As the final few games of 2014 tick away, we can ask how this year was different from previous seasons. This year, it turns out, was both different and the same: the trend that began in 2007, the decline of offense, continued throughout baseball. While it was frustrating watching the Reds hitters flail in the batters box, it turns out this was not an uncommon story across the league. Pitchers are not just winning the war, they are dominating it.

At the turn of the millennium, the average pitcher boasted a 4.77 ERA (and FIP) and struck out 16.5% of hitters. Today, that pitcher would be spending most of their time in AAA: in 2014 the average pitcher is posting a 3.74 ERA (and FIP) and striking out 20.3% of hitters faced.

Table1Now, the “average pitcher” does not exist because we are pooling relief and starting pitchers into one group. So who do you think is tilting the balance of power? Starters? Relievers? It turns out that regardless of which option you pick, you’re right: both relievers and starters are having their best years in a very, very long time.Home runs are leaving ballparks less frequently, pitchers are striking out more hitters, and (by definition) pitchers FIP is almost a full point lower than they were 14 years ago.

Table2

Not surprisingly, this has impacted the number of runs scored per game. For example, the league is on pace to hit 470 fewer home runs this year (4190) than last year. This is also fewer home runs than any year since 1995 (4081). At the current rate, the league is going to score 564 fewer total runs than they did last year, the fewest since 1992 (ignoring the strike shortened season of 1994). Conventional baseball wisdom tells us that relief pitchers can go “all out” against the hitters because they are throwing only a few pitches. This results in a higher strikeout percentage than starters. Well, today’s starters are striking out more hitters than the pitchers that went “all out” in 2000. Despite relief pitchers being used in situations that give the pitcher a matchup advantage (well, the Royals might be an exception to this), modern starters are across-the-board better than their 2000 counterparts.

There are many factors that influenced the offensive explosion from the mid-90s through the mid-2000s. Harder bats, smaller ballparks, a smaller strike zone, and yes, PEDs changed the number of runs scored in the league (you can read all about the differences in this article). It is unclear, however, how much further offenses will fall before pitchers and hitters reach an equilibrium in the number of runs scored. Both starters and relief pitchers continued their year-to-year improvement in their strikeouts rate, FIP and ERA.

What makes this offensive drought so amazing is that there are four more teams (and 7685 more games) today than there were in 1992, yet league is only projected to score 2,352 more runs this year than it did in 1992.

Fans all around the league praise their pitching staffs while bemoaning their team’s hitters for not reaching base. This has a few implications for the Reds. Since Joey Votto’s contract was signed at the end of the offensive explosion, his on base skill is now a rarer commodity than it was at the time of his contract. Moreover, the dynamic shifts the relevant reference point for how much we should be paying top-of-the-rotation pitchers. As the Reds look into their crystal ball, they should ask how much an elite hitting catcher will be worth in an era of depressed hitting statistics. Or third basemen. Did the offensive hole in left field just get that much larger as the bottom dropped out of the market for hitters? And can we please stop spending so much on relief pitching? At the rate relief pitching is proliferating, we could probably pull someone out of the stands to pitch the ninth.

Every offseason is different as the relevant talent pool in baseball shifts. I just hope Walt & Co. are able to take advantage of these market trends in their offseason dealing.

12 Responses

  1. GOREDS

    CLearly, this has been the talk of baseball all year. Walt was also correct that there were not many hitters at the trade deadline. But, this puts even more emphasis on good lineup construction and sometimes choosing offense over defense. Cozart, Hamilton, and Phillips basically only provide defensive value. Not all WAR is equal if it is too far wieghted to one side. We may be better off with a 2 WAR SS, but that be on offense.

  2. Michael Smith

    Goreds how many 2 war ss are there that provide that on the offensive side?

    • GOREDS

      Great question, I would guess Tulowitski, Jhonny Peralta, Starlin Castro, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Alcides Escobar, J.J. Hardy, Alexei Ramirez, Erick Aybar, Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins are all pretty close. I personally am interested in Owings from Arizona.

      • GOREDS

        Of these, Hardy is available. In the right deal I bet Castro, Aybar, and maybe even Tulo could be had.

      • George Mirones

        If the Reds got Castro I would put him in LF and keep Cozart at SS…My thinking is that Castro’s offensive skills would grow without the worry about his defense at SS. With Negron on the bench giving BP only 125/130 games a year would keep him fresher and productive at the plate.

  3. Michael Smith

    After doing some checking only 9 starting shortstops had an ops of 700 or above. The issue is not the shortstop position. It is lack of production out of second and left.

    • GOREDS

      Agree, but 2nd is not changing. LF clearly has to be the easiest way to improve. If you keep Cozart then why not move pitchers given that his defense is one big reason they look so good.

      • GOREDS

        Agree, but FYI the 4.5 mill is defered over several years (I think 500K a year). “Jack for that” has a 2 mil buyout or a 4 mil contract. Bets?

  4. GOREDS

    Have to agree on the strikezone, big reason Bruce has trouble. Votto is getting more strikes called too. BUT, they are trying to speed up the games, so it may not change.

  5. George Mirones

    TCT; I think that one of the RLN writers did a piece on the DH and as I remember the AL batting AVG was the same as the NL or was within .0025. I think that when the free swingers in baseball start to be replaced with the contact hitter or higher OBP batters and then the runs scored will increase. That starts in signings and minor league training. The pitching has become more effective whit the idea that a pitcher needed more than 2 pitches to be successful in the Majors. I believe the phrase ” he learned to pitch and not just throw” is often heard when what has really happened is that his change or slider started working better because the more he used it the better he got. It is often heard that a 3 run homer kills more rallies that the bunt or SO. As we saw this year with Jay, fewer HRS, fewer runs batted in, lots of 1 run defeats. If Jay had , let’s say another 20 singles (less than 4 a month) with RISP and the bullpen used a gallon less of gasoline the Reds would be playing at home in October. I am not saying Jay is the problem, I am using him as an indication of why the contact hitter would have more value. My thinking is that the contact hitter will also start to reach the seats more because the pitchers will become more careful and by being timid then more mistake pitches will be made. I believe we all saw this with a healthy Votto, Pitchers would rather walk him than take the chance of him making contact when they new BP would swing at the first pitch no matter where it was thrown or that Bruce would strike out no matter where the pitch was thrown.
    Many if not all these thoughts, are based on watching the game. I really would like one of our resident “genius’s” to look at the numbers just see if there is any truth in these random thoughts.
    Of course MLB could look the other way and let the “juice” flow.

    • George Mirones

      One other thought just how many runs would score if the Reds had 6 Votto type batters in the line up.

  6. The Next Janish

    Good article, I completely agree with it. Wins for a pitcher to a certain point is based on the teams performance, but I can’t help but feel hoover’s 10 losses were more of a him and less of a team factor. The nonfunctioning parts of this year’s bullpen was the difference between being a winner and a loser. Clearly something better could have been done with that group then just standing pat for most of the season. I don’t understand the reticence in keeping AAA bullpen pitcher, like Diaz down, if there throwing good bring them up if there doing bad send them down that easy. As I doubt anyone would have wanted to claim most of our bullpen seeing how they pitched and if they did “well thank you”