Adjusting Our Expectations

It hasn’t been as heavily covered as it was last year (the Year Of The Pitcher, if you hadn’t heard), but run scoring in baseball is down again. The sport as a whole is averaging just 4.26 runs per game, down from last year’s 4.38 R/G, and way down from 2009’s 4.61 R/G. Run scoring is often lowest in April, so as the days get warmer, we’ll probably see a rise in offensive performance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the final season offense marks looked similar to what they were last year.

However, it seems pretty clear that we’re not headed for a return to the days where it took five runs to win a game and every team had six or seven guys who could hit the ball out of the park. The game is just lower scoring now than it was even a few years ago, and that means we need to continue to shift our expectations of what “good” numbers are.

For instance, if you look at the team pitching leaderboards, you’ll notice that the Twins have the worst team xFIP in baseball at 4.67. Tied for second worst are the Royals and Mets at 4.26. Yes, a 4.26 team xFIP is now second worst in baseball.

Just two years ago, a 4.26 xFIP would have been dead on middle of the pack. In 2009, the Red Sox had the 15th best xFIP in the league, coming in at 4.25. That year, the Braves had the lowest mark as a team with their 3.91 xFIP. This year, a 3.91 xFIP (Arizona) ranks 16th.

What used to be great is now average. What used to be average is now terrible. Even if we know this, it can still be difficult to make those adjustments when just looking at the raw, unadjusted numbers. For instance, let’s use Jon Lester as an example.

In 2009, Lester’s xFIP was 3.09. Last year, it was 3.18. This year, thanks to an early spike in his GB%, it’s 3.00. That’s better, right?

Err, no. Thanks to the minus stats that we rolled out, we can see how far above and below average Lester’s marks are for each year.

His 2009 mark was 30 percent better than average, his 2010 mark 24 percent better than average, and his 2011 mark 25 percent better than average. In essence, his 2011 performance (groundball spike and all) is equal to his 2010 performance, even though he’s lowered his xFIP by nearly two-tenths of a run, and it’s marginally worse than his 2009 performance because of the lower level of run scoring across the league.

Baseball is often viewed through the lens of specific round numbers, but the reality is that the benchmarks for how we should view a player have shifted quite a bit over the last few years. A few years ago, a .250/.320/.390 batter would have been stuck with the “can’t hit” label – now, that’s exactly the league average batting line. The baselines that we used to use to judge player performances don’t work anymore. The game has changed, and so must our expectations of what a “good” batting or pitching line looks like.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Jim
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Jim
5 years 26 days ago

Yeah well, that’s just like, your opinion man.

wobatus
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wobatus
5 years 26 days ago

Is overall babip down? Could that be flukey or is it possible the emphasis on D the last few years may be dragging down batting averages, at the same time power may be down as well (but I am trying to avoid the hot-button steroids issue). Of course the maturation of the draft class that had Lincecum, Kershaw, Morrow and Scherzer, all now K’ing up a storm, along with more good arms in general, may also have something to do with it.

Mafrth77
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Mafrth77
5 years 26 days ago

Is it a lower value on contact? Has anyone done any serious research into baseball compression levels?

Vinnie Bleachers
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Vinnie Bleachers
5 years 26 days ago

Jeter’s getting old, and taking the whole league down with him!

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 26 days ago

A few years ago, a .250/.320/.390 batter would have been stuck with the “can’t hit” label – now, that’s exactly the league average batting line. The baselines that we used to use to judge player performances don’t work anymore. The game has changed, and so must our expectations of what a “good” batting or pitching line looks like.

Is it safe to say that the vast majority of players have “returned to normal”?

It’s no longer necessary to act as if we don’t know what happened from mid 90’s to mid 2000’s, right?

I’d like to believe that it’s due to the increase in changeup use. But, I know better than that.

Kool
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Kool
5 years 26 days ago

Correlation does not imply causation!

GTStD
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GTStD
5 years 26 days ago

Not true… correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it implies causation all the time. Just because there may be other things involved, the correlation of the offensive dip in numbers to the crackdown on steroids and performance-enhancers actually does imply that the two are connected. It could be coincidence, and we have to recognize that there are plenty of other effects, but we can’t dismiss the possibility. And we certainly can’t do so just by saying that correlation doesn’t imply causation.

