By In Stuff

The Balance of Baseball

One of the many wonderful things about baseball is that it tends to finds balance. People talk about the beauty of 90 feet between bases — the faster runners get, the stronger arms get and so a ground ball to the shortstop was an out in 1923 and it’s an out today — but really the whole game that balances like that. There are times in the game’s history, like in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when pitchers dominate the game. And there are times in the game’s history, like in the 1990s and early 2000s, when hitters dominate the game.

But, enough years ago by, the counterbalance kicks in and the game evens out.

Yes, it’s true, sometimes, the game needs a little help, or anyway that’s what we think. Designated hitters are added. Drug testing is instituted. The mound is lowered. Maybe baseballs are altered. There is always talk about tinkering, changing this or that. But the game tries to balance itself out because hitters and pitchers are the yin and yang of baseball, the good and dark sides of the force, constantly pulling and pushing, pressing an advantage and then retreating. The genius of baseball is that, so far anyway, a pitcher with eight fielders behind him and a hitter with a bat makes for a fair fight. One cannot obliterate the other, at least not yet.

The interesting part is that that the balance doesn’t always come in the way you expected.

From 2010 to 2015, pitching and defense began to overwhelm baseball. Pitchers did this, mainly, with strikeouts. You probably know that strikeouts have GENERALLY been going up since the beginning of the game, but until recently there were peaks and valleys. Strikeouts jumped up in the 1960s, then came back down in the 1970s when the mound was lowered, then began to rise pretty rapidly after the 1994 strike. Between 1994 and 2009, the strikeout jumped from 5.6 per game to 6.9 per game. Up to 2010, hitters were able to counter the strikeout plague by hitting the ball hard and getting on base at a historically high clip.

But in 2010, that changed. That was the first year that teams averaged seven strikeouts per game.

2010: 7.1 strikeouts per game.
2011: 7.1 strikeouts per game
2012: 7.5 strikeouts per game
2013: 7.6 strikeouts per game
2014: 7.7 strikeouts per game
2015: 7.7 strikeouts per game

Like that: The game was out of balance. Batting averages plummeted. Runs per game plummeted. Strikeouts weren’t the ONLY reason for it — defensive shifts played a part, among other things — but it was an offensive free fall. In 2013 and 2014, pitchers dominated like they had not since the late 1960s and early 1970s, back when baseball’s czars were so panicked they began fundamentally changing the game by adding the DH and lowering the mounds and shrinking the strike zone and whatever else they could think about.

There were a lot of theories about how hitters would try and put the game back in balance. Perhaps the most common theory was this: Hitters will start putting the ball in play more. You heard a lot of advice about choking up on the bat, changing two-strike approaches, hitting the ball the opposite way, bunting against the shift and all that. In those pitching heavy years, the Kansas City Royals made two World Series appearances and their entire offensive strategy seemed to be to put the ball in play and hope for the best.

What nobody seemed to realize was that hitters would fight back by making LESS CONTACT.

Strikeouts the last two years have absolutely gone bananas. In 2016, hitters for the first time struck out, on average, EIGHT times per game. And this year, strikeouts are up substantially again. Hitters have decided, independently, with different hitting coaches and different overall philosophies about the art of hitting, that they cannot beat pitchers by just putting the ball in play. They have decided as a group that putting the ball in play is a dead end.

And so, across baseball, hitters now swing hard and with an uppercut and look to hit the ball out.

That’s it. That 2017 baseball. Let’s compare this year, when teams are averaging 4.56 runs per game, to 1993, when they averaged 4.60 runs per game.

In 1993, teams hit 14 points better. Their on-base percentage was 17 points higher. They slugged seven points better in 1993. They hit more singles in 1993, many more triples and just about the same number of doubles. They stole more bases. They walked more and struck out way less. They also hit into fewer double plays, drew more intentional walks, and played a lot more quote-unquote successful small-ball.

So why are teams scoring about as many runs per game? Home runs.

Team homers per game:
2017: 1.23 (most in baseball history)
1993: .89 (in line with league average since 1950)

That’s it. That’s whole ballgame. You don’t have to go all the way back to 1993 — look at 2014. Teams are averaging a half run more per game than they did just three years ago and — other than hitting home runs (and walking more which might be correlated) — they are doing nothing better than they did in 2014. The .251 batting average across baseball is the same as 2014. Hitters are averaging exactly the same number of hits per game, stealing fewer bases and, as mentioned, striking out a lot more. But those home runs. That, more than ever, has become the batter’s equalizer.

