They Say it was the Year of the Pitcher… But I Think We Missed It.

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Something a little strange happened in Major League Baseball this year, something you might not have ever noticed however avidly you followed the Detroit Tigers: scoring dried up.

Runs per game had been falling slowly for several years after reaching lofty heights at the peak of the PED era. And now, in 2010, supposedly several years after the juice stopped flowing – scoring dropped off a cliff. Around the MLB, the average team scored 37 fewer runs in 2010 than in 2009 – with the change much more pronounced in the AL, where scoring dropped by 60 than in the NL where it dropped by only 17. This isn’t pure luck or ‘bad clutch hitting’, OPS dropped 29 points in the AL – though only 16 points in the NL. A drop so steep brings echoes of 1968, when the Tigers had Lolich & McLain but – or so the story goes – every staff had at least one ace.

This is worth a closer look in large part because the Tigers bucked the trend: our offense was better in 2010 than in 2009 and our pitching staff was worse. What’s more our offense looks quite good, if our measures are relative, because other teams around the league hit poorly. The same can be said for our pitching staff, their decline appears all the more sharp because other teams around the league pitched well. Verlander, for one, had a lower WHIP and ERA in 2010, but had more than a full win clipped off his WAR total – just because the bar was raised. Is this a random anomaly, where we can expect scoring to snap back next year to where it was from 07-09? Or does this represent some sort of structural change in the way baseball is played? If it’s an anomaly, maybe I should be less content with our slightly-above-average offense than I have been and more content to let our pitching staff attempt a rebound on its own. It’s worth noting that the drop in scoring from ’67 to ’68 didn’t last.

So… what exactly is going on? The decline in offense has affected every position – even pinch hitters -though the decrease in pitcher’s OPS is trivially small (which may explain part of why the decrease was less pronounced in the National League.) A phenomenon so broad suggests we look for the answer first in pitching and defense.