Slump City: Why Does the 2014 MLB Season Suddenly Feel Like 1968?

Less than a month into the 2014 baseball season, we’re already reveling in the game’s many intricacies. One trend in particular has reared its ugly head with all the subtlety of a Bartolo Colon at-bat: Nobody, it seems, can hit worth a damn.

Through Monday,* major leaguers were hitting just .248. The MLB-wide batting average hasn’t been below .250 once this millennium. In fact, over a full season, that mark would rank as the sixth-lowest over the last 50 years:

Season     BA
1968           .237
1967           .242
1972           .244
1965           .246
1963           .246
2014           .248
1969           .248
1971            .249
1966           .249
1964           .250
Source: ESPN Stats & Info

Granted, weird things often happen in short time frames. But take a look at the five lowest MLB-wide batting averages from Opening Day through this point in the season, also since 1964:

Season     BA
1968           .229
1972           .238
1965           .240
1971            .241
1966/1991  .242
Source: Elias

This year’s .248 mark barely misses the cut. Note the specific seasons that appear on both charts, though. The bulk of results came during historically poor periods for offense in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. The top year on each list is the Year of the Pitcher, the 1968 season that saw Carl Yastrzemski post the lowest batting average ever to lead the league (.301) and Bob Gibson deliver the lowest ERA ever for a qualified starting pitcher (1.12). If 2014 is lumping in with a season that featured mounds as high as skyscrapers, something’s definitely going on. But what?

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The first culprit is rising strikeout totals, as hitters have been whiffing more often than ever over the past few seasons. Through this many games in 2006, batters were striking out 18.7 percent of the time while netting a .265 batting average. That first figure has soared to 23.3 percent in 2014, an all-time high for this point in the season.

In an attempt to figure out why hitters are striking out more than ever, Grantland contributor Ben Lindbergh hosted a panel discussion on Baseball Prospectus’s Effectively Wild podcast with Fox Sports writer Rob Neyer, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus contributor Harry Pavlidis, former major league pitcher Brian Bannister, and physics professor/baseball researcher Dr. Alan Nathan. Each of the panelists had a somewhat different theory. Pavlidis noted the introduction of PITCHf/x to umpires’ training programs in 2009, a move he says prompted umpires to start calling a larger and more standardized strike zone. Pavlidis found that 57 percent of the pitches that hitters take now get called as strikes, compared to 50 percent right before PITCHf/x supplanted QuesTec for umpire reviews.

Nathan noted that pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Teams are drafting and developing bigger and stronger pitchers, and the net effect has been faster average pitch speeds, including more fastballs touching triple digits. According to ESPN Stats & Info research, the average velocity for all pitch types this season is 87.3 mph, while the average pitcher’s maximum pitch velocity is 94.1 mph. Compare that to April 2011, when those averages were 86.7 and 93.7, respectively. While those differences might seem negligible, Nathan pointed out that batters only have a fraction of a second to react to pitches. That means hitters’ muscle memory has been conditioned toward a certain pitch speed over thousands of repetitions, and even the slightest change can throw off their timing.

Bannister noted that PED testing has hurt hitter performance and thus offensive results, though that topic’s a bit of a puzzler, since more stringent testing would presumably affect pitcher PED usage rates as well, and thus possibly deaden overall pitch speeds. Lindbergh suggested that one of the mantras of the analytical age — that high-strikeout pitchers are highly desirable, but high-strikeout hitters aren’t necessarily a problem — could be affecting personnel decisions. Neyer, meanwhile, subscribed to an all-of-the-above theory, claiming that the rise in strikeouts has been somewhat organic.

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mets-shift-tri

The second factor is the rise of defensive shifts. Baseball Info Solutions tracks all manner of defensive data, including team-by-team shift totals and the impact those shifts have on batting averages. In 2011, teams executed 2,357 shifts, including Ted Williams Shifts (three infielders on one side of second base) and Partial Ted Williams Shifts (at least two infielders significantly out of their normal fielding positions or an infielder — usually the second baseman — 10-plus feet into the outfield). In 2012, that number nearly doubled, to 4,577. Another big spike occurred in 2013, with the total number of shifts climbing to 8,134. We’re on pace for a 57 percent surge in 2014, with the total number of shifts projected to be 12,737 by year’s end.

A handful of teams are fueling that spike by getting way more aggressive in their shifting habits. Last season, the Astros shifted 496 times on balls in play, ranking fifth behind MLB’s shiftiest team, the Orioles, who shifted 595 times. This year, Houston is on pace to triple Baltimore’s 2013 total. Meanwhile, the Yankees are poised to more than double their shift total from last season, a nod to compelling data on shifting’s effects, and also to the declining range of middle infielders Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts. A recent study by ESPN.com’s Keith Law and Mark Simon showed that shifting can even have tangible effects on hard-hit balls that typically scoot through the infield and drop in for hits.

In addition to having a tangible impact on run prevention, defensive shifts do wonders to smash batting averages. Last year, the league average for shifted batters was .233 on ground balls and what BIS defines as short line drives; sans shifts, hitters posted a .263 average on those grounders and liners. The figures look similar this year: Batters facing the shift are hitting .236 on those kinds of balls, and .257 in non-shift situations. Even though the batting averages are essentially the same this year and last, the increased number of shifts this year means a lower batting average overall.

The impact of defense doesn’t end there. While it’s tough to measure, teams do seem to be valuing defense more when parceling out playing time. Discussing Phillies big-power/weak-glove prospect Maikel Franco on my podcast this week, Law noted that Franco’s skills look a bit anachronistic now that teams rarely employ what Law called “Dean Palmer types” at third base anymore, instead opting for more agile, athletic defenders. The playing-time crunch that led the Mets to trade Ike Davis to the Pirates might not have happened 10 years ago, when a team might’ve been content to leave Lucas Duda in left field instead of shifting him to a position where he’d be less of a defensive liability. Hell, the Rays’ very existence as a franchise seems to affirm the value of emphasizing defense; the fact that teams still pay so much more for 30-homer hitters than defensive wizards makes a defense-heavy approach even more logical for small-payroll teams.

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Trends don’t last forever in baseball. It took just one generation for the Year of the Pitcher to evolve into one of the highest-offense eras in the sport’s history, a shift brought on by everything from rule changes like lowering the mound, to more offense-friendly ballparks, to bats with thinner handles, to juiced balls, to juiced ball players. One way or another, the batting average decline will likely stop as well.

It might take a while, though. Even if the rising strikeout rates are organic and thus subject to leveling off, teams have discovered run prevention gold with shifts. Clubs like the Astros will probably shift even more as long as doing so yields results, and teams that almost never shift, like the Rockies, will likely start once they’re forced to acknowledge how well the tack is working for the competition. There are ways to beat the shift, like shooting for the opposite field or bunting, but we’ve yet to reach the tipping point where a power hitter who sees a lot of shifts, like David Ortiz, decides to sacrifice home runs for singles. We might not even be close.

This season probably won’t produce another ’68 Yaz situation. But the 73-year streak without a .400 hitter looks pretty damn safe, too.

*All stats are through games on Monday, April 21.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Stats, MLB Trends, Year Of The Pitcher, Defensive Shifts, Strikeouts, PEDs, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri