Tom Verducci has struck again. In an effort to pound home his theory that baseball’s decline in offense is in large part related to the more patient approach adopted by modern hitters, the senior SI columnist has once again run the numbers and, despite evidence to the contrary, run wild with his conclusions.
Last month, Verducci dipped his toe into the waters of statistical analysis and concluded that patience, among hitters at least, may not be a virtue. In his eagerness to prove that taking too may pitches has led to more strikeouts and fewer runs, Verducci made a lot of sloppy claims. For example, he compares last year’s league-wide performance in 3-0 counts to 2002, and, by showing a deficit of 29 hits, concludes that this “automatic take” is depressing offense. However, Verducci doesn’t mention several pertinent facts, including the 1,024 additional 3-0 counts that took place in 2002.
Note: tOPS+ is a comparison of OPS in each split to the league’s overall rate. Above 100 is considered above the baseline.
Although a higher percentage of plate appearances were decided on 3-0 in 2002 (i.e., did not progress to 3-1), the difference is not nearly as significant as Verducci implies, and that’s without considering the number of times the at bat progressed because of a foul ball or swing and miss (i.e., not passively taking a called strike). What’s more, if Verducci’s overall claim is correct, we should see lower offensive production, not only in 3-0 counts, but plate appearances decided thereafter. Once again, there is no such evidence. In fact, performance in both splits was superior in 2012.
Another dubious claim made by Verducci in this April column was the correlation he implies between swinging at the first pitch and striking out. To support his argument, Verducci provides a chart displaying the two rates in five year intervals that seems to show a clear connection. “Do the math”, he triumphantly writes. However, as many have noted, including mostly recently Dave Cameron at fangraphs.com, there are several holes in Verducci’s theory. Using a variety of plate discipline rates, Cameron convincingly shows that several other factors could be influencing the increased number of strikeouts in the game today. To be fair, Cameron’s analysis doesn’t necessarily “debunk” Verducci’s claim, but it does provide a more thorough, and plausible, theory to explain the decline in runs scored.
Unbowed by the criticism he received for his original treatise, Verducci has once again tried to shoe horn his theory into another article on SI. Although it isn’t likely to sway him to the contrary, below is an itemization of the evidence Verducci offers along with either a rebuttal or necessary context that mitigate the weight of his implied conclusions.
1) “The number of hits per game is down for the seventh straight year.”
Most baseball observers (fans, media, executives, players, etc.) have moved beyond batting average as a proxy for offensive acumen, but for some reason, Verducci decided to turn the clock back by using hits per game as his bellwether. Whatever the motivation for using the metric, it is true that hits per game have trended down for six year (2013 has not concluded), but it should have been noted that in 2006, the 18.6 hits/game figure was one of the highest rates in recent history. Similarly, it would have been forthcoming to identify that 1936 was the last season that spawned six subsequent years of decline. Like 2006, 1936 was a relatively high scoring season, so maybe there’s something to the cyclical nature of offense that isn’t directly related to Verducci’s beef with the modern hitting approach?
2) “On base percentage has been stagnant or down for the seventh straight year.”
This claim is purposely designed to deceive. While it’s true that on base percentage was stagnant from 2000 to 2009, for example, that pejoratively ignores that many of those years ranked in the upper 1/3 of all seasons since 1901. In other words, OBP may have stagnated, but it did so at a relatively high level.
3) “Strikeouts are up for an eighth straight year.”
Strikeouts have been on a steady climb since 1980. Since that time, there have only been seven declines versus 26 increases. Also, another period of regular strikeout rate increases took place from the late-1920s through the 1930s. Both of these periods encompass two of the highest scoring eras in major league baseball. If there’s a link between strikeouts and less offense, it isn’t evident here. In fact, since 1916, there is only an insignificant inverse correlation between strikeout rates and runs/game, and since 1961, there is actually a mild positive correlation between the two.
4) “Batting average has sunk to an all-time low (.253) since the DH was instituted 40 years ago.”
There’s no mitigation for this observation, but some context is needed. Could it be that batting averages are down, in part, because of the increased focus on defensive efficiency? If so, the small percentages that separate 2013’s partial batting average from several full season rates since 1972 are rendered insignificant. Also, why are we still measuring offense by batting average? In terms of wOBA, for example, the 2013 rate is still depressed, but only back to the late-1980s.
5) “Runs per game is tied with the rate from 2011 for the lowest rate since 1992.”
Verducci is just restating the case, not offering evidence with this statement. Runs are down. There’s no way to dispute the trend, but that doesn’t mean “patience at the plate” is the culprit.
6) Verducci’s conclusion
When you go to a baseball game today you will see fewer hits on average than at any time since 1972 — and yet the game is taking more than 20 minutes longer to play…It’s like a major corporation with seven straight years of operating at a financial loss insisting that nothing is wrong.”
Verducci likes to see hits and doesn’t enjoy long games. That much is clear. And, many probably agree. So, if that’s his point, it’s certainly a valid one. However, we don’t need to imagine baseball as a major corporation. It is one. And, for the last seven years, it has been operating at record revenues, with forecasts calling for more of the same. So, why exactly does Verducci seem to think things are so dire?
Also, when did good pitching become such a bad thing? Weren’t many heralding a new era of statistical normalcy following the inflated numbers posted in the decade prior? Is Verducci suggesting that baseball is only viable when offense is prolific? Maybe baseball should be trumpeting a new era of the pitcher, instead of lamenting fewer runs being scored? Apparently, the good old days are always better.
Verducci isn’t “wrong” because he is just arguing in favor of a style of baseball that he prefers to watch. However, where he falters is by implying that his preferences are in the best interest of baseball, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, not to mention glaring contradictions he fails to address. Who knows, maybe the modern, patient approach to hitting is having a muting effect on offense? That’s definitely not an outlandish theory, but absent some actual evidence, that’s all it remains, no matter how aggressively Verducci makes the argument.