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Monday, April 08, 2013

Panas: Defensive Activity at an All-time Low

Cheapest Jeter joke ever.

So, why does Neyer think this is a problem?  Fans love home runs and strikeouts can be exciting especially when your favorite power pitcher is dominating the opposition.  Neyer’s feeling is that baseball has reached the point where too much of a good thing has turned into not such a good thing and I agree with that sentiment.

The result of so many true outcomes is widespread defensive inactivity.  There are fewer players involved in the action than ever before.  That means fewer opportunities for us to see fielders making great catches and showing off their cannon arms.  It also means fewer chances for players to leg out extra base hits and fewer close plays on the bases.  It’s exciting to watch defenders chasing balls and runners speeding around the bases and we don’t get to see so much of that anymore.

How much more often are these true outcomes happening?  I’ll get into more detail below, but they have increased from 17 per game for both teams in 1981 to 24 last year and so far this year.  That is about a 40% increase which is huge.

...The question is whether this defensive inactivity is a problem that needs to be addressed.  Some older fans might think so but, unless attendance starts falling, nothing will be done.  If they do decide, in the future, to change the game to get more players involved in the action, what could they do?

I don’t think “too many home runs” would ever be a concern as fans generally like run scoring and love the long ball.  If a change is made, it would probably be because strikeouts became too frequent.  The obvious solution would be to decrease the size of the strike zone and/or lower the mound as they did in 1969.

For now though, we’ll just have to be content with marveling at the high home run totals of modern-day sluggers and astonishing strikeout rates of today’s pitchers while grumbling about parts of the game that have been somewhat forgotten.

Repoz Posted: April 08, 2013 at 06:22 AM | 131 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

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   101. bjhanke Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:17 PM (#4408581)
"In fact, it's hard to hit .342 without being selective."

Try telling that to George Sisler. He hit about .360 before the eye injury brought him low after 1923. Finished at .344, I think. Refused to take walks. Never struck out. There are a lot of guys who can hit .300 with no walks, no strikeouts and no power. George Kell and Matty Alou are archetypes. They would swing at everything, but since they weren't swinging as hard as they could have, they could focus more on bat accuracy and hit a lot of soft singles. The Bill James New Historical Abstract mentions this in passing in discussing Earle Coombs, and lays out a whole essay on the subject discussing Willie Wilson.

"and I would guess his (Ruth's) walk rate was mostly due to pitching around him."

Perhaps the managers and pitchers of the time didn't realize this, but walking Babe Ruth to get to Lou Gehrig isn't the best idea a manager ever had. The main effect of this strategy was to give Tony Lazzeri, hitting fifth, a whole lot of PA with both Ruth and Gehrig on base with walks, since Gehrig walked like Ruth. Lazzeri wasn't nicknamed "Poosh 'em up" for nothing. He was named that for the guys in front of him in the lineup.

AROM (#98) - You were able to play shortstop when you were the oldest player on your team? I don't know what level of play is involved, but that's a hell of a resume. - Brock Hanke
   102. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:20 PM (#4408583)
Whether you see it or not, it must be there. Because we can observe that hitters are not trading Ks for more BBs and HRs -- they are simply striking out more.


They were homering more for the better part of two decades, while strikeouts were also on the rise. That they're no longer homering as much does not mean they'll automatically adjust their approach and start striking out less.

Personally, I don't find it that surprising. As pitchers get bigger and stronger, it seems quite plausible that pitch velocity is increasing faster than hitters' reflexes and eye-hand coordination improve. But since hitters are also getting bigger and stronger, they can hit with more power.


Are pitch velocities up significantly in the last 20/40/60 years? (That's a question, I don't know). Either way, that's still a fair amount of speculation.

Don't get me wrong. I fully suspect pitcher ability has some effect here. But I firmly believe that the attitude/approach of hitters has also played a significant role in the rising strikeout rate.



   103. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:21 PM (#4408584)
Whether you see it or not, it must be there. Because we can observe that hitters are not trading Ks for more BBs and HRs -- they are simply striking out more.

They're trying to make that trade and failing.

Which means we have the worst of all worlds, thus the commentary and proposals.
   104. BDC Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:30 PM (#4408588)
Number of batting-championship qualifiers with >10 AB/SO, divided by the number of major-league teams:

2012  0.13
2002  0.47
1992  1.04
1982  1.42
1972  1.29
1962  1.25
1952  2.63
1942  4.94
1932  6.06
1922  6.44
1912  4.19
1902  6.06 


As late as 1992, there were 27 such seasons in the majors; in 2012, there were four (Marco Scutaro, Jose Reyes, Carlos Lee, Ichiro).

