2024 Season to Date: Offensive Decline Returns

One third of the way into the current season and it is the pitchers who have held the upper hand, with OPS declining by over 4% from the same period a year ago. Of course, one year ago everyone was trying to adjust to the new timing rules, and it was the batters who evidently had the easier time doing so, pushing up OPS for the first third of the 2023 season by over 4% from the same period the year before. More on offensive trends and adjustments to rule changes are after the jump.

Those whipsaw changes in OPS for the first third of the past two seasons leave us pretty much where we were before last season’s rule changes, with OPS in the doldrums, at levels not seen since the early 1990s. Those results are depicted in the chart below, with OPS results for March, April and May for the seasons of the modern era.

OPS has declined by fully 100 points from an all-time high at the beginning of this century to where we are today. That decline, though, has yielded OPS results today that are similar to those for most of the post-WWII years of the 20th century. However, the same can’t be said of OBP and SLG, the two components of OPS. Here’s the same chart for OBP.

After the offensive explosion of the late 1990s and early 2000s, OBP moved down 20 points from 2009 (.337) to 2013 (.317), and has remained in the .310 to .320 range since then. OBP that low was last seen in the 1960s and early 1970s, and before that only in the deadball era before 1920. Here’s the same chart for SLG.

SLG varies in a much wider range than OBP, so this chart looks very much like the chart for OPS. SLG has definitely fallen off from levels of the early 2000s but is still at or above levels seen for most of the seasons before then. Keeping SLG at its current “high” levels is the trend towards more extra-base hits and, especially, home runs. Here’s that chart.

Home runs and extra-base hits are plotted against the left axis and singles against the right axis. All plotted values are represented as a percentage of total hits. What is worth noting here is that as hits declined over the past two decades, the proportions that are extra-base hits and home runs continued to rise, falling only in the past 5 seasons and still remaining at the same levels of the peak OPS years of the 1990s and 2000s.

I noted at the beginning of this article that this season’s move down in OPS reversed a similar move up that accompanied last season’s rule changes. How unusual are such “whipsaw” effects, when a large move in one direction is followed the next season by a similarly large move in the opposite direction? Here’s that chart.

The above chart is showing year-over-year % changes in early season OPS. The highlighted bars are the “whipsaw” years of changes in opposite directions of 4% or more in consecutive seasons. 2023 and 2024 are the first such seasons in almost 40 years. The other such whipsaw pairs of seasons were:

  • 1906-07: Early season OPS declined every season from 1902 to 1908, with the exception of a 5% rise in 1906. All of those declines were reversed with three seasons of rising OPS from 1909 to 1911, the last a whopping 14% rise that returned OPS to where it had been in 1901.
  • 1933-34: OPS declined for three straight seasons before rebounding in 1934. A down year (-3.8%) followed by a strong up year (+4.8%) also occurred in the next two seasons (1935-36), but OPS trended mostly down after that, falling almost 10% from 1936 to 1942.
  • 1943-44: Wartime restrictions on non-military uses of rubber required a switch to baseballs using the less elastic material balata instead of rubber. The first balata ball design produced a very dead baseball to begin the 1943 season (ten days into the season, there had been a total of two home runs hit in the AL; in the NL, the Reds and Cardinals played a four game series that produced a total of 6 runs). The ball design and manufacture was tinkered with throughout the season until an acceptable product was obtained.1
  • 1952-53: The big OPS decline in 1952 was the first of the post-war period and was quickly reversed the next season. Early season OPS rose 9% from 1945 to the 1962 expansion season, mostly in small YoY changes.
  • 1968-69, 1970-71 and 1972-73: After big moves down in OPS in 1967 and 1968, accompanied by several spectacular pitcher performances (Bob Gibson‘s 1.12 ERA, 28 CG and 13 shutouts, Denny McLain‘s 31 wins and 28 CG, Don Drysdale‘s 6 consecutive shutouts) in the latter season, new rules lowering the pitcher’s mound and shrinking the strike zone, combined with major expansion (four new teams), produced big moves up in OPS for 1969 and 1970, followed by big moves down in 1971 and 1972. Finally, the adoption of the DH rule in the AL in 1973 produced an OPS spike that season. It’s worth noting that the extension of the DH rule to the NL forty-nine years later failed to produce a similar effect, with early season OPS actually falling by a small amount in 2022.
  • 1977-78: Early season slugging jumped up sharply in 1977 to .403, higher than today’s level and the highest seen since the pre-expansion 1959 season. It would be another decade before early season SLG reached the .400 level again. The 1977 season was the year that MLB switched from Spalding to Rawlings to manufacture its baseballs, a change made when Spalding wanted to increase its price by 10% over two years2 (actually, a quite modest increase for those inflationary times).
  • 1987-88: Offense exploded in 1987, attributed then to a “rabbit” ball, with early season slugging reaching .415, the highest level since 1930. It was a one-year phenomenon until slugging began a sustained stretch north of .400 starting in 1994.

