Scoring is down (again). Should something be done?

Columns by Buster Olney and Tyler Kepner today bemoan this year’s scoring average of 4.13 runs per game. Naturally, I have some thoughts, too.



“Baseball altered the rules [in 1969] in response to the decline in offense, lowering the mound, and if Major League Baseball wants something other than general parity and games with fewer runs, it will probably have to revisit this — perhaps lowering the mound again, or changing the composition of the ball.”

Kepner details the numbers, and possible causes:

“[The] batting average, .251, is the lowest since 1972, the year before the creation of the designated hitter. … The 4.13-runs-per-game average is a full run lower than in 2000 … and the slugging percentage, .390, is at its lowest point since 1992. … Teams [] encourage talented pitchers to throw harder for shorter stretches in the bullpen rather than pace themselves as starters.”

How you view today’s scoring depends largely on what seems normal to you. So, full disclosure: I grew up in the 1970s. My first vivid memory for a stretch of MLB games is the 1972 ALCS, which averaged two runs per team in a full-distance thriller, with eight of the 20 total runs scored in extra innings. And even though Oakland broke my Tigers-fan heart, I watched the A’s nip the Reds in the ’72 World Series, scoring 2.3 runs per game, with three runs or less in all four wins.

Still, I’m no big fan of routine 2-1 games. My sense of normal was formed more by the rest of that decade, starting with the AL’s introduction of the designated hitter, and by the ’80s. For the brand of baseball on display, my favorite year was 1980. (Check out the batting and pitching leaders.)

Anyway … In the first 20 years of the DH — 1973-92, or the “pre-PED era” — the combined scoring average was 4.26 runs per game. Seven of those seasons averaged less than 4.15 R/G, and just one reached 4.50 (homer-happy ’87).

1978: Jim Rice, Dave Parker, and 4.1 runs per game

Was there a cry for more offense after 1978 averaged just 4.10 R/G? I recall it as an exciting and entertaining year: There were three close pennant races. Two worthy batting champs, in Rod Carew (.333, on the heels of his .388) and MVP Dave Parker (.334-30-117). Jim Rice topped 400 total bases, the first since Bad Henry was young. Ten guys cracked 30 homers; George Foster reached 40 HRs and 120 RBI for the second straight year. Twenty-one swiped 30 bags, with four over 50; Ron LeFlore stole 68, and scored 126 runs. Ron Guidry’s 1.78 ERA stood out, as the next best were 2.27 and 2.36. J.R. Richard fanned 303, but no one else topped 260. Starters completed just under one-fourth of their games; only Knucksie Niekro reached 300 innings.

There was no sense of pitchers ascendant. No one that I know of called for changes in the game after 1978 — probably because 4.10 runs per game was about average to that point of the DH era.

What are we really talking about?

I think the subtext of today’s gripes is not runs, per se, but the dearth of sequential offense: low batting averages, and ever-soaring strikeout rates. Some even mourn the drop in total home runs since the PED era — even though the overall HR percentage is still higher than all but seven seasons before 1994, and homers as a percentage of batted balls are higher than any pre-PED season save ’87.

But if we do push for more scoring in general, let’s take care to aim for the kind of baseball we like to watch. If strikeouts are part of the problem, how would juicing the ball or trimming the mound discourage the “grip’n’rip” batting style?

This modern approach to batting is broadly blamed for the high K rate, and that’s surely a big factor. But it’s also quite clear that today’s pitchers, facing those hitters, are more effective in shorter stints — and teams are exploiting that fact more than ever. This year, relief outings of one inning or less account for 21% of all innings pitched. In 1989, that figure was 8%. This year, just past midseason, 145 pitchers already have 20 or more such appearances, and have averaged (in those games) 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings — well above the overall relief average of 8.5 SO/9, and fully 25% above the starters’ rate of 7.4 SO/9.

Note the results for a pitcher’s first batter faced in a game, with relievers comprising three-fourths of the total this year:

  • First batter: 22% Ks … .243 BA … .683 OPS
  • All others: 20% Ks … .252 BA … .708 OPS

What’s more, the percentage of “first batters faced” has risen from 7% of all batters in 1988, to 10% in 2013.

How did we get here?

