The Rise of More All-Fields Offense

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.

wrc+-by-location

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-by-location

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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sp13
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sp13
4 months 23 days ago

Articles like this are why I love FanGraphs.

sp13
Member
sp13
4 months 23 days ago

It’s just so basebally.

tz
Member
tz
4 months 23 days ago

What about non-batted ball wRC+? With the increase in strikeouts over this stretch, I’d expect that to be decreasing.

After all, wRC+ should average out to 100 each season, by definition.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
4 months 23 days ago

Non-batted ball wRC+ is just an effect of strikeout-to-walk/HBP ratio, isn’t it?

I agree it might be interesting to see that plotted by wOBA, to see the absolute value of balls hit to each field, instead of the value “corrected” so that average is 100. (Actually average seems to be below 100–I think that it’s non-pitcher hitting that gets forced to an average of 100.)

In fact, as Jeff said, it’s easy enough to pull those numbers out:

Pull-side wOBA:
06: .422
07: .421
08: .420
09: .416
10: .415
11: .408
12: .404
13: .407
14: .397
15: .396

Center:
06: .338
07: .337
08: .333
09: .344
10: .336
11: .334
12: .343
13: .337
14: .344
15: .348

Opposite:
06: .304
07: .304
08: .304
09: .304
10: .299
11: .295
12: .311
13: .312
14: .308
15: .324

Looks like offense to the pull side has been on a downward trend that’s accelerated, and offense the other way has shot up over the last few shift-heavy years (not sure whether 10-11 counts as a dip or a blip).

tz
Member
tz
4 months 23 days ago

Excellent! This proves Jeff’s point about offense being spread to all fields, but does it a lot more clearly. Thanks.

phoenix2042
Member
Member
phoenix2042
4 months 23 days ago

Out of curiosity, are minor league strike out rates up too? If not, maybe the transition to majors from the minors might be a bigger jump than before.

amaahs
Member
Member
amaahs
4 months 23 days ago

Is it possible to narrow it down to ground balls for the BABIP by location graph to see the impact of the shift? Any ball reaching a height over 10ft or so isn’t really affected by infield positioning.

Tangotiger
Editor
Member
4 months 22 days ago

Sure it is. If the batter changes his approach in response to infield positioning, then he could change the plane of his swing to increase batted ball height slightly, enough to turn groundballs that would normally go to pull side to liners to the open side.

You can’t just start throwing data out because you’ve decided that liners and flyballs couldn’t have been affected by the batters approach to seeing an extreme fielding alignment.

AngelsLakersFan
Member
AngelsLakersFan
4 months 23 days ago

If the frequency of events is the same, does that not imply that there is little to no adjustment being made by the hitters? Simply converting the data in the given charts into run values could show you whether or not the shift has really been successful that limiting offense.

dumbego
Member
dumbego
4 months 23 days ago

The one thing that jumped out to me was, despite pull-side BABIP dropping some 20 points, pull-side wRC+ has stayed approximately stable. Seems to follow, then, that pull-side power has also jumped up. Not really directly related to the article, just a tangential observation.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
4 months 22 days ago

Nah, as tz pointed out above, the steady wRC+ means that overall offensive output is holding the same relative to the league average–but the league average is dropping, due to increasing strikeouts. ISO and SLG to the pull side have either been bouncing around or declining in the time period studied (I’m not enough of a stathead to tell the difference), definitely not increasing.

Terence
Member
Member
Terence
4 months 23 days ago

It does seem like we need to look deep at the ISO numbers. Teams might be willing to trade pull side doubles and triples for oppo singles. Especially since shifts seem to be weighted heavily towards LHB we probably need to split this data up between RHB and LHB.

Eli Ben-Porat
Member
4 months 22 days ago

I have a simple theory for this and it pertains to macro trends in a sport. When power spike in the steroid era, this influences teams to produce power heavy lineups that will necessarily be very pull focused. As offense shifts towards a more contact oriented approach, this will imply a greater proportion of hitters will be “contact” hitters who will do better to the opposite field.

The real question is, is this effect due to a change in the overall mix of players (i.e. more contact hitters vs fewer power hitters) or is the change occurring to the same batters year to year (a la Moose Ta Kas).

Snarfle
Member
Member
4 months 22 days ago

Some possible follow-ups for people less lazy than me: are there interactions with age? As in, does this signal a new type of player? Are there interactions with pull %? Perhaps pull hitters are adjusting somehow, or non-pull hitters are learning to put more whack in their spray. Maybe something with line drive % or other factors that go into BABIP?

Great stuff, Jeff.

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