(I Can’t Get No) Batting Average

Yesterday Jon Sciambi shared a tweet with a few, seemingly impossible stats:

Yikes indeed. While all of those numbers are concerning on their own, it’s actually the batting average figure that most struck me. If a .232 league batting average sounds absurdly low to you, you’re not wrong. In fact, it’s the lowest since at least the turn of the twentieth century. The .232 mark is five points worse than the league hit in 1968, when Bob Gibson spun a 1.12 ERA, only one American Leaguer managed to hit .300, and nearly a quarter of the season’s games ended in a shutout. It’s also seven points lower than the worst collective batting average of the Dead Ball Era, a year the league slugged .305. And it’s far, far lower than anything in recent memory:

Lowest BA Since 1973
Year Batting Average
2021 .232
2020 .245
2018 .248
2014 .251
2019 .252
2013 .253
1989 .254
1988 .254
2015 .254

Say what you will about Three True Outcomes baseball, a batting average this low is a bit of a problem. And while the magnitude of the problem may come as a bit of a shock, the “why” is pretty easy to explain.

Much of it can be attributed to strikeouts, of course. Pitchers are fanning their opponents 24.6% of the time, up from 23.4% in last year’s shortened season. Strikeout rates seemingly only go up each year, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty dramatic uptick even by that standard, easily the largest year-over-year we’ve seen this century. (Hat tip to Marc Webster for noticing.)

It’s not just strikeouts though, as BABIP is also a big part of the story. Over the last two decades, as seemingly everything else evolved, BABIP remained remarkably constant. Since the league BABIP’d .289 in 2002, hitters have posted a figure between .291 and .299 every year since. There’s not much of a correlation between BABIP and strikeouts in that time, either: The league hit .291 on balls in play in 2003, and .296 in 2019, when both strikeouts and the home run rate were considerably higher.

This year though? This year batters are hitting .282 on balls in play. The league hasn’t been this low since the late 1980s, and it’s by far the lowest figure in the last 25 years.

Why is BABIP cratering all of the sudden? Partly, it’s an April thing. Like homers and batting average, BABIP tends to be a little lower in April. Over the last decade, BABIP has risen after April in each season, by about five points overall. It also might be partly a shifting thing. Defenses have shifted on a third of plate appearances this year, which is actually down a tiny bit from 2020, but up nearly 200% since 2018. While shifting isn’t particularly effective in the aggregate, shifts do convert contact into outs more efficiently than un-shifted defenses. It makes intuitive sense that the increase in shifts would harm BABIP at some point.

The league’s batted ball profile also comes in to play here. The GB/FB ratio is as low as it has ever been, and with a 13.3% HR/FB rate, plenty of balls in the air are either falling into gloves or flying over the wall, neither of which is good for BABIP. It makes sense that some combination of cold weather in April, combined with an increase in shifts and fly balls is to blame. I’d like to examine exit velocity here as well, but given some weird factors surrounding the composition of this year’s ball, I’m worried that any cross-comparison between seasons would add more ambiguity than it would correct.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that the league is hitting .232. As with 1968, the average is low enough to have a visibly distortive effect on the field. Already, we’ve had three no-hitters this year, with more surely on the way (I’m counting Madison Bumgarner’s, dammit). The Braves, victims of Bumgarner Sunday afternoon, only had one hit in the first game of the twin bill as well. The Yankees are hitting .206 as a team, which is wretched, but it’s not even the worst in baseball, as the Tigers are hitting .205.

To think of it another way, when Kiley McDaniel rolled out his 20-80 scouting primer, a .260 batting average was considered average, a 50 grade. When I interned with the Mariners a year earlier in 2013, the team’s scale was delightfully more granular but followed the same basic rhythms:

Batting Average 20-80
Grade Batting Average
80 .340+
75 .322-.339
70 .313-.321
65 .304-.312
60 .290-.303
55 .273-.289
50 .257-.273
45 .241-.256
40 .226-.240
35 .216-.225
30 .201-.215
20 .000-.200

Arguably, these charts were already a touch out of date: The league as a whole hit .255 in 2012 and hadn’t fallen in the middle of the range listed above (where, logically, you’d expect to find a 50 bat) for five years.