The average number of relievers per team game began rising sharply in the early ’90s, commonly blamed on the increase in scoring. But although scoring began its steady decline in 2008, there’s been no drop in relief outings since then. And it’s easy to see why:

  • 1988 — 1.75 relievers … scoring avg. 4.14 R/G … relief ERA 8% less than starters
  • 1993 — 2.27 relievers … scoring avg. 4.60 R/G … relief ERA 5% less than starters
  • 1998 — 2.46 relievers … scoring avg. 4.79 R/G … relief ERA 9% less than starters
  • 2003 — 2.67 relievers … scoring avg. 4.73 R/G … relief ERA 9% less than starters
  • 2008 — 2.92 relievers … scoring avg. 4.65 R/G … relief ERA 8% less than starters
  • 2013 — 2.93 relievers … scoring avg. 4.17 R/G … relief ERA 12% less than starters

Scoring is now where it was in 1988. Relievers’ share of total innings has grown only from 29% to 33%. But there are 67% more relief appearances now, as their average duration has shrunk from 6.4 batters to 4.4. As a result, their edge in effectiveness is greater than ever.

So, what should be done?

Perhaps there’s a way to discourage so many pitching changes. One idea for the AL (although the union would fight it) is to link the DH to the starting pitcher: Once the starter exits, the reliever must take a spot in the batting order. He wouldn’t have to take the DH’s spot, as rules already permit the DH to move to a fielding position, with the pitcher batting in place of the exiting fielder. This would be some deterrent to pitching changes generally, but especially to mid-inning changes, as skippers would have to make multiple lineup decisions without knowing what game situation they’d face in their next at-bats. It also might help swing the roster balance back towards position players, as deeper benches would be needed to keep the relievers from having to bat.

A modest idea for the NL, to discourage mid-inning pitcher changes, would be to ban the “double-switch” solely in those situations: A pitcher brought in mid-inning would have to bat in the spot occupied by the current pitcher. This might not have as big an impact as the DH innovation, but it would target situations in which a fresh pitcher has the greatest drag on scoring, whether by gaining a platoon edge (see Doug’s recent study), or simply by being at top strength.

Other rules could be tried to restrict mid-inning changes. So far this year, 28% of all relief stints have lasted two outs or less, and 16% lasted two batters or less. Both have doubled in frequency since 1989. What if a reliever had to stay for at least three outs or three batters, with exemptions for injury and perhaps one free exemption per game? As a bonus, such limits would reduce one of the dullest aspects of watching a major league game.

If the goal is to get scoring levels closer to historical norms, the best approach might not be to tinker with the balls, bats or mounds, but to encourage a return to how the game was played before 1990. I’m no grandpa grouching “get off my lawn!” I just think that curbing short relief stints would lift the number of balls hit onto the lawn. It might pressure starters into a little more pacing, to go a little deeper into games. Whether the score winds up 4-2 or 8-5, our game should be more about batted balls, fielding and running, and less of this endless parade of fresh arms blowing 95-mph smoke past a couple of batters.

Now, here’s where you point out what I’ve overlooked.

33 thoughts on “Scoring is down (again). Should something be done?

  1. 1
    Doug says:

    Well said, JA.

    I agree that tweaking the mound or the strike zone is not the answer. Part of the decline in scoring may be attributable to the varios strike zone monitors seen on most telecasts. With every ball or strike call now open to objective judgment, my sense is umps are calling strikes much closer to the rule book. The result is more high strike calls than in recent memory which, with the heat guys are throwing today, is a viable pitching approach for relievers and even for starters when used in moderation.

    As to limiting pitching changes, absolutely agree. Another result of pitching specialization and short benxhes is that late inning relievers (other than closera) have the platoon advantage much more than in the past (I seem to recall a piece I did on that – I’ll look for it).

    My preference for rule changes is minimum 3 batters or end of inning for any reliever brought in mid-inning. And, double-switches only allowed mid-inning when the starter is relieved.

  2. 2
    birtelcom says:

    I mentioned this late in a recent thread, perhaps too late to get much attention, but what about a rule that simply bans pitchers from being used two games in a row (except for extra innings and for the game following an extra inning game)? That would seem to effectively limit, without touching any internal game-play rules, a good portion of the short-stint relief stuff that goes on, and put pressure on both starters and relievers to remain in the game longer (and perhaps thus to pitch more to contact than to the strikeout)? If that simple rule is too radical, you could put a limit on the number of back-to-back games a pitcher could pitch (say one such back-to-back sequence in a seven-game period for example.

    Also, Bill James has long advocated phasing out thin-handled bats that, he argues, facilitate the homer/strikeout game and discourage the balls-in-play game that many of us purists prefer.

