Home Runs Have Made Their Return to MLB

The drastic decline in run scoring the last few years has been a major story, especially as it related to the rise in drug testing and the end of the so-called “steroid era” in Major League Baseball. There’s no denying the fact that offense has tumbled in the sport, with the league average wOBA falling from a high of .341 back in 1999 to the .316 of today. As baseball has worked to eliminate performance enhancing drugs, scoring runs has become more difficult.

But, perhaps an underreported aspect of this story is that home runs are making their way back into Major League Baseball this year.

2010 was the first year that league average HR/9 had fallen under 1.00 since 1993, and then it declined again to 0.94 last year. These were the kinds of power outages that lent credence to the idea that drug testing had wiped out a large amount of artificial power that had been hanging around the sport for the last 20 years.

That trend continued at the start of 2012, as league average HR/9 was just 0.95 in April. However, as the weather has gotten warmer, the ball has started flying again. Here are the league average HR/9s by month in 2012:

April: 0.95
May: 1.02
June: 1.06
July: 1.07

And, not that you should care about the results from just a couple of days, but August has started out with a home run barrage – the league HR/9 is 1.23 on the first two days of this month. Here are those same HR/9s for 2011:

April: 0.91
May: 0.87
June: 0.88
July: 0.91
August: 1.08
September: 1.00

The first four months of 2011 certainly played like the dead ball era. Then, last August, home runs took a big jump, and they’ve stayed at an elevated level every month since besides April.

We’re basically now at one full calendar year with home run rates at the same level as they were about 10 years ago. They’re definitely not back to the peak levels of 2000 (league HR/9 was 1.18), but this quantity of home runs lines up pretty well with a bunch of years from the “steroid era”.

And in terms of measuring the actual change in power, we need to adjust for the real significant change in baseball over the last 20 years – the continuing and increasing rate of strikeouts. K% is at an all-time high again this year, up a full point over last year’s record high. Now at 19.6%, the average strikeout rate in Major League Baseball is having a significant depressing effect on run scoring, and is the primary reason that league offense is still down despite the return of some home runs.

So, instead of just looking at home runs per game, we should look at home runs per contacted ball, by removing strikeouts, walks, and hit batters from the equation. So, let’s do just that. Here is home run per contact for each season of the last 20 years.

Season HR/CON
1993: 3.1%
1994: 3.6%
1995: 3.5%
1996: 3.8%
1997: 3.6%
1998: 3.7%
1999: 4.0%
2000: 4.1%
2001: 4.0%
2002: 3.7%
2003: 3.7%
2004: 3.9%
2005: 3.6%
2006: 3.9%
2007: 3.6%
2008: 3.6%
2009: 3.7%
2010: 3.4%
2011: 3.4%
2012: 3.8%

We’re definitely not back at 1999-2001 levels, when home runs per contacted ball were over 4% for three consecutive years, but 2012 actually rates as the seventh highest HR/CON season in the last 20 years, and is actually higher than the rate was in 2005 — the year before comprehensive drug testing went into effect.

And, before you think that players have simply made adjustments to their swings to compensate for the lack of drugs, borrowing from their doubles and triples to get those home runs backs, the rate of doubles and triples per contacted ball has been essentially unchanged for the last 15 years. It’s at 7.1% this year, and has been between 6.9% and 7.3% every year since 1997.

When batters put the bat on the ball today, they’re just about as likely to get an extra base hit now as they were during most of the years when Barry Bonds was bathing in cream. In reality, the decline in offense now is almost exclusively about the dramatic rise in strikeouts. That historic lack of contact has masked the fact that power has made a pretty strong return to today’s baseball game, and has perpetuated the idea that steroid testing has led to dramatically different results in offensive performance.

Perhaps instead of looking at testing for PEDs, we should really be investigating the effects that the installation of PITCHF/x cameras in every park has had on pitchers and umpires. If we’re just looking for a direct correlation between two things, the rise of more accurate pitch tracking in 2007 and the drastic increase in K% over the last five years looks like an interesting place to start.

Of course, few things are ever as simple as “this happened, so that occurred”, and it’s unlikely that we can attribute all of the increase in strikeouts to the new cameras in the ballpark. After all, strikeouts had been on the rise — albeit at a slower pace — well before PITCHF/x, so this is more of an acceleration of a trend than an entirely new one. However, if we’re going to just talk about how one change may have had a strong cause-and-effect relationship on offense in the sport, we’re probably better off starting there than we are starting with the institution of drug testing in 2006.