1 Hynd, Noel, “The inside story about baseball in 1943 was less bounce to the ounce”, Sports Illustrated, May 13, 1985, https://vault.si.com/vault/1985/05/13/the-inside-story-about-baseball-in-1943-was-less-bounce-to-the-ounce (downloaded May 28, 2024)

2 Schoenfeld, David, “The history of juiced balls and how today’s home run binge fits in”, ESPN, Jun 13, 2019, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/26960922/the-history-juiced-balls-how-today-home-run-binge-fits-in (downloaded May 28, 2024)

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john bateman
john bateman
21 days ago

I believe Bat Avg is .240 (2024) the 2nd lowest to .237 in 1968 for all of MLB history.

I think OPS is a great stat but not perfect as it does not tell me about Ricky Henderson’s 130 steals.

There is a lack of action in Todays games OPS does not account for errors – in 2024 errors per team is .5 – back in the 1900s it was 2 per team. That means players were hitting the ball running around the bases a few extra times a game (than todays games) but in essence suppressing their OPS

Doug
Doug
21 days ago
Reply to  john bateman

The lack of balls in play remains a concern. It’s just not the same game when most of it is watching the battery playing catch (anecdotally, in Wednesday’s game against Toronto, of the first 10 batters of the game, White Sox starter Chris Flexen walked four and struck out five; so, exactly one ball in play). If batting averages were to fall another 10 points or so, maybe we see the mound moved back two or three feet. That scenario would likely increase offense and reduce strikeouts, though I expect there would still be way too many whiffs, as hitters… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
21 days ago

I hate to say it, but if everybody got back on steroids and they moved the fences back 30 feet all the way around the field (except for foul territory), we might have a more exciting game that necessitated speedy outfielders chasing those deep flies (and a ton of fly balls and line drives falling in – a la Coors Field). It might also bring back the most exciting play in baseball – the triple 🙁 And, perhaps fewer strikeouts and fewer IBB since the fences are so deep ?
Quien sabe? …Half-kidding, of course

Doug
Doug
17 days ago

In action on Lou Gehrig Day, Rowdy Tellez did not homer but still drove in all of the Pirates’ runs in a 5-4 loss. That’s one RBI shy of the record for that feat, held by these 14 players. So, what else connects the players on that last? How about: Gavvy Cravath (in 1913) and Bill Nicholson (in 1944) both had runner-up finishes in the MVP vote after seasons with majors-leading totals in HR, RBI and TB. Bill Nicholson‘s 9th inning two out double drove in the Cubs’ only run on July 30, 1948, denying the opposing Giants what would… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Doug
Bob Eno
Bob Eno
12 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Not sure that these 13 degrees of separation bear repeating, Doug, since the info is old hat to every fan. And you know Cron achieved his feat playing for LA, next door to Kevin Bacon’s Hollywood star, while Kevin Bacon’s dad was a kid in Philly when Ol’ Cactus drove in his 5 for the Phillies, right? We learned all this stuff in the cradle. . . .