    • 29
      What? says:

      “what about a rule that simply bans pitchers from being used two games in a row”


      • 30
        birtelcom says:

        This season so far there have been been, I believe, about 3.9 pitcher appearances per team game in the majors. In 1975, not exactly the dark ages, the rate, if I’ve calculated correctly, was 2.4 appearances per team game. So since 1975, we’ve gone from averaging about one and half relief appearances per game to averaging about three relief appearances per game, just about double the number. The one-game-of-rest rule would simply be an attempt to pull us back toward the 1975 standard for pitcher usage. I’m not talking about returning to 19th century baseball, here, just Tom Seaver era baseball.

        • 31
          mosc says:

          Does make you think about the 13th inning though when you have a collection of relivers you used yesterday you’re not allowed to use and instead have to throw Dean Anna out there for an inning…

          • 33
            birtelcom says:

            That’s why my proposed rule would have an exception for extra innings and for the game immediately following an extra-inning game. In extra-innings you would be allowed to use pitchers you used the previous game and in the following game you would be able to use pitchers you used in extra-innings. I don’t think the rule could work without those exceptions.

  3. 3
    Brendan says:

    Steroids might help.

  4. 5
    Dr. Doom says:

    I just can’t stand alarmism, personally. In a completely media-oversaturated age, there is a need to manufacture news to fill time. Baseball’s scoring has always ebbed and flowed. How about waiting to see if we get below four runs/game before we start freaking out about it? If we’re at that point, maybe there’s something to be said. But a) we haven’t had the warmest months of the season yet, which will likely bring an uptick in scoring (watch a Cubs or Brewers game in April, and then watch one in July/August; you can see warning-track balls suddenly fly out EASILY two months later); b) what if scoring goes up to 4.3 next year, without any changes? Is the problem suddenly gone? No; there’ll just be news reports about how home runs are up and steroids must be rampant again. Frankly, the whole thing just bugs me.

    birtelcom @2, I do admit I like James’ suggestion; I especially wouldn’t mind it if maple were phased out, as well. Far too many narrow-handled, whip-bats that break too often and encourage too much all-or-nothing swinging.

    Brendan @3, thanks for giving me a good laugh. You sir, are a genius.

    • 6
      birtelcom says:

      Doc, I’m also not that concerned about the decline in scoring, which is low in the context of the last twenty years or so, but as you point out it’s not outside the scope of other phases of baseball history.

      However, the strikeout and balls in play rates are really getting well outside the scope of baseball history as a whole, and I think not to the long-term benefit of the sport.

    • 15
      John Autin says:

      A welcome viewpoint … After all, if Dr. Doom sees no cause for alarm, how dire can things be? 🙂

  5. 7

    I don’t mind low-scoring games.

    The first three MLB games I attended:

    LA 7, CUB 0 (Valenzuela an 8-hitter) 5/30/82
    CUB 5, NYM 0 (Bird a 2-hitter) 8/3/82
    CUB 3, CIN 0 (Rainey a 1-hitter; hit was with 2 out in the 9th, perfect through 6) 8/24/83

    The next was
    SOX 5, NYY 4 (starter Bannister gave up a homerun in the 8th to make it that close) 7/29/84.

    I also attended a game that finished SOX 12, MIL 6 a few years later (Nelson came in for Cowley with a 6-run lead and got a 3-inning save despite giving up 2 runs)

    I don’t mind low scoring games, and tend to prefer them. I hate the fact that pitchers can’t seem to throw the complete game anymore, but I also remember a game where the starter was left in just a little too long:

    LAD 7, StL 3 5/14/99 — Jimenez took a 1-0 lead into the 7th and got the first two guys out; the next two got on, and then Kevin Brown walked on four pitches followed by Shawon Dunston throwing to an empty base.

  6. 8
    BryanM says:

    From the point of view of entertainment; I would like to see fewer in-inning pitchers changes -they’re just boring – both home runs and strikeouts excite at least one team’s supporters, so its hard to see an adjustment aimed at them gaining much economic traction . It took baseball men a long time, but they have finally caught on to the fact that pitching a baseball is HARD, and pitcher effectiveness declines more or less right from the beginning of an outing. slowly, since Billy Martin’s last year (1988) , it has been incorporated more and more into baseball strategy
    I may be wrong but I see the change in hitter’s strategy to take more pitches and swing hard at the others as part of mutually reinforcing trends – increasing pitches per PA , increased intensity of effort per pitch, and reduction of BF per pitcher -more roster spots for pitchers
    semi serious question – is it possible to develop a skill to foul off pitches on purpose to the extent that a specialist PH could be put in to wear out the other team’s best reliever (especially in the first game of a series?)