Baseball is different now than it was 15 years ago, but it’s more about strikeouts than home runs. In reality, we have more evidence that either the pitchers or umpires have changed than we do that the hitters have undergone some significant physical transformation.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


117 Responses to “Home Runs Have Made Their Return to MLB”

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  1. anon says:

    **”Baseball is different now FROM HOW IT WAS 15 years ago.”

    Come on, Dave.

    -47 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • brendan says:

      I love when people thumbs down grammatical corrections….down with learning!!

      -28 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • LTG says:

        You tell me what the grammatical error is. Style and grammar are not the same. I understood Dave’s sentence and found it perfectly felicitous as a complete thought, although I found it ugly and unrefined.

        Grammar school grammar is NOT the actual grammar of the English language. Linguists have spent a lot of time developing sophisticated tests for well-formedness and found that many grammar rules are abstractions. Or are you really unable to interpret the sentence “Who do you give your gift to?” without rewording it?

        Learning is enhanced by asking questions about our own prejudices not enforcing them against others.

        And if you carp about a grammar mistake that the author (and his audience) knows is a mistake, then you aren’t teaching anyone anything. You are just asking for a correction to be made.

        +33 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • philosofool says:

        The problem with this alleged “correction” is that well respected writers (e.g., Coleridge) have used all three constructions with “different” for over three hundred years.

        The three constructions are:
        different from
        different than
        different to (chiefly British)

        Also, double exclamation points are frowned upon. One should either use one, three, or many more than three, but never two. That’s weak.

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      • anon says:

        Different people may have used different constructions before, but I’m not sure on what planet that logic is sound. Writers take liberties all the time. “Different than” is simply incorrect and I judge people who use it in their writing over “different from.” Dave ought to know better.

        -20 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • TomG says:

        It’s actually a pretty simple rule: if the object being compared is a noun, it’s “different from”; if a clause follows, it’s “different than“.

        Dave’s sentence is correct.

        +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Matt NW says:

        Grammar is — no hyperbole — for fascists… those who believe there is one true way, no exceptions, I’m right, you’re wrong. That is, to state the very obvious, not how communication works. Communication is endlessly variant, embrace that.

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      • philosofool says:

        @anon The reason the logic is sound is that the only way for something to become a grammatical rule is for there to be a near universal convention of speaking and writing in a way conforms to the rule. When writers whose works are widely read prefer a certain usage, then it’s a little silly to say that convention is contrary to their usage. By the way, noted writers who use the “different than” construction include not only literary figures but academic figures writing on such topics as the history of England, so it’s not merely literary flourish that inspires their choices.

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      • I just learned quite a lot from the people who corrected your mistakes. I don’t know whether to agree with you that learning will come from corrections or disagree with your inability to let an easily understood sentence go.

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  2. The 2012 stats are very impressive especially considering that April 2012 was a historically low offensive month.

    Great research here, Dave.

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  3. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Is this the Three True Outcome era?

    Adam Dunn: Face of a Generation

    +40 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Adam Dunn is on pace to strike out more than 220 times this year, hit .210 with maybe 50 HR’s. Wow, he is Dave Kingman incarnate.

      +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jay29 says:

        The AB/HR are close but Kingman couldn’t touch Dunn’s BB rate, and his K-rate was 24% to Dunn’s career 28% (which is now rising!).

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    • Resolution says:

      without conducting any research, I’ll just say that Adam Dunn’s poor 2011 is why home runs were down. Baseball needs you Mr. Dunn.

      +77 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. John says:

    Players/Agents are understanding the PED testing policy and are now beating it thru science. They’ve learned to mask the masking agents.

    -18 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. bradsbeard says:

    I’m curious whether during the so called “steroid” era, the distribution of home runs was uneven, such that you could extrapolate that “users” accounted for a disproportionate number of home runs. In other words, are total home runs spread out more evenly among players today than they were in say 2000?

    +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Hurtlockertwo says:

    So what your also saying is PED era only saw a 0.4% increase in HR’s?? That doesn’t sound very evil does it??

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    • Henry says:

      That 0.4% increase in the home run rate is an over 10% increase in the number of home runs. No?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Drew says:

      Can’t wait for the current BBWAA members to quit so the HOF voting can get back to normal. I suppose this doesnt have much to do with PED myths necessarily, but Jack Morris – an average pitcher in a dead-ish era – is about to get in, whereas Kevin Brown was off the ballot in two years!

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      That number… I do not think it means what you think it means.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jorge Posada says:

      Are you fucking stupid, or just retarded?

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  7. NEPP says:

    Its been an unusually hot year for the most part too…so perhaps that is also affecting the HR rates this summer.

