[This post is an introduction to The New Run Environment, a series at Redleg Nation in which our authors tackle the causes, impacts and possible solutions to the recent decline in run scoring in MLB.]
Run scoring in major league baseball has declined by 16 percent over the past nine seasons, from 4.86 runs per game per team to 4.07 in 2014. Last year’s total was the lowest since 1981.Ã‚Â The “run environment” in baseball is important. It affects the way organizations and fans judge and value players. It may also influence the popularity of the game over time. Over the years, baseball (meaning those in charge) has responded to trends in run scoring by changing the rules or equipment. “Runs per game” throughout this post refers to runs for each team.
Here’s the historical context of MLB’s current situation.
Running Aground (1900-1919)
The period of Major League Baseball from the start of the 20th century to 1919, with a brief interlude, is known as the Dead Ball Era. From 1900 to 1910, run scoring averaged 3.75 per game. To generate more offense, baseball introduced a cork-centered ball for the 1910 World Series and then continued its use in the 1911 season. With the harder ball being used, run scoring increased right away to 4.50 per game. The change in run environment in that brief time produced great individual accomplishments. 1911 was Ty Cobb’s best season, batting .420 with 248 hits. Joe Jackson hit .408.
In response to the explosion in runs, baseball replaced the ball with a softer version in 1914. That, along with the emerging practice of pitchers scuffing or otherwise altering the ball (tobacco juice was handy), returned the level of run scoring back to the 3.75 per game.
The Dead Ball Era was as much about style of play as scoring. Baseball at that time was small ball. It featured stolen bases, hit-and-run plays, the Baltimore Chop and emphasized speed over home runs. Games were largely played in huge ballparks. Triples were more common than home runs, something hard to imagine today. Pirate player Owen Wilson set the single-season record of 36 triples in 1912. The 2014 leader in triples, Dee Gordon, recorded 12.
The balls in that era were not only relatively dead when new, they were also overused. It was common for a ball to be in play for over 100 pitches, right up to the point it began to unravel.
The Dead Ball Era came to an end with the emergence of a single player, George Herman Ruth, Jr.
Running Rampant (1920-1941)
Babe Ruth made everyone dig the long ball. Ruth, who began his career as a brilliant pitcher, had demonstrated a new way to win baseball games. He led the league with 29 home runs in 1919 and 54 in 1920. Teams became more free swinging and gradually gave up small ball. Ruth’s lead was followed by other great hitters like Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Hack Wilson.
At the same time, in 1920, baseball banned spitballs, cut-balls, mud-balls and other forms of altering the ball by the pitcher. They also adopted a policy of substituting in fresh baseballs whenever the ball became scuffed or marked up. Batters could see a bright white ball better, and its rotation. Runs per game rose to 4.36 in 1920, to 4.85 in 1921 and remained at or over 5 runs per game for the rest of the 20s. Babe Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927.
In 1930, a harder ball was introduced and offense rose even further, to 5.55 runs per game. That mark would represent run scoring’s highest level since the start of the 20th century. The entire National League batted over .300. Hack Wilson drove in 192 runs for the Cubs, a record that exists today.
Running to Form (1942-1961)
Over 100 major league players, including many of the game’s stars, left the sport to fight in World War II. Run scoring fell to 4.01 through the war but rose back up once the veterans returned to the field. Scoring remained relatively stable around 4.45 runs per game through the 1950s and 1960s.
That run scoring normalcy coincided with profound change in the nation’s pastime — both in terms of who took the field and where games were played. Baseball became integrated by race. In 1947, the NL and AL introduced their first black players. Latin American players were also more integrated at this time. The pace of integration was painfully slow, however. By 1953, only six of the 16 teams had a black player. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to the West Coast.
Running the Gauntlet (1962-1968)
In 1961, the tranquility of the game’s run environment was disrupted, again primarily by one or two men. That year, Roger Maris of the Yankees broke the sacred single-season home run record held by the revered Babe Ruth. Teammate Mickey Mantle also hit 54 that season. In reaction, commissioner Ford Frick convinced the owners to adopt an expanded strike zone which set-off an era where pitchers could dominate the game.
Over the next seven seasons, run production fell until it reached a low-point of 3.43 runs per game in 1968. That season was dubbed “The Year of the Pitcher.” The major league batting average sank to .237, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and Denny McClain notched 31 wins. Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Even though great hitters like Willie Mays and Henry Aaron were in their prime, pitchers dominated the game.