That, more than ever, is what drives baseball.

There is some backlash against this hitting strategy, of course. Buster Olney quoted a few people who are pretty down on this philosophy of launch angles and hitting the ball in the air, rightly pointing out that the strategy hurts some hitters as it helps either, but perhaps naively talking about the lost art of putting the ball in play. Hitters have roundly and almost universally rejected putting the ball in play as a viable option in today’s game where pitchers throw harder than ever and fielders position themselves better than ever.

The game evolves in unexpected ways. When hitters dominated the landscape in the 1990s and 2000s, the focus was on drug testing but quietly pitchers and defenses adapted. Teams started using more short-term relievers throwing high-90s gas. Teams started giving up half the field, daring hitters to go the other way. Starters, no longer burdened by the notion of finishing games or ever pitching the eighth, have tried much harder for the strikeout.

The hitters’ revenge is that place over the fence. Smart people around the game tend to think that hitters have been helped too by a much livelier baseball, though evidence has proved elusive. What we do know is that offense is up because hitters bang more fly balls over the fence than ever before, more even that at the height of MSB (McGwire-Sosa-Bonds). The other day, hitters smacked a record SEVEN grand slams in a single day. On the same day, Edinson Volquez threw the first no-hitter of 2017, striking out six of the last nine hitters he faces, including all three in the ninth. That’s the balance baseball has found.

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40 Responses to The Balance of Baseball

  1. Grover Jones says:

    Let’s face it, baseball is going to face a boredom crisis. Strikeouts and home runs are both boring.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Homeruns are not boring. Sitting around waiting for homeruns is boring. And you better not be in the restroom when it finally happens or you miss the big payoff.

      • Mort says:

        Well, you’re both right. Home runs hit by the other team are boring. When your team hits one it’s cool, especially with runners on base. But, yes, waiting for it is boring. Mostly because deep counts are boring. Wish they’d start everyone at a count of 2 and 1.

  2. Rob Smith says:

    A league full of three outcome players (a bunch of Adam Dunn’s) can’t be good for the game. Sitting around waiting for the 3-run HR might be heaven for Earl Weaver, but I personally hate it. Think about it, we have longer games and less action. I love the HR, but I don’t love sitting around 3+ hours to see 1.2 HRs get hit before I go home.

    Maybe the old ways of small ball aren’t statistically sound strategies (I’m not disputing that). But stolen bases, successful, or not, add excitement. Going for triples, successful or not, add excitement. Bunts that put runners in scoring position add excitement. Walks, strikeouts and occasional homeruns do not add excitement.

    I remember watching Reggie Jackson try to stretch a double into a triple when he was with the Angels and get thrown out by 15 feet. We cursed him for the rest of the game and for days (hell, years) afterwards. It was a bad play, but it was exciting & very memorable.

    Maybe everyone else on this page has evolved into advanced metrics and love the new way the game is played. And I totally accept advanced metrics. I just don’t think it leads to an interesting style of play.

    • SDG says:

      Exactly. The strategy on the part of players and managers should be TTO baseball, as that’s the most efficient way to score or prevent runs, it as an organization, MLB is not trying to win games. It should be the goal of MLB to maximize fan interest and that means tweaking the parameters to speed the game and put the ball in play more. That means deadening the ball, widening the zone (which seems counterintuitive since Ks are way up but this forces batters to swing more) and maybe some kind of limit on the number of pitchers or pitching changes in a game or some form of pitch clock. Not allowing pitchers to rest between each pitch means they can’t throw 100% heat every time.

      I wonder if Greg Maddux were in the minors today if he’d be considered a viable prospect.

      • Patrick says:

        I agree completely with the first part. What makes for the best strategy for a team to win a game does not always make for entertaining sport. See also: Hack-a-Shaq, the neutral zone trap in hockey.

    • MikeN says:

      It’s actually 2.5 home runs per game.

  3. Scott says:

    I’ve been wondering a lot recently about the relationship between the three outcomes and the slowing pace of the game.