    +22 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

      it seems like every year is an “unusally hot year” these days. im tired of it being so damn hot.

      /bitter astros fan

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      • joser says:

        Move up here to the northwest. I still had the heat coming on in the mornings in June, and while I’ve actually had reason to wear shorts the past couple of days you still need to put on a sweater as soon as the sun goes down. It’s supposed to be extremely hot (maybe even breaking 90) this weekend, but overall it looks like we’re only going to have about 3 weeks of summer this year instead of our normal 7.

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    • BigNachos says:

      Yes, I’d say (as an aerospace engineer) that’s very likely the case. I recall 1999-2001 being very hot too.

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      • Cliff says:

        “As an aerospace engineer”? Seriously?

        +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Jason B says:

        What you don’t know “BigNachos the rocket scientist?!” He’s EVERYWHERE these days, a la “Bill Nye the Science Guy!”

        +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • ataraxia_ says:

        So, it “seemed hot” to an AEROSPACE ENGINEER?

        That’s pretty much golden, then.

        +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • The Real Neal says:

        Gotta love the fangraphs snarkfest when someone who works in a field that involves the study of objects moving through changing atmospheres comments on… objects moving through changing atmospheres.

        +25 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Brad Johnson says:

    Lesson that 99.9% of Americans really need to be taught…correlation does not equal causation.

    Yes, the decrease in HR corresponded with better PED testing, but there are so many other factors that are also correlated. Like the Pitch fx installations Dave noted.

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  9. Henry says:

    What about changes in ballpark configuration. I know the Mets brought in their fences. Any other recent changes? Does the new park in Miami play any differently than the old one?

    Also there can be fluctuations in the emergence (decline) of hitters relative to pitchers. For a few years we were seeing the emergence of some great young pitchers. This year the pendulum has swung the other way, with young hitters like Trout and McCutcheon emerging as superstars. And um Ryan Braun continues to impress.

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  10. Henry says:

    Also could the weather play a role? It has been an historically hot summer. Does that help produce more home runs?

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  11. Drew says:

    Both PEDs and PED testing did zero.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Glenn DuPaul says:

    Home Runs per contact look to be at the levels of the late 90′s, but hasn’t much been written about strikeout rates increasing? So less contact in the denominator I think changes things. This might be a case where the raw home run numbers work better than an advanced metric like HR/contact.

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  13. Jeff says:

    “during most of the years when Barry Bonds was bathing in cream.”

    Wut

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  14. MyrEn says:

    I blame Yankee Stadium.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. diegosanchez says:

    Barry Bonds was ALLEGEDLY bathing in cream.
    http://www.blackstate.com/images/BarryBonds.jpg

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Matt says:

      Bonds was very, very likely on something or many things, but “hey look a guy was bigger in his mid-30′s than his mid-20′s, he must have been roiding!!!” is the laziest science ever.

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  16. Roger says:

    Ever heard the saying there are lies, damn lies, and statistics? Interesting stats, however, inherent to the approach is the assumption that contacting a baseball has nothing to do with steroids. I would argue that steroids increase bat speed which enable good hitters to let the ball travel deeper into the strike zone before unleashing their swing…slower bat speed means the hitter needs to do more guessing at the plate and will often get fooled a lot easier, resulting in making less contact….not to mention the fact that steroids makes DL stints shorter. I haven’t seen any specific stats but I would hypothesize that the shorter the DL stint, the less time it will take to regain timing which would result in fewer strikeouts.

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    • BigNachos says:

      Pitchers also took PEDs which allowed them to throw harder and probably negated the advantage you’re suggesting hitters would have had.

      I’d be surprised if there was any actual evidence of steroids decreasing DL time. I’ve heard just as much anecdotal evidence that players on steroids would break down faster and be more likely to end up on the DL.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Adam says:

        The pitching rebuttal is an often used retort, but it’s never really made much sense to me. While it’s fairly obvious increased muscle and strength can add to power and potentially be an asset to a player who already possesses skills of a professional baseball player, is there really supportive data to suggest weightlifting and muscle mass are keys to pitch speed (think Pedro Martinez trying to hit a home run versus throw a baseball)? I think there’s little doubt things like Greenies can be an asset for pitchers in making it through the toll of a season, but it’s simply not conclusive that a PED for a pitcher is as “enhancing” as a PED for a batter (or vice versa).

        If pitcher’s were taking a strength enhancer like steroids, we should be able to drum up some data on avg. mph of starters, no?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • siggian says:

        Adam, Roger Clemons obviously disagrees with you.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

    • LTG says:

      Ever heard the saying ” ‘There are lies, damn lies, and statistics’ is a stupid saying that people repeat only to rule out statistics that don’t fit their narrative”?

