You don’t need league-wide statistics to tell you that offense is down in baseball over the past decade. Drug testing, ball changing, pitcher specializing, strike zone changing, and defensive shifting, among other things, have all conspired to take a great deal of the run-scoring out of the game.
The trend continued into the 2014 season, which saw teams score the fewest runs per game (4.07) since 1981, and post the lowest batting average* (.251) since 1972 (FoxSports). That was the year that AL owners decided they’d had enough of the low offensive output, and instituted the Designated Hitter.
*(I suspect the story would be the same for more salient stats like OBP, SLG, etc., though maybe not quite as much on OBP (which wasn’t always valued as highly as it is these days, which could have the effect of altering the sample of players who got significant plate appearances back in, say, 1970 versus today)).
Is MLB on the road to making more dramatic changes?
One obvious step, for which I’ve been arguing for years now, is to bring the DH to the National League. Increasing offense hasn’t been an explicit part of my argument, though it would be an obvious effect. For me, bringing the DH over has primarily been about fairness:
While an AL team is able to dedicate a roster spot to finding the purely best hitter it can find, and then deploys that guy when the AL and NL square off in interleague games and the World Series, the NL team is left to pick a guy off of its bench when in AL parks. Because pitchers as hitters – whether AL or NL – are roughly equal in performance, the fact that the AL team has a dedicated DH puts the NL team at a decided disadvantage in half the games. I am not OK with this. Ironically, it is because I’m an NL guy at heart that I think they probably should adopt the DH. I can’t stand the unequal footing.
We’ve seen AL teams gobble up the best offensive free agents on long-term deals for too long now, knowing that they’ve got the DH role to fall back on when the player out-lives his ability in the field. Throw in the ancillary arguments (AL pitchers can get hurt in interleague play, pitchers hitting is not fun, increased offense, etc.), and I’m fully on board with bringing the DH to the NL in the next collective bargaining agreement. (The current CBA expires after 2016, and is expected to be a little more tumultuous to negotiate than prior deals. One carrot the owners could throw to the players that could also help the game overall (and thus the owners?): adding 15 well-paying jobs to the NL in the form of the DH. You’re welcome, owners and MLBPA.)
But what about the question beneath the question: is reduced offense really a concern? After all, don’t people love pitchers duels and great defense?
Sure, some folks do. Baseball purists. Hardcore fans. Maybe you. Maybe me.
We can’t really argue, however, that the act of scoring a run is fun. Home runs are fun. Plays at the plate are fun. As we talk about making the game of baseball more accessible to marginal fans – thus preserving the sport for the long, long, long-term – we have to consider the possibility that those types of fans enjoy watching homers more than they enjoy watching called third strikes.
On the whole, I think reduced offense is probably not a good thing for baseball. Am I off-base on this one? And is bringing the DH to the NL at least part of the solution (one league, only, of course)? Reducing the strike zone? Winding the ball more tightly?