Major League Baseball has an offensive problem on its hands: Hitting and scoring are down, strikeouts are way up, and that decline in firepower is getting decidedly dull. And there's one clear target to blame — math.
Thanks to pro baseball's growing acceptance and implementation of advanced statistics, or sabermetrics, offense in the Major Leagues is at a low not seen in almost 20 years. In particular, defensive statistics, which were once considered rudimentary and difficult to calculate, have matured considerably in the last decade or so, giving teams a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.
One particular strategy, the defensive shift, got a closer examination in The New York Times today as a particular cause of the decline in offensive firepower. Certain players are more likely to hit the ball in one specific direction the majority of the time, and advanced stats have finally convinced managers that shifting their infielders from their regular positions to where the hitter is most likely to put the ball in play is the optimal strategy.
Though once a relatively rare sight, "the shift is on the verge of becoming the norm," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon told the Times. Maddon and the Rays used defensive data with stunning success during their run to the World Series in 2008, and the game has taken notice. The strategy — the shift — that was once considered risky and bizarre is on pace to be used almost 14,000 times this year, a modern high and far above last year's 8,134 uses, according to research from Baseball Info Solutions.
Why such an increase? Follow the data. "We feel confident the evidence is very convincing when we analyze how we use our innovative defensive alignments," Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told Sports Illustrated. "We believe our data shows we're on the right path." Though SI cites evidence suggesting teams may be overstating that data, certainly batting averages and hits are down across the league.
One other explanation for that decrease in offense is the rise of strikeouts, which have sharply increased over the past ten years.
In 2005, batters struck out 16.4 percent of the time they walked to the plate. That number crossed 20 percent this year, which may not seem that dramatic, but from a historical perspective (and baseball's history is extensive) that's a startling increase. "Strikeouts aren't just eating home runs," Joe Sheehan writes in Sports Illustrated [paywall]. "They're eating everything in sight, leaving behind a game that's reduced to seven guys standing around watching the pitcher and batter go to war."
In a way, we can also blame better data for more strikeouts. The strikeout upswing has been particularly notable since 2008, which as FanGraphs points out, was not coincidentally the same year that MLB instituted pitch-tracking cameras across the league. Umpires have used that data to refine their strike-calling skills, since they are judged against the measurements of objective machines. One of the lessons learned from that data: Umps had been calling fewer strikes than they should have been, Beyond the Box Score found. As a response, umpires expanded their strike zones and called strikes have increased over the past few years, adding to the strikeout boom. Because umpires are listening to the stat-heavy data, they are creating more strikes, more strikeouts, and less offense.
Offense sells tickets and defense wins championships, as the saying goes. Thanks to baseball's data mavens, we're in a new era of strong pitching, smart defense, high strikeouts, and less offensive excitement. At least until someone finds a new offensive strategy to tilt the balance of power again.