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.

We hoped you liked reading Adjusting Our Expectations by Dave Cameron!

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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