Terminator X
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Terminator X
5 years 26 days ago

“…actually does imply that the two are connected”

And is “connected” a synonym for “correlated” or “causally related”? The first right? So let’s swap those words out (and cut out some of the fat out of the sentence). Now your sentence looks like “…the correlation of the offensive dip … to the crackdown on steroids … [implies] that the two are correlated”

So… so far you’ve established that correlation implies correlation. Thanks! I’m learning so much!

Anyways…

Correlation doesn’t imply causation. Period. That doesn’t mean that causation can’t be the cause of an observed correlation, just that correlation doesn’t imply causation. By stating that “correlation implies causation” you’re saying that in every instance where there is correlation there is causation. Which is wrong. End of story. You could say “correlation sometimes implies causation”, but well, that’s not a terribly helpful thing to bring to a discussion.

Repeat it back with me. Correlation does not imply causation. Correlation does not imply causation. Correlation does not imply causation…

Terminator X
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Terminator X
5 years 26 days ago

On second thought, you’d still be wrong if you said that, since correlation NEVER implies anything (except correlation, as you so astutely alerted us). Never. You could say however that “sometimes things that are correlated are thus so because of causation”, but that’s even less helpful, and come on, no one talks like that anymore. “Thus so”? Come on. Get with the times, GTStD.

P.S. Saying “correlation does not imply causation” is not “dismissing” anything. It’s simply saying that we shouldn’t jump to hasty conclusions.

MrKnowNothing
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MrKnowNothing
5 years 26 days ago

The best thing is that in an effort to be a smarmy, TermintorX didn’t even bother to read what was written. “…implies causation all the time” – which, wait for it, IMPLIES that there are times when it doesn’t. “All the time” isn’t the same as “every time.”

Say What?
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Say What?
5 years 25 days ago

Not exactly an English major were/are you Terminator X. I love the wonderful ironies in your critique of GTStD. So you start by implying a circular reference in GT’s “… implies causation”. Then you go on to use the phrase “That doesn’t mean that causation can’t be the cause”. Once again – “… causation can’t be the cause”!!! Could there be a more meaningless phrase?

Only slightly less wonderful is your assertion of “connected” as a synonym for “correlated”. While there is justification for this, “connected” is actually a stronger synonym for “causation”. The two of these together, of course, turns our original truism into “connection doesn’t equal connected”. I presume this is what you were trying to get at?

don
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don
5 years 26 days ago

How about the cutter? Everybody wants to be like Roy.

wobatus
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wobatus
5 years 26 days ago

Could the increased emphasis on fielding also partially explain it. First, better fielders are often weaker hitters. Second, better fielders also reduces babip somewhat, as more balls in play are turned into outs. if my math is right, 2011 major league babip is .289. In 2010 it was .297. In 2009 it was .299. Could be completely random, and it is early yet in the season so small sample.

The age of the average batter has increased. It was 28.8 in 2009, 28.9 last year and 29.3 this year. Late season call-ups may bring that down. I also wonder if just an influx of more good young pitchers has added to the hitting being down.

ISO is indeed down. 2009 it was .156, 2008 .150, this year .140. Certainly since the mid 2000s there ahs been a power outage. There does seem to be some steroid effect, but there’s more to it. Strikeout rate is up, but not much, 20.67% in 2009, 21.17% in 2010, 21.2% this year. My numbers may be off.

philkid3
Member
5 years 25 days ago

How about strike zones being called even slightly differently? Is there any way we can check on that?

armforces13
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armforces13
5 years 26 days ago

The fact that MLB reduced the maximum allowable diameter of the bats before the 2010 doesn’t get much attention. A smaller bat, with less surface area to put the ball in play, has to have some effect on batting numbers.

Nate
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Nate
5 years 26 days ago

That’s ok. Ichiro will still get 200+ hits and .300+ AVG

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 26 days ago

It could be lots of things. I’m doubtful that hitters just forgot how to hit for power, or that pitchers just recently learned how to avoid the long ball.

A lot of data seems to point to the contrary, that pitchers are challenging hitters more often.

IMO, it’s very similar to NCAA and the strict reductions on “lively bats”. Power and run scoring are greatly reduced. It could be lots of things, but artificially inflated offense due to composite bats would be the most obvious.

I’m assuming that the talent level of batters hasn’t drastically fallen over the course of a few seasons, nor has the talent level of pitchers risen dramatically.

I would be interested in seeing if the use of cutters and changeups has increased dramatically over recent years. As a pitching enthusiast I would love to claim superiority of my 2 favorite pitches, and I could run around the forums saying “I told ya so” … but I don’t think that’s really it.

