Technically, Baseball Really Is More Boring

Pace. The word occupying the most of Rob Manfred’s mind is pace. Or maybe it’s action. They could be tied. Manfred wants more action; he wants a quicker pace. In short, he wants more things to happen. Games continue to grow longer and longer, and that means dead time. Strikeouts continue to rise, and that means fewer balls in play. Home runs continue to rise, and that means…I don’t know, reducing the thrill of the average home run. If I had to distill everything down, I’d say that baseball is most concerned with staying interesting. It doesn’t want to be the boring sport, and it doesn’t want to become the more boring sport.

Personally, I’m not bored by baseball. I know you’re not, either, because this place is selective for superfans. Even if you wouldn’t ordinarily think of yourself as being a baseball superfan, you almost certainly qualify. Think about the website you’re reading right now. We all still find pleasure in the game, and I’m not finding any less than I ever have. If anything, my own level of interest deepens by the day.

But, wouldn’t you know it, but you could say baseball really is more boring than it’s been in a while. Not so much in a way that you’d notice. It’s subtle, as many trends are. But I have numbers to make a case. While I don’t know what to make of them, I’d still like to share them, while I have your attention.

I’m a big fan of win expectancy and related metrics, not for analytical purposes, but because I think win expectancy does a good job of capturing how a game or a given situation feels. Fan emotions track pretty strongly with win expectancy over time, and so it has its uses. One of the numbers that comes out of win expectancy is leverage index, which you can read more about here. The shortest possible explanation is, the higher the leverage index, the more tense the situation. If you have two games, and one of them has a bunch of high-leverage spots while the other doesn’t, you’ll come away from the first one feeling different. You’ll be more drained. Or, you’ll be more ecstatic, or more dejected. You’ll be more something.

Win-expectancy statistics exist going back to 1974. That’s a strange-looking starting point, but it does allow us to cover several decades. So why don’t we consider all that time? On a per-plate-appearance basis, here is how the league-average leverage index has moved:

The peak occurs in 1976, with an average leverage index of 1.05. The lowest point belongs to the 2017 season in progress, with an average leverage index of 0.96. It doesn’t seem like very much, but given how little the line moves around, this does pass for dramatic. For the sake of reference, in 1976, about 10% of all games went to extra innings, and about 34% of all games were decided by one run. In 2017, about 8% of all games have gone to extra innings, and about 23% of all games have been decided by one run. That’s not everything, but those are meaningful indicators.

Relatedly, we can look at the percentage of plate appearances that have come in high- or low-leverage situations. I used the splits as determined at Baseball Reference, so I could search all the way back.

On average, over the whole sample, 20.1% of plate appearances have been in high-leverage spots, and 42.4% of plate appearances have been in low-leverage spots. This year currently sits at 18.4% and 44.3%, respectively. The former is the lowest rate in the whole window. The latter is the highest rate in the whole window. Again, these swings look small, and we’re talking about a couple of plate appearances per 100, but any shift here is notable, given how stable these numbers have frequently been.

Now, in any single year, by any measure, you’re going to have a spread. Which teams in this season alone have played with the highest and lowest average leverage? Here’s the answer to that, after combining numbers for hitters and pitchers:

By this measure, the Cardinals and Brewers have played under the most stress. Remember that leverage index doesn’t have anything to do with a team’s place in the standings — it’s worried about the outcome of just the one game. Like, the Phillies are over there toward the left, not because their games have mattered, but because their games have been fairly close. Now, over on the right side, you see the Reds, followed by the White Sox, Rockies, and Twins. Those teams have played with the least average stress. As a matter of fact, since 1974, we’ve got more than 1,200 individual team-seasons. The 2017 Reds have the lowest average leverage out of anyone. The four lowest teams here are all included in the bottom five. There are four teams from 2017, and one team from 2002. A dropping tide lowers all boats.

As a different but related measure, in here you see the team-by-team picture in terms of rate of high-leverage plate appearances:

The general order is the same, with some minor shifts. For hitters and pitchers combined, 20.7% of all plate appearances for the Cardinals and the Phillies have been high leverage. The Indians and Rockies bring up the rear, at 15.8%. That’s a difference of a few plate appearances per game. The White Sox are third-lowest, at 16.3%. We can look at the same giant sample of team-seasons since 1974. Out of the bottom five teams in high-leverage rate, there are currently three teams from this year. By the previous measure, the Reds have played the most boring baseball. By this measure, the Indians have played the most boring baseball. Some boring baseball taking place in Ohio, relatively speaking.

Of course, leverage isn’t everything. And even teams like the Reds and Indians have found themselves in some awfully stressful spots. And then, there are other considerations, like the context of the pennant race, or matters of player development. There are so many different angles to help to keep baseball feeling fresh, and it’s not like anything in here signifies the death of the sport. I don’t even know how to explain what we’re seeing. I’m at a loss, not that I’ve thought all that much about it. The only conclusion is that the league’s average leverage is at its lowest point on record. How you choose to feel or interpret that is entirely personal. But it’s definitely a statistical thing that has happened.

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.

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6 years ago

Does leverage index correctly take into account the uptick in HRs/TTO baseball? Is it possible that a game down 2, man on first is higher leverage than it used to be since higher chance of the team tying it on one swing?

6 years ago
Reply to  Roy_Hallayay

I came to the comments to make this same point. With HR/rate so far outside historical norms that created the leverage index (to my knowledge), you have more potential. But then again, I still think a rally is far more exciting anyway which includes lots of traffic on the basepaths, etc. Just waiting for a bomb is not nearly as great feeling

Psychic... Powerless...
6 years ago
Reply to  Roy_Hallayay

Similarly, is the defensive component of WAR adjusted downward to account for fewer balls in play?

6 years ago
Reply to  Roy_Hallayay

Sometimes the changing game is painted as positive and sometimes it is negative. It is just a narrative. Baseball is still baseball.

6 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Really? I think it’s totally acceptable to ask if the game is moving in a healthy direction.

This has always been. And baseball hasn’t just been baseball. The game has been repeatedly tweaked to keep it fresh.

The late 60s pitcher dominance was boring so changes were made.
The pace IS bad. Too many stoppages, too many strikeouts.

This is an unprecedented new direction. TTO baseball can be both dull AND long. A 2-1 game once had the benefit of quick pace and brisk flow. Now the strikeouts mean hundreds of pitches by the 6th. More pitching changes, commercials.

So you end with a game that’s both slow and fairly dull.

It’s a problem

6 years ago
Reply to  bpd

So, that’s your narrative. I am OK with your take. I enjoy watching baseball for what that is worth to you. My favorite era of baseball was the steroid era. It is OK to have opinions on things and write stories about them. It sounds like you might want to consider not watching baseball?

Captain Tenneal
6 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

What a ridiculous thing to say. I am in the same boat as bpd. I enjoy watching baseball, but I used to enjoy it a lot more when the game had a faster pace and better flow. Now that the game is changing, rather than ask how we can make it more enjoyable again, your suggestion is to just give up and stop watching?