If you follow baseball closely, you know that runs are becoming more and more scarce, across the league. If you read about baseball on the Internet, you know that one big reason for that is the ever-rising strikeout rate. What you might not know, though, and what it seems incumbent upon the baseball corner of the Internet to tell you, is that one very common culprit in cases of missing runs is very much innocent right now. For all the trouble offense seems to be in, BABIP lives on, happy, healthy, generally intact.
Throughout baseball history, there has generally been a close relationship between the league’s collective BABIP and its OPS.
As you can see, however, 2014 was a departure from that pattern. It’s not the most extreme outlier in the data set, but it’s one of them. And if you take out the years before 1969—I leave this choice up to you, but in terms of how the game was played, there’s a strong argument for doing so—you get this:
Now the season past actually is the most stark outlier. Forty-plus years of correlation between the league’s performance on balls in play and its overall offensive output seems to be fraying, if not completely broken. Somehow, after decades wherein BABIP was a very reliable indicator of the overall offensive strength of the league, it’s become an irrelevant statistic, at least at this macro level. What happened?
Well, obviously, strikeouts are part of the explanation. Run scoring is depressed largely because one of every five plate appearances ends with an out that doesn’t require the assistance of fielders. (That number was one in six in 2002.) Batting average on balls in play matters less when fewer balls are batted into play. Still, it’s strange, right? We know that improved defensive positioning, up to and including extreme shifts, have taken hits away from big-league batters in recent seasons. We know that more plate appearances than ever are ending with the pitcher ahead, which should make hitters defensive, and less able to punish the ball. Somehow, though, the hits on balls in play keep coming.
The hardest batted balls to defend are the ones hit up the middle. In general, batters hit a ton of ground balls when they pull the ball, and a ton of flies when they go the other way. The middle of the field is hardest to defend, not only because there’s extra ground to cover, but because balls hit there are relatively unpredictable, in terms of trajectory, velocity and exact location. “Use the big part of the field,” your American Legion coach used to tell you. “He takes an up-the-middle approach,” the color commentator said, lovingly. They’re right. Center field is where the hits are, and as baseball players put ever fewer balls in play, they’re making use of that axiom more and more often. A dozen years ago, everyone had the power to pull the ball out of the park, so everyone was trying to do it. As that power has faded from the game, more hitters have relied on taking pitches back through the box, as they say. Thank goodness they’ve been successful, because if BABIP were in line with the league’s other offensive indicators, we’d be in the Dead Ball Era again.
Thanks are due to the Baseball-Reference Play Index and to FanGraphs. All of the data in this article is available for free.
Follow Matt Trueblood on Twitter at @MATrueblood.
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