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.