There could always be changes in the called strike zone, composition of the baseballs, etc … but these are things we could examine.

As always, I am willing to examine the evidence and let the chips fall where they may.

joser
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joser
5 years 25 days ago

Clearly the sport as a whole needs to make the same change individual teams do whenever they face a development like this.

Fire all the hitting coaches!

kick me in the GO NATS
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kick me in the GO NATS
5 years 25 days ago

Prior to last season several teams in baseball began to place a much higher value on defense. I believe that is most of the reason for the drop in scoring. Here me out.

A pitcher who has a bad defense behind him will try harder to make perfect pitches and wont pitch to contact as much. Accordingly, he will walk more. Blown catches by defenders result in more infield singles, more doubles, more triples, more inside the park homeruns. The starter will have less confidence so he will throw more IBB. These facts lead to starters facing significantly more batters an inning.
A starter who ends up facing more many more batters in an inning will have much shorter starts. With starters getting pounded earlier you get more use of weaker bullpen pitchers. Making the average quality of each pitcher lower per batter. Actually this is a big effect because weak defense also hurts every reliever making each appearance shorter on average. So the end result is the worst relievers are the biggest beneficiaries of all these extra innings. So average pitching quality is badly affected per batter.

In total I think the entire league scores significantly more if defense is minimized, or scores significantly less if defense is improved. So as several teams prior to 2010 made very serious changes in philosophy in favor of defense it resulted in far less league wide runs.

Phillie697
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Phillie697
5 years 25 days ago

I love how this is an article cautioning that people should adjust their expectations, and all anyone talks about in the comments is why it’s happening. Perhaps this column should be placed in Roto so that people might actually take notice of the premise, lol.

The author isn’t trying to alert you to the causation… He’s trying to alert you to the effect. Who cares why it is happening? It’s important to know that it just is.

pft
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pft
5 years 25 days ago

“Who cares why it is happening? It’s important to know that it just is”

Might as well just go back to the dark ages with that kind of attitude.

“Run scoring is often lowest in April, so as the days get warmer, we’ll probably see a rise in offensive performance,”

Over the last 10 years the average difference between April and the season OPS was -7 (max differential -27)

This is the lowest April OPS since 1992.

The average OPS over the last 10 years is 748 (last year 728). This year it is 710.

philkid3
Member
5 years 25 days ago

Yeah, I looked at how much offense rises after April a while ago, and was slightly surprised that it’s not much, usually. Sometimes (like last year), it even falls.

wobatus
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wobatus
5 years 25 days ago

Coincidentally, both the A.L. and N.L. are scoring 4.26 rpg. A.L. slash line is .249/.319/.391, N.L. is .251/.320/.388. The A.L. DH advantage has them barely keeping pace.

In 1961-62, run-scoring was in the mid 4s per game. ’63-66 it was 4 runs per game every year. Now that’s steady. In the later 60s, like ’68, 3.4. Then they lowered the mound. I don’t think in ’61, ’62 they were getting extra muscles from Kentucky Gentleman and then in the mid-60s they got weaker and then very weak. It was a progression and an amalgam of things.

In ’77 run scoring jumped to 4.47, higher than the last 2 years (2010 and 11), and it was under 4 in ’76. In ’87 it was 4.72 (about the same as 2003, when it was 4.73). Juiced ball talk was the rage. Within 2 years it was back down to 4.1s.

Just looking at how things can jump around, both one year moves (mound moves, new balls, strike zone changes) and progressive ones (changes in philosophy, new stadiums, old sluggers aging, new pitchers coming in, or vice versa), it seems as though there is likely more to it than just PEDs, although that seems almost certainly part of the reason, and maybe the lion’s share. Sudden moves may be half a run. From 1968 to the late ’90s you went from mid 3s to low 5s, but much of that was gradual.

Pete
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Pete
5 years 25 days ago

So I looked at a couple of things…

Since 2000, offense in April is usually higher than the season as a whole, not lower. It’s less than 1%, but it is slightly higher. In fact, only 3 seasons (’05, ’07, and ’08) had lower scoring in April than overall.

If teams are emphasizing defense, it isn’t showing up in BABIP. In the years I looked at, the lowest seasonal BABIP was ’02 and ’03; while ’02 saw relatively few r/g, ’03 was pretty average. This year’s BABIP is lower than the past couple of Aprils, but exactly the same as April ’02 and just .001 lower than ’01, ’07, and ’08.

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