Fireworks All Summer Long

For many people, a good fireworks show is a welcome part of their extended 4th of July weekend. I mean, who doesn’t like one, except for some really good dogs out there? That said, if you attended a fireworks show every night of the entire summer, it’d probably get old pretty quick, right? Right.

Well, what I’d like to do here is consider a different sort of fireworks — one more relevant to our national pastime — and the possibility of them wearing out their welcome.

For the sake of the analogy, home runs will take the place of fireworks. Homers are occurring more than ever and, I submit, it’s going to get old pretty soon. Oh, we’ve been down this road before, in the so-called steroid era, which peaked right around the turn of the 21st century. Homers got pretty old then, too.

Well, we’re hitting way more homers now than we were hitting then. In the year 2000, major-league hitters combined for 1.17 homers per team per game, an all-time high. Or, I should say, an all-time high until now. Now we’re rolling along at 1.26 homers for the season, shattering the previous high.

As for the implications of the home-run spike, I’ll discuss that in a moment. First, a couple key notes for context. In 2000, teams struck out an average of 6.45 times per game. That average has been on a rocket ship upward over the last decade, up to 8.24 thus far this season. As for walks, they had been trending downward for a while, from 3.42 per team per game in 2009, down to 2.88 in 2014. Well, that has turned upward in a big way, up to 3.27 thus far in 2017. What we have here is the Russell Branyan-ization of baseball: the Era of the Three True Outcomes is upon us.

Let’s take a step back and examine the big picture of production on balls in play over the past season and a half. In 2016, hitters recorded a .328 AVG and .536 SLG when they put the ball in play. Through the end of June this year, that had ramped up to a .330 AVG and .551 SLG. Here is a month-by-month comparison of the first halves of 2016 and 2017:

Production on Balls un Play – First Half 16/17
Apr – 16 0.210 0.210 0.066 0.132 0.007 0.021 0.040 0.159 0.323 0.522
Apr – 17 0.207 0.207 0.061 0.122 0.006 0.019 0.045 0.179 0.319 0.527
May – 16 0.213 0.213 0.062 0.124 0.007 0.021 0.043 0.172 0.325 0.531
May – 17 0.211 0.211 0.066 0.131 0.005 0.016 0.048 0.193 0.330 0.551
Jun – 16 0.218 0.218 0.065 0.130 0.006 0.019 0.046 0.185 0.336 0.552
Jun – 17 0.213 0.213 0.070 0.140 0.006 0.017 0.050 0.201 0.339 0.572
YTD – 16 0.214 0.214 0.064 0.128 0.007 0.020 0.043 0.172 0.328 0.535
YTD – 17 0.210 0.210 0.066 0.131 0.006 0.017 0.048 0.192 0.330 0.551

In the table above, we’re not just breaking down the AVG and SLG on BIP by month, we’re breaking it down by singles, doubles, triples and homers. For instance, according to the last line, 21.0% of BIP have resulted in singles this season, 6.6% in doubles, 0.6% in triples, and 4.8% in homers.

There are some clear, across-the-board trends. First, there are sharp upward bumps in AVG and SLG from May/June 2016 to May/June 2017. The Aprils were about equal in terms of production. You also can see a clear upward trend in offense as the season unfolds, as the weather warms up.

There’s a reason to break AVG and SLG into its single/double/triple/homer component parts. You’ll note that singles and triples are down from 2016 to 2017 season-to-date, and in every month within those seasons. Both are endangered species. So far in 2017, teams are hitting an average of 5.56 singles and 0.15 triples per team per game. Both are all-time lows. Know how 1968 is known as Year of the Pitcher? There were 5.90 singles and 0.21 triples per team per game — which is to say, more than we’re presently seeing. “Our” game is becoming slow-pitch softball… except with a bunch of strikeouts, too.

Quickly, let’s look at how 2016 wound down in the same format as above. Can we look forward to a continued power explosion as the summer intensifies?

Production On Balls In Play – 2nd Half 2016
Jul – 16 0.209 0.209 0.064 0.129 0.007 0.022 0.042 0.169 0.323 0.529
Aug – 16 0.215 0.215 0.064 0.129 0.007 0.020 0.047 0.186 0.333 0.550
Sept – 16 0.216 0.216 0.063 0.126 0.006 0.019 0.043 0.171 0.328 0.532
FINAL – 16 0.214 0.214 0.064 0.128 0.007 0.020 0.044 0.174 0.328 0.536

Well, lookee here. Production on balls in play didn’t really trend upward in the second half of 2016. From a .328 AVG-.535 SLG at the end of June, to a .328 AVG-.536 SLG at the end of the season. Last year only represents one season, obviously, but I’ll throw out a theory or two as to why these trends didn’t continue.