Still if that looked a tick off back then, it looks downright antiquated now. If we were to take the system Kiley debuted back in 2014, where each half-grade represents a 10-point climb in batting average, and center it around the .232 average the league is producing now, the updated version looks something like this:

Modern Batting Average 20-80
Grade Batting Average
80 .292
75 .282
70 .272
65 .262
60 .252
55 .242
50 .232
45 .222
40 .212
35 .202
30 .192
20 .180

Obviously, this is an imperfect exercise, and for weather-related reasons if nothing else, we can expect the average to climb higher over the course of the year. Still, it’s striking: If you can hit .255 these days, you’re a plus hitter.

Along the way, a rational feedback spiral has developed on major league rosters. In a game where fewer balls are in play, teams can afford to cut corners on defense. Eloy Jiménez and Andrew Vaughn have all the range of a traffic cone in left field, but in a small park without all that many balls coming their way, the White Sox can get away with hiding them in left in a way they couldn’t even 10 years ago. The same goes for Dominic Smith, Ryan Mountcastle, and several others.

Something similar happens around the infield, where guys like Ty France are standing well out of position because teams can mitigate a bad gloveman’s damage with intelligent shifting, creative shading, and a 25% strikeout rate. Almost inevitably, the guys playing out of position are power hitters, and the consequence of all of this is that teams are able to squeeze more and more mashers into the lineup.

In response, pitchers have ever more incentive to miss bats and managers are increasingly motivated to ensure that only their best starters face a lineup a third time. The average start this season is under five innings, and you can count the number of pitchers averaging six frames an outing on two hands. Part of that undoubtedly stems from workload and injury concerns after 2020, but it’s also clear that managers will go to their 95-mph-and-a-slider guys in the fifth inning so long as they have enough arms to grind through the rest of the game. Which, of course, they do: the rule limiting teams to 13 pitchers has fallen by the wayside, and at last glance several teams were carrying 14 hurlers. (As a side note, I’m reasonably confident that if teams were given 30-man rosters, we’d see plenty of 17- and 18-pitcher staffs, and in turn even shorter outings from most starters). The only way to beat the inevitable steady dose of high-octane heat is to swing for the fences and pray like hell for contact, which leads to more whiffs… which restarts the loop all over again.

I think that most fans at this point have a pretty good sense that the shape of offense in the major leagues these days is quite a bit different than it was in previous decades. But as the league’s average slumps into the low-.230s, it’s worth reviewing recent history and the path ahead. As you may recall, the first batch of the livelier balls debuted in mid-2015, right when teams were scoring fewer runs per game than at any point since the pre-strike era. While the league denied making the change intentionally, goosing the ball made a certain amount of sense: a lively pill could help keep offense afloat and prevent pitchers from gaining the upper hand and perhaps buy time for teams or the league to solve the underlying imbalance between pitching hitting.

Now, we’re now six years down the road from that. A look at the early season numbers and Rob Arthur’s work suggests we’re playing with the second liveliest ball in history, and the league is hitting .230 with a sub-.400 slugging percentage (lower than all pre-juiced ball seasons save for 2014). Scoring hasn’t fallen to 2014 or early-2015 levels, but it’s close. Barring intervention from the league, it’s hard to see the trend toward the Three True Outcomes decelerating, much less reversing.

Whether all of this is a bad thing, of course, depends on personal preference. It’s not like a low batting average ruins the sport or anything. Personally, I think this has been a very compelling season so far.

At this point though, it seems that most fans would prefer a game where the ball finds outfield grass more often. The path to that outcome isn’t entirely clear: It will be hard to reverse the feedback spiral, and the twin challenge of augmenting contact without turning the sport into home run derby will prove a delicate balance to strike. The rule changes in the minor leagues are a good start in this direction, but any real alterations likely won’t come to the majors for years. Hopefully with a bit of BABIP luck, we can keep clear of the .220s until that time comes.





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Angelsjunky
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Angelsjunky

The best version of baseball–as far as watchability and diversity of things going on on the field–was the 1980s, before the Roid Era and overlapping Three True Outcomes Era. I know, I know: TTO makes statistical sense, but it makes the game far less dynamic. I miss the era of Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson, or those fun 80s Cardinals teams. Or high average hitters like Boggs and Gwynn. There were still lots of HR and walks, it just wasn’t the central focus to almost every offense.

bglick4
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bglick4

That was a good era. But, there were downsides there too. Fast lead off hitters with low OBPs weren’t uncommon. Slap hitting 2 hole hitters with sub 700 OPSes likewise.

bglick4
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bglick4

Oh and there were some terrible defenders getting regular playing time and even winning hold gloves.

