Sunday, April 07, 2013

Defensive Activity at an All-time Low

Earlier this week, Rob Neyer wrote a post bemoaning the fact that the "three true outcomes" are happening more often than at any point in baseball history.  The three true outcomes are home runs, strikeouts and walks.  These events (along with hit batsmen) are the only events that involve just the pitcher and catcher and no other defenders (except in unusual cases such as inside the-park home runs and catch-able balls that barely cleared the fence).  They are "true' in the sense that we don't have to divide the responsibility for these plays between the pitcher and infielders/outfielders.

Some players such as White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard are famous for their frequent true outcomes.  The fielders can almost sit down on the field when those batters are at the plate.  It's not just a few players though.  Home runs and strikeouts, in particular, have increased remarkably throughout baseball over the decades.

So, why does Neyer think this is a problem?  Fans love home runs and strikeouts can be exciting especially when your favorite power pitcher is dominating the opposition.  Neyer's feeling is that baseball has reached the point where too much of a good thing has turned into not such a good thing and I agree with that sentiment.

The result of so many true outcomes is widespread defensive inactivity.  There are fewer players involved in the action than ever before.  That means fewer opportunities for us to see fielders making great catches and showing off their cannon arms.  It also means fewer chances for players to leg out extra base hits and fewer close plays on the bases.  It's exciting to watch defenders chasing balls and runners speeding around the bases and we don't get to see so much of that anymore.

How much more often are these true outcomes happening?  I'll get into more detail below, but they have increased from 17 per game for both teams in 1981 to 24 last year and so far this year.  That is about a 40% increase which is huge.

Figure 1 below shows the trend in home runs per game (both teams) from 1901-2012.  Not surprisingly, there has generally been an increase over time ranging from a low of 0.2 per game is 1907 to 2.3 in 2000.  While the home run rate has dropped a bit in recent years, it was still as high as two per game in 2012. That's more than 50% higher than the 1.3 rate in 1981.



Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

There are lots of possible causes of the uptick in home runs over the years - smaller playing fields, rapid expansion, weight training and artificial enhancement to mention a few.  Another important reason is that batters are swinging harder in an effort to hit more homers.  This last item, in part, has led to the boost in the second true outcome - strikeouts.

Figure 2 shows the trend in strikeouts since the beginning of the 20th century. In 2012, there were a startling 15 punch outs per game which is double the 1951 rate of 7.5 and almost 60% more than the 9.5 per game in 1981.  The most perplexing jump here may be the 15% increase between 2000 and 2012, a period when home runs were on the decline.  Some of that may be the umpires calling bigger strike zones in an effort to suppress offense as MLB tries to separate itself from the so called steroid era.

Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

Figure 3 indicates that there has been an increase in walks since the early 1900's, but the trend is far less dramatic than those for homers and strikeouts.  You would expect an uptick in walks because pitchers need to pitch more carefully when the home run threat is higher. However walk rate reached its peak long before the recent home run explosion with a high of 8.1 in 1949.  It has actually remained relatively steady between 6 and 7 per game (except for a brief spike in the home run happy years years of 1999-2000).  So, the increase in total true outcomes is a result of homers and strikeouts rather than walks.  

Data source: Baseball-Reference.com


Finally, Figure 4 shows the dramatic increase in total true outcomes (home runs + strikeouts + walks + hit batsmen) since 1901.  If you are a younger fan who started getting into the game in the mid nineties, you probably don't see a problem at all.  After all, the 22 true outcomes per game in 1994 was not much different from the 24 last year.  However, those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s generally saw between 17 and 20 true outcomes per games. If you ask most of them, they'll probably tell you they notice the difference in fielding and base running activity between then an now.

Data source: Baseball-Reference.com

The question is whether this defensive inactivity is a problem that needs to be addressed.  Some older fans might think so but, unless attendance starts falling, nothing will be done.  If they do decide, in the future, to change the game to get more players involved in the action, what could they do?

I don't think "too many home runs" would ever be a concern as fans generally like run scoring and love the long ball.  If a change is made, it would probably be because strikeouts became too frequent.  The obvious solution would be to decrease the size of the strike zone and/or lower the mound as they did in 1969.

For now though, we'll just have to be content with marveling at the high home run totals of modern-day sluggers and astonishing strikeout rates of today's pitchers while grumbling about parts of the game that have been somewhat forgotten.

7 comments:

  1. Eric JohnsApril 08, 2013

    Yes, true outcomes are up. However -- as mentioned very briefly at the end of the article -- that is not the real issue. Looking at the chart, true outcomes have doubled from 1901 to 2012, from 12 to 24 per game. BUT, the charts don't show true outcomes as the problem...80 per cent of the increase is due to strikeouts. As mentioned near the end of the article, not many fans will complain about home runs increasing from .5 to 2 per game, and an increase of walks from 5 to 6 is not really diconcerting. The issue seems to be STRIKEOUTS, which have increased from from about 7 to 15 per game! That's the issue here.

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  2. Eric, I would argue that the biggest issue is home runs because players trying to hit home runs is part of what increases strikeouts. I do agree that the majority of fans like home runs so that won't be addressed even though I think there are too many homers. Strikeouts is the thing that would most likely be addressed if it was decided there was a problem.

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    1. So what is your solution to decrease the size of the strikezone? Do you just tell the umpires to get a little tighter, or what would you change the definition of the strikezone to be? Also, wouldn't a decrease in the strike zone possibly create too many ultra-patient batters and we would see a major rise in walks? Walks are already very slightly up according to those numbers, and surely they would go up only more if less strikes are being called. Plus the hitters might get more focused into swinging for the fences when they know they have extra safety in watching balls pass for maybe a free walk before they swing for a homer or strikeout. I'm not sure changing the strikezone is the solution here, without adding other things that I think you would not like as well.

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    2. Oh sorry there doesn't seem to be an edit button and I was looking to alter my post a little. I'll just add that I think the main concern are the Walks. I'm just guessing without looking at the data, but I would think that MLB doesn't see the same payoff from scoring resulting from Walks. It's a very frustrating thing to watch if you are pitching them, and while they are nice to receive they aren't glamorous or exciting. Fans probably don't appreciate a Walk for it's full value as it relates to Hits. I think the money that MLB makes is more highly correlated to the action of swinging bats than the action of fielding balls, which also requires a bat to be swung to initiate.

      Decreasing the strike zone will make the Walks go up and will make the batters swing less as an average per pitch. And longer games naturally since there would be more walks, another issue to consider.

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  3. TSE, You are right that making the strike zone tighter would increase walks which is not the best solution by itself. I was trying to think of a way to reduce strikeouts without reducing home runs because I know they wouldn't want fewer home runs. Ideally though, I wish it was harder to hit home runs. This would change the batters approach resulting in fewer strikeouts as well. That could be accomplished by making playing fields larger (which I know won't happen) or deadening the ball.

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    1. Interesting things to think about, but I think that future changes would probably be more likely to create for more home runs and strikeouts rather than for an increase in defensive activity. Perhaps the future of the sports is that defense approaches becoming obsolete.

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  4. Hi Lee: My impression is that over the past generation coaches and scouts have come to value more hard throwing pitchers who throw strikes, and get strikeouts, more than previously. Not much talk any more about pitchers "pitching to contact." Look at all the guys throwing in triple figures these days. On the batting side of things it seems that coaches and scouts have come to recognize the value of getting on base via walks, which naturally also results in higher strikeouts due to patience. In short I suspect this trend towards "true outcomes" is a result of players and managers doing what stats and SABR types have been suggesting all along Cheers.

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