In 1922, there were 103. (1912, an unusually high-offense year, is probably an anomaly in its decade; I'm just doing this real quickly to get a snapshot of changes. And I know the issue has been well-studied; I'm just curious.)

Somewhat interesting is that in 1932, when Ruth had been active for quite a while, the ratio is the same as in 1902. The great leaps forward came in several stages later on.
   105. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:32 PM (#4408591)
Refused to take walks. Never struck out.


Unless there's a specific cite as it relates to Sisler, I think this kind of phrasing is often inaccurate and unfair. It is very difficult for batters who never strike out to walk with great frequency.* It's not necessarily because they refuse to take walks, but because they don't get as many chances.


* With the very rare exceptions of hitting Gods like late-era Barry Bonds, who simply wasn't given enough pitches to hit.
   106. GuyM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:42 PM (#4408597)
In fact, it's hard to hit .342 without being selective."
Try telling that to George Sisler.

I don't follow -- is it your position that George Sisler was not an uncommonly good hitter? "Hard" is not a synonym for "impossible."

Are pitch velocities up significantly in the last 20/40/60 years?

Yes.

Don't get me wrong. I fully suspect pitcher ability has some effect here. But I firmly believe that the attitude/approach of hitters has also played a significant role in the rising strikeout rate.

I can tell you do, and I think a lot of people agree. But as best I can tell, there is zero evidence to support the idea that strikeouts are rising because hitters are changing their approach. Strike outs are increasing for both power hitters and non-power hitters. Hitters with little/no power today strike out more than Ruth did. Mike Schmidt was considered a big strikeout guy (led the NL 4 times), but he struck out less often than the average hitter today. This desire to blame the victim here is quite curious.....

   107. BDC Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:49 PM (#4408607)
There was a time in the 1930s, not very long all told, where quite a few of the best hitters walked quite a bit, and a lot more than they struck out, sometimes with at least extra-base power: Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Paul Waner, Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Buddy Myer were all in that mode. (Later on, Ted Williams and Stan Musial would continue that legacy, and improve on it.)

While musing on that, I ran across a good trivia question: who was the last batter to have a >3000 PA career and retire with more than twice as many walks as strikeouts? It's not Barry Bonds; in fact, it's nobody who played in the 21st century.
   108. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 02:50 PM (#4408608)
I can tell you do, and I think a lot of people agree. But as best I can tell, there is zero evidence to support the idea that strikeouts are rising because hitters are changing their approach. Strike outs are increasing for both power hitters and non-power hitters. Hitters with little/no power today strike out more than Ruth did. Mike Schmidt was considered a big strikeout guy (led the NL 4 times), but he struck out less often than the average hitter today. This desire to blame the victim here is quite curious.....


Oh for Christ's sake, don't be dramatic.

If the stigma against strikeouts is disappearing*, if guys are approaching at bats differently, it should affect non-power hitters and power hitters alike. But I'd say we have more evidence that their approaches have changed (since we at least have some testimony to that effect) than that pitchers have just figured out how to strike out hitters at much higher rates.

There is a separate possibility as well. That teams are less scared off by high strikeout players, and are thus employing them at greater rates compared to contact guys than they had in the past. In that case, it would again relate to a change of the stigma, though not at the individual level.

* Hell, as both of us noted, the approach is more productive, so I'm not sure who the hell the victim is I'm supposed to be blaming.
   109. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:01 PM (#4408614)
There was a time in the 1930s, not very long all told, where quite a few of the best hitters walked quite a bit, and a lot more than they struck out, sometimes with at least extra-base power: Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Paul Waner, Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Buddy Myer were all in that mode. (Later on, Ted Williams and Stan Musial would continue that legacy, and improve on it.)


Wade Boggs is a more recent example. It's always been possible, particularly for the ultra-select or the foul-off specialist, but in general it's more difficult to pile up the walks if you don't strike out a lot (it is, however, easy to pile up the strikeouts without walking a lot).

   110. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:07 PM (#4408619)
It's more difficult to pile up walks if you don't hit for power. If you hit for power pitchers pitch around you; if you don't they throw you strikes. Albert Pujols, to pick a modern example, strikes out astonishingly little for a power hitter of his stature, but still walks a lot because pitchers respect his power.

In general, high contact hitters don't hit for much power; only a few of the greatest players in history do both. Since there's not much threat of them hitting home runs, pitchers are much more willing to throw them strikes.