      +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Daven says:

      Statistics never lie. People sometimes misinterpret them, take them out of context, or purposefully twist them to their own ends, but the data is just data.

      +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. TKDC says:

    Isn’t there a theory* that in a low run environment (and especially on a team that has a poor offense), it is better to have power in relation to OBP than it is in a high run environment? Could this be a case where teams don’t see the value in a guy that just slaps singles or walks, but want a guy that gives you instant offense?

    Look at the Pirates. They have a pretty mediocre offense, and it is already more power heavy than OBP heavy (Pedro Alverez and Garrett Jones are their 2nd and 3rd best hitters). But they just went out and got a guy who strikes out a lot, doesn’t have a high OBP, but might hit a lot of homers.

    *If no such theory has ever been tested, consider it pulled out of my ass.

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  18. JF145 says:

    ” However, if we’re going to just talk about how one change may have had a strong cause-and-effect relationship on offense in the sport, we’re probably better off starting there than we are starting with the institution of drug testing in 2006. ”

    Why? Because Pitch FX is a more comfortable narrative for baseball apologists like you than steroids? I don’t think roiders were evil cheaters either. I’m in the middle on this issue. You’re guilty of the same thing the people who scream about steroids are guilty of.

    -8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. Henry says:

    What is causing the decrease in contact rates? It is easy to assume that it is due to pitching–using the pen more, using certain pitches more.

    But it could be that hitters are taking a different approach, especially with two strikes. That could explain both the rise in home runs and the drop in contact rates. I’m talking about the medium-term trend here, not just the squiggles of the past few years.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • CircleChange11 says:

      1. Increased velocity.
      2. Increased slider use.
      3. Increased use of the changeup.

      Batters are larger, have done away completely with linear mechanics, and there’s no shame in the strikeout. “Put the ball in play” has been replaced by “hit the ball hard” … for a few rea$on$.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • chasfh says:

        Might that be because hitting the ball hard tends to result in more favorable run-scoring outcomes than simply putting the ball in play?

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  20. Barry says:

    Isn’t there a trade-off between home runs and strikeouts, thoug? Batters oftentimes try to increase their power numbers–which comes at the cost of a longer swing and higher K rates. On the other hand, some batters will try to “shorten” their swings to decrease whiffs, but that decreases power numbers. So the “power” of a player or an era should be in relation to homeruns per strikeout.
    If in the past, batters Kd less with comparable strikeout numbers, weren’t they were better power hitters?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • chasfh says:

      I’m not sure a longer swing results in more power. A more compact swing across the body, leading with your hands through the zone, makes for a harder wrist snap and higher bat speed, which should result in more distance on your hit. That’s how it works for me, anyway.

      I think the increased power/higher strikeout combination might result more from greater commitment on the swing, leading to less correction during the act in order to make contact. This goes to the “hit it hard” versus “put it in play” debate, and I think there has been a cultural shift over the past couple of decades biased toward the former.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  21. Caveman Jones says:

    Is there information available on the average distance a HR travelled by year? I’d be curious if there’s a big difference between the “steroid era” and the last year or so.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  22. cowdisciple says:

    What about the effects of new parks since 1999? It seems like there were a lot of very power-unfriendly parks built in response to the 1990′s offensive environment.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  23. rageon says:

    I apologize if I missed someone else already point this out. I don’t see these numbers as disproving the effects of steroids at all.

    I haven’t ran the numbers to prove this, but my hunch is that overall league-wide home run rates wouldn’t necessarily increase during an era of steroid use. We know that some players used them, both pitcheres and hitters. And we also know that not all players did. I would assume that those who did, among both pitchers and hitters, likely increased their own performance. This comes at the expense of other players, obviously. If someone is hitting 70 HR, clearly the league-wide ERA is taking a hit. Rather than looking at averages, I think you need to look at the edges — particularly the top — for both pitchers and hitters. Obviously the top numbers for hitters were very, very high during the steroid era. I would assert that the effect of pitcher usage offset this in aggregate. That pulls down the average and hides the effect.

    To me the evidence is pretty clear. It’s no coincidence that many of the best offensive seasons in history came during a short period, and that many of those seasons were from players we are in some cases 100% sure of steroid use. To believe otherwise is ignoring the obvious. Average HR-rate stats or not.

