Why scoring is down in the AL, and why it might stay that way
The American League is averaging 4.48 runs per game, lowest since 1988
Slugging averages has dropped as teams shift emphasis from power to defense
Jermaine Dye remains unemployed while defense-first players like Casey Kotchman have jobs
Given a commissioner's power, I would bring scoring down if I had to saw bats in half to do it. The great age of offense is nearly 20 years old, and has long since proved out the adage about familiarity and contempt.
From 1941 to 1993, the American League averaged more than 4.7 runs per game twice. It hasn't averaged fewer since. This is no affront to the game's integrity or break with tradition, as the hitter's era that began in 1920 lasted longer than this one has, and inflicted even more scoring on the public. Still, a generation of players has debuted, prospered and retired in a game in which certain kinds of place-hitting and shifty baserunning tactics have been party tricks. It seems a shame.
The lowered scoring in the American League this year, then, is a good thing. As of the beginning of play on Wednesday, the league was averaging 4.48 runs per game. If sustained through the season, this would be the lowest level of offense since George H.W. Bush's final full year in office, down six percent since last season. The decline is in some ways even larger than it seems, as scoring is down more than 10 percent compared to where it was at the same time last year. The question is whether or not this is real and sustainable.
Mechanically, there isn't any mystery to the decline. The league on-base average is down slightly, from .336 last year to .330 this year. The real change is in slugging average, which is down 24 points, to .404. Home runs have dropped from 1.13 per game to .96, and the rate of singles has dropped as well, from 6.04 to 5.78. Basically, the league has lost 10 points of batting average and 14 points of isolated power. If these are flukes, we should expect scoring to return to its usual level. They may not be.
The league is hitting .257 right now, the lowest average since 1992. It's true that it's too early for that to be really meaningful, but it's also true that hitters are also striking out at the absurd rate of 6.82 times per game, the sort of thing that will tend to depress batting averages. As recently as 2005 that rate was 6.07, and before 2007 it had never reached 6.50; this will be the fourth year in a row in which it has done so. If you ever wondered what would happen once the first generation of hitters trained to attach no real stigma to the strikeout matured, now you know.
A falling home run rate similarly shouldn't be made too much of, but there are some structural factors in play here as well. One is that by moving to a new park the Minnesota Twins have replaced a park in which home runs were fairly easy to hit with one in which they appear not to be. Another is the decline of the pure designated hitter. (There are just three DHs whose on-base plus slugging is above league average.) Perhaps because front offices are more aware than they once were of just how bad a bet older players who do little but hit home runs and draw walks are, hitters like that have trouble finding work these days.
At the margins, the value that teams such as the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners are placing on defense probably encourages these trends. A slight preference for fielding over hitting removes a few players like Jermaine Dye from lineups and adds a few like Casey Kotchman, leading to fewer balls falling in for singles and fewer balls clearing fences. Tip your cap to the math wizards here.
None of these factors on their own would do all that much to depress scoring, but in concert, they can. Again, not too much should be made of seven weeks' worth of results, as a hot enough summer will bring scoring right back where it has been for a few too many years, but the broader trends are toward the good. (Why they aren't at work in the National League is a separate question, but note that some of these forces just don't relate to the senior circuit -- a sudden aversion to old DH types, for example, isn't much going to affect the league where pitchers hit.)
Historically, baseball is a game of countervailing forces. Pitchers will for decades get outs just by lobbing the ball in, and then hitters will learn to upper-cut and swing for the fences. Runners will learn the technique to go at will, and then pitchers will learn to shorten their deliveries. Over time the game itself seems to work toward a certain balance, and we're seeing that now. Strikeout rates have risen to the point where they may actually be affecting hitters' ability to get on base. Newer parks are being designed to help fragile pitching staffs. So-called old players' skills, around which the game has been built for two decades, are now being regarded with increasing leeriness, as no one wants to end up with a Pat Burrell on the payroll.
However much the game tries to center itself, though, really large shifts in the balance of power have always been matters of conscious choice. The hitters' era that began in 1920 was the caused by the introduction of a lively ball. The era dominated by Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson was the result of a change in the strike zone, and it ended with another one and with a change in the height of the mound. Our own era was the result of ballpark design, a decision to ignore drug use and, probably, a change in the ball itself. Choices create new contexts, make new techniques possible, make the game new again when it needs to be.
Small trends can lead to a certain diminution in scoring. For the large changes that we need to make runs dear, which would encourage one-run strategies and thus make the game more diverse and fun and just different from what we've been seeing for so long, we need someone in a position of serious power to make the decision that scoring should drop. Who that will be, I couldn't say; Bud Selig is set in his ways. There will be someone who does it, though, even if it takes a hacksaw. And until then, there's the hope that the hated strikeout, Target Field and the rest might continue to exert some downward pressure on scores that have been too high for too long.
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