Pitching dominance and overheated headlines

We have been hearing this since the beginning of last season.* Pitchers are too dominant and it is sucking the fun (meaning offense) out of the game. Hitters have their backs against the wall, and Major league baseball needs to lower the mound.

* The alarm has been raised by the predictable prophets of decline, but also from usually thoughtful people like Rob Neyer.

So, sure, strikeouts are way up. It is pretty impressive. We definitely live in the Strikeout Era.

But are hitters helpless against the current crop of pitchers?

The outcry against pitcher dominance really ramped up at the beginning of last year (although it goes back a couple years) but by the end of 2013 there had been no less than 4,661 home runs. That’s a lot. Divide the yearly total of home runs by the yearly total of plate appearances, and 2013 is in the top-20 for the frequency of home-runs (since 1914).

What about 2014? Well, it is early. If you compare the first month of the 2014 season to, say, the first month of the 2008 season, you see that there were fewer home-runs per plate appearance in April 2008. But by the end of the 2008 season, the league had hit a healthy 4,878 homers.

So headlines like “Unprecedented rise in strikeouts is sapping power and fun out of game” are a little overheated.

Quick digression.

Pitchers really are gaining ground:

  • Runs per game are down a bit, not much, but a bit from the highs of about 10 years ago.
  • And on-base percentage in 2013 was .318. That’s getting close to 1970s territory.
  • And we can credit this to pitchers – defensive shifts probably aren’t the cause of the lower on-base percentage. Batting average on balls in play last year was a point higher than it was in 2001.

Still, there is a mystery here that makes this whole thing hard to talk about. We want to discuss pitcher dominance as a clean concept. We point to record highs in strikeouts and record lows in walks. And it is all true. But it is also true – as we’ve noted – that if you rank every season of major-league baseball since 1914 by the frequency of home-runs, 2013 was in 2oth place. It was a monster year for home runs.

That’s the mystery. We have a hypothesis: home-runs, strikeouts and walks are the three things pitchers are supposed to be able to control. It’s almost like those baseballs don’t understand the concept – they just keep flying over the outfield wall.

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