Ballpark dimensions and increasing K rate

Tim Keown has a terrific piece on ballpark dimensions and the angst sluggers face these days in places like Miami and San Diego.

I want to focus on one quote in the piece. Heath Bell said, "The one thing I always say about a big ballpark: There should be a lot of hits. There's more space, but right now everyone thinks they have to hit home runs. Whatever happened to a guy trying to hit .400? What's wrong with 200 hits? Hit the ball on the ground, hit line drives in the gaps."

In theory, maybe he's right in suggesting hitters are swinging too much for the fences. The problem with his "put the ball in play" suggestion is that strikeout rates are increasing. In 1992, the year before offense exploded, the major league strikeout rate was 5.6 K's per nine innings. By 1996, it had shot up to 6.5 K's per nine. However, while strikeout rates were increasing, so was everything else: batting average (.256 in 1992, .270 in 1996), walks (3.3 per nine to 3.6) and, of course, home runs (0.7 to 1.1). Basically, hitters were willing to strike out more because there were positive gains to be made in hitting the ball harder when you did make contact.

Those numbers were basically fairly steady through 2007. Run-scoring during this era actually peaked in 2000 at 5.14 runs per game, but in 2007 it was still at 4.80. Jake Peavy was the only major league starter that year with an ERA under 3.00.

And then the pitchers took over. Since 2007, strikeouts have increased from 6.7 to 7.3 per nine innings. Walks, which hit 3.8 per nine in 2000, have decreased from 3.3 per nine in 2007 to 3.2. Batting average has declined from .268 in 2007 to .249, which if it holds would be the lowest since a .244 mark in 1972. Scoring runs was so problematic in the American League that year that it instituted the designated hitter rule for 1973. Home runs have dropped from 1.02 per game in 2007 to 0.94. And runs per game have fallen from 4.80 to 4.17.

So is Bell right? Should hitters focus more on putting the ball in play? The kicker here: In 2007, the batting average on balls in play (which doesn't include home runs) was .303. In 2011, it was .295. In 2012, it's down to .290. For what it's worth, back in 1992, when hitters didn't hit as many home runs or strike out as much, and supposedly focused more on contract, it was .285. Back in 1973, when hitters struck out even less (5.3 K's per nine innings), it was .281. In 1992, teams averaged 4.12 runs per game; in 1973, 4.21.

What's it all mean? The pitchers are too good now. The only reason teams are scoring as many runs as they did in 1992 or 1973 -- despite the current low batting averages -- is because they're hitting more home runs. Hitting fewer home runs and trying to get more singles and doubles isn't a solution to more runs scored, not with strikeout rates so high.

So, yes, moving in the fences in some parks will help the run-scoring environment to a small extent. But it won't solve the bigger trend the game is undergoing: The pitchers are simply better than the hitters right now.