Monday, October 14, 2013

Thoughts on 1-0 Games(Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at the declining run production in MLB over the last 13 seasons, it's impact on postseason baseball and a possible fan backlash due to boring games(although grand slam HR's in the 8'th inning may tend to quiet those fears).  In Part 2, we will look at what factors may be causing this observed decline in run production.

The easy answer is the banning and testing of PED's.  After all, didn't the peak in power and run production occur at the peak of PED use?  It is certainly possible that PED's contributed to the peak in run production in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  There is certainly an intuitive relationship between hitters being bigger and stronger and being able to swing a bat harder and faster thus hitting it farther when solid contact is made.  On the other hand, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were not big men and probably never lifted a weight in their life let alone used anabolic steroids.  They somehow managed to hit over 1400 HR's in their combined careers!  There is no obvious connection between PED's and critical elements of hitting such as timing, eye-hand coordination and pitch selection.  In addition, there is ample evidence that pitchers used as much or more than hitters with a much more intuitively obvious connection between strength, velocity and stamina.  Are we to believe that since PED's were banned/tested for, pitchers have somehow figured out how to beat the system and continue to use while the hitters have all quit?  One more point to consider is that run production did not simply spike in the late 1990's or suddenly drop off after PED's were banned.  There was a long, gradual run up to the peak run production of 2000 that started in the early 1980's and there has been a long gradual decline since 2000 up to and including 2013.

One fairly simple explanation is that there are just more and better pitchers in the league now than in the late 1990's.  That also seems to be the case in the later 1960's and early 1970s' during another severe slump on run production.  There is an interesting article up on Fangraphs entitled The Resurgence of Young Postseason Starters looking at the percentages of SP's under the age of 25 in postseason play over several decades.  The results were pretty eye-opening and created one of those Ah-ha! moments for me:

1960's- 30%
1970's- 26%
1980's- 21%
1990's- 17%
2000's- 19%
2010's- 24%

Just as the 1960's saw the influx of a remarkable number of HOF caliber pitchers such as Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, Gibson and later Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro and Jim Palmer, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a remarkable number of young pitching talent that will prove to be every bit as good over the course of their careers.  That is not to say there were not great pitchers in the 1990's.  RJ, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux may well have beaten Koufax, Marichal and Lefty Carlton in a time warp, but to use relative measures such as ERA+ to prove superiority may draw inaccurate conclusions as it is likely that the average pitcher of the 1990's was simply not as good as in the 1960's and 2010's.

There has also been a fairly dramatic shift in the strike zone from the 1990's until now.  In the 1990's, most umpires were not calling any pitch above about mid-thigh a strike while giving more leeway on the corners, particularly the outside corner.  Who can forget umpire Kevin Gregg calling strikes on pitches by Livan Hernandez  that were a full 8 inches off the outside corner of the plate in the 1997 postseason?  After that debacle, MLB intructed umpires to call a strike zone that was closer to what is in the rulebook with a resulting narrowing, but also vertically expanding the zone.  This had the effect of harming pitchers like Kirk Reuter and Greg Maddux who lived by horizontally expanding the strike zone at and below the knees.  It helped young, hard throwing pitchers like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw who prefer to challenge hitters up in the zone.  Pitchfx has reinforced this trend by forcing umpires to less creative with the strike zone and call it according to the rule book.

The last two decades have also seen a remarkable evolution in the average pitcher's arsenal of pitches.  Mariano Rivera built a HOF career on just one pitch, the cut fastball, that was not in widespread use before he made it famous.  The cut fastball has similar movement as a slider except that it is apparently easier to learn and throw, easier to control and harder for batters to recognize.  Now, instead of simply throwing fastballs, pitchers like Ryan Vogelsong can throw 3 different versions of the pitch, 4-seam, 2 seam and cutter, which all have different movement which batters have to try to adjust to on pitches that are traveling at 90+ MPH.  There is also the curve-slurve-slider continuum of pitches which all have similar movement but travel at different velocities.  In the ALDS final, Justin Verlander put on a clinic of varying breaking pitch velocities in the middle innings against the A's who flailed helplessly.  Lastly, there is the changeup-circle change-split change-split fastball continuum of pitches which radically expands the off-speed arsenal beyond the straight changeup.

While pitching techniques have advanced rapidly, so has the way baseball teams evaluate both individual and team defense.  Metrics such as UZR have for the first time quantified the effect of defense, especially range, on run prevention.  More and more teams are insisting that their players not only catch the ball reliably but cover a lot of ground in the field.  More teams are showing a willingness to sacrifice offense for improved defense when acquiring players.  Spray charts have enabled teams to be much more aggressive in the placement of fielders in areas where the batter is most likely to hit the ball.  These defensive factors may be making a bigger impact on suppressing run production than we imagine.

In summary, while PED's and their banning may be a factor in the decline in run production, it is more likely that what we are observing is due to an influx of young pitching talent, changes in the called strike zone, the evolution of pitching techniques, and improved defense.

In Part 3, we will look at what, if anything, Major League Baseball can do to increase run production.


  1. Additional factors that might be considered are 1) reliance on pitch count, 2) expanded use of bullpen (when did LOOGY first show up?, pitching staff goes from 10 pitchers to 11 or 12), 3) medical advances - I remember when Tommy John actually had his surgery. Surkamp is coming back from TJ within a year. Wilson appears to be coming back from a 2nd TJ. Do star pitchers have longer careers because of better medical care?

    Anon #1

    1. All excellent points. I think lefty-lefty matchups out of the bullpen are a much bigger factor than they are credited for. Yes, medical advances have definitely extended the careers of All-Star and HOF caliber pitchers.

  2. Thanks for the article.

    Here is to putting more under-25 stud starters in our rotation.

  3. Why do you not mention an often-given reason, modifications by MLB of the baseballs used? If the dead-ball era really had a dead ball, the Bonds-Sosa-McGwire-Palmiero-Giambi era may have had a juiced ball, as McC's "Owlcroft" has alleged.

    1. I have no evidence re. "juiced" balls. If someone does, I'd be happy to look at it. "Juiced ball" theories strike me as being the type of fanciful thinking that people tend to turn to when they run out of other explanations, kind of like UFO's and other conspiracy theories. To me, the factors I discussed as well as those suggested by Anon #1 in the first comment are much more plausible than attributing events to "juiced balls."

    2. Also, if juiced balls happened, you would expect a sudden spike in run production and a sudden decline. In fact, there was a long gradual run up to the offensive peak of 2000 and then a long gradual decline. This alone argues against PED's and juiced balls as the major factors.

    3. Google Sillyball and High Boskage House. That gets you to Owlcrafts, AKA, Eric Walker of Sinister First Baseman and Oakland As bible fame. That describes what happened offensively from pre1993 to the Siilyball era, and now the decline in recent years.

      Then check out his steroids and baseball link there. If you skim thru that, you will find a section where he discusses the evidence of juiced balls that he has found. Where balls from different eras are examined with the conclusion that balls had more bounce during the offensive era.

      Based on what he has captured there, I believe that Selig decided to juice the ball in response to the publics disgust and lack of interest after the last disastrous strike. I know for myself that I stopped following baseball as intently for a while there until the McGwire chase of HR record sucked me back in.

      It makes sense from a business perspective, your sport shot itself in the legs, when was the sport revitalized? 1920s with intro of live ball, and the use of new balls instead of beating the ball to death before replacement, and 1970s, after mound was reduced and DH was introduced, resulting in more offense. So introduce an even livelier ball, pull the crowds back in.

      If you look at the timeline that is tabled there, you can see the actual trend numbers, how the eras are different. There was a substantial increase in offense that you cannot explain other than a juiced ball. That just does not make sense any other way, though if you have another take, I would certainly listen.

    4. It's doesn't make sense any other way? Come on, ogc! I just outlined several much more plausible explanations for the data! I guess people's capacity to believe in conspiracy theories is pretty much boundless! If you subscribe to the Selig/Juiced ball theory, then you have to also believe that the balls were incrementally juiced over a 20 year period and have now been un-juiced incremementally over a similar period.

      Sorry, ogc. I HAVE looked at the numbers and I just don't see it!

    5. Really? I offer up data and you just resort to calling me inane?

      Who said anything about incremental juicing? Explain to me how the offensive era started off with a bang, not an incremental change, it substantially changed in the 1993-1994 time period, from prior scoring levels to a substantially higher level. Everything else after that is randomness as far as I'm concerned, until it dropped substantially again in recent years back to pre-offensive era levels.

      I'll admit I speculated on what the reasoning was for juicing the ball. But there is really only one reason to introduce a juiced ball: $$$.

