Does MLB Need More Offense In the Modern Game?

On Sunday, Commissioner Manfred made some comments about considering the idea of restricting defensive shifts, an idea to which there was a considerable amount of public pushback. In an interview with Ken Rosenthal last night, Manfred clarified his position, and noted that there’s nothing wrong with exploring the idea of making changes even if they aren’t needed, chalking up the comments to nothing more than due diligence. On that point, I fully agree with him, as there’s no harm in asking questions.

There’s an implicit assumption in this particular question, however. The goal of restricting shifts would be to raise the level of offense in the game today, so those in favor of such an idea are tacitly stating that run scoring in Major League Baseball is currently lower than they would prefer. As offense has cratered over the last five years, it feels like the balance has shifted too far in favor of the pitchers, with the increasing size of the strike zone the primary culprit. As the game sets strikeout record after strikeout record, it becomes easy to conclude that changes are necessary, and the current run environment is just too low.

But I guess I’m not entirely sure that’s true. For reference, here is a chart of league average team runs per game for the 20th and 21st centuries.

RunsPerGame

Over the last 115 years, team run scoring has fluctuated around an average of about 4.4 runs per game. There was a sustained valley during the Dead Ball Era — and a small dip in the late 1960s before the mound was lowered and the DH was introduced — and sustained peaks during Babe Ruth’s prime and the Steroid Era, but mostly, the game has hung out between 4.0 and 5.0 runs per game, though generally closer to the lower end of that range. So, while the recent drops have pushed the game back down towards the 4.0 mark, we’re not really in a long sustained period of offensive ineptitude.

In fact, only the last four years have even been below the 4.38 R/G historical average, and 2014’s 4.07 runs per game mark is only the 28th lowest run scoring season in these last 115 years. It’s on the low end of the normal range, but it doesn’t seem like we’re yet at a crisis point to where we’d say the run environment is too different from the one the last few generations have seen. If 4.4 runs per game is the accepted normal point, is 4.1 runs per game really far enough away from that to think that we’re losing a generation of future fans due to the lack of offense?

Certainly, with questions of aesthetics like this, there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree. I don’t know that there is any one best run environment, as there are simply a series of trade-offs to be made when choosing how many runs we want to see in a normal game. But given how much emphasis in being placed on shortening the length of MLB’s games, it seems a little strange to also be prioritizing the infusion of offense back into the sport.

For me, I actually think something like this level of run scoring is just fine. I don’t need more runs to enjoy a baseball game, and I enjoy the increased competitiveness that comes with compressing the scores downwards. I think the lower run environment is part of why lower revenue teams are competing more capably with their richer brethren — when the spread in run differential is smaller, randomness plays a larger role — and I think there’s value in sustaining this level of competitive balance. I’m not married to 4.1 runs per game, but I have a slight preference for something in the 4.0 to 4.3 range.

Of course, this is mostly just a preference issue, not a clear better-or-worse discussion. Perhaps you prefer more offense, and enjoyed the sport more when the average was closer to 5.0 runs per game. I don’t think there’s any question that home runs are one of the most exciting events to happen in a game, and perhaps it’s as simple for many as more home runs equals more overall excitement. For all the modern-day handwringing about the damage that the Steroid Era did to the game’s credibility, the sport did surge in popularity when middle infielders looked like bodybuilders.

But I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that the decline in run scoring has been matched by a decline in interest in the game. Revenues continue to climb to record levels. Attendance is up. Television contract renewals suggest that the game remains one of the most valuable properties for networks to broadcast. If there’s been a big backlash against Major League Baseball because of its current level of run scoring, I haven’t really seen it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider that there might be negative effects. Perhaps we’re just not measuring them well, or maybe they have a lagging effect and will start to manifest in a few years. Maybe the concern isn’t about the current level of run scoring, but the sharp downwards trend. Maybe we’re fine with 4.1 runs per game, but think that if changes aren’t made, we could end up at 3.7 sooner than later. Perhaps these conversations aren’t as much about about adding offense to current levels as it is from keeping run scoring from eroding even further.

But as the chart shows, I’m not so sure we should be that concerned about the recent downwards trend. Historically, we haven’t really seen the game take long slow declines into very low levels of offense; instead, we’ve seen the bottom drop out all at once, with corrections coming not long after. The game is cyclical, and doesn’t always require human intervention to find an equilibrium. And realistically, we’re not that far away from the normal as it is, and we’re only five years removed from the last season that matched the historical average run environment.

For me, I’m not sure MLB needs more run scoring. When we talk about the level of pitcher dominance in the game today, I think we’re mostly talking about the ever-increasing strikeout rate. The current lack of contact in MLB is absolutely something I think we should be concerned about, as the type of game we have today is dramatically different than the one that has been seen previously. Here’s what the percentage of walks, strikeouts, and hit by pitches looks like historically.

BBKHBP

This is a clear trend, and one that is showing no signs of slowing down. This is the issue that I think MLB should be most aggressively trying to counteract. We’re reaching the point where one in every three plate appearances ends without any movement from the defenders. This is where I’d suggest there is evidence for intervention, and a strong case can be made for not just waiting for things to correct themselves.

But this is all maybe easier said than done, especially if we’re not really trying to infuse a lot of offense back into the game. If MLB managed to reduce the called strike zone in an effort to increase the number of balls in play, it would result in an uptick in run scoring, and likely an increase in the length of games as well. And perhaps that’s a trade-off that many would rather not make, preferring a shorter game with fewer balls in play over three hour affairs where the defenders have to get more exercise.

So, just for fun, let’s put this to a couple of polls. What kind of run environment do you favor, and are you more concerned with the time of game or the the types of events that occur during the game itself?





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

134 Comments
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southie
7 years ago

Nice bearish action after that head and shoulder chart formation.

President of the exchange
7 years ago
Reply to  southie

Mortimer, your brother is not well. We better call an ambulance.

Mortimer Duke
7 years ago

F*ck him! Now you listen to me. I want trading reopened right now. Get those brokers back in here! Turn those machines back on! Turn those machines back on!!!

Buddy Valentine
7 years ago
Reply to  Mortimer Duke

MERRY NEW YEAR!