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  24. Daven says:

    This is a completely subjective observation, but is the higher strikeout rate simply that pitchers on the whole are throwing a lot harder today than even 5 or 10 years ago? Particularly in the bullpen, it seems like it’s now the norm for most to be flamethrowers, excepting the still ever present occasional soft tossing lefty.

    I could just be completely misremembering things, but just a thought. Anyone have any data on this?

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    • chasfh says:

      I would bet that in addition to merely thrower harder, pitchers also have a greater variety of breaks on pitches now than they did before.

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    • Paul says:

      As a matter of fact, that data is located on this very sight, at least back to 2007. Go to leaders>league stats>pitchf/x/velocity.

      You’re right, the FB velo is higher, but so is velo for changeups. Actually, I think it could be the increased FB velo that is partly responsible for the increase in HRs.

      Strikeouts I would still be on the PitchF/X system, especially because of the matching decrease in BB%.

      Caveat: We would expect for the data to improve over time, especially since if I’m not mistaken when it was first started it was no in all parks. No doubt the technology has improved as would the calibration of that new tech. Unless there have been backward revisions that I’m not aware of. That would difficult and I doubt MLB would care enough to do it.

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    • The Real Neal says:

      Higher strikeout rates could also be the Moneyball effect, as more organizations draft, trust and promote pitching prospects who don’t need to rely on defense to make their outs.

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      • Corey says:

        I ran this data a month or two ago and fastball velocity seems to be increasing, but fastball usage seems to be declining. Which tells me that it’s a sort of moneyball effect, but I’m sure there are other equally valid interpretrations. My interpretation is that better scouting and use of data in scouting has lead to an aggregate decline in fastball use as pitchers discover for each batter that they’re more vulnerable to curveballs than traditional abstract “set up the hitter” approaches would suggest, which has lead to a progressive downward trend in fastball use the past several seasons. This would indicate that pitchers/pitching coaches are winning the scouting wars leading to reduced offense, and hitters/hitting coaches haven’t caught up yet. That trend could reverse itself really at any moment as hitters/hitting coaches start to utilize data as effectively (or more effectively) than pitchers and pitching coaches, unless it turns out that informed pitchers are just at a tremendous advantage over informed hitters, which is possible.

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    • jdk says:

      I think not. I think it’s a change in hitting philosophy. It’s become Home Run Derby no matter the situation.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  25. Paul says:

    I’m glad Dave is going to tackle the PitchF/X issue because as he notes the SO% is not just up, it’s up dramatically. And in addition, the BB% is way down. Those accelerated rates of increase and decrease correlate very well to not just the expansion of the PitchF/X system, but to umpires using it and taking it seriously in trying to improve their game calling.

    I think this is a huge story, because what we are seeing the is result of years of complaining about long games and tight strike zones, and union umpires who just refused to consider changing. This is a real success story with the umpires working with MLB to use the technology and try to improve the game. I can’t wait to see a more detailed analysis on this. Nice work Dave.

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    • jj says:

      I did some basic investigating on BB and K percent and believe that this is the main cause for the drop in league runs. I’d be interested in looking at called strikes over the past 5 – 7 years to see how many more strikes are being called. To me it seems there are a fair amount of hitting swinging early in the count now (seems like Pujols is a guy that has really changed his approach), could this be an effect of more strikes being called and hitters wanting to stay out of pitchers counts?

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  26. chasfh says:

    Wanna know how to solve the high strikeout prolem? Lower the stitches on the ball. Then, wanna know how to keep run scoring from getting out of control? Deaden the ball. You’re welcome. ;)

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  27. pft says:

    2012 is not statistically significant from 2006-2009. I am suspicious that 2010-2011 were due to dead balls so MLB could show congress the testing program was not a sham (which it probably is).

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  28. Snowblind says:

    Can someone map any trends in unusually warm weather to those trends Dave cites above, to try to control for that?

    We’re throwing around “it’s been an unusually hot (insert month here)” a bunch, but I’d be interested to see if, overall, for all outdoor parks, if it’s actually been that much warmer.

    Kind of need to control for the Arlington Launchpad, the BandBronx, and other homerun-happy ballparks too… though maybe that’s already factored into some of that above, I concede that I might not be seeing it.

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  29. jdk says:

    I don’t think it’s the umpires or pitchers that’s accounting for the increase in Ks. It’s a change in hitting philosophy. Hitters swing for the fence every pitch regardless of the situation now. That accounts for both the increase in HRs and the increase in Ks. HRs to Hit ratio is up, as well as HR to contact, as well as Ks. It’s become a boring game of Home Run Derby. Home Run or bust (K).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  30. Jacob Hensel says:

    Do we have updated numbers for 2013 and 2014?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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