Angelsjunky
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Angelsjunky

I hear you. Those guys would be 4OF today, and probably rightly so.

hombremomento
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hombremomento

I think that makes it more fun when the dynamics vary in usefulness

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

Vince Coleman was amazing to watch even if he wasn’t very good.

MikeS
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MikeS

Baseball is most fun when lots of people are moving fast and there are more than three people involved in the play. When there are more homers and more strikeouts, each one is just a little less special.

But I hope MY team takes lots of walks, hits lots of homers, and strikes a lot of guys out. Unfortunately the best way to win baseball games is not always the most fun baseball to watch, but it is always more fun to watch your team win than lose.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This gets right to the heart of the matter. Everyone else’s team is definitely the problem.

Angelsjunky
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Angelsjunky

Let us not forget that the Royals won the World Series a few years ago playing like it was 1985. Of course that is hard to sustain over a shortish period of time.

It also saddens me, from a stat nerd perspective, that if Mike Trout had played 30 years ago, he would have probably had at least a couple 40-40 seasons by now. As an Angels fan, I’m glad he isn’t stealing many bases as the risk is just not worth it (see, 2017). But on the other hand, he’s a slightly less dynamic player than he otherwise would be (or was in his first couple seasons).

Or imagine Shohei not only doing what he does, but throwing in 30 SB as well.

Anyhow, I’m not saying that teams should ignore the statistical weight behind TTO, but I’d like to see them mix a bit of spine in. Watching Shohei bunt was just blissful.

carter
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carter

are we sure shohei won’t? I mean…he probably will. Coach said he was going to RF last game after he left the mound, but a blister issue they felt it was best to keep him in the game. At least we have this. It is much, much different than most players of any era.

Sæder
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Sæder

Sometimes I feel like a lot of this is rose-tinted nostalgia. (Granted I wasn’t alive to watch 1980s baseball). But just in this most recent WS, one of the poster boys of launch angle hitting, Justin Turner, turned in wild diving tag, double plays, etc etc. And the Dodgers and Rays are among the most modern teams in the game, and I think still turned in very very memorable baseball.

I have a sinking feeling that a decent portion of this bad vibes perspective is being driven by sour grapes of old time broadcasters who maybe don’t understand the modern conception of the game, or feel threatened by the prospect of diminishing their era’s importance, or because new media and new audience/generation/player attitudes are making cable TV talking heads less valuable than they ever have been.

I for one love the baseball we’re watching, and wish that in my pre-youtube HS baseball days we had slow mo videos with graphic tails and granular detail to help me figure out how to be a better player. I wasn’t a talented or gifted JV Baseball player, but I loved playing the game, and in hindsight I was just figuring so much out without much guidance that we now have in abundance.

If you were to remove us from MLB, and say discuss the NBA instead: if a new fan unfamiliar with basketball were to see modern NBA with insanely entertaining circus shots from impossible distance with over the top celebrations, and removed all the cranky commentary about how this isn’t legitimate because you used to be able to slap players in the 1980s, then that new fan would have no idea that there was anything wrong with what they were watching.

Just my two cents. 🙂

Oh and to reply to Angelsjunky: I loved watching that Royals team. Such fun baseball. And was proof to me at the time that you can win with shaky pitching and audacious contact hitting baseball. Or even the recent Nats team that turned in the most star-heavy pitching since maybe the 2001 Diamondbacks. There are still so many ways to win in 2021, and every strategy has pros and cons that make each team vulnerable somehow and produce surprising outcomes.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin

1986 was the first year that I started watching baseball, so let’s arbitrarily pick that year because why not. And let’s take a look at some raw numbers for “exciting” and “boring” plays. For these purposes we’ll define SB attempts, successful or not, as exciting; extra base hits as exciting; sacrifices as exciting; and plate appearances where the ball doesn’t get put in play as boring. You can quibble (I’d also argue that groundouts tend to be more exciting than flyouts, but not enough on balance to really matter), but I feel like that’s a fair generalization. I’ll compare it to the last full season, 2019, with numbers normalized downwards to reflect there being 26 teams in 1986 and 30 teams in 2019.