Once in a while you get a guy like Brett Butler, who never hit home runs (and actually didn't hit for very high averages, either) but walked all the time because he had astounding bat control and could foul off pitches all day until the pitcher missed one. I think that kind of hitter used to be more common but has steadily been selected out of the game as power has gained more and more prominence.
   111. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:10 PM (#4408624)
In general, high contact hitters don't hit for much power; only a few of the greatest players in history do both. Since there's not much threat of them hitting home runs, pitchers are much more willing to throw them strikes.


Yes, that's obviously a factor. But it's not the only one. The less often you swing and miss, the harder it is to reach Ball 4.
   112. GuyM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:15 PM (#4408633)
Oh for Christ's sake, don't be dramatic.

I don't mean "victim" in any normative sense -- personally, I'd like to see K rates come down. I simply mean the hitters are the ones being struck out here, and I think it's interesting that people want to hold them responsible. But again, what's the evidence for that view? I think it may be true that hitters changed their approach in 1993-94 with the introduction of the juiced ball, and that contributed to a mid-90s spike in Ks. But then, Ks stayed flat for a decade. The recent surge dates only from about 2006, and over that period there has been no increase in HR (or BB) at all. I think it's been all pitchers.
   113. SoSH U at work Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:19 PM (#4408637)
The recent surge dates only from about 2006, and over that period there has been no increase in HR (or BB) at all. I think it's been all pitchers.


OK, it's possible the recent surge is primarily the pitchers, though there are probably partial explanations neither of us has considered as well.
   114. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:23 PM (#4408641)
GuyM: it's very simple logic that holds up perfectly when applied. Strikeouts are unequivocally good for pitchers; in fact they're the only unequivocally good result for pitchers, and so pitchers are constantly trying to strike hitters out. For hitters strikeouts are bad on their own, but hitters have discovered, starting with Babe Ruth and continuing on through Adam Dunn, that trading the negative effects of more strikeouts for the positive effects of more home runs is a beneficial transaction for them.

There is no such transaction for pitchers; pitchers can't trade fewer strikeouts for anything good. That is why strikeouts rates have steadily risen throughout all of baseball history.

The recent surge is probably attributable to the Information Age. A lot of new information has permeated baseball just in the past 5-10 years (WAR, anyone? Or just OBP, for that matter?) Widespread understanding that trading more strikeouts for more power is worthwhile has spread more rapidly than ever before since the mid-1990s. And remember that since baseball players train for the major leagues starting at about age 6, it takes time for the effect to ripen. It doesn't surprise me at all to see a big spike in K rates in the mid-2000s.

K rates have risen while power has not over the past 8 years or so because steroids, at least the kind of hard stuff Barry Bonds was on, were leaving the game at the same time. I apologize in advance for provoking a near-certain derail with the s-word.
   115. AROM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:24 PM (#4408644)
You were able to play shortstop when you were the oldest player on your team? I don't know what level of play is involved, but that's a hell of a resume.


I was 40, average age on the team probably 25-30. Just trying to be like Omar Vizquel.
   116. Ron J2 Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:32 PM (#4408657)
#101 Before Gehrig was Gehrig there was Bob Meusel. Actually, to my surprise Wally Pipp spent a lot of time at cleanup (the end of 1922, all of 1923 and the start of 1924)

Doesn't seem to be a huge change in Ruth's walk rates depending on who was batting 4th.
   117. GuyM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:33 PM (#4408658)
Strikeouts are unequivocally good for pitchers; in fact they're the only unequivocally good result for pitchers, and so pitchers are constantly trying to strike hitters out. For hitters strikeouts are bad on their own, but hitters have discovered, starting with Babe Ruth and continuing on through Adam Dunn, that trading the negative effects of more strikeouts for the positive effects of more home runs is a beneficial transaction for them. There is no such transaction for pitchers; pitchers can't trade fewer strikeouts for anything good. That is why strikeouts rates have steadily risen throughout all of baseball history.

I've heard this story before. I think maybe Bill James suggested it at some point. But it's almost completely wrong. Hitters figured out 90 years ago that it can be worth accepting some strikeouts in exchange for power. That would perhaps explain a bump in Ks in the 1920s, but doesn't explain any of the increase since then. And it obviously can't explain the past 6-7 years, when Ks rose without any increase in power.

This theory would imply that right now, there are a bunch of MLB hitters -- and a bunch of AAA hitters -- who could become much better hitters if only they were willing to strike out some more. And apparently, this has always been true, and -- I'm not sure about this part -- always will be? I think this theory is just silly. The vast majority of hitters have figured out how to optimize their own hitting -- striking out more would just make them worse hitters.
   118. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:47 PM (#4408674)
This theory would imply that right now, there are a bunch of MLB hitters -- and a bunch of AAA hitters -- who could become much better hitters if only they were willing to strike out some more. And apparently, this has always been true, and -- I'm not sure about this part -- always will be?