      Here is my timeline on this. Walker started with a study of what exactly happened in the switch to the offensive era. He looked at scoring levels, and found that scoring suddenly jumped over a year or two period, and stated that this does not make sense with the steroids scenario that everyone is talking about, but it does make sense with a juiced ball scenario. When people attacked his theory, then he went out and gathered all the information he could discussing all the various excuses and explanations people would give, including studies that have found that found that the ball was different during the Offensive era.

      If you didn't Google his site and looked at his Sillyball article, then, no, you HAVEN'T looked at the numbers.

    6. I'll admit that while I read your article, I didn't read it in-depth since I have already formed an opinion.

      Here is my take on the young pitcher's change percentages. The explanation given is not complete. There is no explanation on why the number of pitchers dropped from the 60's to the 90's. Here's what I think, baseball before would just burn through players as they were slaves to the teams, and thus teams had to continually bring in young pitchers into the playoffs. However, with free agency in the 70's, big money entered into the picture, incenting players to take better care of themselves and enabling themselves to have longer careers. Teams, having to spend a lot more money on players, took better care of them as well, as they now had more money committed to them.

      That was also the era of new and better medicine and medical care. Particularly in the case of pitchers, Tommy John surgery, has saved the career of many a pitcher, enabling longer careers. That created a higher bar of performance for younger pitchers to match and surpass, in order to get a chance at being a pitcher. Thus less pitchers got their chance while they were younger.

      This trend reached its nadir in the 90's. With the offensive era upon us, teams start looking more vigorously for better pitching. Plus with older pitchers now seemingly not that good because of the increased scoring, teams are willing to take more chances on young pitchers being better than the older pitchers who are now not so good in the offensive era. Thus the influx of young pitchers into the playoffs, and that trend continues today.

    7. There was no "sillyball" era. The run scoring that peaked in 2000 started way back in the late 1970's and early 80's and gradually ran up to the peak. Since 2000, there has a been a gradual but steady droppoff.

      Quality of pitching, strike zone changes and relative emphasis on defense, all of which are directly observable phenomena are much more plausible explanations.

      And yes ogc, I HAVE looked at the numbers!

    8. Oh, and I think the "Sillyball" era would make a great subject for your blog.

    9. You say the strike zone affected baseball after 1997. Rueter's first year with the Giants was in 1997, low 3.45 ERA. And his ERA did jump the next two years, to 4.36 and 5.41, but then fell in 2000 to 3.96 , rose to 4.42, and he had his best ERA in a full season in 2002.

      Also, my memory of the strike zone changes is different. I recall that Sandy Alderson had a hand in making all the strike zone changes, culminating in his famous acceptance of selective umpires' resignation. That was in 1999.

      And you say data, but all you provide is anectodal evidence. Where is the data on pitchers throwing all these different pitchers. What is the percentage of pitchers doing that? And I buy that teams are doing more on defensive placement, the Giants being a chief example, but where is your data on how many teams are doing that? I'm not even sure you can pull data like that, UZR is a system that looks at players relative to each other, so there is no way to quantify whether players are better in one era or another, you can only say how good they are compared to another player in that same season. Same with DRS.

      At least I can point to data and studies that Walker provided.

    10. I get the message, dissenting views can go to their own blog. Message received.

    11. No, I did not say the strike zone change in 1997! My only reference to 1997 was commenting on Kevin Gregg's ridiculous strike zone in the World Series. I don't recall exactly when, but it was around 2001 or 2002 when MLB announced that they were instructing umpires to call a more regulation strike zone. When I saw that announcement, I said to myself, "uh-oh! Kirk Reuter is in trouble!" Now maybe Reuter was nearing the end of his career anyway, but sure enough, guys like him who lived by soft-tossing guys who lived outside the corners of the strike zone started disappearing and a new group of young hard throwers like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw who lived up in the zone started dominating the game.

      As for different types of pitches, ogc, it's all documented in Fangraphs. Just go study their pitch distribution spreadsheets and it's quite easy to see.

      As for Walker, I don't see how speculating on some secret directive from Bud Selig counts as data!

      I do agree that improvements in medical care have extended the careers of good pitchers, but that does not explain the influx of young pitching in the 2000's and 2010's.

      If you look up the average age of pitchers from the 1960's to the present, there was a steady increase through the 1990's then it started to drop again, with is another piece of evidence that young pitching if a significant factor here.

    12. I never said that UZR was comparable year to year. I only said that UZR and other defensive metrics help quantify the importance of defense in run prevention and this has prompted teams to emphasize it more in their player acquisition.

