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Does baseball need saving from a hitting depression?
I happened this week upon a long Sports Illustrated article headlined, "A Farewell to . 300 Hitters," lamenting how the skill and success...
Seattle Times baseball reporter
I happened this week upon a long Sports Illustrated article headlined, "A Farewell to .300 Hitters," lamenting how the skill and success exhibited by prior generations was slipping away.
The sub-heading read, "Batting is a dying art, mortally wounded by night games, big gloves, scientific defenses, unending lines of relief pitchers and the unreasoning stubbornness of the batters themselves."
The story, by Jack Mann, was dated Sept. 26, 1966.
What goes around, comes around. The timing of the discovery, in the invaluable "SI Vault," was particularly apt. Only a day earlier I had been poring over the MLB leaders, as has been a favorite pastime of mine since about the time Mann's article was published. I couldn't help but notice the scarcity of .300 hitters this season, particularly in the National League.
At the beginning of play Friday, just eight NL hitters were over .300. Now, I realize that hitting .298 is not materially different from .300, and I know that there are more sophisticated ways of analyzing offensive performance than batting average; that said, .300 has been recognized as a standard of superior hitting for my entire lifetime.
The fact that one league can't even put together a top 10 of hitters who are north of the Gwynn Line (the other has just 12) seems to me worthy of discussion. The last time one league finished without at least 10 hitters over .300 was back in 1990, when the American League had eight. The last time for the NL was 1989, when there were five.
The 20 combined .300 hitters would be the lowest in the majors since there were 18 in 1989. By contrast, a whopping 55 hitters were over .300 in 1999, the heart of what is now known as the steroid era. The most I could find in one season was 62 in 1930 (when there were only 16 teams total, don't forget; it was the highest-hitting year in baseball history, with a cumulative MLB batting average of .296).
What's going on now is just a continuation of a trend that has been going on for a few years. Remember "The Year(s) of the Pitcher"? Remember all those no-hitters and perfect games? Remember all those players hitting 50-plus home runs? (Yeah, I still do, but it's getting dimmer by the year.)
Actually, home runs have spiked upward slightly this year (1.02 per nine innings, compared to 0.94 last year). The MLB batting average of .255 is exactly the same as last year (compared to .271 in 1999 and 2000). It's light years from the goofy 1990s and early 2000s. There will be nearly 900 fewer homers hit this season than in 2000.
Just as was the case in the 1960s, numerous theories have been presented for the overall offensive decline (including many of the same ones, though I think they've got that whole night baseball business figured out pretty well by now).
First and foremost is the advent of steroid testing in 2005, followed by testing for amphetamines a year later. In the 1960s, the slider was unleashed on baseball, causing much mayhem. Now it's newfangled pitches like the cut fastball that are confounding batters, with more data than ever with which to attack hitters and station defenders. Bullpens have become even more specialized, and there are seemingly more power arms than ever lighting up the gun.
You could make the case that much of the current offensive decline can be traced to one factor: rising strikeout rates. When hitters actually make contact, they're doing close to as much damage as they've done through much of baseball history, excluding the most prolific years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It's just that now they're whiffing at dazzling rates.
The fact is, baseball's history has been marked by ever-changing cycles of offense and pitching dominance, and it's prudent not to overreact to either. Baseball finally felt the need to act in 1968, when pitching supremacy reached the point of absurdity. Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, Denny McLain won 31 games, 21 percent of all games were shutouts, and Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 average — the only hitter over .300.
With baseball deeply concerned about competition from the rock 'em, sock 'em NFL, the decision was made after the 1968 season to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and tighten the strike zone. Four years later, the designated hitter was instituted, and the result was a swing of the pendulum toward the hitter — aided by expansion in 1969, '77, '93 and '98 that diluted the pitching and pharmaceuticals that puffed up the hitters.
It got to the point at the turn of the century, shortly after McGwire hit 70 homers and Barry Bonds topped it with 73, that there was a serious movement to raise the mound back to 15 inches. You don't hear much about that anymore.
Now the concern is ramping back up the offense. I say, relax and let it happen naturally (hopefully, it's natural, anyway, though Melky Cabrera et al shows that the urge for an edge is never-ending). What we have now is closer to real baseball than the pinball offense of the steroid years.
I'll leave with the lament of a baseball superstar: "Where have all the .300 hitters gone? ... Everybody's unloading for home runs. I'll admit they're hitting a lot of those, but the batting averages are having the hell kicked out of them. I don't care how light their bats are and how fast they can whip them around. If only they would stop swinging away on every pitch."
That was Joe DiMaggio — in 1964.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.