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Thursday, May 12, 2005

AL isn't stepping up to the plate

If you haven't noticed, scoring is down in the American League this season.

Some publicity has already been generated by the startling number of 1-0 games across baseball in the early going. According to The Indianapolis Star, there have been 10 of these encounters so far - almost enough to stir echoes of Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson. It's also stirred the rancor of Roger Clemens, who has been on the short end of three 1-0 games already. At a comparable juncture of the 2004 season, there were just three 1-0 games on the ledger in all of baseball.

But it's not just the mono-run games. Something seems to be amiss, especially in the AL.

Home runs are being hit in 2.6 percent of plate appearances, down from 3.0 percent. The league is on pace to hit 2,226 home runs, which would be the lowest full-season total since 1993.

After one week of May, the average American League team is on pace to score 750 runs. That's down from an average of 811 in 2004. If the trend holds up, the league average will be the lowest for any full season since 1992.

The league batting average is .261, down from .270. The on-base percentage has dropped from .338 to .325. Slugging percentage has fallen from .433 to .408. All of these totals would be the lowest since 1992, if they persist.

Could it be the defense?

In a previous Stat Guy piece, it was noted there seemingly was an inexplicable drop in team defensive efficiency record (DER) between 1992 and 1993. Explanations were sought. None were received, at least none that satisfactorily explained the drop.

So far this season, the league-average DER in the American League is .698. Last season, it was .690. The last time it was this high was - you guessed it - 1992.

DER, if you haven't been paying attention (shame on you!) measures the percentage of balls hit into play against a team that are converted to outs. The three primary variables in DER are: 1) the skill of a team's fielders; 2) how hard a team's pitchers allow the ball to be hit; and 3) luck.

Assuming that the universe hasn't altered in some frightening and bizarre fashion, the luck factor can't probably account for the change in DER. Of course, because we're dealing with five weeks' worth of numbers, luck can't be discounted altogether but the sample sizes are getting large enough to pay attention to.

If we set luck aside, we're left with fielding skill and how hard balls are being hit. It seems unlikely that fielders have improved that much since last season. Was there some amazing innovation in baseball-glove technology that we haven't been told about?

The good people at The Hardball Times track line-drive percentages so the rest of us won't have to. Last season, the line-drive percentage for AL hitters was 17.7 percent. This season, it has fallen to 16.8 percent, which is significant but far from conclusive.

It's too early to know for sure, but it sure seems as if hitters aren't hitting the ball as hard as often in 2005.

What accounts for this seeming decline in offense?

Again, it's too early to speculate why scoring is down. Heck, it's too early to even know whether scoring is down. There are too many variables, and the sample sizes are too minute. Any theory at this point would be the worst kind of conjecture.

The April weather may have skewed the numbers. Remember those excessively windy games at Kauffman Stadium? There may have also simply been a fluky number of outstanding pitching performances. After all, we have those 10 1-0 games already. Maybe it's something in the water. Or, more to the point, maybe it's something they took out of the water.

All we have right now is an early trend, one which suggests offense is down. Let's watch the trend and see where it takes us.

Then let the conjecture begin.

***

Here in Kansas City, we know more about this phenomenon than other AL cities. We've seen plenty of it firsthand.

If not for the great start by Mike Sweeney, who on the basis of runs created is the second-most productive hitter in the league this season, the Royals' offense would be historically inept.

As it is, the Royals are on pace to set new franchise lows for on-base percentage (.289) and runs in a full season (596). They are on pace to collect the fewest hits (1275) and strike out the most times (1,092).

It doesn't get much better once guys get on base. Royals' baserunners are scoring 34 percent of the time, the team's worst total in 13 years. The Royals are on pace to match last season's franchise low for stolen bases (68).

We could go on and on with the ugly numbers, but you get the drift. The best advice when reviewing the Royals' offensive record is to concentrate on the line that begins with 'Sweeney' and ignore the rest.

***

As I figured, the reaction I got from readers was that there was an Obvious Answer. Clearly, players are a bunch of marauding juice freaks whose stash has been suddenly taken away, cold turkey. Here's a sampling, taken from a caller who dialed into the Star's 'Voices' hot line:
"The reason scoring is down in the AL is because steroid use is down in the AL. What a surprise."
or this, from an e-mail:
"It's the steroids, stupid!"
All of my e-mail was pretty much along those lines. Personally, I don't agree with that assessment but I'm not surprised to hear it. A couple of days ago, the Associated Press moved a chart outlining that home run rates are lower at this point in the season than they were at a comparable juncture in seasons past. In the last couple of days, I've seen the issue broached on The Hardball Times and Baseball Propectus. People are starting to notice.

The stats community is mostly wrestling with the issue of statistical variation. Sure, line drive rates are down, flyballs aren't leaving the park, the balls-in-figures are diminshed and, when you add it all up, teams aren't scoring as much. But all of it falls within fairly normal parameters of statistical variation so that's what the focus is on. Giving credence to the flucuation/luck approach is the fact that the effect is more pronounced in the AL. In the National League, numbers are down but not as much.

As I say in my article, there are a great many possible explanations for why offense is seemingly down. But it is down - at this point - and that point can't really be denied.

The timing of the drop is bad for baseball, that's for sure. It would have been better for everyone if teams were scoring six runs a game and Jim Thome was on pace to hit 80 home runs. That's not happening. The big-league leader in homers, Alex Rodriguez, is on pace to hit 51 home runs. At one time, that would have seemed like a lot. Not any more.

So I suppose one of the things I wanted to find out when I wrote this piece was just how convinced the average baseball fan is that steroids have a huge impact on offensive numbers. I have no idea if the people who read Stat Guy qualify as 'average baseball fans'. Judging by the quantity and tone of the response of those who did read and respond, I can honestly say that these folks have made up their mind: it's the steroids that are responsible from the huge figures of the last eight or so years and it's the absence of steroids that is responsible for the numbers falling this season.

I guess I can't say empirically that these people are wrong, but I certainly feel at the very least they are oversimplifying the situation. First of all, let's see what happens to the numbers as teams start to play more teams outside their division and the weather begins to warm up.
Then, let's ride it out to till the end of the season. Then, perhaps, we can look at different groupings of players to see if anything telling emerges.

So, anybody out there have an accurate listing of player weights for the last couple of years?

1 Comments:

Blogger Jello said...

And the recovery time for injuries the last two years? No names come to mind right off the bat (That is a pun) but I'm sure there are a few who healing a tad slower.

6:11 PM  

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