Is 2011 Year of the Pitcher v2.0?

"Unless rules changes are put in place, we may have entered an entirely new era in which pitching and defense continue to take back ground lost during The Steroid Era. The pitching duel has replaced the slugfest."
   - Tom Verducci

"I think the game is changing... The days of playing sloppy baseball and knowing that you might be OK because you are going to hit three home runs in the last three innings are gone."
   - Eric Wedge

Last year was declared the "Year of the Pitcher". At 4.03 (NL) and 4.14 (AL), the ERA in both leagues was the lowest since 1992 - the last prior to expansion in Colorado and Florida. There with six no-hitters, including Roy Halladay's in the post-season: we also got perfect games by Dallas Braden and Halladay, the first time since 1984 there has been more than one in a year [and it should have been three, Armando Galarraga reminds us].

But 2011 has started at a pace to would blow 2010 away. Both leagues have sub-four ERAs to date: the current AL figure of 3.84 would, if sustained, be the lowest in thirty years. We've already seen no hitters by Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano. Liriano hadn't even a complete-game before, while Verlander's was one of six shutouts that day. Since the mound was lowered after 1968, there's only been two days with more [Sep. 5, 2006 had seven, and June 4th, 1972 had eight]. So is this another freak year? Or a genuine trend?

Let's start by looking at the trend over the past  season. Here are the raw numbers, across the entire major-leagues, for batting-average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, since the last expansion brought us baseball here in Phoenix.

Year BA OBP SLG OPS
1998 .266 .335 .420 .755
1999 .271 .345 .434 .778
2000 .270 .345 .437 .782
2001 .264 .332 .427 .759
2002 .261 .331 .417 .748
2003 .264 .333 .422 .755
2004 .266 .335 .428 .763
2005 .264 .330 .419 .749
2006 .269 .337 .432 .768
2007 .268 .336 .423 .758
2008 .264 .333 .416 .749
2009 .262 .333 .418 .751
2010 .257 .325 .403 .728

What? You would like an attractive visual representation of this? With colored lines? Why, thank you for asking. I just happen to have one of those right here. Rather than faffing about with different scales for the four metrics, I took 2000 as the baseline, and scaled from there. So the chart below shows each year's numbers as a percentage of the corresponding figure for 2000.

Opschart_medium

The lines have been heading more or less consistently down since the end of 2006. While it's far too early to project anything solid about 2011 (which is why I've left it off the chart), the numbers to date would be lower still: BA 92.59, OBP 91.69 and SLG  88.56. One important question would be, is it hitters getting worse, pitchers getting better, or a combination of both? The suggested explanations for the change are many and varied, and cover both directions as well as other, external factors:

  • The rise of the cutter and splitter
  • A greater tolerance for strike-outs [Arizona not included...]
  • Better metrics for, and a renewed emphasis on, defense
  • PED testing affecting hitters more than pitchers
  • The newest parks are mostly pitcher- rather than hitter-friendly, e.g. Citi Field, Target Field
  • Better scouting of pitching prospects and draft picks giving an increased success-rate
  • Expansion of the strike-zone
  • It's early. The bats will warm up as the weather does

Some of those are plausible, others are likely impossible to determine, but to dismiss the last first, in 2010 major-league OPS in April was ten points higher than the season average. In 2009, eleven points higher. There doesn't seem much justification overall for that one.

Certainly, steroid testing is likely a part. Business Insider has a chart plotting isolated power [= SLG - BA, or the number of extra-bases a player averages per at-bat] and that has shown a decline over the past few seasons. NL home-runs are at their lowest rate since 1992, a mere 0.85 per game, compared to 1.10 five years ago. It seems that, on its most basic level, pitchers haven't been as effected: the median fastball this season among qualifying pitchers is being clocked at 90.9 mph, which is actually faster than it was in 2006 (90.0 mph). ESPN also reported that through April, 29 pitchers (with thirty-plus IP) averaged 95 mph or above, compared to just 11 in 2007.

Strikeouts are certainly up. In the NL. After sitting between 6.5 and 7.0 from the 1995 through 2008, they cracked the seven mark in 2009 and 2010, with this season currently at close to an all-time high, 7.33. However, as we've discussed before, the correlation between increased strikeouts and decreased offense is hard to prove. Indeed, we are experiencing the exact opposite this year in Arizona - strikeouts are down for the Diamondbacks, but so is the offense, by about 25 points of OPS thus far.

The expanded strike-zone dates back to MLB official Sandy Alderson's 2001 attempts to "re-program" umpires, in sessions calling pitches against batters with strips of tape on their chests to show the top of the strike zone. A 2008 study  found, "the size of the de facto strike zone was an equal, and perhaps even more important, variable [than PEDs] in explaining the hitting revolution as well as its modest decline after the 2000 season." Players noticed it last season too, J.D. Drew saying in August, "I’ve questioned the strike zone a lot, just in different at-bats. I feel like it’s definitely been a little bit expanded." Around the same time, Jeff Zimmerman looked at the "50-50" zone - the borderline area - and the results show a steadily increasing percentage of pitches there called strikes.

However, I do think better defense is also definitely part of it. Defensive Efficiency - the % of balls put in play that are converted into outs - is at 70.0%, and again, you've got to go back to the pre-expansion, pre-Denver era to see any number that high. If teams now value players based on Hitting + Fielding, rather than just Hitting, it makes sense that offense would drop for two reasons. Not only are the better glovemen out there turning more balls in play to outs, but less-productive batters are also seeing more plate appearances. The market inefficiency, as popularized in Moneyball, may have shifted from OBP to UZR.

If this continues, one thing we'll certainly need to do is adjust our benchmarks of what constitutes "average". The AL average line [I'm using it, so as to exclude pitchers] to this point is .249/.320/.388, a .708 OPS. To put that into context, Juan Pierre's career OPS is .710. Yes: in the 2011 version of the game, Juan Pierre would be an above-average hitter. [Albeit not the 2011 version of Juan Pierre, who is sub-.600]

One wonder if this decrease in offense is also linked to the decline in baseball crowds. After reaching a high in 2007 - the season after the last flourish of power - attendance has dropped three years in a row, and is lower still this season, likely on pace to be the lowest since 2003. Of course, there are many other factors there, as soco noted in his piece on the joy of staying at home. So maybe people are still watching the game there, though the peak viewing figure for the last World Series (Game Four, 15.537 million) was the lowest since records began, and more people watched Dancing With The Stars than saw the Giants clinch.

Perhaps everyone digs the long ball...

[All stats up to the start of play on May 19]

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