No, it doesn't imply that.

The cause is a sort of natural selection, and natural selection is a slow and lengthy process. Over the course of baseball history, players have been selected more and more for power; these players naturally strike out more. A player that strikes out 140 times a year but hits 25 home runs will have a job in the major leagues today and likely would not have in 1970, and definitely would not have in 1930. He would have been selected out of the job way before the major leagues, in the low minors if not in high school. A player that 25 or 30 years ago would have been told at a low level to stop uppercutting, slow down his bat and make more contact or get cut from the team is much more commonly today being allowed to keep hacking and going for home runs.

Coaches and managers at all levels have slowly, over baseball history, developed more tolerance for hitters striking out. But they have never developed more tolerance for pitchers failing to strike out hitters.
   119. AROM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:48 PM (#4408676)
Fangraphs has velocity data for a little more than a complete decade now. We've also got 6 years of pitchfx. Just looking at Fangraphs (data courtesy of BIS video stringers), pitchers threw a lot harder last year than in 2002.

Weighting average FB velocity by total batters faced and fastball percentage, I get:

2002: 89.8
2012: 91.5

I have a book with 1984 scouting reports. The entries on each pitcher usually mention fastball speed, or at least a range. My rough estimate from looking through that was that average FB in 1984 was around 85 MPH, so we're looking at 2 MPH per decade. Whether that can be extended back further in time, I don't have any idea. I don't want to suggest that average FB in 1924 was only 73.
   120. AROM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:53 PM (#4408682)
A player that strikes out 140 times a year but hits 25 home runs will have a job in the major leagues today and likely would not have in 1970, and definitely would not have in 1930.


I don't buy that at all. If we're talking about that kind of ability in the big leagues, then it would show up as more like 110 strikeouts, 35 homeruns in AAA, give or take a bit depending on the league context. The player would probably still hit for a good batting average until he gets up to facing MLB pitching.
   121. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 09, 2013 at 03:56 PM (#4408684)
Obviously I have no idea and am just wild-ass guessing, but I would guess that the average fastball in Walter Johnson's time was around Jamie Moyer speed.
   122. BDC Posted: April 09, 2013 at 04:00 PM (#4408687)
This theory would imply that right now, there are a bunch of MLB hitters -- and a bunch of AAA hitters -- who could become much better hitters if only they were willing to strike out some more. And apparently, this has always been true, and -- I'm not sure about this part -- always will be? I think this theory is just silly. The vast majority of hitters have figured out how to optimize their own hitting -- striking out more would just make them worse hitters

I think there are some batters who have at least accepted higher strikeout rates over time. Eddie Yost, granted a very extreme example of a batter type, went from striking out 8% of the time in his early 20s to 12% in his late 20s. He also went up and down as an offensive player, but his OBP, his central skill, remained very high throughout, and he seemed not to worry about what kind of out he was making when he did make out.

But overall your point is well-taken; guys don't seem to completely tinker with their hitting styles unless they're Rod Carew or Brian Downing or something. (Downing is interesting; he struck out at a 20% rate when very young, cut that to 8 or 9% by age 30, but wasn't very good then, and then "accepted" a rise back up to about 15% by career's end, getting better and better as his K-rate rose).

Perhaps it's valid to say that baseball has selected for young hitters with high-K approaches. As long as a guy can drive the ball and get on base, he is likely to win a ML job, whereas such a hitter in the 1950s might have been doomed to the minors simply because he struck out too much. (That's just a guess, I really don't know for sure.)

EDIT Aaargh I must go on a Coke run ...
   123. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: April 09, 2013 at 04:03 PM (#4408690)
Strikeouts are unequivocally good for pitchers; in fact they're the only unequivocally good result for pitchers, and so pitchers are constantly trying to strike hitters out.

strikeouts are fascist
   124. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: April 09, 2013 at 04:33 PM (#4408710)
Mike Schmidt was considered a big strikeout guy (led the NL 4 times), but he struck out less often than the average hitter today.


not the years he was leading the league in Ks...

and as far as Ks goes, Schmidt was a piker compared to Kingman.

Personally I think the increase in Ks is multi-faceted

1: There has been a change in how hitters approach hitting
2: There has been a change in pitchers, not only do they throw a little harder (and BTW some of that is simply due to throwing less innings/pitches per start, and more innings being thrown by relievers- who really have high K rates- and I think there is far less "pitching to contact" nonsense being taught nowadays
3: strikezones/umpiring
   125. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: April 09, 2013 at 04:37 PM (#4408718)
I don't buy that at all. If we're talking about that kind of ability in the big leagues, then it would show up as more like 110 strikeouts, 35 homeruns in AAA, give or take a bit depending on the league context.


