The MLB is not facing a crisis yet, but it may be soon. In an age of instant gratification and the desire to see the biggest, loudest, and longest of highlights, baseball is getting slower and lower scoring. Although picking up the pace would be a simple task for the Commissioner’s Office, picking up the scoring would be much, much more difficult. The reason for the decline in runs per game is not obvious at first glance. But, like all things in the MLB these days, the key lies in the data.
At the turn of the century, the Steroid Era was going on strong. Even when league-wide PED testing was implemented in 2003, runs per game increased from 2003 (4.73) to 2006 (4.86). Since then, runs have dropped significantly, hovering just above four. Rather than looking to possible reasons, such as PED use, the real proof lies in observation. The major change from 2006 to now is the use of PitchF/x data. In 2006, PitchF/x became a staple in every MLB ballpark. The applications for the system are endless, but the focus for scouting hitters is Hot Zones.
Nearly every hitter has a “hole” in their swing. Even Mike Trout struggles hitting balls up in the zone. Miguel Cabrera has (some) trouble with balls on the outer edge, although limited. Pitchers meanwhile dictate the zone. Although they may prefer to throw to one side of the plate or a certain elevation, elite pitchers have no problem working the ball to all parts of the zone and outside it. The game’s most dominant pitcher this year (not up for argument) has scattered pitches everywhere, especially to lefties. For Kershaw of course, the Heat Map does little justice to his ability to locate the ball. Most hitters have a similar hole, so he is more likely to throw it there than he is all over the heat map. It does show his ability to pitch the ball to a spot better than a hitter can make good contact on a pitch in a certain spot. Let’s take a peek at an example.
Paul Goldschmidt is a really, really good hitter of white balls with red laces. If you don’t believe me, ask Tim Lincecum. First, let’s take a look at Goldschmidt’s Heat Map over his career. Nothing too surprising, he likes his baseballs on the inner half of the zone. Once you get out of the zone on the inside though, he becomes not-so-amazing. Now if we take a peek at DJ Pauly G (I will never call him this to his face because I like my current face structure) vs Kershaw, you can see that Kershaw has been pretty good at targeting his cooler zones. The result of this has been a batting average of just over the Mendoza Line. When you look at him against Lincecum, you see something a lot different. This is probably why Lincecum typically has a sore neck the day after he faces the Diamondbacks. While Kershaw has been able to get it out of the zone low and in, Lincecum has tended to leave them over the plate, resulting in the ball coming to rest in the stands.
At first glance, it may be a pretty simple difference that one pitcher is hitting his spots and one is not. At second glance, it might still look the same. If you really squint though, you can see that conventional wisdom would say very rarely throw it inside to Goldschmidt. Goldy would have been pitched around 10 years ago, and almost all the balls would have been dotting the lefty batter’s box. Prior to the installation of PitchF/x, pitchers would likely have been scared to throw it inside to the slugger. Advanced data available via Heat Maps can show something different, which Kershaw has capitalized on.
From a hitter’s perspective, you probably have a decent idea of what you can and cannot do at the plate. Prior to Pitch F/x, hitters kind of knew what to expect. There was once a hitter that pitchers really didn’t know what to do when they faced, so they walked him. His name was Barry, and a large part of why he couldn’t be pitched to was because pitchers had no idea what to do when he came to the plate. In a 2001 USA Today article, it got to the point where the question was asked “How do you pitch to Bonds?” Bonds had no holes, or so it was thought. I would venture to guess that Bonds, and other greats, would have hit far fewer home runs in an age where pitchers knew the specific places hitters could and could not put the ball over the wall.
Now, hitters are faced with more of a dilemma due to the hyper-advanced scouting. Back when it was a simple “he likes to chase sliders outside the zone late in the count”, hitters had some expectations of what they would likely face. Now, their approach has changed to, “I better look for the low and away slider, but he might try to get me with the high heat since I have a high whiff rate there. Or maybe he’ll go for the change since I have trouble when I am behind in the count and I have fouled off two pitches after seeing one or more sinkers on the outer half of the zone during night games played on the West Coast.” The moral is, pitchers have so much data they can know a hitter better than he can know himself. A hitter’s guess on what he may face is much less educated than it was prior to PitchF/x, making it a lot harder to put the barrel on the ball.
Although there are surely outside causes, PitchF/x is a large part of the reason that runs are on the decline. Pitchers have control on where the ball will end up 60’6” later, and if they are able to put it in a place where the hitter is poor, there will be fewer runs. The new data available has helped pitchers much more than hitters thus far, and until something changes in hitters’ approaches or new data comes along favoring batters, we can expect more of the same. Unfortunately for fans like myself who loved watching Barry knock them into the bay in high scoring affairs, it looks like the Steroid Era’s high scoring affairs are long gone. Low scoring baseball is here to stay.