufacturers want to be able to sell the same ball the pros use to duffers. The extra testing regime would be a nightmare.

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  2. I like this approach. Get more balls in play, more contests between fielders and hitters.

    It’s funny because a lot of people are blaming this on the stats revolution. But that’s shooting the messenger. Teams have figured out a way to play the game that maximizes the chance of winning while lowering the fun in the game. Football and basketball have both been willing to make changes to stop this sort of thing. Baseball must too.

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    • It’s funny because a lot of people are blaming this on the stats revolution. But that’s shooting the messenger.

      This is a very good point. There are a few aspects of the modern game that can be ascribed to advanced stats. Emphasizing walks as an offensive skill is the Moneyball example. The general acceptance of the shift in the past few years is another example. A lot of how teams use advanced stats is more about building the team than the play on the field: the general manager rather than the field manager. But even if we blame advanced stats for everything bad that has happened in the past [insert number here] years, the point I am aiming for in this piece is that the trends we see today are older than that.

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      • I like both the idea of limiting in-inning pitch changes (maybe 2 per game like challenges in the NFL) and considering messing with the ball, or even the bat.

        Of ideas I hear floated the one I’m most against is banning the shift. I’m also squeamish about the pitch clock, even though I get the argument.

        Part of the issue though is I think too many teams have over-learned the lessons of the long ball as practiced by the early 2000s Red Sox for example. Managers have adjusted to the fire power approach and its now boom or bust whereas good OBP still wins consistently over the course of a season. I think rediscovering the concept of discipline at the plate would go a long way.

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          • My objection to banning the shift is twofold. It would be a ban on a team using what it believes to be optimal strategy. This is hamfisted. It also would be unprecedented in baseball history. The traditional placements of fielders wasn’t there in the beginning. They had to figure it out, moving players around. And yes, some people complained. The implicit decision of the rules makers was to let players position themselves where they thought best.

            Few players bunt against the shift today partly because bunting is not a skill they have developed, and partly because of the attitude that their job is to hit home runs. The first will take care of itself. Deaden the ball a bit and so will the second. This is an entirely surmountable problem, given the will.

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            • I think the defensive shifts destroy the value of a certain class of lefty-pull hitter. When Jayson Werth asked whether he should bunt, the Nats analyticals said no. And they were probably right. I wouldn’t mind a rule that requires at least one infielder on each side of second base.

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              • Have there been shifts with all of the infielders on one side of second? Every one that I’ve seen has 1 on the opposite field side.

                As for bunting, this is a sadly neglected skill in modern baseball. Ichiro batted .577 when he laid down a bunt. This was against a regular defense that was often ready for it. I imagine with his speed he could have turned a lot of those singles into doubles with a shifted infield.

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                • See this shift on Joey Gallo for example. The left fielder is the only position player on the left side. There are also variations in which there is no infielder on the left side, but there is a four-man outfield (LF: LCF; RCF; RF). I’ve never seen a shift in which there is not a first-basemen in position to make a force-out, so the extreme shifts are against lefties.

                  And in that link, I don’t think the Astros care at all if Gallo tries to bunt. If they could turn back time, the Rangers wouldn’t teach Gallo to be the best version of Ichiro he could be; they would teach him to be the best right-handed power hitter.

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          • I’d be curious if anyone has ever done a study on how teachable switch hitting is. When I played growing up the fact that I could effectively hit left handed was probably the only reason I was able to stay in baseball as long as I did. But a big part of that is being left eye dominant (I’m generally right handed but there are certain skill activities where I prefer my left hand). I’ve always just been that way, and while I had a hitting coach who really helped me master it I don’t know if it would’ve been doable had there been no aptitude whatsoever to start with.

            Maybe we just need to start em young.

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  3. I guess I’m “meh” on limiting bullpen usage. It seems to me that the teams that are going more aggressively to their bullpen are the smaller market teams that are using them to compensate for not having top tier starters. This year, the Pirates (who were in contention until the last few weeks I believe) had the most bullpen innings and the Astros had the least (and who enjoyed having the Pirates’ former ace).

