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Baseball is Cyclical

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The recent drop in offensive output isn't a result of hitters being more selective at the plate. They just can't hit.

David Banks

A few weeks ago Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated criticized current MLB hitters for their "passive" approach at the plate. Verducci explained that last season nine of the thirteen teams with above average P/PA numbers failed to make the playoffs, and noted that the league average K% has been rising as players have been encouraged to work deeper counts.

The first part of Verducci's argument holds little merit in my opinion. While citing only the failure of teams with high P/PA may have been convenient for the narrative he was attempting to construct, using one season to do so doesn't provide an adequate sample size. Beyond the Box Score's Lance Rinker recently found that teams with higher than average P/PA numbers are usually more successful offensively.

In my opinion, Verducci missed the bigger picture. F-Strike% has held consistently around 58% since 2002, while O-Swing% has risen 12.7% during the same period, to 30.8% in 2012. The issue plaguing major league hitters is not that they are too selective or passive at the plate, it's simply that they can't hit.

Baseball has been cyclical throughout it's history. At this point in baseball history, pitchers are better than hitters. As you can see below, there have been eras in which hitters have dominated pitching and vise-versa.

League_average_woba__1920-2012__together_not_resized_medium

The steroid fueled offensive explosion of the mid-to-late 1990s seems to have spoiled some baseball fans, causing them to expect more offensive production than they should. There are a number of reasons offensive production has fallen over the last decade, some of them artificial. Improved testing and tougher penalties for players caught using performance enhancing drugs were the major causes of the latest downward trend in offensive output, not a lack of aggressiveness from hitters.

Similarly, pitching dominated in the 1960s, resulting in MLB's decision to lower the mound in 1969, which lead to a relatively short surge in offensive output.

The idea that an improvement in plate discipline is responsible for the current offensive drought is a convenient narrative for writers like Tom Verducci to use to generate interest in their work, but it wilts under scrutiny.

The fact is, pitching is dominating the current era of baseball. Hitters will eventually catch up and it will even out, they will probably even gain the upper hand for a while but, as history shows us, the cycle will continue.

All stats courtesy of our friends at FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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