First, the All-Star break stops the bleeding for pitching staffs. Overtaxed bullpens get five days off, some injured starters and relievers return, and managers get to reshuffle their rotations into a more optimal order, allocating more rest where necessary. After going weeks without an off day, an entire staff getting a whole bunch of them in a row swings the pendulum toward the pitchers.

By August 2016, things got back to normal. Along with June, it was the most thunderous month of the season. In September, there’s an invasion of Triple-A talent onto major-league rosters, which has the effect of smoothing out all types of spikes. I would guess that, by the end of 2017, we will be right around our current mark of .330 AVG-.551 SLG on balls in play, with about 4.9% of all BIP resulting in homers.

In the big picture, is a record home-run level and well below record levels of run-scoring good for the game? Teams are scoring 4.67 runs per game, and hitting 1.26 homers. That’s 3.71 total runs per team for every homer. That is an all-time-low ratio of runs to homers. I was sitting in a sports bar last week in suburban Milwaukee, with a bunch of screens showing games. The Reds-Brewers game was the featured tilt, and I’m pretty sure there were eight homers by the fifth inning. As I turned from game to game, I thought I was watching Baseball Tonight, until I realized Baseball Tonight doesn’t exist anymore. It was just a home-run parade. Maybe the casual fan enjoys this, but I go back to my fireworks analogy. It gets old quick.

What’s known as the most exciting play in baseball? The triple. They’re down by over 20% over just the last two years. A great defensive play? Well, thanks to the strikeout spike, through the month of June, over 700 fewer balls were put into play in 2017 than in 2016. Take the homer spike into account, and that’s a further reduction of nearly 300 balls in play. Team defense is beginning to matter less, folks. Is this a good thing?

Then we have pitching-staff composition/utilization. Starting pitchers are toiling fewer innings and getting hurt more often. Teams are carrying an ever-increasing number of relievers, but the best among them aren’t pitching more innings than before, unless their names are Andrew Miller or Chris Devenski.

Last year, a total of 69 pitchers qualified for the ERA title in both leagues combined, an expansion-era low. Through July 2, we are already down to 74 qualifiers in 2017. That number will drift downward throughout the summer. The durable starting pitcher is an endangered species.

So here we are, with more homers and doubles, fewer singles and triples, and higher strikeout and walk totals. Games are longer, and are marked by a few isolated moments of excitement, as opposed to a hum of anticipation throughout. Frankly, if it weren’t for the identity of some of the messengers of this new brand of baseball — I’m looking at you, Aaron Judge — this might be a real issue already.

I do believe that there are areas of opportunity for clubs in this environment. The team that figures out how to keep their best pitchers, starters, and relievers, healthy and fresh will have a significant competitive advantage. The team that breaks the mold and starts entrusting 80-90 high-leverage innings to their best relievers will do the same.

Teams that focus on hit-before-power position players will flourish. Power slumps more than hitting does. Use the field, but turn and fire for power when the opportunity presents itself. Hitters that lift and pull at all times will invite overshifts, punishing their batting averages. Getting to an .800 OPS with a .350-.450 OBP-SLG split is a lot more productive than .320-.480.

When the entire sport zigs, you’ve got to zag. Astro starters get grounders, tamping down their opponents’ power production. And after years of massive K totals at the plate, the Astros have the fewest strikeouts of any AL club. Their best offensive players, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, have respectable and great K rates, respectively, and even George Springer has cut his down to near the league average.

The Rockies have finally found a winning profile, employing ground-ball artists in their rotation. After a long stretch in the wilderness, the club is no longer being fooled by the raw numbers into thinking it has a good offense

The beauty of this game remains the 162-game slog. Power is eye-catching, but it comes and goes, and it’s often costly in terms of the game’s most precious commodities — the dollar and, especially, the out. Teams that are the stingiest at making the latter, and the best at converting them, will be the ones standing at the end of the day.

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5 years ago

While the number of balls in play is steadily declining, I believe team defense is just as important as it ever has been. Less opportunity of course, but the scarcity of those chances makes those which remain all the more valuable.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

That’s just wrong.

5 years ago

So the Cubs converting a record rate of balls in play into outs last season had nothing to do with their success? The fact that their conversion rate has dipped significantly this year isn’t one of the factors in them underperforming projections to this point?

Until compensation patterns catch up defense will always be an area where value can be mined because value produced with the glove is traditionally far cheaper than value produced with the bat. As the run environment continually creeps upward limiting baserunners by any means necessary (whether defense or strikeouts) will be increasingly important as those baserunners become increasingly likely to score.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

It’s basic logic — if person A lives in Seattle and person B lives in a desert, having good windshield wipers is more important for person A.

Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

I don’t disagree with what you’re saying about the Cubs, but it doesn’t prove your point.