As of today, the New York Yankees have a .669 OPS and a .295 wOBA. For a useful frame of reference, the awful, 119-loss 2003 Tigers finished with a .675 OPS and a .296 wOBA. The 2003 Tigers are one of very, very few teams in recent memory to actually finish the season with a negative aggregate WAR from position players. There was no way – even if they had known how to pitch (which the 2003 Tigers did not) that those Tigers could have fielded a competitive team with those bats. So… how exactly is it that the Yankees can? Their pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, is pretty good but 5th in the league in ERA is not exactly head-and-shoulders above the rest. Nonetheless, these Yankees are still over .500 and though they’re not in a great position for a wild card run they aren’t out of it either.
The deal is this: the 2003 Tigers and the 2013 Yankees both have/had objectively awful offenses. Objectively, the Yankees O has been slightly worse. But… relatively, the Yankees offense is only BAD while the Tigers offense was AWFUL. The league of 2013 is just not the same as the league of 2003. League ERA in 2003 was 4.53, this year it’s only 4.04. League OPS is down from .761 to .726. Scoring peaked in ’04 and has declined by more than 1000 runs across the league since. So… what exactly is going on to make the 2003 Tigers offense merely “not a very good offense” instead of late-night laughingstock, legendarily bad?
It would be easy to pin all this on ‘roids and the testing regime – but I’m not sure how much of that would be fair. If I’m remembering correctly, the testing regime was in place for the ’04 season but it didn’t get teeth until the next offseason. Spring Training ’05 would be when Ivan Rodriguez showed up to Tigers camp with a suspicious lack of bulk. But… between 2004 and 2009 there was basically no change in offensive production: a .334 average wOBA in 2004 and a .334 average wOBA in 2009. Then came that “year of the pitcher” in 2010, with a large number of shutouts and a decrease in overall offensive production and a whole lot of potential explanations. The thing is, 2010 apparently marked the beginning of the “Era of the Pitcher”. Not only has offense not recovered, offense has continued to decline since 2010. A .324 wOBA in 2010, .321 in 2011 and now a .318 this year and last. League ERA suddenly dropped from 4.46 in 2009 to 4.14 in 2010 but numbers since have been 4.08, 4.09 and now 4.04. I would imagine that if PEDs had been the root of elevated ERAs in the ’90s and early Aughties, we would have seen a dropoff closer to the beginning of the testing regime – though I suppose it’s possible that there could be more of a lagged effect.
I have no way to tell for sure what the cause of the drop in scoring is, or why exactly it started in 2010, but I have the feeling that the pitching side of the game is responsible one way or another – not a batter failure. We typically assume, for shorthand, that batters have a lot more control over where and how far the ball goes when it is hit than do pitchers, but pitchers have more control over missing bats and missing the strikezone entirely. Those elevated home run numbers in the juice era send a strong signal that something was going on with the batters, though park effects or tightly wound balls could have had something to do with it. One common explanation for the decline in offense has been that some more recently opened stadiums are less home run friendly than ENRON field. Not all of them, clearly, looking at the stadium the Tigers are playing in today, but some of them. But… a lack of home runs isn’t really the special feature of the last 4 seasons – last year there were 2500 of them hit, which was more than in ’02 or ’03, and we’re on pace for about 2400 this year. The drop in homers from 2009 to 2010 was sharp, but the drop in homers between 2008 and 2010 was trivial (and home runs have since recovered).
Statistically speaking, what changed trajectory in 2010 was the league strikeout rate. There has been a long trend towards a rising strikeout rate, though progress has been uneven. In 1981, it was 12.1%… by 1997 16.6%. Then between ’97 and 2008 the league strikeout rate fluctuated without really going anywhere. Then in 2009 it started to climb again: 17.5%, the first time more than 17% of batters had struck out in any season to that point. In 2010 the strikeout gain was maintained (which, coupled with the temporary fluctuation in power, led to the “year of the pitcher”) in 2011 it climbed again, to 18%. Last year, 19.3%. This year, 19.6%. Home runs are down a bit since their peak, so is BABIP, but those are not trending downward. The big reason – statistically speaking – that runs aren’t being scored is that guys are not getting bat on ball. Now, there are any number of reasons that this could be happening: it’s unlikely to be softer balls or big stadiums though. I’d say it’s also unlikely that guys can’t make contact without their juice – the timing isn’t right. Another explanation that has been brought up is the greater attention given to defense lately since the proliferation of ‘advanced metrics’ that can show how many runs a guy prevents with his glove – but the only way that could lead to more Ks is if the good gloves can’t hit (which is possible). We should look for explanations that, at the very least, would cause the precise phenomenon that we’re witnessing. For a few examples: the proliferation of the “cutter” may have had an effect, so might the greater emphasis on long-toss for arm strengthening, so could pitch counts and other modern innovations in pitcher health (though, anecdotally, PEDs were good for that too) or simply a good crop of young pitchers arriving at the same time. Any of those hypotheses could be tested – given the right data – but that is beyond my capabilities.
In short: the Yankees offense isn’t quite as bad as it looks, relative to the 2013 Tigers, because pitchers these days are nasty.