You should be well aware of the general offensive trend: Offense is down, relative to the previous era. At the turn of the millennium, the league combined for almost 25,000 runs. A couple years ago, baseball fell short of the 20,000 mark. Last season’s rebound was encouraging, but only partial, and driven by an increase in home runs. There’s nothing more valuable for offense than homers, but the biggest problem are strikeouts, the frequency of which has soared past one-per-five plate appearances. To sum this up: Runs are harder to score than they used to be, with strikeouts now higher than ever.
That’s the most important thing. Also, it’s the easiest to notice. It’s plainly obvious that strikeouts are reaching an absurd level, and we know a 3.50 ERA isn’t what we used to think. So as far as the commissioner is concerned, he’s going to want to keep his eye on the overall run level. But if you dig in deeper, there’s another trend. Hitters are producing fewer runs, sure, but the runs being produced are also made in kind of a different way. It’s an intuitive way, and an interesting way, given yet another trend that’s taken the game by storm. It would appear that, league-wide, hitters are getting better at using all fields.
The data here are limited, because it goes back only so far, and record-keeping methods have changed. We have batted-ball location information stretching back to 2002. I’ve decided to go back only as far as 2006, because it looks like between 2005 and 2006, there was a change in how the numbers were recorded. I understand this might make you suspicious, and it might make you think I’ve carefully selected my endpoints for the sake of my own argument, but the data we have for the first few years doesn’t change this picture. I simply wanted to stay consistent. You can go back to 2002 if you like — it’s all on our leaderboards.
Following is a plot, covering 10 years. You see wRC+ by batted-ball location, where the field is split into even thirds. There’s wRC+ for pulled baseballs, wRC+ for baseballs hit up the middle and wRC+ for baseballs hit the other way. Remember this is batted-ball wRC+, so strikeouts and walks aren’t included.
The green line has remained pretty stable. It hasn’t been higher than 161, and it hasn’t been lower than 154. Batters continue to punish the ball to the pull field. The other two lines, though, show steady increases. The red line has risen from 99 to last year’s 120. And the blue line has risen from 78 to last year’s 104. It’s important to note that location rates haven’t meaningfully changed — the league pull rate has remained around 40%. So it’s not that batters are going up the middle or the other way more often. It’s that, when they do go up the middle or the other way, they’ve been finding more success. There’s been more run production lately coming from non-pulled batted balls. We’ve seen more of an all-fields offense.
When you get to thinking about causes, of course you think about defensive shifts. Shifts have been roughly doubling in frequency each season for the past five years or so, and most of the idea of a shift is to shut down hit opportunities to the pull side. That, in turn, opens up space elsewhere. Now here’s a plot similar to the one above, but this time showing locational BABIP:
BABIP up the middle has stayed about the same, with hints of maybe a recent spike. Pulled-ball BABIP has dropped to last year’s .289. Opposite-field BABIP has risen to last year’s .295. It’s the first time hitters have posted a higher BABIP going the other way than going to the pull side. Shifts have to be part of the explanation. That much is apparent. At the same time, it almost certainly can’t be everything.
Not that I have all the answers. As usual, my role here is to show something interesting and basically guess. It could be an indirect effect of the shift; maybe players are just being developed to be better at all-fields hitting. It stands to reason that, generally speaking, that’s how the shift can be combated in the bigger picture. Maybe teams are selecting for better all-fields hitters, in order to be less shiftable. Maybe there’s some kind of relationship between locational hitting and the gradual increase in pitch velocities. I haven’t asked around on this, and I haven’t spent more than an hour or two thinking about the numbers. I’m sure I could be missing something. By the way, last year’s pulled-ball HR/FB rate tied the previous high from the decade. The up-the-middle HR/FB rate was the highest it’s been. Same for the opposite-field HR/FB rate. It’s not just about singles and space. There’s been more power to other fields, too.
File this one away as a neat thing. Nothing more, nothing less — and nothing as important as the league-wide increase in strikeouts. It’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to notice, which helps explain why it took me this long to notice it. But here’s where we are in baseball today: Runs are down, but maybe recovering; offense is up to the opposite field and up the middle. It feels like a potential counter-shift. It might be too early to say, but then at some point, a counter-shift figures to be inevitable.
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