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Measures of Baseball Action from a Fan View

Let’s look at trends and compare the Diamondbacks to other teams.

Locastro is safe at first
Locastro is safe at first
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

What makes baseball worth watching? Part of it is watching awesome players who are the best at what they do. A bigger part of it is cheering for my favorite team. And with cheering is the excitement that on-field action generates.

What statistic best captures action in baseball?

One statistic could be total runs scored. Runs are important. Certainly, the more runs the better! It is closely related with winning games, which is good when the Diamondbacks win.

There is a downside to counting runs scored to capture action. As a Diamondback fan, I’ve noticed many innings (too many innings) with exciting action but the team did not score runs. Is there a better statistic that captures those innings? There is!

Hits is a broad statistic that captures action. Hits make the game exciting – no if’s and’s or but’s. To capture action, hits is a better statistic than scoring runs.

Even broader would be capturing balls in play. Consider this: as a fan I cheer louder and longer when my team gets a hit than when my team gets a ball in play. For that simple reason, hits is a better measure of action than balls in play.

Is there an opposite statistic that captures action-stopping?

One statistic could be easy outs, such as infield pop-ups. A weakness is that sometimes a runner can advance on an easy out, or a fielder will make an error. Creating a statistic of easy outs is doable. But is there a better statistic that captures action-stopping? There is!

Strikeouts stop action in a huge way. An out is recorded and no action happened (although when a batter swings for the fences and whiffs it might be considered action). A small weakness is that if the catcher drops the ball, there can be a play at first. But that play is not very exciting. And strikeouts allow for no possibility for aggressive baserunning or a fielding error.

League-wide, how have these two statistics changed over the years?

The number of games per season changed in 2020, and might change in 2021. So, instead of looking at hits and strikeouts, let’s look at hits per game and strikeouts per game.

The following graph shows that in in the last 15 years, hits per game gradually fell while strikeouts per game quickly rose. In 2018, strikeouts per game exceeded hits per game for the first time. It stayed that way in the next two seasons.

Data from Baseball Reference

Was there a significant impact from the three batter minimum for bullpen pitchers? The upward trend of strikeouts per game was broken in 2020. So there is an argument that it had an impact.

Some baseball writers have written about their suspicion that many pitchers are using sticky substances to increase their ability to spin the baseball. What if baseball increases enforcement of pitching prohibitions in rules 6.02 (c) (4) & (7)?

  • “(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;”
  • “(7) Have on his person, or in his possession, any foreign substance.”

It could be a powerful way to stop the trend of increasing strikeouts per game.

How do hits and strikeouts compare to runs scored?

For 2019 and 2020, let’s look at all teams. First let’s look at hits per game compared to runs per game. Eyeballing it (instead of a statistical calculation) I drew a black line to show on average how hits per game compared to runs per game. The purple arrows point to the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks are on the black line for both seasons. Runs per game was what would be expected by the amount of hits.

Data from Baseball Reference.
Data from Baseball Reference.

Second, let’s look strikeouts per game by each team’s hitters. Again, the purple arrows point to the Diamondbacks. This is interesting because Diamondbacks rarely struck out. In 2020 only 2 teams had less strikeouts per game.

Runs per game was less than would be expected by the low number of action-killing strikeouts. Based on strikeouts, it would have been reasonable to see a half run more per game in 2019 and in 2020.

Data from Baseball Reference.
Data from Baseball Reference.

Did two strike at-bats provide insight?

In 2019/2020, with two strikes, the Diamondbacks’ wOBA of .233 ranked 16th in the Majors, which is about average (data from Baseball Savant). And expected xwOBA was about the same (.236). So it’s unlikely that the Diamondbacks avoided strikeouts by making poor contact with two strikes.

Will the Diamondbacks score more runs in 2021?

The hits per game charts showed that when hits per game was higher, runs per game was higher. Next season, assuming the Diamondbacks increase their hits per game, their runs per game will increase.

The strikeouts per game charts showed the Diamondbacks had a very low strikeout rate in 2020. If we assume that lower than expected runs per game was due to natural statistical variation, then next season, that very low strikeout rate could result in more runs per game.

Another way to think about the low strikeout rate is that something, likely a small something, may have prevented non-strikeouts from becoming runs. Although I don’t know what that something is, it could be fixable. When it is fixed the team will experience a surge in runs scored. A half run per game would significantly increase the likelihood that the Diamondbacks make the playoffs.