    • 9
      no statistician but says:

      A boy’s book written in 1951 by Bob Allison(not that one) and Frank Ernest Hill titled “The Kid Who Batted 1,000” is about a player with just such a skill. I think the story was rewritten and updated by someone else as well. Joe Sewell, I believe, and maybe some other players in earlier eras were supposed to have a talent for fouling off pitches, but I’d guess the modern fastball might be more difficult to apply such a talent to.

    • 10
      Hartvig says:

      Ross Barnes was pretty much the poster child for fouling off pitches in order to get one that he liked.

      Then they started calling the first 2 fouls strikes and his batting average plummeted 150 points.

      • 26
        Lawrence Azrin says:

        @10/ Hartvig;

        Foul balls weren’t called strikes in the NL till 1901 (1903 in the AL); Barnes’ last year in the NL was 1881. Barnes _was_ the master of the ‘fair-foul’ hit, where he would hit a fair ball that would go foul, well in front of 1st base/ 3rd base. The NL changed the rules to the present-day practice after the 1876 season, and his offensive performance suffered.

        (The first two) fouls were called strikes in the NL starting in 1901, largely because of the practice of pesky batters such as Billy Hamilton or John McGraw, of fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch, looking either to get a pitch they thought they could hit well, or to take enough balls to draw a walk. From 1893-1900, at least one or usually both were in the Top-5 in walks.

        Wade Boggs was the best I ever saw at deliberately fouling off pitches; he seemed to effortlessly ‘spoil’ pitch after pitch until he got one that he liked.

        #2/ birtelcom: I also like Bill James’ suggestion of phasing out the extremely thin bat handles; as he suggests, it could be done quite gradually, over the course of some years, so that batters would not notice the difference. Hopefully, this would also encourage a more contact-oriented approach and cut down somewhat on strikeouts. A secondary effect would be to increase use of ‘small-ball’ tactics involving bat control, such as the hit-and-run and place-hitting.

    • 11
      Richard Chester says:

      Supposedly Luke Appling had the ability to foul off pitches.

  7. 12
    PaulE says:

    …and Richie Ashburn was notorious for fouling off pitches.
    I think one if the things I dislike most about the NFL is their interventionist “competition committee”. Some of those referee’s calls and their explanations are so GD contrived it reeks of BS so badly, you actually can believe the outcome is fixed. Like the “muff” call – GTFOOH 🙁

    I agree with Doug above: Cut down the strike zone. Also, building bigger parks would have encouraged “small ball” and emphasized contact…..just a little too late for that

  8. 14
    DaveKingman says:

    I don’t mind low-scoring games. I mind low-scoring, *loooong* games. A 2-1 or 3-2 game that lasts 1 hour, 58 minutes would be just fine with me.

    It’s when that same game is 3 hours, 25 minutes is when it’s boring.

  9. 16
    TJ says:

    Move the fences back 5-10%. Nothing would make putting the ball in play more valuable making a whole lot more room in the outfield.

    The d

  10. 17
    TJ says:

    Stupid phone.

    The d

  11. 18
    Artie Z. says:

    JA – do you have breakdowns by league (or perhaps by “AL vs. NL park” given all the interleague games)? Basically does the reliever switch happen more with the DH, and are they more or less effective in one “league” versus the other (or no difference, I suppose)?

    The way I see it, the role of the pitcher allows for this specialization, and there really isn’t a way to allow similar specialization among position players. Unless of course MLB adopted NFL style rules, basically eliminating two-way players and allowing each team to have an “offensive” and “defensive” team. I’m not sure how much that would help, as I think we mainly envision the guys we want to see (Kenny Lofton or Ichiro or Ashburn types) as being guys who would be on the defensive team, and guys we are wanting to see less of (Adam Dunn types) being on the offensive team. But there are almost certainly players like Lofton who are not good defenders who would be valuable offensive players (Lonnie Smith comes to mind as a fairly average defender who was a good offensive player – yes he has positive Rfield, but pretty much all of that comes from 1989).

    I don’t really want to see that happen, but as long as we’re throwing ideas out there …

    • 22
      Michael Sullivan says:

      My gut feeling is that this would be less interesting. Some of the brilliant stars of the game now are guys who can manage both sides pretty well, but would not standout vs. defensive specialists on defense, or versus power hitting 1Bs on offense.

      Guys who are elite offensively at skill positions would still probably have a place on the roster, but only the no-brainer inner circle guys would be all-stars under this regime. And I’m guessing some of the players considered excellent defenders would be fairly average in the new model, where your entire defensive team can be made up of guys who can’t hit major league stuff.