    A number of articles have posited that increasing the time between pitches helps pitchers. This seems to be especially true for hard throwers, when the time allows them to rest more, thereby increasing the oxygen in the arm, which allows them to throw all out again. If this is true, would implementing a pitch clock not only improve the pace of play, but also change the game? Would pitchers throw fewer pitches all out, leading to fewer strikeouts and more balls in play? Most importantly, would this increase the quality of play and fan interest in the game.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Interesting thoughts. I’d love to see a pitch clock regardless of the impact on the arms. I’ve witnessed umpires at the youth league level that move the game along & don’t allow batters to step out of the box. So, I’d like to see that change too (no leaving the batters box). It did pick up the pace of the game & made it much better. At the youth league, the delays are primarily because of the batter, but it is at least part of the problem in the majors. So the total fix needs to cover both the batter and the pitcher.

      • invitro says:

        As I’m guessing you know, the changes needed for this fix would be in place already, except that the players blocked them. Hopefully the commish will be able to implement them for 2018.

    • Hamster Huey says:

      Hmm… a corollary to this might be: if longer time between pitches truly improves pitcher recovery (to be clear: I’ve seen no evidence of this, just riffing on the above), what would be the impact on pitcher injuries? It might mean more muscle fatigue but then less stress on the joints/ligaments, and thus fewer blowout injuries? Or worse mechanics, hence more injuries? Either way, if there’s a real effect on recovery that manifests itself in likelihood of injury, that has to be considered along with effect on pace of play. And might be a good, non-obstructionist reason for the players union to object. And might not be something that’s seen at lower levels where the stress on the body is not the same as it is for arms/shoulders asked to throw 95+ repeatedly.

      • SDG says:

        My guess would be that waiting between pitches (the current system) benefits flamethrowers the most. I also don’t need to tell you that these are the most valued pitchers in the system. Proponents of putting the ball in play more are hoping this leads to replacing Noah Syndegaard with Jered Weaver. Well, maybe not that far but you get my point. So do pitchers have cause to complain because the proposed change increases injuries? Some of them. And this is why change is so difficult.

  4. Paul R says:

    I am confident that the (over)reliance on advanced metrics will also balance out and become one more useful tool rather than the “only” way to look at the game. Everything new is treated that way at first and overused to the point of absurdity until the pendulum swings back. For example, while I enjoy knowing when a real record or milestone has been reached, strained comparisons like “He’s only the fourth left handed hitter since 1993 to get four singles and two stolen bases in an AL away game” are just tedious. The fact that you can now slice and dice the numbers almost instantaneously does not necessarily make it interesting.

    I think an intriguing comparison is to the 3-point shot in basketball, which some commentators have even called the “home run.” I don’t see any going back to the days when the 3-pointer was rare. It’s just too clear that it’s a high efficiency shot. The difference is that a flurry of missed 3-pointers in basketball often leads to fast breaks by the other team and more excitement. A series of strikeouts waiting for the big fly in baseball is indeed boring. It’s more like the old “toss-it-to-the center-and-watch-him-back-down-his-opponent” isolation game in hoops. And this is from someone who loves the normal pace of baseball (though I think the stepping out of the box/stepping off the mound dance has gotten ridiculous).

    Since home runs presumably also help pad a player’s stats for arbitration, while BA is being systematically devalued as a stat, it’s hard to see what will bring the counterbalance to the HR trend.

    • invitro says:

      “He’s only the fourth left handed hitter since 1993 to get four singles and two stolen bases in an AL away game” — If you think this is an advanced metric, you have no idea what “advanced metrics” means.

      “BA is being systematically devalued as a stat” — BA has not at all been devalued, it’s been properly valued. It was very overvalued for decades. BA is obviously still very important. The most important single simple stat (as opposed to advanced stat) is OBP, and BA is of course strongly correlated to OBP (while being inferior to it).

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Stuff like that is really more of a function of the ability of someone who thinks he or she is very clever to look up meaningless and cherry-picked “trends.”

  5. Mark Daniel says:

    Someone’s gong to come around and start the small ball stuff again. If defense is positioned well and pitchers are striking out more batters than ever, then someone will decide that the defense and pitchers are too comfortable, so he will bunt and steal and run the hit & run and whatever else there may be to induce a little uncertainty on the defense/pitcher.

