I don’t mean to pick on Jose Abreu. Abreu has had a fine start to the season, and he is currently under the weather. But, to this point, Abreu has batted five times with less than two out and a runner on third. In zero of those five chances has the runner been driven home. Twice, Abreu has hit into a double play. Once, he’s popped out. Once, he’s struck out. And once, he’s lined out. He’s better than this, of course, and eventually the RBI will be there, but from a fan perspective, few things are more frustrating than such a wasted opportunity.
Every opportunity that doesn’t work out feels wasted. And in large part I think it’s because people don’t really know what normal is. Of course teams can’t convert every opportunity, but, it’s just moving a runner up 90 feet, right? It sounds like it should be easy. In a way, it’s just like bunting. You feel like everyone should be able to do it, but it’s surprisingly challenging to execute. It’s helpful to look at the league-wide numbers. It’s the only way to establish the proper context.
From this point forward, just about everything comes from Baseball Reference. As I write this, the Cubs have batted 62 times with less than two out and a runner on third. That runner has scored 22 times. Is that good? Is that bad? How bad is that? The Phillies have batted 53 times with less than two out and a runner on third. That runner has scored 33 times. Same questions. Good? Bad? I can tell you, the Cubs’ result is bad, and the Phillies’ result is good. The current average success rate is about 49%. Last year, it was about 51%.
Think about that. I don’t know what you expected to be true, but for many of you, you probably thought there would be a greater rate of success. About half the time, that runner isn’t driven in. Now, this isn’t exactly true — it’s not a bad thing to, say, draw a walk. The worst are the unproductive outs. Baseball Reference doesn’t narrow this down further, but what we have still works as a proxy. And this allows us to examine baseball history.
Strikeouts are way up. You know this. Big swings are also en vogue. A common opinion is that modern-day baseball players aren’t very good at the fundamentals. That would be, relative to the past. And how much more fundamental does it get than driving in a runner from third with less than two out? We all have an inclination to romanticize the past, and it’s easy to forget about what older baseball was actually like. Still, there is this plot of strikeout rates. These are the league-wide strikeout rates — since 1950 — with a runner on third and less than two out.
The increase is unmistakable. It’s also unsurprising, if you’ve been paying almost literally any amount of attention. There is less contact now than there’s ever been. On the other hand, let’s look at this again, but while also including the overall league strikeout rates.
You can see a separation start to develop in the 80s and 90s. The strikeout rates used to be more or less identical. Now there’s a split, with batters whiffing less often in the given run-scoring situation. This reflects a shift in strategy. Batters are still striking out more often with a runner on third and less than two out, compared to their previous baseline, but there is a sign they’re prioritizing contact. More strikeouts happen under other circumstances.
So that’s one look. But even more to the point, we can look at success rates since 1950. That’s plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out that result in the runner on third scoring. These days, it’s somewhere around 50%. Where has it been before?
I wouldn’t pay much attention to 2018 yet — we still have another five months to go. Relative to, say, the peak of the steroid era, we have seen a bit of a drop. But we’re talking one or two percentage points, max, and there was a huge, huge dip in the 60s and 70s. As a different but related look, I pulled all plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out, and then calculated runs per PA. This would also count other runners scoring, and not just the guy on third. Every run counts the same in the box score.
The plots mirror one another, of course. And while, on a year-to-year basis, you see the lines bounce around, this table splits everything by decade:
|Decade||Success%||R/PA||3rd, < 2 Out K%||Overall K%|
It’s true, beyond any doubt, that modern hitters strike out a lot. Strikeouts with a runner on third are frustrating. When you watch one, you figure all that was needed was a measly ball in play. But, there are plenty of unsuccessful balls in play. And in baseball’s earlier decades, there were even more unsuccessful balls in play. You might think there would be a strong relationship between strikeout rate and success rate — or failure rate — in these cases, but that just isn’t what we see. Batters aren’t meaningfully worse at driving the runner from third home. They’re still producing runs in those plate appearances. The league’s collective success rate isn’t extraordinarily high, but it never has been. It topped out at a hair under 54%, in the year 2000. Did baseball have the most fundamentally-sound players in the year 2000?
Used to be, baseball games featured more balls in play. And that might well be a good thing by itself. So many of those batted balls, however, were effectively useless. And it’s the useless batted balls that have been replaced by the strikeouts, in a sense. When there’s a runner on third and less than two out, a hitter in 2018 will find it challenging to drive the guy home. It’s been challenging all along.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.