      Come on, ogc! If you are going to criticize, at least read it carefully first and criticize what I actually say and not what you imagine I say!

  4. Conspiracy theories??!! OGC is talking about a business decision, parallel to raising or lowering the pitcher's mound or shrinking the operative strike zone. You may not buy Eric Walker's theory, DrB, but the sneering and namecalling--"people's capacity to believe in conspiracy theories is pretty much boundless"--is gratuitous foolishness.

    1. Pretty much every conspiracy theory involves a secret business decision. Not sure how this is any different.

    2. Lowering the mound was a publicly announced decision in 1968. The Dodgers supposedly cheating with their mound is a rumor and I labelled it so. The league instructions to umpires regarding the strike zone and the implementation of Pitchfx were also publicly announced policies.

      Some secret decision by Bud Selig to "juice" the baseball is pretty much the stuff conspiracy theories are made of and is in no way comparable to the mound issue or the strike zone issue.

    3. Things look a tad heated up in here. I have read Walker's site, and discussed some things with him at MCC (including Melky Cabrera's Gints stint! which he insisted was all lady luck BABIP)... I don't want to re-hash things, one sort of new point I have is that the big HR guys were adjusted to the best way the pitchers could - they walked them a lot more. Not just Bonds, who would get one pitch every 3 days, Sammy Sosa always had terrible walk rates early in his career, after the HR year he was walking 100 times a year. McGuire hit career high BBs as well. Speaking of sneering, Walker lays down the few doctor studies there are (none very substantial) and then dares somebody to come up with anything to counter. Well, there just aren't any that exist. Does that lack of "medical evidence" prove that steroids effects have been exaggerated? Not to me.

      It is pretty hard to introduce a juiced baseball, but it is infinitely harder to get rid of said juiced baseball. Like the Doc, I see a gradual increase and peak in scoring, and the explanations of strike zones and pitching are good enough for me. Expansion might have had a small effect as well, the quality took a hit. Walker does a weird splice chart that doesn't make much sense, chopping up things. I know he was taken to task on Tango's digs, maybe in an insulting manner, which wasn't very nice. But Walker hasn't done proper peer review on his data also. With peers like that???

      Basically to me, depending on stats alone is not going to cut it. I always come back to "real life" where Bonds was a superman, hitting bombs with one hittable pitch every 3 days. Where is that in the "data". And I imagine it was the same with the other famous juicers, but I followed them a lot less.

    4. Thanks, Shankbone. I see it pretty much the same way.

      I am a PED skeptic when it comes to how much they help performance, but I can't really totally dismiss it either. They probably have been a factor in some performances. The knowledge that they were used certainly takes some of the joy and exhilaration from some of the records that were set during that era.

      I don't think they explain everything that happened in that era, but I also don't think they can be completely discounted either.

    5. I don't care on a moral basis, and I do think the effects were balanced out with pitchers juiced up (Gagne!) but I think there is definite benefits to PED use, particularly with respect to delaying aging effects. Barry Bonds was the best player I'll ever see live, he deserves to be in the HOF as do several others of these cats, but the HOF is sort of a joke if they want to whitewash bezball history. Shoeless Joe, Petey R, they all need to be in.

      Mainly, as we cover the minors, I focus more on the fringe guys that have benefited, as Brett Pill tweeted about. Don't like Verducci's moralizing, but I do think his article on the crew of minor league pitchers who gained major velocity is worth a good look and shouldn't be disregarded. Everybody focuses on the HRs, but more action is down in the trenches where getting to the show can be a million dollar payday that you cheat somebody else out of. That's where I get a little bit on the moralist sideshow. But I wouldn't discount the ability to gain muscle and throw big heat as nothing, nor the ability to rebound quick and stay healthy and strong all season.

  5. OK, I will apologize to ogc and campanari if I let my annoyance with juiced ball theories make it personal. I cannot disprove that there may have been changes in the elasticity of the ball over the years.

    It's just that I have been reading about juiced ball rumors since I was a kid reading Sports Illustrated, and that is a long time! Over the years, I have come to regard these rumors as being akin to conspiracy theories. Yes, there is some evidence to suggest something like that may have occured, but you can never quite close the evidence loop you are left with a lot of nothing, smoke and no fire so to speak.

    If you are convinced the balls were juiced, that's great. I have no personal beef with either of you on that. I just am not going to deal with that subject on this blog.

    That's all! Again, sorry if I got too personal with my reaction.