2014 Featured Bad Offense in MLB
Offensive levels in Major League Baseball fell in 2014 to levels not seen in a generation. Are we on the verge of another pitching boom? The answer is, not really.
The simplest statistic to measure, batting average was .251, the lowest number since 1972. On Base Percentage, .314, also hit a 42-year low. Slugging percentage, .386 last season, dropped to 1992 levels and average total bases-per-game fell to 13.17, again the lowest since 1992.
Is this a pitching boom, a correction of the steroid years that inflated offenses for a generation, or bad offense.
From an offensive standpoint, 2000 was the peak year of the boom. Average runs-per-game hit a high of 5.14 as batting averages fell one point of the era’s high at .270. (1999 saw MLB hitters hit a whopping .271.) With balls flying out at record rates, each team averaged 15.05 total bases-per-game that season; this was the height of the beer-league slow-pitch softball offenses that drove so many away from the game. As testing for steroids became accepted and strengthened, numbers shifted away from hitters and towards a balance of good pitching and hitting.
Last season, however, appears to be a tipping point the other way. As recently as 2009, teams scored an average of 4.68 runs-per-game. In 2012, the number dropped to 4.32, 4.17 in 2013 and last season’s low of 4.07. To give the drop a bit more perspective over the last five years, total bases-per-game shrank by more than one. Yes, 14.26 was the number in 2009. The drop from 2013? Try from 13.54 to 13.17.
Is there something that dramatically changed towards pitching over the last five years to cause such a shift? Sure, strikeouts are at record levels.
The 2010 season saw the average number of strikeouts-per-game break seven for the first time in the history of the game. Every season since, that record has fallen. Hitters in 2014 whiffed an incredible 7.70 times every game. Essentially, professional hitters are giving the other team nearly two and two-thirds free innings every night.
Nothing good comes out of a strikeout. (The extremely rare strike three passed ball being the exception.) Runners cannot advance, remaining glued to a base like a statue. Of all the ways a batter can get out, a strikeout gives you nothing. In 1994, the strike year, strikeouts per game broke six for the first time. As hitters continued to swing for the fences, the number settled around 6.4 until 2005 and climbed every year since.
Yes, how managers approach pitching rotations has changed over the last 30 years. Starting pitchers rarely get a fourth crack through a lineup. The game has changed to the point where no batter faces the same reliever twice in the same game. Pitchers do carry a distinct advantage being able to throw gas to a couple hitters instead of managing to keep their team in the game for an inning or two. Bullpen specialization made popular by Tony LaRussa has deflated offenses as teams realized better ways to hold late-inning leads.
If we turn back to a more traditional time of bullpen management, say 1984, the average starter coaxed 18.785 outs per game. Last year, 17.898. Wait, huh?
Yes boys and girls, your average starter is giving the bullpen less than one more out than they did 30 years ago. Currently in the era of pitch counts and such, the typical Major League starter throws right around six innings a game, one less out than a generation ago before roles strengthened.
What has changed in 30 years? In 1984, the year Detroit tore apart baseball, 27 hitters fanned 100 times. Out of the 366 hitters with 100-plus at-bats, 7.6 percent fanned over triple-digits. Two teams, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies struck out as a team over 1000 times. In 2014, 117 out of 436 hitters eligible whiffed over 100 times. The trusty calculator says that comes out to 26.8 percent. The Kansas City Royals were the lone team out of the 30 to strike out less than 1000 times.
That is not just better pitching.
Baseball has found a better balance between pitching and big hitters swatting baseballs in tiny parks, but the free-swinging ways the last few years has hurt offenses, not helped. A patient approach hitting and—gasp, maybe a bunt or two—will stop the slide in run production and the complaints to change the rules later.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com