Running in Place (1969-1992)
While the Era of Good Pitching was welcome to the gentlemen who took the mound, fans complained about the lack of scoring. Before the 1969 season, baseball returned the strike zone to its previous dimension and ordered pitching mounds lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. Predictably, run scoring surged up to 4.07 runs/game in 1969. The American League further boosted offense by adding a designated hitter in 1973.
Those changes set off a fairly long era of stable run scoring from 1969 to 1992. Even then, the league tinkered with the game. Authorities reacted to a one-year spike in runs in 1987 (4.72/game) by expanding the strike zone. Run scoring returned to the previous range through 1992.
While the run environment may have stayed relatively calm through this period, the game was profoundly changed in other ways. Astroturf playing surfaces replaced grass. It was used by as many as one-third of major league teams, leading to an increase in scoring by doubles, triples and stolen bases. It was during this time the players won the right to limited free agency. The resulting labor disharmony produced illegal salary collusion by owners and disruptive strikes by the players.
Running Hot (1993-2006)
Signs that the run environment was about to be shaken up were already appearing by the start of the 1995 season, although attention was elsewhere. Major League Baseball was rocked by the costly and destructive players strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. In fact, the strike carried over into the first part of the 1995 regular season. Baseball fans were outraged.
Anxious to get beyond the public relation nightmare, the league collectively looked the other way as players started hitting the ball harder and farther than ever. Bud Selig watched approvingly as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire waged an epic home run battle that shattered Roger Maris’ single-season record. In over 100 years of professional baseball, no player had ever hit more than 61 home runs in a season. In 1998, Sosa hit 64 and McGwire hit 70. The next year they hit 63 and 65 respectively. Sosa would hit 64 homers in 2001.
With the Steroid Era in full swing (so to speak) Barry Bonds chased and surpassed Henry Aaron’s career home run record, capped by Bonds breaking McGwire’s record with 73 homers in 2001.
Run scoring jumped a half-run in 1993 and another half-run per game over the next four seasons. Run scoring peaked in 2000 but remained nearly that high until 2006, whenÃ‚Â the Mitchell Report outlined the widespread human growth hormone and steroid use among players. With baseball’s hallowed records in tatters, PED testing became mandatory in 2004 and the enforcement regime was further tightened in 2005, 2008 and 2011.
Running Out of Gas (2007-2014)
That brings our discussion of the run environment up to today’s state of affairs. Run scoring is down, down, down. Offense has fallen from 4.86 runs/game in 2006 to 4.07 runs/game last season. Another year or two like the past nine and run scoring will be back to Dead Ball Era levels. The game remains radically different from 1910 — more home runs, doubles and strikeouts; fewer triples, stolen bases and bunts.
Looked at from a distance, MLB has experienced a reasonably consistent run environment over the last 100 years. That’s certainly the case in comparison to other sports, like professional football (pass-friendly rules) and basketball (3-point shot). Major league baseball has been conservative when it comes to rule changes that affect scoring.
But the game’s steadiness hasn’t happened without help from rule and equipment changes. Run scoring is said to be cyclical. But that’s accurate only in the sense that people in power have taken actions throughout the sport’s long history. When the game gets out of balance, the league has acted.
This rough equilibrium of sorts is generated by fan expectations. Too much offense or too little and baseball enthusiasts push back. Although you have to wonder if that self-correcting mechanism is functioning today. How much pressure is the league feeling with the game awash in broadcast and online revenues? Overall attendance has remained steady the past few seasons.
That leads to the questions: Should the league once again help out hitters? If so, what change(s) would be appropriate?
The first step in devising the right cure is effective diagnosis. Pinpointing the exact cause(s) of the recent decline in runs scored is tricky. Many interrelated variables are changing at the same time. Shrinking stadiums, stricter enforcement and punishment of PED use, changes in pitching velocity, in-game defensive strategies and pitching specialization, advances in technology and changes in the strike zone — are all present.
In this series, The New Run Environment, the staff at Redleg Nation will analyze those factors, the impact of hitting scarcity on the value teams place on batters vs. pitchers, and potential solutions. We hope you’ll read along and participate in the comments section.