    • invitro says:

      “Someone’s gong to come around and start the small ball stuff again.” — If a team tries it, they’ll come in last by a big margin, and stop trying it. At least if they have a huge amount of SB attempts and a low success rate, or a huge amount of sac bunts. Getting these things out of the game is not a style, it’s correct strategy. It’s not often that the players as a group deviate from correct strategy, without the help of major rule changes.

      • Scott says:

        Bunting and sacrifice bunting are not the same thing. Given the increased use of the shift, batters probably should be bunting for a hit more often.

        The key to bunting for a hit is what percentage success is needed to negate the loss of power. If a player succeeds 100% of the time, it’s a no-brainer, if it’s lower than .300, then the decision is similarly easy. The question is where that cut-off is. 400? 500? 750?

        • invitro says:

          I wish batters would bunt for a hit more, but it ain’t gonna happen. They’re way too macho for it.

          • SDG says:

            It shouldn’t matter if they’re too macho. Players don’t decide strategy, especially today. Absent a few superstars, a player will bunt against the shift if his GM tells him to. And honestly, it’s not the player’s job to decide strategy.

            It’s funny we’re still having the same hitting arguments Ted Williams was having 80 years ago. When they started shifting on him he refused to bunt because he thought he was better and smarter than everyone else (and being Ted Williams he was sort of right) but still, if he weren’t so stubborn he world have done better. Now we have data and smart people running things and everyone is trying to be Ted Williams, as well they should, hitting-wise. But defensive strategy is smarter too, and in an era where we only see TTO ball, a good strategic bunter can raise his OBP substantially. Or at least enough to add real value.

        • MikeN says:

          I remember Rob Neyer wrote for ESPN after Griffey got a bunt hit against a shift- say he bunts all the time and gets .750 BA, for a healthy 1500 OPS. I hope you can see why that is ridiculous for him to do.

          I never really saw it.

      • Mark Daniel says:

        I don’t think it’s true that a small ball team would necessarily finish in last. The Billy Ball A’s had great pitching, that’s the primary reason they were a good team for a couple years. They couldn’t hit, though, their BA was near the bottom of the league those years. So they used small ball to create runs when the opportunity arose. Hit a few HRs and now your poor hitting team is middle of the pack in runs scored.
        Great run prevention and mediocre run scoring results in a good team.
        You just need a slightly off kilter manager and/or GM and a poor hitting team, plus a little luck on the pitching side.

        • invitro says:

          Yes, I was rather hyperbolic with my statement, and I was wrong. It may take more to convince me that small ball is really how any good team won. I remember a Bill James article in the Abstract about the 1982 Cards, I think, checking whether certain kinds of small ball really were responsible for their success, as was usually claimed.

  6. jim louis says:

    Good article Joe. It seems the desire for home run launch angle goes hand-in-hand with there being more shifts. If Alex Gordon would ever ever EVER stop trying to drive the ball over the RF wall, he’d hit less roll-over grounders to the SS (who happens to be standing where a normal 2nd baseman would be).

    Off topic Joe, but I think you might like the new War On Drugs track “Holding On”. You can find it on Youtube. Very Springsteen-ish and very good.

  7. invitro says:

    Aren’t increased strikeouts and increased HR’s related by physics? I believe the increase in K’s happens because balls are pitched with higher velocity, and I believe a ball thrown with a higher velocity goes farther when it’s hit. Research could probably say for sure. Anyway, if this is so, strategy or hitting with an uppercut might have nothing to do with increased HR’s. Anyone know? And if people wanted to reverse this trend without breaking the game, the only solution is to get pitchers to not throw as hard, and the only way to do that is to get them to throw more pitches per season, i.e., reversing the current trend. There should be some fairly simple ways to do that: limiting the number of pitchers on the 25-man roster is probably the first thing I’d look at. But I’m not claiming it’s a good idea (or a bad idea).

    • SDG says:

      I think that’s a part of it, but balls are only being pitched a few mph faster than before. How much of a difference could that make? It’s not like all these homers used to be doubles (which would be the difference between a hard-hit ball going at the wall instead of over it). I think more of the difference comes from batter strategy. Have good plate discipline and be selective with your swings (so fewer weak hits and non-K outs), the reduced shame of a strikeout (so batters are less likely to swing at anything on a two strike count) and just GMs selecting more for big sluggers and not bothering with the glove guys on their rosters at all.

