One week into the season, and already there are some interesting occurrences, such as Carlos Gomez playing second for the Brewers and Andrelton Simmons making every effort to nullify the need for him to use a bat. Jon Lester got tongues wagging about his lack of throws to first, and the great expectations Chicago fans had for both teams has evaporated faster than a popped balloon.
It's never a good idea to look at team or player performances in so small a time frame, but looking at total performance can help show how a season might trend. Let me be absolutely clear--I'm not suggesting looking at players or teams after a five-game span and predicting their respective seasons. That would be borderline analytic malpractice and could cost me what little saber street cred I possess. However, baseball teams have made over 5,700 plate appearances through last Saturday, and while players come and go, swinging like Robinson Cano (and they better swing better than he has this year), history suggests the aggregate numbers will not deviate much from what has been seen so far this year.
The first item that leaped out at me is the continued erosion in runs scored. The old adage that offense takes time to get going in the spring has validity, but even when comparing apples to apples and looking at the first five games, it's still rather stunning to see that offense continues to struggle:
Since this is the first of many charts I'll take the time to explain what is shown, with the format the same in the ensuing charts. The blue bar shows the average runs per game through the first five games from 1980 to 2015. The Cubs and Cardinals have only played four games, and several teams have played six, so for the teams with six games, only the first give are shown. The red line is the brainchild of Beyond the Box Score co-Managing Editor Neil Weinberg, who suggested I add the year-end values as well. It shows that even though only five games have been played, in the past 30 years or so, the average runs scored through the first five games correlated with the eventual yearly values quite closely. This makes the 3.8 runs per game value quite scary.
Going hand-in-hand is the number of games in which teams score no runs. Offensive struggles are one thing, it's quite another to score no runs, and the number of shutouts is likewise increasing and a primary determinant in the decreasing run support:
I stay on top of what happened in baseball by going through box scores, and I'm always attuned to looking for patterns. It doesn't always mean I'm right, but it seemed to me there were a large number of shutouts so far this year, and the data bears this out.
As would be expected, batting averages are plummeting as well, but the decrease is even greater than might be expected:
One has to go back to 1972 to see a batting average that low after five games, and the end result of the lack of offense that year led to the designated hitter being adopted. There is more variance between early season averages and full-year ones, but the general trends work in the same direction.
I hadn't considered looking at batting average of balls in play (BABIP) until Neil suggested it:
There's still plenty of season left for BABIP to rise, but if it stays near .280, that's a value not seen in close to 30 years.
Strikeouts are increasing and walks are decreasing, and each have their own chart:
At least the strikeout rate is down from last year, but that's not saying much. I find the decrease in walks to be borderline alarming, since in an era of decreased offense, patience at the plate should be a given to try to reduce the advantages pitchers have. One has to go back to 1968 to find a walk rate below 2.9, and that caused four expansion teams, more uniform pitching mound heights, a change in the strike zone and a wave of new stadiums to be built. On second thought, there were probably other factors that led to those changes.
When offense is hard to come by, the reflexive reaction is to "manufacture" runs, code for strategies that legitimize making outs. Baseball "purists" pine for the old days of stolen bases, sacrifices and tobacco juice everywhere, regardless of the consequences or of the realization that the value of an extra base is often outweighed by the cost of an out. Having written that, these two charts show stolen base opportunities per game (stolen bases + caught stealing) and stolen base percent:
Stolen bases have been decreasing since around 2010 and would have to double to reach the glory days of the 1980s, and that's unlikely to happen. What is more disturbing is the combination of decreased stealing frequency and decreased stolen base percent, since the perception would be that fewer stolen base attempts means only the best base stealers are making attempts. Miguel Cabrera stole his annual base Friday night, so this isn't the case. Teams are attempting fewer stolen bases and having less success when doing it.
All of this is doom and gloom if only viewed through the lens of offense--if describing pitching, it's another Golden Era with Clayton Kershaw as the latter-day Sandy Koufax, even though Kershaw only had three losses and no-decisions in 2014 and already has one of each in 2015. Baseball can be very zero-sum in this regard, thinking that decreased offense has to be due to better pitching, but it isn't always that linear. I won't go as far as to state that coaching is the best it ever has been, but the tools and data available to managers and coaches have never been more impressive, and more is on the way. In theory, with better information comes better execution, but at least from an offensive standpoint, this increase in knowledge hasn't made the leap to offensive production. It's also entirely possible that the increased knowledge has greater benefit to pitchers as they can see the willingness of pitchers to chase balls out of the strike zone, observe the lack of success hitters have when doing so and adjust their pitching accordingly. As it stands now, over sixty percent of pitches are outside the strike zone--I would love to know what that number was in pre-PITCHf/x days.
Personally, I don't pine for the days of the early 2000s and Jose Altuve-like players hitting 25 home runs a year, but if a game is going to take three hours to play, I'd like a little offense to go with it. If these trends in decreased offense continue as they have, and it's getting close to ten years now, drastic measures might be taken. The DH could magically appear in the National League, changes in the strike zone and an emphasis on not calling low strikes that straddle the zone could easily tip the balance back to hitters, but it's unlikely that many major changes would occur in a short time span.
And it could all be a mirage, a figment of too much data in the hands of someone like me who types faster than he thinks. Five games of data truly is too small a sample size, and I'm not suggesting that batting average will drop 20 points from last year, but many of the charts suggest what's been seen so far will likely not vary much over the entire season. In fact, there was a good amount of offense on Sunday, which was game six for most clubs. As the weather warms, offense will increase, Kris Bryant and Carlos Rodon will be called up and the Cubs and White Sox will rocket to the top of their divisions and meet in . When that occurs, these early-season blips will be forgotten, and well they should--I just won't be holding my breath.
All data from Baseball-Reference