    Also, I think the reduction of the average innings per start have reduced the value of the relief specialist that comes in for one or two batters. The LOOGY As Baseball Knows It Is Going Extinct. Teams are looking to develop more long-relief guys or use piggyback starters. I don’t like the pace of play with frequent substitutions, but I also don’t a pitcher who “doesn’t have it today” being left in there.

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    • Interesting article on LOOGYs. I had missed it the first time around. LOOGYs per se are not the issue, but mid-inning pitcher changes. I honestly have no idea how frequent these really are. It seems inevitable that restricting them would force a more conservative approach to relievers, with the side effect of helping pace of place, and the most tedious part of pace of play at that. I am totally open to someone else having better ideas then mine.

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      • One thing about that article I didn’t like was to hear was that one of the definitions of LOOGY includes “averaging fewer than 1.20 innings per appearance” (which I assume means less than five outs). I think of the pitcher with extreme splits coming into face a very good lefty and frequently leaving right after, unless there are lefties following. It particularly breaks up the flow of the game in an unappealing way when the lefty gets on base, because playing the odds doesn’t guarantee outcomes.

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  4. By and large, I don’t think the hardest-throwing starters are throwing any harder than the hardest-throwing starters 40 years ago. (A few relievers, like Chapman, seem to throw harder than anyone used to.) But now most teams seem to have a couple of starters who can consistently hit 95-plus, when there used to be two or three in all of baseball.
    I’ve always been fond of mid 1970’s-1980’s baseball because there were so many different ways to win.

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  5. If you look at the charts and focus on Three True Outcomes (TTO – HR, K, BB) what’s pretty clear is that the ONLY thing trending wildly up is Strikeouts… BB and HR remain at or around 8% and 2% respectively… K’s are up, up, up. What this means in fact is that we are trading Batted Ball outs for Strikeouts… fewer balls are being put in play and here’s a nifty article/chart illustrating just that.

    The difference between 1920 and 2020 trending is that many more balls would have been put in play with all the “excitement” that entails… a runner taking an extra base, a missed cut-off, Javy Baez doing anything at all in the field, and a plain old catch-and-throw out… but that’s what we’re trading with the current pitching dominance.

    It’s maybe counterintuitive to argue in favor of more batted-ball-outs, but the focus on TTO combined with the shift and the optimal outcome for hitters is the trade-off we’re actually making. It’s the “boring” that we’re all sensing but can’t quite articulate.

    Is the game unwatchable? Hardly. But optimizing the game so that balls are *not* put in play is a trend that I’d consider evidence that, like the mid-1960s, pitching needs deprecation… perhaps in tandem with a slightly deadened ball (since embiggening the ballparks would be harder and aesthetically less desirable).

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    • That fangraphs chart can be misleading, depending on how you use it. The point is well taken that on the at-bat level it is Ks that are driving the TTO trend. But while Ks are pushing being three times as frequent as they were a century ago, HRs are six times more frequent. Baseball has always understood that if you are going to swing for the fences, you have to accept more Ks. I believe that the drive for HRs is partly behind the increase in Ks. If we stipulate that this is a problem, the fix has to address both sides.

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    • Yeah, I agree w/ Richard, moving from an average of 1% HR per plate appearance to 2% to 3% is essentially how his Figure 3 chart shows a significant increase across nine innings.

      Selling for power should mean more home runs, otherwise one wouldn’t sell. But also harder hit bills should increase the batting average for balls in play (BABIP). This chart shows BABIP increasing from around .255 in 1970 to around .300 today. (The chart doesn’t quite make it to today, but .300 is what the league average was in 2017)

      Chart

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  6. In addition to deadening the ball, they should move the pitcher back a foot or two. And make them keep a foot on the rubber, as the rules say they must. That will allow more balls in play. Since the players are bigger and stronger now, they could consider making the basepaths 93 feet long.

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