      Unrelated but I do think MLB is going to eventually limit the number of pitchers, if only to keep the games at a reasonable length.

      • mrh says:

        “I think that’s a part of it, but balls are only being pitched a few mph faster than before. How much of a difference could that make?”

        Say the previous average was 90 mph (across all [pitches, not just fastballs – I made the number up but it’s probably close and why I picked it will become obvious).

        Say the new average is 92 mph. Less than a 3% change, how much difference could it make? Or if the number dropped to 88 mph?

        Now think of the difference if it were 92 feet between the bases, or 88, instead of 90. Same percentage change as in pitch speed but my intuition is that would be a major change (would shortening the bases by 2 feet encourage more balls in play?).

        Obviously apples and oranges, but a small change can have a big impact when a system is at equilibrium.

  8. Bryan says:

    Balance is because both teams pitch and bat whether the game is played at 2001 Coors Field or 1968 Dodger Stadium. The game is balanced because Barry can hit 73 HR as part of the Giants leading the NL with 235 HR and yet they were only 5th in the NL at 4.93 runs per game and the NL average was 4.70 runs per game. The Padres hit 161 HR led by Phil Nevin hitting 41 (still the 2nd most in franchise history) and scored 4.87 runs per game, nearly as many as the Giants.
    Boston has the fewest HR in the AL with 53, led by Mookie Betts with 9, they must have trouble scoring runs because of the focus on launch angles and how the game is all about strike outs and HR and teams not putting the ball in play. Oh wait, the Red Sox are 4th in the AL with 4.84 runs per game.
    The Rays have hit 25 more HR than they have allowed and they are 1 game below .500, the Angels have allowed 20 more HR than they have hit and they are 2 games below .500. There is more than one way to play the game.

  9. Frog says:

    I think Rob Smith and SDG in the early comments have this right – homeruns may be a game winning strategy but it is uninteresting baseball. Baseball is better with the ball in play. There is zero double plays without the ball in play, zero pasta a diving Jeter, zero froze rope throws from 3rd. No caught stealing, no Ichiro throwing runners out at third. No baulks, no need for Ozzie Smith or Andrelton Simmons (their skills not required). No fielders in to get the force at home.

    The powers of hitters and pitchers inside the game may be in balance, but I can’t help but feel the game itself is becoming so skewed to one side that it is out of balance with itself.

    (really interesting article, this one and the one that followed it)

    • invitro says:

      Phooey. I just watched 2 innings of Reds-Cardinals, and saw a successful squeeze (Carlos Martinez, bunter), a runner thrown out at home (Adam Duvall, thrower), a runner thrown out at third (Duvall again), and a steal by Yadier Molina. Hey, it’s fun to go anecdotal occasionally.

      • invitro says:

        And Billy Hamilton just bunted for a hit. 😉

        • Frog says:

          So we agree that the best stuff happens with the ball in play.

          • invitro says:

            I tried to think whether I liked ball-in-play stuff, or HR & K, better, and I just couldn’t decide. I like ’em both, and like there to be a lot of both. I don’t think MLB is in any danger of losing the non-three true outcomes, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I love MLB now, and couldn’t even say if I liked it better in 1993, or 1982, than 2017. (I can say I like/liked it better in those years than in the steroid years.) There’s some small things that I think are definitely better in 2017 than in the circa 1970-2000 period. The stadiums are better, right? And the uniforms are better now, though I’m fairly nostalgic for the 1970’s/1980’s uniforms since that’s what I grew up on.

  10. MikeN says:

    Few years ago, I wrote here about how it is good for Kansas City to pursue small ball even if it costs them victories because it makes the games more exciting and sells more tickets.

  11. TS says:

    Chicks dig the long ball. Whitey Herzog wrote a book called “You’re Missing a Great Game”
    I miss it.

    • Richard says:

      This! Raw POWER has become dominant, both in pitching and hitting. It’s become a game of who can get the “highest score” – fastest fastball, or longest home run.

  12. Adam W says:

    Good read! It really makes me curious if the recent increase in strikeouts correlated with a different rise in swinging strikes, looking strikes, or if they had they been rising in tandem?

  13. Unvenfurth says:

    All I know is it’s boring as hell to watch.

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