Saturday, April 23, 2011

Offense Down Across MLB

If you have noticed a lot of low batting averages in baseball this April, you are not imagining things.  As of the end of yesterday's games, the MLB batting average is .251.  If that keeps up for the whole season, it would be the lowest MLB batting average since 1972 (.244).  In other words, it would be the lowest batting average of the designated hitter era.  The table below shows that batting average reached as high as .271 in 1999 and was still as high as .268 as recently as 2007.  So, batting averages have dropped more than six percent in just four years.

Some may be thinking that April is cold and rainy and not very good for hitters, so let's compare this April to last April.  The MLB batting average in April, 2010 was .256 (compared to .257 overall), so .251 is low even for April. 

It's interesting that batting average is as low as it's been in forty years but, but everyone knows it's important to look Beyond Batting Average.  The ultimate team offensive measure is, of course, runs scored.  Teams have scored an average of 4.32 runs per game in 2010 which is the lowest number since 1992 (4.12 RPG).  Runs per game reached as high as 5.14 in 2000 and was still 4.80 in 2007.  Thus, we have seen a drop of 10% in offense in just four years and 16% since the height of the "homerun derby" era.  The historical trend in runs scored is shown in the table below.

Looking just at April, we see that runs per game has dropped from 4.57 in April, 2010.  So, there has been a more than 5% drop from last year to this year.

There are a few potential reasons for the decreased offense over the last few years. The most obvious one is steroids testing, but it's not the only one and perhaps not even the biggest one.  After all, steroids help pitchers as well as hitters.

If not steroids then what?  Baseball typically sees a surge in offense whenever there is expansion. There were two teams added in 1993 and two more in 1998, so one would have expected a big jump in offense even without the alleged increases in steroid use.  

Finally, we seem to be going through an era of extraordinary power pitching.  In fact,figure 3 below shows that batters are striking out at a greater rate this year (7.08 K per game) than ever before.

Whether this year is going to mark another significant drop in offense remains to be seen, but the balance of the game is definitely shifting from hitters towards the pitchers pitchers in a big way.   

Data for this article were obtained from Baseball-Reference and ESPN.

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