TBT Baseball: Whatever Happened to Offense?

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    Updated: June 28, 2014
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    Recently I joined a Stratomatic baseball league where the only available players are Hall of Famers. The funny thing about this is that everyone involved is a well-adjusted grown man in a stable relationship (I know, I’m as shocked as you are). Because we’re selecting from the best of the best of the best (sir), I’ve been picking up gems about baseball’s greats that are just too good to keep to myself. Throwback Thursdays is here to educate you on the history of the game.

    We’re switching things up a little at TBT this week, namely that the focus isn’t on a single player, but the league as a whole. In discussing the state of baseball with some of my buddies recently, one of them brought up my favorite issue that never receives enough attention: for the last five years, offense in baseball has been utterly anemic.

    Teams are averaging 4.16 runs per game in 2014. With one minor outlier season (2012), run production has been decreasing every year since 2006, which is when baseball’s drug testing policy went into effect. That these two things are linked comes as little surprise. But what is surprising is that the steroid era wasn’t responsible for the best league-wide offensive numbers in baseball history – in fact, only one season from the steroid era even cracks the top five. For the other four, you have to turn back the clock: to 1936, 1930, 1929, and 1925.

    The best ten-year stretch of run production occurred from 1929 to 1938, where teams averaged 4.97 runs per game. That’s almost a full half-run higher than the current ten-year stretch (including the 2014 season), which stands at 4.48 runs per game. If you throw out the war years, 1942-1946 (guys were a little rusty in ’46 after a few years off) and 1951-1953, the live-ball era went until 1963 before having a season as stagnant as the one we’re witnessing now.

    The question is: how did we get here? To answer that, let’s look at 1936, when teams averaged 5.19 runs per game, and 2013, where teams averaged 4.17 runs per game.

    (Quick aside: the reason we’re using 1936 and not 1930 – the best offensive season in baseball history – is that the numbers for 1930 are absurd. Average team slash lines were .296/.356/.434 and that particular season has dramatic spikes in homeruns and RBI numbers across any ten-year range surrounding it. It’s unfair to compare any season to 1930.)

    Year Runs/Gm Hits/Gm HRs (Total) K/Gm BB/Gm Avg. OBP SLG
    1936 5.19 10.04 85 3.26 3.40 .284 .349 .404
    2013 4.17 8.66 155 7.55 3.01 .253 .349 .396


     

    The first obvious difference between 1936 and 2013 is that hitting is down. Teams averaged 10.04 hits per game in 1936 compared to only 8.66 in 2013. What’s interesting is that this isn’t the only number impacting on-base percentage. I expected the modern approach to hitting to affect walks per game, but teams actually averaged more walks per game in 1936. It’s not a huge impact, but between these two stats you’re closing in on two fewer base-runners per game in 2013, which is going to affect scoring potential. On the other hand, homeruns are up drastically in the modern era, with teams averaging 155 homeruns in 2013 compared to 85 in 1936. So what’s going on?

    Take a look at the dramatic difference in strikeouts per game. At roughly four more strikeouts per game in 2013, teams have reached a total of two and a third innings where the ball isn’t even in play. Forget the base-runners issue, how do we assess the impact of all that non-action?

    Luckily, the guys over at BaseballThinkFactory.Org were able to help me out with a stat they call “Run Production Average.” After sifting through years of historical data (and saving me the embarrassment of trying to come up with similar metrics), they were able to determine that a single is worth roughly 0.29 runs, a double is 0.41, a triple 0.70, and a homerun 1.44. They also have values surrounding many other outcomes (walks, hit-by-pitch, stolen base, balks, GIDP, etc.), but what I’m most focused on is where runs are coming from during at-bats if not hits. I took the total runs per game and looked at what was left over after factoring out runs by base-hits:

     

    Year Runs/Gm Runs/Gm: 1B Runs/Gm: 2B Runs/Gm: 3B Runs/Gm: HR Runs/GM: Non-hit
    1936 5.19 2.11 0.74 0.28 0.79 1.27
    2013 4.17 1.70 0.69 0.11 1.38 0.29

     

    Looks like there’s our missing run. If you add up the totals of runs off of hits, 1936’s value is 3.92 while 2013 is at 3.88 – pretty similar. Reliance on the long-ball isn’t what’s killing offense in baseball – it’s the strikeouts that go with it. Just to confirm what I was seeing, I ran this across ten-year stretches dating back to 1924 to see if the numbers aligned – for the most part they do:

     

    Time Span Runs/Gm K/GM Runs/Gm: Non-hit
    1924-1933 4.90 2.93 1.12
    1934-1943 4.67 3.46 0.99
    1944-1953 4.41 3.73 0.79
    1954-1963 4.35 4.97 0.53
    1964-1973 3.94 5.73 0.38
    1974-1983 4.23 4.93 0.55
    1984-1993 4.33 5.65 0.56
    1994-2003 4.87 6.44 0.68
    2004-2013 4.54 6.88 0.49

     

    The only stretch where strikeouts per game doesn’t have a trending effect on non-hit runs per game is 1993-2002 – the heart of the steroid era (shocking, I know). Now that we know the issue, the next step in the process is finding the culprit: it could be the fault of the power-pitcher, throwing heaters batters can’t catch up to. Maybe the problem is the deep use of the bullpen, bringing out fresh arms that hitters aren’t prepared for. Or maybe the problem rests on the guy at the plate, focused so much on knocking the ball out of the park that he forgets to just make contact.

    But I’ll leave that debate up to you. All I wanted to do was figure out why offensive numbers are down and I did just that – by proving you can’t score runs by striking out a lot. No no, I’m not always a miracle worker – just when I write sports columns.

    Follow Jade on Twitter: JadeRothman

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    One Comment

    1. Mike Kahl

      June 28, 2014 at 5:33 PM

      Thanks for statistically proving what I’ve always believed, putting the ball in play when you need to scores runs. Sure there are times when you should swing for the fences, but quite often a nice little ground ball will do. There were entire seasons where Joe D. Struck out 8 times! Berra some years had mor home runs than strikeouts. Great article Jade.

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