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Staying Power of the Dominant Pitcher Starts with Keeping the Bases Clear, Not Power Outage

By: Stats Perform

There’s a perception that baseball’s drop in scoring this decade has something to do with MLB eliminating performance-enhancing drugs and power numbers dropping. It’s a logically and statistically supported thesis, but the assessment is ankle deep.

A more complete explanation lies somewhere between the knees and the bottom of the letters, where pitchers are pounding the strike zone at rates unseen since the early 1920s. Batters seem to know this because they’re taking fewer pitches, but that isn’t helping them get on base or ultimately get runs across the plate, and pitchers are facing fewer hitters than they have since the pitcher-dominant 1960s and 70s. If 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher, 2015 might be the year those on the hill authoritatively regain the advantage stripped from them as a result of that mound-altering season.

Across baseball, teams are scoring 4.11 runs per game, which after 2014’s 4.07 average is the lowest since 1981 (4.00). ERA is at 3.82 this season, which aside from last year’s 3.74 mark is the lowest since 1992 (also 3.74). We only have to go back to 2012 to find one of the 50 season ERA marks north of four (4.01) out of 140 years on record, so this hasn’t been such a gradual slide. But runs per game and ERA leave plenty of wiggle room for how offense and pitching are evaluated.

Oddly enough, one of the most reliable numbers for appraising batting might actually be partly to blame for common opinion on the shift in the game. OPS – a number commonly highlighting power hitters – is down to .712 this season, which is the second-lowest mark since 1992 (.700). But OPS stands for on-base plus slugging percentage. We need to separate the two to identify the more impactful ingredient causing this season’s particular shift.

Slugging is at .397, which in the context of the post-1994-95 strike is low. But it’s also up 11 points from last season, which accounts for nearly all of the 12-point rise in OPS from 2014.

Part of the problem is we often use the 1994-95 work stoppage as the cutoff for assessing offense. It’s easy to fall into this since those seasons are commonly associated with a shift in the game toward an era of gluttonous offense as the aesthetic of hitters ballooned to cartoonish proportions, but doing so probably limits the ways in which we can properly quantify meaningful trends in the way the game has been and is being played.

The other cutoff for these assessments is the lowering of the mound in 1969. When numbers from 1969-94 are included, present-day slugging becomes middling.

It would follow that home runs this season (0.95) rank 20th among 47 seasons since the 1968 Year of the Pitcher, which might not be as drastic of a dip as some expect. And home runs are up markedly this season from 0.86 last year, which signals something else is going on.

The middling that happens with slugging when expanding the era from 1995 to 1969 doesn’t occur with the other half of OPS. With on-base percentage, the cellar from the 1995-2015 chart is about the same as the cellar from 1969-2015 with 1972 as the lone exception.

So it seems not power but on-base percentage could be the greater cause for offense falling off. Pitchers aren’t allowing runners to reach base. Slugging, while not approaching the levels of the late 90s/early 2000s, is still well ahead of the average rate from 1969 until 1990. But more often than all but one season since the physical makeup of the field was changed to give hitters more of an advantage, pitchers are keeping the bases clear for when those run-scoring threats occur.

OBP, of course, can also be further parsed. Hitting is a major part of it. Batting average is at .253, which is tied with 2013 for fifth-lowest in the 1969-2015 era.

But looking at walks is where the most significant shift happens and should make us finally give more credit to pitchers’ raw abilities rather than passing the evolution off as Major League Baseball’s alleged eradication of synthetic hitters. This season’s rates of walks per nine innings (2.84) and walks per batter faced (.075) are respectively the lowest since 1921 (2.79) and 1922 (also .075). This season’s WHIP is 1.28, which would match last season for second behind 1972 (1.26) in the 47 seasons beginning in 1969.

With that information, it’s not immediately surprising pitchers are throwing fewer pitches per inning (16.0) than any season since 1993 (15.8). But in an era where 95 mph fastballs, devastating curves and wipeout sliders are the norm, they’re still striking out 7.64 batters per nine innings – a rate only bettered in 2014.

It follows that the strikeout-to-walk rate is at an all-time high for the era of the lowered mound, and strikeouts per batter faced (.202) trails only last season. Through 2009, the highest K-to-BB ratio in baseball history was the 2.09 pitchers registered in 1968. That was bested with a 2.17 in 2010, and it’s taken a stark climb ever since.

Granted, hitting, fielding and ballparks have also evolved in that time, and it’s irresponsible to dub 2015 the true Year of the Pitcher. But in the 28 seasons of available pitch-count data, hitters are actually taking fewer pitches (52.9 percent) this season than any other besides 1988 (also 52.9), and they’re putting the ball in play (18.8 percent of pitches) at levels lower than every season but 2012-14 (18.6 in each). The percentage of swings put in play (39.9) is the lowest on record from those 28 available seasons.

Though pitches per inning are at low levels, pitches per batter faced is up to 3.81 – the seventh-highest total in 28 years – which isn’t all that surprising considering the high strikeout rate. But if pitches per inning is down and pitches per batter faced is up, it follows that pitchers are facing fewer batters per inning. In fact, in data available back to 1921, the 4.21 rate this season is the lowest since 1972 (4.18) and better than all but six seasons with 1968’s 4.13 mark leading the way. The average has actually dropped in nine straight seasons from 4.35 in 2006. The end result has been a season of pitching efficiency that’s difficult to rival.

Even so, the timing of the shift can’t be ignored. Maybe the shift in clubhouse culture has had something of a weighted donut effect for pitchers. Maybe a decade of hitters in the gym with bags full of synthetic helpers conditioned pitchers to better handle the more even playing field the game alleges to have now. Maybe in 1968 pitchers and hitters were on an equal physical plane with pitchers having a boost from the heightened mound. In the 1990s there was an influx of hitters with a reputation for tipping the physical advantage in their favor with PEDs. In the 2010s that physical gain has been to an extent scared out of the game.

Maybe things are equal again, and after the evolution pitchers are having an easier time getting batters out because of all the symbolic heavy lifting they had to do in the 1990s while hitters were doing synthetic heavy lifting—a decade or so of essentially pitching with a donut around the pitching arm. Maybe the donut has been gently tapped off after a bullpen session rather than in the on-deck circle and the numbers we’re seeing are the result.

It took 47 years, but pitchers are in more of a position of power than they’ve been since they had that grand mound to stand on.