In 1986 there were 3,312 SB’s; 1,620 CS’s; 6,511 2B’s; 855 3B’s; 1,175 Sacrifice Flies; 1,515 Sacrifice Hits; and 3,813 HR. Combined BB’s and K’s were 24.2% of plate appearances. There were 1,289 intentional walks, the very most boring play in baseball.

In 2019 (normalized down from 30 teams to 26), there were: 1,976 SB’s; 721 CS; 7,394 2B; 680 3B; 997 sacrifice flies; 673 sacrifice hits; and 5,873 HR. Combined BB’s and K’s were 31.5% of plate appearances. There were 653 intentional walks.

So, in terms of exciting vs. boring, what we’re seeing on the plus side in today’s game is way more home runs and marginally more doubles, plus a whole lot fewer intentional walks. On the flipside, stolen base attempts have cratered; triples have dropped off; sacrifice flies and (especially) sacrifice hits have dropped off sharply; and plate appearances that end without the ball being put in play have increased by almost a third. That is… not a recipe for more exciting baseball.

Sæder
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Sæder

Thanks for the stats. very interesting!

I will quibble with strikeouts being strictly uninteresting, because to me that’s tantamount to saying players like Josh Hader, deGrom, or even Randy Johnson from back then, and other pitching whizzes, are not great to watch. I get that seeing some unheralded reliever strikeout a hitter with runners on can be a bummer. But for the fans of the pitcher’s team, that is the outcome they’re praying for. But future fun superstar relievers, too, can start out as unheralded bullpen filler on a middle of the pack team.

I for one can endlessly watch gifs of the crazy flight paths of pitches. and if you’re on the winning side of that exchange, it can make for really memorable baseball.

(e.g. look at Dodgers fan railing on Kenley Jansen being less dominant than he used to be. Your average angry fan isn’t giving Jansen or the team any credit for creating more “exciting” baseball by having Jansen strikeout fewer hitters.)

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I saw a quote a few years ago by baseball’s official historian who said “Each person’s idealized version of how baseball should be played tends to remarkably resemble MLB when they were 7”

By this theory, you’re in your early 40s.

A lot of the things people like about 1980s baseball aren’t coming back even if there were less HRs and BBs and Ks because they’re fundamentally -inefficient ways to produce wins regardless of the run environment-. Yes, bunting and stealing bases, I am looking at you.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Well, since literally everyone in the world is my age, including the people older and younger than me, I don’t see the problem.

bglick4
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bglick4

Stealing bases at Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson rates are efficient ways to create wins. Stolen base rates like Harold Reynolds’ and Brett Butler’s are where we start running into trouble.

mikejunt
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Member
mikejunt

Right, but the number of players who can steal bases at that volume while maintaining efficiency is vanishingly low – too low to support it as a widespread strategy for entire teams, much less a league.

PC1970
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PC1970

True, but, you don’t need ALL the teams to play like the 80’s Cardinals. Even 1-2 would suffice. The 80’s Cardinals were able to get 3-4 guys that COULD pull that off (Coleman, Ozzie, McGee, etc) & won. In one of their 3 WS appearances, they played the 200 HR Brewers with slow-footed Gorman Thomas in CF..why? Because he hit 40 HR’s. In one of STL’s other WS, they played The Twins, who also were a power-hitting team with a below-average defender Kirby Puckett in CF..

My point? The lack of variety is a real problem. If MLB can make it so a team COULD win with speedsters or gap hitters or whatever, it would be good because you would have different styles. & if a team wanted to load up sluggers they could..but, they may also suffer the effects on defense.

Hughes
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Hughes

Basically the only guy attempting stealing bases like it’s the 80s is Adalberto Mondesi. He just can’t get on base enough for it to really matter.

Adenzeno
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Adenzeno

It’s details like this that screw up a good story!!😁

Sæder
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Sæder

wasn’t rickey henderson a wild freak of nature statistical/historical outlier, too? It’s not like each team had one of him.

Also, I wonder how much of this is on runners and how much of it comes from better pitching/catching batteries that are maybe quicker to the plate and better at throwing out runners?

Hughes
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Hughes

Yes, yes he was. The best Rickey video I’ve seen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-QDXtKHEPY

catmanwayne
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catmanwayne

So by your theory, I should love baseball when every position player is a ‘roided up chest muscle with a bat sticking out, bashing 70 home runs a year.

carter
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carter

I am 34! When I was 7 was in the mid 90s and that was definitely the best baseball ever. so ya, i guess you are right