Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's Like 1964 Again

Phillies outfielder Johnny Callison hit three-run homer to win 1964 all-star game 
(Photo credit: New York Daily News)

By most measures, 2014 has been a down year for offense in baseball.  Going into the final week of the season, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau leads the National League with a .318 batting average.  The lowest batting average ever for an NL batting leader was Tony Gwynn's .313 mark in 1988.  If Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz stays at 39 home runs and nobody else has a big week, it would be the first time since 1982 that no major league hitter reached 40 home runs.  White Sox rookie sensation Jose Abreu's .978 OPS would  make him the lowest MLB OPS leader since Wade Boggs (.965) in 1988.  

Teams have scored only 4.08 runs per game this year.  That's down 13% compared to 2009 and 26% to 2000.  It's also the weakest offensive output since 4.12 in 1992 and 4.00 in 1981.  The .251 MLB batting average is the lowest since .244 in 1972, the last year before the designated hitter was added to the American League.  Home runs are being hit at a rate of 0.87 per game, the lowest since .72 in 1992.  

While 2014 is is one of the worst years for offense in recent decades, it is not unusual compared to the entire history of the game.  In fact, there have been 28 years since 1901 where runs were scored at a lower rate, Many of those years were within the Dead-Ball era from 1901-1919, but there have been other seasons of depressed offense including most of the 1960s decade culminating in 1968 when batters hit .237 and produced only 3.42 runs per game.  There were also several years in the 1970s and 1980s and even early 1990s which were comparable to 2014.   

One thing I like to do every year is to identify a past season which is most similar to the current season.  This season is actually not too far away from last year when teams scored 4.17 runs per game, although there were 9% more home runs in 2013.  It's also fairly similar to a few years - specifically 1988, 1989 and 1992 - during the period just before the so-called Steroid Era.  Runs were scored at about the same rate those years as this year, but there were more walks and fewer home runs.    

One year stands out as a remarkably close match to 2014.  In 1964, there were 4.04 runs per Game which is just 1% lower than this year.  Table 1 shows that the two years were within 2.5% in most offensive categories including batting average, home runs and walks.   There have been a lot more strikeouts this year.  In fact, there have been more strikeouts this year than any other season, but that's a topic for another day.

Table 1: Offensive Comparison of 1964 Versus 2014
% Difference
Runs Per Game
Home Runs Per Game
Walks Per Game
Batting Average
On-Base Percentage
Slugging Average
On-Base Plus Slugging
Weighted On-Base

I'm too young to remember whether this year "feels like" 1964, but it's interesting to look back.  That year is probably most remembered as the season the Philadelphia Phillies managed by Gene Mauch blew a 6 1/2 game lead with less than two weeks to go.  They lost ten games in a row down the stretch and finished a game behind St. Louis.  The Cardinals went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games.  

Hall-of-Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente led the majors with a .339 batting average and Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hit 49 home runs for the Twins, a pretty high total for that era.  The best hitter in the majors that year though was the legendary Mickey Mantle who batted .303 with 35 homers and a major league leading 1.015 OPS. 

The best all around player? Giants superstar Willie Mays had a WAR of 11.1, yet Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer won the NL MVP with just 6.1 WAR.  You can imagine how that would have been received if it happened today.   

The Tigers finished 85-67 in fourth place 14 games behind the Yankees.  The most typical line-up included:

C. Bill Freehan
1B. Norm Cash
2B. Jerry Lumpe
SS. Dick McAuliffe
3B Don Wert
LF. Gates Brown
CF Bill Bruton
RF. Al Kaline.

Kaline led the team with a .851 OPS and 5.6 WAR.  Freehan batted .300 with a .812 OPS and 5.3 WAR.  McAuliffe also had a good season leading the team with 24 home runs.  The top pitcher was left hander Mickey Lolich who struck out 192 and compiled a 3.26 ERA in 232 innings.  Right hander Dave Wickersham posted a 3.44 ERA in 254 innings.  

So, that was 1964.  Fast foward fifty years and you would think not much has changed in the game.


  1. The thing that sticks out for us is that the first 20 of those last 50 years post-1964 the Tigers won 2 WS titles, and in the next 30 years there have been none, so far. The time is now to start evening out that part of the scorecard which means we need to win this year, next year, and at least one more time soon after!!

  2. McAuliffe's 24 HRs was a team record for shortstops. Says so on his 1968, I believe, baseball card.

  3. He also had 23 home runs one year. Trammell broke the record with 28 in 1987, but McAuliffe still ranks second and third highest.

  4. Of course there is one big difference between the eras The game I cited above, which featured 19 hits and 9 walks, took two hours and forty-four minutes to play. Today it would have almost certainly been nearly an hour longer.



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