Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Amazing Vanishing Offense and What it Means for the Game as a Whole

Over the past decade many baseball fans have become accustomed to games scores like 6-4, or 7-3 - and if you grew up around the baseball of the mid-90s and early 2000s (like me) you likely know of little else. Runs being scored in bunches has been more of less a fact of life for the past twenty years.

Of course, things weren't always this way.

If you're somewhat older than my twenty eight years (almost) of age, and can recall watching baseball in the 70s and 80s, you'll recall a game that was dominated by the pitcher. Unfortunately, that bygone era of the 3-2 game has long been thought dead, a victim of lowered mounds, juiced hitters, and league expansion that left too few quality arms available.

But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tide has begun to turn. Five years ago in 2006 as baseball was (finally) cracking down on performance enhancing drugs, the Major League average OPS stood at a startling .768. That translated into an average of 4.86 runs per game, per team (4.96 in the AL). So far in 2011 however, those numbers have plummeted to .708 and 4.18.

I'm sure to some, that might not seem like much, but it represents a 14% decline in total offense since 2006, and an even more pronounced 19.4% dip from 2000, when the average runs per game spiked at 5.18. Combined, that means you're seeing almost two full runs fewer per game than you would've a decade ago. It returns the game to an offensive state that it hasn't seen since 1992, when the average runs per game was 4.12, and the OPS .700.

In other words, it's been almost twenty years since we've seen this little offense.

Why league wide offense has fallen back shouldn't be too hard to determine, it's most likely the result of getting performance enhancing drugs out of the game. For now at least. I will buy the notion that pitching is also, at long last beginning to catch up to hitting, but that would only explain the difference in runs produced by a small degree. This is what a clean (or at least, cleaner) game looks like, and in this new reality, teams are forced to adapt.

For the past two decades we've been taught that pitching wins games and well, that's still true. No single player can really influence any one particular game more than the starting pitcher. But with runs becoming harder and harder to come by, offense and the declining number of players who are capable of producing it, become increasingly valuable.

That of course shifts the player acquisition paradigm for GMs, who should now be looking for greater returns when trading an offensive player, or be willing to shell out somewhat more in free agency for them than they may have in the past. In the American League, that could mean we see an increase in value for designated hitters, a group of players who's value had been on the decline for some time. League wide, we could see an increase in value for those all-bat, no defense corner infield/outfield players who's contributions have also been marginalized the past couple seasons.

Correspondingly, while elite starting pitching will always be hard to come by, the decline in overall offense means that the number of starting pitchers capable of posting sub-4.20 ERAs (the old middle ground) has grown significantly, therefor making them less valuable. Don't believe me? In 2006, 39 qualified starting pitchers managed a 4.20 ERA. So far in 2011, there are 76 starters who've done so.

Capable starting pitching just isn't nearly as difficult to come by as it was just a few short years ago - or rather what our definition of quality starting pitching is, must be redefined. If in 2006 we called those Top-40 pitchers who posted sub 4.20 ERAs to be those of quality, then by those same standards, the Top-40 pitchers today would be those who post sub 3.35 ERAs.

That means you'd have to adjust your definition of "quality starter" down nearly a full run. Hardly an easy mental transition for those who are accustomed to something like 4.00 being the threshold for quality.

The game is changing, and that will mean significant changes for the casual fan who may not understand why their teams offense is doing so much worse than it was just a couple seasons ago. It will also mean significant changes for the sabermetric community, who's FIP and WAR valuations will be doing a virtual 180. And, as noted above it'll mean a distinct shift in player value for GMs who are trying to put the best possible teams on the field. Those GMs who are able to stay ahead of this curve will also be those who are best positioned to take advantage of those who do not.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say; very nice article. Puts many thing into perspective.