      Yeah, somebody like Ozzie, or Brooks Robinson is still gonna be a standout on the defensive team, but there are plenty of other defenders who are as/nearly-as good who don’t rack up the career numbers, because their bats aren’t good enough to be a regular for an extended period of time.

      The players with 100+ rField are a mis of good defensive HoF and HoVG players, and then some guys who were close enough to average with the bat that their defensive prowess made them above average players. The defensive specialist who can barely hit at all is just as good as these guys in the field, but never gets enough playing time to rack up career rField numbers, and there are more of them.

  12. 21
    Mike L says:

    John A, I think you hit the nail on the head with “the subtext of today’s gripes is not runs, per se, but the dearth of sequential offense: low batting averages, and ever-soaring strikeout rates.”
    It comes down to what people want to see, and it’s not just run scoring but action. The walk, steal second, sacrifice to third (yes, I know we hate sacrifices) and score on a fly ball is still a run, and requires a number of things to go right. It give more to the viewer than a big fly, followed by a strike out and two eight pitch at bats which end in outs. The whole strategy of wearing out the starter is less important if the arms coming afterwards are either specialists or throw 96 MPH, and the manager certainly has less compunction about pulling his starter in the sixth with one out and runners on second and third if he can break the sequence by dialing up a strike out.
    I’m not a huge fan of tampering with rules, but I don’t like 11-12 man bullpens. Not only does it encourage constant pitching changes, but it discourages strategic moves with the player portion of the roster. There’s far more of a possibility of deploying your bench usefully during a game, then seeing a sixteen inning game where you have to have a position player pitch.

  13. 23
    Doug says:

    For those interested, here again is an earlier post on how pitching specialization (more and shorter relief appearances, shorter benches and fewer PH appearances) has contributed to giving the defense the upper hand in late inning platoon advantage.

    • 24
      John Autin says:

      Thanks, Doug — I’ve added that link to the body text.

    • 25
      MikeD says:

      Makes sense. I seem to remember Bill James came up with a list of reasons that cumulatively contributed to the rise in hitting in the 90s that went beyond the simple, fallback PED position.

      We could be witnessing the flip side of that with the increased use of defensive shifts coupled with the continuing rise in pitching specialization contributing to hitting trending downward again. There are a number of other changes, too, including changes on the collegiate level that frankly seems to have reduced the development of power hitters.

      I’ll throw in another possible reason: QuesTec. It’s goal is to create a more uniform strike zone. While pitches off the plate might be more likely to be called balls, it also increases the depth of the strike zone, leading to increased strike calls on pitches up and down in the strike zone. The belief was that if umpires began to consistently alter their strike zones, the pitchers would adapt and master the new zone, leading to a continual erosion in hitting.

      I’m a bit agnostic on the idea, but I find it interesting, and certainly don’t discount it as a reason.

      Overall, though, the changes in the game the past decade have been more beneficial to the defense, not the offense. History says that will change again, but that could be another decade down the line.

  14. 27
    mosc says:

    Low scoring games mean:
    -Variations in starting pitchers are more significant to outcomes of games
    -stealing bases is more useful
    -Walks are less valuable
    -fielding matters more
    -games are more likely to be within “grand slam” distance in the late innings

    I’m sorry, what is the negative again? Having to stay awake for west coast games?

    I like the idea of pitchers not being able to be used two days in a row. Relief pitchers would be depended on for 3 innings frequently.

    I don’t like the idea of DH’s getting lost when you use a relief pitcher. A) nobody in their right mind wants to watch a pitcher hit and B) it doesn’t really fix the problem of short use relief pitchers once you get past the starter.

    • 28
      birtelcom says:

      I actually enjoy watching pitchers hit (whether I’m in my right mind is an interesting question). There is a certain point where the extreme refinement of the talent participating in professional sports begins to feel, to me at least, a bit over-predictably antiseptic. Watching pro athletes face a physical challenge they have been most assuredly not selected to handle gives me, personally, a brief injection of naturalness to the major league level game that can sometimes otherwise seem a bit too specialized. I also enjoy the variational rhythm created by the NL lineup, with its trap every nine PAs, as opposed to the more uniform AL lineup.

      • 32
        mosc says:

        You know, we could have each position player be responsible for pitching an inning. Your #2 hitter has to cover the second inning, #9 hitter becomes your closer. If you love watching pitchers hit, you’re going to be wow’d by hitters pitching!

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