1992 vs 2012: The game has changed a lot in 20 years

As the Steroids Era has faded away, offensive levels have returned quite close to where they were in 1992, The Year Before Everybody Got Jacked. On the surface, the two seasons look pretty similar in terms of numbers:

Stat              1992      2012
BA                .256      .255
AB per game     33.93     34.00
Hits per game    8.68      8.65
Runs per game    4.12      4.32

While those basic numbers are just about mirror images, there are some massive differences as well.

For starters, league-wide slugging percentage was .377 in 1992 and .405 in 2012. The overall rate of hits is just about identical, but their distribution is different. Doubles are up about 9% and homers are up a whopping 42% while singles are down 7%. I suspect the main factor here is that pretty much all players swing for the fences now, plus those fences are a bit closer on average.

Here are some other things that have changed significantly:

Stat                   1992      2012    Change
Sacrifices per game     0.40     0.30     -25%
TB per game            12.80    13.78     + 8%
Intentional BB per gm   0.31     0.22     -40%
Stolen bases per game   0.77     0.66     -14%
Walks per game          3.25     3.03     - 7%
Strikeouts per game     5.59     7.50     +34%

Keep in mind that these stats have all been trending–it’s not like these differences are due in large part to random noise.

So while batting average and run scoring have returned to similar levels, a lot of other things about the underlying scoring mechanisms have changed.

30 thoughts on “1992 vs 2012: The game has changed a lot in 20 years

  1. 1
    Kenny says:

    During that same period, what can you say about pitching performance? Does it too show some characteristics that reflect 1992, or are there also major changes that have been trending?

  2. 3
    John Autin says:

    Interesting and timely piece, Andy.

    The SO/BB ratio has increased by 44%.

    Pitches per PA has gone up about 5% (3.65 to 3.82), but unintentional walks have gone down from 7.8% to 7.5% of PAs (excluding IBBs).

    The distribution of IP among SPs and RPs has gone from 69/31 to 66/34.

    To my surprise, Saves as a percentage of Wins has gone down a tad, from 52.7% to 51.9%. I think that peaked around ’91 and has held pretty steady ever since. That figure shot up from 46% in 1987 to 50% in ’88, and has been over 50% ever since.

    • 25
      birtelcom says:

      As you point out, pitches per PA are up about 5% from 3.65 to 3.82. PAs per team per game are actually down since 1992, although to a negligible degree, from 38.11 to 37.99, a decline of about 0.3%. The result is that pitches per team per game are up from about 139.4 in 1992 to about 145.1 in 2012, an increase of about 4% or so.

      • 26
        Andy says:

        And, interestingly, while conventional wisdom says that pitches per plate appearance are up because batters are all @working the count” more, walks are down while strikeouts are up. That may be the root cause, but the outcome might suggest that it’s a poor approach.

  3. 4
    bstar says:

    I thought the idea that a higher percentage of relievers throwing 95+ was a possible reason for the increase in strikeouts, but the numbers don’t really bear that out at all.

    Starter SO/9: 1992-5.51 2012-6.55 28% increase
    Reliever SO/9: 1992-7.14 2012-8.37 17% increase

    So it’s the opposite. Strikeouts for starters have improved over the last 20 years at a higher rate than that of K’s for relievers.

    • 5
      Andy says:

      Interesting data but the wrong conclusion, I think. Remember what JA posted above–starters are pitching fewer innings and relievers are pitching more. I think starter K rates have gone up so high because managers are much more likely to pull them sooner when their velocity has dropped, and therefore starters aren’t sticking around for later innings when they are less effective. Meanwhile, relievers are pitching more and striking out more.
      So what I think we’re really seeing is a similar number of K’s in the first 5 innings and more K’s in innings 6 through 9, roughly speaking.

      • 6
        bstar says:

        Yes, yes! Very well reasoned. I’m happy to be wrong here. That means my original thinking about it still has some merit.

      • 7
        bstar says:

        I completely butchered the numbers @4. Here’s the correct ones:

        Starter SO/9: 1992-5.33 2012-7.14 34% increase
        Reliever SO/9: 1992-6.20 2012-8.37 35% increase

        Virtually even.

        SO/9 1992 innings 1-5: 5.48
        SO/9 2012 innings 1-5: 7.22 32% increase

        SO/9 1992 innings 6+: 5.75
        SO/9 2012 innings 6+: 8.00 39% increase

        I forced you to make a conclusion based on bad numbers, sorry Andy. It looks like the increase is a little higher in the late innings, but not by as much as I thought it would be.

  4. 8
    Mike L says:

    I think one of the more interesting stats in the drop in intentional walks, which is the only measure that is philosophy-based rather than performance-based.

    • 9
      Andy says:

      And sacrifices.

      • 10
        Mike L says:

        You could draw two different conclusions: a) more managers don’t want to waste outs (for Sacs) and don’t want to put more men on base, or b) more managers look at the relief match-ups/heavy arms/high strikeouts and think a K is more likely and react accordingly.

