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Tuesday, March 20, 2001

The “High Strike” and Run Scoring Fluctuations: A Brief Summary

Don looks into the past to gain some insight into the effects of the new strike zone.

Many of you are already scrutinizing the spring training   box scores, looking for signs of the ?high strike.? That?s a good thing, as   it will keep you off the streets.

Just kidding. (Well, maybe   I?m not, come to think of it.) At any rate, my spies tell me that run scoring   seems to be down in the early goings-on in Florida and Arizona; that might well   mean that a rule book strike zone may re-emerge.

That?s something we won?t   know for sure until the season starts, of course. (And maybe not even for awhile   after that.) While we wait for some official evidence, let?s take a brief look   at yearly run scoring fluctuations in baseball history, so we might know what   to expect should a strike zone change actually occur.

There are three basic reference   points for strike zone changes. The first is the comparison of run scoring in   1962 and 1963, when the rule book definition of the strike zone was expanded.   The second is a comparison of 1968 and 1969, when this rule was rescinded. Third   and last is a comparison of 1987 and 1988, when an ?unofficial? strike zone   change took place.

There are a few other nuances   here that we?ll examine in due course, the most important of which being that   it?s not really sufficient to look at one-year run scoring changes, but let?s   press on.

First is the 1962-63 run-scoring   change. We?ll look at this by league, rather than by MLB as a whole. In 1963,   run scoring was down 17.6% from 1962 levels in the NL. Over in the AL, this   drop in scoring was much more modest (down 8.1%).

In 1969, run scoring increased   as a result of MLB?s reversion to the old strike zone and due to expansion.   It?s almost impossible to separate these elements, which produced a somewhat   higher ?bounce-back? in both leagues. Run scoring increased 19.9% in the AL,   and 15.3% in the NL.

After the ?year of the homer?   in 1987 (a title that looks a little anemic from our current vantage point),   the ?informal? strike zone change had a significant impact on run-scoring in   1988. Scoring levels declined 16.5% in the NL and 11.0% in the AL.

That?s not a lot of data   points to work with, but you could reasonably expect a run scoring downturn   ranging from eight to fifteen percent from a serious application of the ?high   strike.?

None of the above means that   the umps will, in fact, enforce such a rule. However, since major league baseball   has been after such a change since 1999, it?s possible that the third time will   be the charm.

There?s another question   to ask while we?re on this subject, however. And that is: where do these rule   change-based run-scoring fluctuations rank in terms of year-to-year run scoring   fluctuation in general? Are the 1962-63, 1968-69, and 1987-88 changes extreme   manifestations of this phenomenon?

To answer this question,   it?s possible to construct an entire set of these run-scoring fluctuation percentages?one   for every year since 1877 in the NL and 1902 in the AL. When we do that, we   discover that the run-scoring downturn in the NL from 1962-63 is the fifth largest   change in baseball history. The 1987-88 downturn in the NL is right behind it,   ranking sixth on the list. Here are the top ten run scoring downturns from one   season to the next:

Years (League),? Pct.
1887-88 (NL), -33.9%
1930-31 (NL), -26.8%
1903-04 (NL), -22.3%
1897-98 (NL), -18.5%
1962-63 (NL), -17.6%
1987-88 (NL), -16.5%
1902-03 (AL), -16.2%
1901-02 (NL), -16.2%
1932-33 (NL), -15.9%
1970-71 (NL), -15.6%

Looking at this list, you   get the impression that run scoring levels have been more volatile in the NL   than in the AL. (Nine of the top ten downturns in run scoring have occurred   in the NL).

Interestingly, this effect   is not duplicated when we look at the reverse situation (biggest run scoring   gains from one season to the next). As the next chart demonstrates, these extreme   changes are distributed more evenly among the leagues:

Years (League), Pct.
1910-11 (AL), +26.6%
1972-73 (AL), +23.3%
1892-93 (NL), +22.4%
1888-89 (NL), +22.3%
1968-69 (AL), +19.9%
1902-03 (NL), +16.7%
1919-20 (AL), +16.4%
1968-69 (NL), +15.3%
1933-34 (NL), +15.2%
1947-48 (AL), +14.3%

As you can see, the 1968-69   upswing (strike zone and expansion combining as catalysts for offense) is big,   but it?s not really close to being at the top of the list.