Doug
Doug
12 days ago
Reply to  Bob Eno

The connection that proved the hardest was between Mueller and Wilson. Mueller had played against Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson and Minnie Minoso, all of whose careers overlapped that of Wilson, but Willie, limited to September call-ups in his first two seasons, never played against them or (except for Minoso) their teams (curiously, all five of Minoso’s games aged 50+ were against the Angels; he missed Nolan Ryan, but had 4 PA facing a young Frank Tanana). Hence, Mueller’s tenuous connection with the Go-Go Sox (4 early season PH appearances) providing the link via Fairly.

Doug
Doug
12 days ago

Chad Green on June 7th suffered the season’s first one pitch walk-off loss on a home run. Of course, prior to the “ghost runner” extra-inning rule, all one-pitch walk-off losses came on home runs, with Green being the 42nd pitcher in the pitch count era (since 1988) to suffer that fate. Of that group, only Mike Stanton had two such games, one as a Yankee and one as a Met.

Last edited 12 days ago by Doug
Paul E
Paul E
2 days ago

off the beaten path again but…..in light of the fact that the Atlanta Braves have been beaten down by injuries this season, is it possible to find on Stathead the team with the most PA’s by 8 or 9 (only) position players in a season? You know – the healthiest team with, quite possibly, the most talent. For instance, the ’63 Cardinals entire infield played 640 out of a possible 648 “man-games” and accumulated 2,781 PA’s but only Curt Flood appeared in more than 155 games amongst the rest of the team. Any idea if this is possible on Stathead?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Paul: Would you re-state the question?

Paul E
Paul E
2 days ago

Richard: Which team’s 8 or 9 (would include a DH) position players accumulated the most plate appearances in a single season? Like the 1965 Reds played Harper, Rose, Pinson, Robinson, Deron Johnson and Cardenas everyday (156+ games played for each) but platooned Coleman/Perez and Edwards/Pavletich. So, they probably would be close to the top but would have less PA’s than a team that didn’t platoon at all since Edwards had only 427 PA’s and Coleman only 325 PA’s. Sorry for the confusion and sorry, further still, if I’m not making much sense here. By the same token, such a search… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

I don’t know if it can be done with Stathead but I was able to construct a spreadsheet with data harvested from Fangraphs and found that the 1989 Cards had a total 8 players playing a combined 1241 games. That’s the most I found. Behind them were the 1962 Twins with 1232 games, the 1977 Reds and he 1978 Expos with 1225 games.

Paul E
Paul E
1 day ago

Thanks!! Looks like the 1977 Reds “best-8” had the better offensive season of the four by a decent margin based on OPS+
Thank you for taking the time to investigate the query

no statistician but
no statistician but
10 hours ago

With Willie Mays’s death, it seems to me that an era has officially closed, the one in which many of us learned to love and appreciate the game this web site honors. Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Frank Robinson—all began their ML careers in the Fifties—and Ted Williams, Stan the Man, and Spahn kept thriving throughout the Fifties, all seven finishing with over 100 WAR, Mathews, Clemente, and Kaline falling just short of that figure. Jackie Robinson, Berra, and Robin Roberts, though achieving less by the measure of that now supposed sacrosanct stat, were giants in their own ways, with Snider, Ford,… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
8 hours ago

Bobby Doerr made it to 99 but died in 2017 🙁
Aparicio (90), Billy Williams (86 – Happy Birthday 6/15/38), and Yaz (Aug 1939) are pretty old; looks like Koufax (88 y.o) is the oldest pitcher. I don’t believe any HoF’er who played in the fifties, other than Koufax and Aparicio, is still with us
Shantz (98 y.o) pitched in the 1940’s but, alas, is not a HoF’er….Eddie Robinson (famously of the ’48 Indians) made it to 100 but died in 2021.
Greatest predictor of longevity? VO2 Max – take the stairs