Defense and pitching are back, as offensive numbers are in free fall this season. The question is why.
Eric Wedge spoke earlier this season of his fondness for the new brand of baseball that is now upon us.
It’s not quite a revolution, at least not yet. But the sport has had a sea change. The days of absurd offensive statistics have grinded to a halt; and now we appear to be entering a period when runs are at an absolute premium and pitchers are dominant. Hitters, who held sway for the better part of a wild decade that skewed numbers and warped our sense of what is normal, are getting their comeuppance.
Whether this is an “era” to counteract the so-called “steroids era” that preceded it, or simply an aberration, or perhaps a market correction, remains to be seen. And the causes of the shift, beyond the obvious — the advent of testing for performance-enhancing drugs — can be debated.
What can’t be debated is that scoring is down, big time. It’s the continuation of a trend that pierced our consciousness last year in the “Year of the Pitcher,” which saw five no-hitters in the regular season, not to mention one in the playoffs by Roy Halladay. Two of the no-no’s were perfect games, and a third perfecto was denied Detroit’s Armando Galarraga by an umpire’s missed call.
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This year, there have already been two no-hitters, by Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano and Detroit’s Justin Verlander, and numerous close calls. But that’s just an incidental indicator of pitching dominance. The real evidence is this: Offensive numbers across the board in April — in categories like runs per game (8.58), homers per game (1.73), and batting average (.251) — were the lowest since 1992. That happened to be the year before baseball expanded to 28 teams with Florida and Colorado.
Heading into Friday’s games, 13 teams (including the Mariners at 3.75) were scoring four runs a game or fewer. For comparison, the highest per team average was 5.4 in April 2000. The lowest-scoring team that year, the Phillies, averaged 4.4. The MLB average this April was 4.3.
This year, the Twins are bringing up the rear with a paltry 3.06 runs. The Twins had hit 13 home runs through their first 30 games — one fewer than Albert Pujols had in April 2006, and Alex Rodriguez had in April 2007.
Unseasonably cold weather is contributing to struggles by players like Pujols (hitting an uncharacteristic .246 through Saturday), Hanley Ramirez (.195, one HR), Carl Crawford (.210), Vernon Wells (.184), Carlos Santana (.217), Carlos Lee (.212), Justin Morneau (.211, one homer), and Shin-Soo Choo (.226).
Yet the overall trend is unmistakable.
“I think the game is changing,” Wedge said when discussing the leaguewide offensive struggles. “We’ve started to see that the last couple of years. It’s going to be more of a throwback game. I’ve said that before. The team that makes that one play or gets that one hit to finish off an inning a lot of times is going to be the team that wins that game. The days of playing sloppy baseball and knowing that you might be OK because you are going to hit three home runs in the last three innings are gone.
“It’s a purer brand of baseball, and I like that. Because the teams that are more prepared and able to make the plays and step up offensively late in the innings, those are the teams that are going to win games. That’s the type of team I want us to be. That’s they type of team we will be … in time.”
The dilution of pitching by expansion (two more teams, Tampa Bay and Arizona, were added in 1998) was one explanation for the surge of offense from the early 1990s through the early 2000s. The influx of new, hitter-friendly stadiums was another. Many people are still convinced the ball was juiced, but the biggest cause of inflated offensive numbers, by far, is generally considered to be the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs.
I’m not naive enough to believe that players have stopped juicing altogether, but I am absolutely convinced that it is not done anywhere close to the extent it was before testing was instituted in 2003.
It can’t be a mere coincidence that the number of 50-plus homer seasons has plummeted (not to mention 60- or 70-plus); that four of the six lowest-scoring Aprils since 1992 have been come since 2007; that home runs per game have dropped from 2.62 in April 2000 to 1.79 this April.
But many other factors could be causes of the offensive decline. More and more of the new ballparks are being built to neutral, or pitching-friendly, dimensions. In recent years, the evaluation of defense has become more scientific. Many clubs have focused on improving their run prevention as a cost-effective means of improving.
I found a study conducted in 2007 by two University of Nebraska sports historians, Benjamin G. Rader and Kenneth J. Winkle, which concluded that the biggest cause of the offensive decline already in progress by then was the expansion of the strike zone by umpires. Many believe that the campaign begun in 2001 by MLB official Sandy Alderson to call the rule-book strike zone — especially urging the umps to call more high strikes — is still favoring pitchers.
Perhaps nothing more sinister is going on than a wave of great young pitchers reaching the major leagues at roughly the same time. These things tend to even out, and once the burgeoning sluggers on the rise in the minors — Eric Hosmer, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Jesus Montero — hit the bigs, perhaps the pendulum will swing back.
For now, though, it looks like “pure baseball” — light on power and heavy on pitching and defense — is going to rule the day.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|By the numbers|
|Offense is down across Major League Baseball, and it’s been a trend since a peak around the 2000 season:|
|Season||Avg.||Runs per game||HRs per game|
2011 statistics through April