Minor league history is littered with guys who could do that in AAA and who didn't get much more than a cup of Joe in the MLB.
   126. GuyM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 04:59 PM (#4408751)
I have a book with 1984 scouting reports. The entries on each pitcher usually mention fastball speed, or at least a range. My rough estimate from looking through that was that average FB in 1984 was around 85 MPH, so we're looking at 2 MPH per decade. Whether that can be extended back further in time, I don't have any idea. I don't want to suggest that average FB in 1924 was only 73.

I definitely believe velocities have increased, substantially. But we do have to be careful about comparing data from the guns over time. I believe that in the early days of using radar guns, the ball was measured as it crossed the plate, while today it's measured out of the pitcher's hand. This is a vague recollection, and could definitely be wrong. But if so, the data would exaggerate the velocity increase.
   127. AROM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 05:10 PM (#4408768)
I definitely believe velocities have increased, substantially. But we do have to be careful about comparing data from the guns over time. I believe that in the early days of using radar guns, the ball was measured as it crossed the plate, while today it's measured out of the pitcher's hand. This is a vague recollection, and could definitely be wrong. But if so, the data would exaggerate the velocity increase.


I think that's mostly right. I know that pitchfx reports velocity as it leaves the hand, and as it crosses the plate. The first (larger) number is the only one anyone ever talks about. Anything before pitch fx, you've got plenty of uncertainty.
   128. Walt Davis Posted: April 09, 2013 at 05:22 PM (#4408779)
But I think the evidence suggests that the rise in strikeouts has virtually nothing to do with hitters' strategy -- this is a function of rising pitcher skill and shrewder pitcher usage.

First you're talking about the recent trend. We were talking about the long-term trend.

I seriously doubt we've seen any rise in pitcher skill and only some rise in shrewd pitcher usage (even more fireballing relievers). We've seen an expansion of the strike zone. We've possibly also seen the effects of steroids testing and, to maintain the same power, batters have to swing even harder.

As to which came first way back when -- pitchers K'ing more or batters showing more power -- and who was reacting to whose strategy shift ... I don't know and I don't think anyone will.

What we do know was that in the sillyball era, scoring was way up despite very high K-rates. ISO and BA/SLG on-contact are way up historically.

As to Ruth ... c'mon now. Sure, he didn't strike out a lot by today's standards but he struck out a ton by his day's standards. He became MLB's career strikeout leader in 1928. He remained the career strikeout leader until 1964 (Mantle). And he still has the best BA/SLG on-contact of all-time (Thome gave him a good run for the money).

Thome seems to have stopped 49 K short of Jackson's career record.
   129. Ron J2 Posted: April 09, 2013 at 05:29 PM (#4408783)
#118 One of the clearest consequences of the sillyball era was that the fast, low power (typically) high contact switch-hitters became far less common. You can explain almost all of the drop in stolen bases by this and I suspect it'll explain a good chunk of the rise in batter K rates.

   130. Tom Nawrocki Posted: April 09, 2013 at 05:35 PM (#4408787)
A player that strikes out 140 times a year but hits 25 home runs will have a job in the major leagues today and likely would not have in 1970, and definitely would not have in 1930.


Cito Gaston had 142 strikeouts and 29 homers in 1970, and he was an All-Star.
   131. GuyM Posted: April 09, 2013 at 05:37 PM (#4408789)
As to which came first way back when -- pitchers K'ing more or batters showing more power -- and who was reacting to whose strategy shift ... I don't know and I don't think anyone will.

Why would one of these come "first?" Pitcher velocity has been increasing over time, and that will tend to increase strikeouts. Hitters are becoming bigger and stronger, and that will tend to increase power. These are two secular trends in their own right, not strategic reactions to each other. These trends can be slowed, or even reversed, for a period of time by changes in the rules or equipment, but the underlying tendency is always there.

Pitchers are clearly driving the increase in Ks, both in the long run and over the past 6-7 years. We can see that clearly by looking at pitchers as hitters, who clearly do not swing for the fences, and yet their K% has increased about 65% over the past 60 years. I do think hitters likely shifted their approach in 1993-1994, to take advantage of the new ball. There may be other periods like that, where hitters deliberately changed strategy (maybe in Astroturf parks?). But most players stick with the same approach most of the time, and the game simply selects the best available hitters. The ones who strike out a lot will tend to be power hitters, simply because if you strike out and don't have power they ask you to please leave. But that doesn't mean players can simply "choose" to trade off power and Ks. They can't.
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