Sports Nut

Baseball Is Broken

If you took home runs out of the game, you would get a sport that is basically unwatchable.

Right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins hits a two-run home run against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on Aug. 4 in Atlanta.

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

This story originally appeared in the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter. Learn more about the newsletter and subscribe on Facebook.

Around 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday night, Brad Miller yanked a 2–1 slider from Brandon Maurer over the right-field wall in Kauffman Stadium, drawing the Rays to within a run of the Royals at 3–2 in a game they’d lose 6–2. The homer wasn’t anything special in itself, save for being the 5,000th home run of the 2017 season. It’s the 12th time in baseball history, all since expansion to 30 teams in 1998, that we’ve had at least 5,000 home runs hit in a single season. At the current pace, the record for home runs in a season, currently 5,693, will be broken with plenty of time to spare (as one insightful analyst predicted in April). There’s a chance we see 6,000 home runs hit this season, though the usual slowdown in power output in September will affect that.

Miller seems like the right guy to have hit No. 5,000, as he’s representative of the changes in the game. As a shortstop at Clemson, Miller hit for high averages with lots of doubles and he walked more than he struck out. After being drafted, he continued along that path, hitting 40 doubles and drawing 74 walks at two levels in the Mariners’ system in 2012. In the high minors, he lost some control of the strike zone, but even in two full seasons in Seattle, 2014 and 2015, Miller hit 37 doubles and eight triples against just 21 homers, and he walked in about 9 percent of his plate appearances, with a 2.5–1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

That player is gone. In 2016, Miller became a dead-pull hitter trying to sell out for power. A big home run–to–fly ball year—20.4 percent of his flies left the yard, double his career rate—led to 30 homers, but the approach also pumped his strikeout rate to 25 percent and his strikeout-to-walk ratio to more than 3. In 2017, Miller’s HR/FB has reverted to career rates, 11.1 percent, and he’s now a two-true-outcomes hitter: 92 strikeouts and 56 walks in 331 plate appearances, but just seven home runs and a .195/.332/.331 slash line. A hitter with a broad base of skills is now Chris Carter without the power.

Miller’s arc is a cautionary tale for a game that is entirely reliant on the home run to produce offense. Three seasons ago, about 1 in 3 runs, 33.4 percent, were scored on home runs. That’s a high figure historically, but not unreasonably so. In 1994, which of course seemed like a huge hitting year at the time, it was 33.5 percent. In 1961, an expansion year in which a notable home run record was set, it was 33.7 percent. Here’s where we’ve gone since then:

It’s All or Nothing
     HR/FB%  Rank
2014   33.4     26
2015   37.3      3
2016   40.2      2
2017   42.6      1

(Rank is among 68 seasons for which Baseball Prospectus has data.)

Prior to 2015, the record for homer reliance had been set in 2004, at 37 percent. Each of the past three years has broken that number. We crossed over 40 percent last season and have left that in the dust in 2017, seemingly on our way to 50 percent or higher. Some of that is home runs; if you hit 6,000 home runs, they’re going to account for a larger percentage of scoring than when you hit 5,000 or 4,000. The record HR/FB rate, a product of the Pro V1 baseball and hitters hacking at it like they’re holding seven-irons, is the single biggest culprit. Typically, home run rates rise as overall offense rises. This is where the game of the mid-2010s separates from history.

Homers, All the Way Down (Highest HR/H%)
2017   14.6
2016   13.3
2000   12.6
2001   12.4
2004   12.2

If you’re younger than30, it may be hard for you to remember the way people were losing their minds over the way baseball was played at the turn of the century. The reaction to that style changed baseball history, and not for the better. The style of play now is far more extreme than what we saw then. Just two years ago, home runs were 11.7 percent of hits. A total of 1 in 7 hits is now a home run. Home runs are up, but nothing else is. Home runs are crowding everything else out.

Homers, All the Way Down, Remix (Percentage of All Hits)
        HR/H   2B+3B/H 1B/H
2017    14.6      21.6     63.8
2016    13.3      21.6     65.1
2015    11.7      21.8     66.5
2014    10.1      21.6     68.3
2013    11.1      21.4     67.6

(Doubles and triples are lumped together because triples are a small sample, and generally just a subset of doubles—doubles plus ballpark and speed and situation.)

Remember singles? I remember singles, but then again, I also remember being a human remote control for my mom in the 1970s. Prior to 1986, singles had never accounted for fewer than 70 percent of hits in a season. Prior to 1998, they’d never accounted for fewer than two-thirds of hits. We’re a couple years away from them being fewer than 60 percent of hits. The sharp downturn over the past couple of seasons? That’s the fly ball revolution, and to some extent, the increased use of shifts. We’re on pace to have just shy of 27,000 singles hit this year; that would be the fewest in a full season since 1992, when there were just 26 teams in the league and offense was at the end of a five-year period you could call Deadball III.

This is the highest-scoring season since 2007, but even with all the home runs, it’s not a particularly high-scoring season in baseball history. We’re at 4.66 runs per team per game, which would be 64th of 147 dating to 1871. The turn-of-the-century home run peak … well, what we thought was a peak … featured 5.1 runs per team per game, highest since the 1930s. It’s taking the highest home run rate in baseball history to produce just a slightly above-average offensive environment.

What happens when the balls revert back to normal?

I’m completely on board with the idea that Major League Baseball hasn’t intentionally altered the baseballs to produce more offense. The baseballs, however, are clearly at the top end of the allowable range, which is the biggest part of why we have a 14 percent HR/FB rate. MLB’s lack of control over the baseballs, however, leaves the game hanging by a thread. What happens when the baseballs, which seemed to change overnight in 2014, change again? What happens when a game dominated by strikeouts and home runs sees one of those become that much harder to get?

There are baseball fans who prefer a low-run environment. That’s a perfectly valid choice, but I’m not sure those fans have thought through what happens if you combine a low run environment with a 25 percent strikeout rate. The reason I write so much about this stuff is that baseball’s entertainment value is lacking. It’s masked by successful mallparks and the need cable networks have for summer programming, but the game on the field is incredibly stagnant. The Guillen Number (runs on homers as a percentage of all runs) is one measure of that, as is the rate of three true outcomes, as is the rate of singles, as is all of the data I’ve been throwing at you for a while.

If you took home runs out of 2010s baseball, you would get a game that is basically unwatchable. It wouldn’t be the 1960s, when games were played in large ballparks and singles and balls in play were enough a part of the game to make one-run strategies viable. There was also enough reliance on starting pitchers to create stars in that environment. No, you’d get the worst of all worlds, a low-offense, low-singles, high-strikeout game in which most starters pitch six innings and are followed into the game by an army of anonymous “baseball players” whose jobs “playing baseball” have been reduced to throwing 15 pitches three days a week and striking out a third of the batters they face.

The danger isn’t of that happening. The danger is that MLB has absolutely no control over whether it happens.

One of the things we know is that baseball’s popularity is tied to run scoring. For all the words written about the glory days, baseball was struggling in the 1960s during Deadball II, and it was in that period that the NFL made up enormous ground and set the stage for becoming the most popular sports league in the country. A 10-runs-a-game environment will bring out complaints from purists, and maybe a witch hunt or two, but it will pack the stands. An eight-runs-a-game environment is a problem for everyone’s wallets. The only thing keeping baseball out of the latter right now, keeping the game out of Deadball IV, is something it doesn’t control.