Runs are down across baseball, but causes are unclear

By IKU KAWACHI
School of Communication
University of Miami

The proof is in the numbers.

A quick glance at statistics across Major League Baseball (MLB) shows that 2010 was the lowest-scoring season in almost two decades, with teams scoring 4.38 runs per game over the course of 2,430 regular season games — down 5.3 percent from 2009—according to official statistics published by the MLB’s official Web site and Baseball-Reference.com. It was the lowest mark since 1992, when teams scored 4.12 runs per game.

Busch Stadium, St. Louis. Source: Joe Penniston (Creative Commons)

The decline in run-scoring carried over to other peripheral categories, too, with teams hitting only 0.95 home runs per game, the lowest since 1993, and striking out 7.06 times per game—the highest-such average in major league history. Those numbers reflect changes of 9.5 and 2.1 percent, respectively, compared to last season.

Even casual fans of professional baseball are sure to remember some of the more impressive individual pitching feats during the regular season: two perfect games by Roy Halladay (Phillies) and Dallas Braden (Athletics), five no-hitters, countless shutouts and even a near-perfect game by Detroit Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga that fell short only because of a missed call by umpire Jim Joyce.

Much of the mainstream media has taken to dubbing 2010 the “Year of the Pitcher,” and the moniker seems justified. Historians might say that the famously pitching-dominated 1968 season, during which teams scored only 3.42 runs and hit 0.61 home runs per game, was more fitting of that description, and they’d be right.

But the list of active players that had even been born then, like Jamie Moyer and Tim Wakefield, gets shorter each year. Fewer and fewer baseball fans remember Bob Gibson putting up his historic 1.12 earned run average (ERA) that year with his terrifying fastball-slider combination.

“Overall you’re starting to see a little more dominance by the pitcher versus the hitter,” Paul Resnick, a lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences at the University of Miami, said. “But it is alarming when you look at the complete shift in a small amount of time.”

Roughly a decade removed from the height of the “steroid era,” it’s clear that the 2010 regular season represented at least somewhat of a shift in that delicate pitcher-hitter balance. The real question is: Why did teams score so few runs this year? Is it merely a random fluctuation, or is it compelling evidence of a long-term trend?

While runs per game did indeed reach an 18-year low, the figure has already been in steady decline since 2006, when it was at 4.86, and last exceeded 5.0 in 2000. Strikeouts, too, have gradually been increasing since 2005, when hitters were whiffing at the rate of 6.30 per game.

The popular explanation is that the decline in run scoring can be attributed to the increased regulation of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PED) and the resulting decline in use. Despite how obvious the causal relationship may seem to some fans, however, there is little scientific evidence that concludes that steroids were the sole, or even major, cause of the “power surge” that produced the gaudy home run totals of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you watch what’s going on with performance-enhancing substances in the news—not only in baseball, but in all sports—it’s quite possible that you equate one with the other,” Resnick said. “But it could really be a combination of things outside of that … I think there are a lot of factors that are at play here.”

One important reason for the decline in run scoring may be the growing number of teams that have placed the focus back on defense rather than hitting or slugging, particularly more statistically inclined (“sabermetric”) organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays (3.78 team ERA, eighth-best in baseball) or the Oakland Athletics (3.56, fourth).

Defense has become the latest market inefficiency in which teams are eager to gain a competitive advantage, with more teams building around their pitching staffs and using fielding skills as the determinant in borderline roster decisions.

“Organizations are shifting away from the ‘long ball’ as what’s going to win … and more often going towards ‘pitching first’,” Resnick said. “You look at some of these championship teams … and they had a solid foundation with a strong pitching staff and a great defense behind them.”

That is not to say, though, that changes in organizational philosophy alone are responsible for the decline in run scoring.

Four of the five newest stadiums—Target Field (Twins), Citi Field (Mets), Nationals Park (Nationals) and Busch Stadium (Cardinals)—have so far proven to be “pitcher-friendly,” producing Ballpark Factor (BPF) values of 96, 89, 97, and 94, respectively, this season. (Ballpark Factor, published by ESPN.com, is an advanced metric that measures the run-scoring tendencies of each stadium, with 100 representing a perfectly neutral environment.)

Source: Patrick/adwriter (Creative Commons)

Technological advances have improved advance scouting reports and video on opposing hitters, better preparing pitchers for their starts. And managers, coaches, and even hitters themselves often attest to the quality of young pitchers today—everyone from established staff aces like Josh Johnson (Marlins) and Tim Lincecum (Giants) to up-and-coming “phenoms” like Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Aroldis Chapman (Reds).

What we can say is that while the 2010 MLB season did see the fewest runs scored in nearly two decades, it simply reflected a continuation of a trend spanning the past few years. Run scoring may begin to revert to past levels next year, if for no other reason than regression toward the mean. However, the low-scoring era most likely brought about by stricter regulations on PED use, a newfound emphasis on defense, and a host of other factors may be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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