Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Choke up and put the ball in play!
By David Schoenfield
I'm watching a game the other day. It doesn't really matter which one as the specifics aren't important. There was a runner on third with one out, late in a close game, and the batter struck out. The ex-player analyst in the booth goes into a little soliloquy about how back in the day batters in his era would cut down on their swings in that situation and put the ball in play, whereas now players just hack away, strike out too often and fail to drive in that run.
You've undoubtedly heard your local announcer say something similar at some point.
But is it true? As strikeouts continue to rise, it certainly seems like batters are striking out a lot more in those one out/runner on third sitautions. We've all been frustrated when that happens with our team, especially when it's a potential trying or go-ahead run on third in the late innings.
Well, as a wise man once said, let's go to the data. Here's a chart listing results comparing the overall MLB batting results in various seasons to results with one out and a runner on third. I've listed overall batting average, strikeout percentage (as a total of all plate appearances), home run percentage (as a total of all plate appearances) and the percentage of runs scored (runs scored divided by total plate appearances, but eliminating PAs that ended in a walk or hit by pitch):
OK, what's the data mean? As you can see, batters generally hit for a much higher average with one out and a runner on third. Part of this is because, yes, batters do strike out less often in this situation. Even today's batters cut down their strikeout rate, so maybe they are focusing more on putting the ball in play.
Now, during the height of the steroid era, batters were hitting for a slightly higher average with one out/runner on third -- as high as .353 in 2001 and 1994. But the overall average in 2001 was .270, so the increase with a runner on third and one out is close to the increase we see now.
In 1988 and 1989, however, when the overall run scoring environment was similar to today's totals (4.14 and 4.13 runs per game compared to 4.17 in 2013 and 4.19 in 2014), we do get some different results.
The MLB average was .254 both of those seasons, not much higher than 2014's .251 or last year's .253. But batters hit .352 in 1988 and .351 in 1989 with one out/runner on third. Overall strikeout rates were much lower back then so it's not a big surprise that batters in 1988 struck out 3 percent less often than this year; that translates into more balls in play and more hits. As a result, the overall percentage of runs scored was 61.7 percent in 1988 and 59.3 percent in 1989, slightly higher than we've seen in recent seasons.
When you go deeper into history, however, today's rate of runs is actually historically on par with the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Here, decade-by-decade totals of the percentage of runs scored -- the first excludes home runs hit by the batter and the second one would simply be the percentage of times the runner on third scores:
1950s: 54.0 percent/56.2 percent
1960s: 52.3 percent/54.4 percent
1970s: 53.0 percent/54.7 percent
1980s: 57.5 percent/59.5 percent
1990s: 57.7 percent/59.9 percent
2000s: 56.6 percent/59.2 percent
2010s: 55.2 percent/57.9 percent
OK, we are down slightly this decade from the past three. Still, even though batters are striking much more often than in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the runner on third is actually scoring at a higher rate -- and the rate is only 2 percent less than in the 1990s.
If you think about all the in-game logistics going on now -- more relief pitchers throwing harder than ever and fewer batters available to pinch-hit and get the platoon advantage -- I'm surprised the percentage isn't much lower.
Bottom line: Old ballplayers love to talk about how the game was better more fundamentally sound in their day and how players understood situations better and so on and so on.
It's not true. From what I can tell, batters are doing about the same as always in those "choke up and put the ball in play" situations.