      • 12
        deal says:

        Sacrifices could be down because of Interleague play – AL pitchers are less experienced at it and may be less succesful. Also if Starting Pitchers are pitching less that may mean less PAs by Pitchers and in turn less SACs.

        • 14
          Andy says:

          It’s possible there’s an effect but sacrifices have been generally decreasing gradually since 1992, although they have bounced up and down a fair amount.

    • 15
      JDV says:

      I think the decreases in sacrifices and in IBBs are linked. Both have to do with the increased offensive capacity throughout the lineup. It used to be that a sacrifice might have been a particular player’s (8-9 hitter) best probable contribution to the offensive inning. Now, that guy might be just as likely to drive a ball to the gap. On defense, the IBB used to be more common in order to pitch to a near-automatic out. Now, the next guy up is almost always another offensive weapon.

      • 16
        Andy says:

        I largely agree with this although I wonder whether it’s true offensive capacity, or more philosophy. There are no more weak-hitting shortstops in the 8-hole who routinely sacrifice. Is this because nobody bred just for defense makes the majors and everybody can hit at least to some degree, or because managers simply no longer employ the sacrifice, so everybody swings away? My guess it’s a little bit from both columns.

      • 18
        Doug says:

        I wonder to what extent strategy adaptation is lagging a bit behind the pretty sudden change in offensive environment. Runs per game has dropped almost a full run from 2000 to 2011, which is both dramatic and quick. Yet there was no change in sac hits, and a reduction in sac flies.

        When runs were cheap, exchanging an out for a base or two was a poor bargain. As runs become more dear, the value of a sacrifice should start to gain, although runs may need to drop further still for that to happen in a noticeable way, especially in a game environment where defense-only starters are virtually extinct.

  5. 11
    deal says:

    Is my inference that BABIP would be up in 2012 true? Since BA is even and Ks are up BABIP should also have gone up correct? This seems odd to me. I would have thought defense would improve.

    • 13
      Andy says:

      2012 BAbip is .297. In 1992, it was .285.

      That’s a pretty big difference considering the number of balls put in play over the course of an entire season. I would not attribute the difference to quality of defense, though–parks are bigger on average and harder to defend.

  6. 17
    Doug says:

    Increased pitching rosters has reduced the number of bench players and in-game substitutions.

    Excluding pitchers, there were 9131 substitutions in 1992, but only 8895 in 2012, even with 4 more teams. On a per team basis, that’s a 15.6% drop.

  7. 20
    topper009 says:

    Is it really logical to assume the entire league all got together and took steroids at the same rate to uniformly increase offense all in one offseason? I thought Canseco had started infiltrating the league in the late 80s? Why didn’t runs gradually increase from the 80s to the 90s? The numbers do not support the conclusion that steroids caused the spike in offense starting in 1993.


    • 21
      Doug says:

      Part of the reason was 1993 was an expansion year, and one of the those expansion teams played at Coors.

      • 24
        Andy says:

        And, I think, as homers started to get hit a lot, many players stopped shortening their swings, etc. It’s reasonable to stay that steroids alone couldn’t cause such a sudden jump, but it’s the major factor.

        • 28
          bstar says:

          Scoring increases by almost 12% from ’92 to ’93 and home runs rise by over 32%, and steroids are the major cause of that? Were steroids invented in the winter of ’92? I don’t get it.

  8. 22
    Mark in Sydney says:

    That is a funny season, Andy, just by the numbers.

    Games Played:
    2012 4860 (+15%)
    1992 4212

    Number of Players Used in Games
    2012 1284 (+28%)
    1992 1007

    The 3B are near the same (0.20 v 0.19), the OBP is the same (0.319 v 0.320), so with homers up, the OPS is up. Though there were more stolen base (0.77 v 0.66) and lots more caught-stealing (0.23 v 0.38).

    Fewer players on the teams, more swinging for the fences meaning more Ks and HRs, less running. Slugging brings in the punters, so I expect we’ll see more of this in future and less of the running game.

  9. 23
    Mike L says:

    If steroids played no role than many players were indulging themselves in mass hypnosis. The hr rate increased in two steps in successive years. And them stayed high.

  10. 27
    Obsessivegiantscompulsive says:

    You should read High Boskage House, where Eric Walker, of the Sinister Firstbaseman book and the writer of the Athletics bible for baseball analysis, analyzed the runs scored data and concluded that it was a juiced ball that likely caused that era, not juiced humans.

    He also researched the info on steroids and concluded that the ball players were not being helped by the drugs.

  11. 30
    mosc says:

    I like noting the 5% rate of run scoring increase in relation to the “everybody swinging for the fences” comment. Statistics have changed baseball in the past 20 years most notably in the area of telling hitters to swing away more often. I think that change alone back in 1992 would have raised run scoring and slugging, at the expense of a tiny bit of obp.

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