For most of these big run-scoring   swings, there?s some kind of significant change in the rules, or the baseball,   or some other elemental aspect of the game that has been the agent of change.   Changing the ball (1911), changing the base on balls rule (1889), changing the   pitching mound distance (1893), or adding the DH (1973) have had greater impacts   on scoring gains than strike zone changes.

A similar conclusion can   be arrived at in terms of the scoring downturns.

A couple of other points before we wrap up. First, the upswing in offense in   the 90s doesn?t quite get into the top ten list for either league. The big upswing   in the NL came over 1992-93, with expansion and Denver: that produced a 13.6%   rise, which ranks 12th all-time.? Offense rose 9% in the AL in 1992-93, and   another 11% in 1993-94, but this 20% increase over two years is only tenth on   the two-year list. There are a couple of two-year periods in which leagues saw   offense increase by more than 30%: the NL from 1892-94, and the AL from 1909-11.   The rise in NL offense from 1992-94 was 16.4%, which ranks seventeenth on the   list.

Second, you may have noticed   the existence of some odd ?ping-pong? years in the above charts. By that I mean   years in which a downturn is followed by an almost equal upturn in the next   season. The first of these ?ping-pong? phenomena occurs in the 1887-89 NL, where   run scoring dropped 34%, then gained back 22%. There?s a three-year ping pong   effect in the NL from 1901-04, with the league first shedding 16% of its offense,   gaining 17% in 1903, and then tossing off 22% the next year.

The NL from 1968-71 went through a wild variation of this, losing 12% of its   1967 offense in 1968, gaining 15% back in the expansion/strike zone change year   of 1969, tacking on another 10% in 1970 (briefly restoring offensive levels   to their 1961-62 levels), before lopping off another 16% in 1971.? When we construct   a five-year standard deviation of run scoring fluctuation, the 1966-71 NL, at   .138, ranks seventh highest all-time.? By contrast, the 1996-2000 NL has a standard   deviation of just .039.

We?ll look into all this in greater detail on my weblog.

To wrap up, we may not know   what will actually happen in terms of the ?high strike? in 2001, but this little   exercise has at least helped us set the likely effects based on previous examples   of such rules changes in the historical context of run fluctuation.

And I think many of us would welcome some kind of ?correction? in offensive   levels.?

Don Malcolm Posted: March 20, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Robert Posted: March 20, 2001 at 01:00 AM (#603460)
I welcome a correction.

I would like to see the levels of both leagues work their way back to around 4.5 RPG. At that level, I feel you can still make a reasonable case for the stolen base as an offensive weapon.

What we've had since 94 was something like a walking and homerun hitting contest.
   2. scruff Posted: March 20, 2001 at 01:00 AM (#603464)
I agree Robert, it's a lot like what James said about the 50s in the Historical Abstract. He says it better than I could, "The baseball of the 1950s was perhaps the most one dimensional, uniform, predictable version of the game that has ever been offered for sale . . . every team approached the game with the same essential offensive philosophy: get people on base and hit home runs . . . Since every team's offense was so much the same, a baseball game was not, as it is today (1985) and has been throughout most of baseball history, a clash of opposing philosophies or unlike skills, but rather was reduced to a simple test of quality, a day-to-day worry about which pitcher had his control and which one would slip a pitch into the wheelhouse of the other's behemoth, and how many men would be on base at the time. Perhaps this was exciting if your team was the Yankees or Dodgers (Braves could be subbed today) . . . and you figured each day that yours would be the fortunate team; besides those teams truly did play and exciting, aggressive game of baseball, as did a few other managers. Another point on which baseball drew heavy criticism from the media in the 50s was the length of the games . . . this engendered criticism that the games had become too slow, and in the early 60s a series of steps was taken to speed up the games." The two trip rule came in, as well as the new strike zone.

It's like dejavu all over again . . .
   3. Eugene Posted: March 22, 2001 at 01:00 AM (#603466)
There is a lot of talk about when the large chest protectors were removed from umpire uniforms (in my sleepyness I forget which league) and how that effected the height of the strikezone and the runs per game rate. Do you have any comments on this, or is this a red herring.
   4. Alan Shank Posted: April 03, 2001 at 12:03 AM (#603610)
One thing Don overlooked is that the mound was lowered between '68 and '69, and this probably had a greater effect than the strike zone, as it was independent of the umpires.

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