April trends: National League outscoring AL for first time since 1974

We're nearing the end of the month. Let's look at some of the big picture trends we have seen across the majors so far this season.

Run scoring is way down in the American League

Overall, runs per game are about the same as in 2015: 4.28 versus 4.25. Batting average is down a couple points, home runs are up just a blip, and walks and strikeouts are up slightly. But that has all evened out to about the same level of offense. And, no, April isn't more low-scoring than other months. Check the April OPS in recent seasons versus overall season OPS:

2014: .706 versus .700

2013: .719 versus .714

2012: .711 versus .724

2011: .711 versus .720

2010: .738 versus .728

You'll notice I left 2015 out. Something weird happened in 2015. Home run rates suddenly skyrocketed in August and September, and nobody is sure why. That year, April saw a .705 OPS versus .721 for the entire season.

Here's the weird thing about what has happened this month: The American League is averaging 3.99 runs per game, compared to 4.29 last year, while the National League is up from 4.11 runs per game to 4.58. That would be the highest mark in the NL since 2007, and it matches some of the steroid era levels of offense. That is understandable: There are a lot of bad teams with bad pitching in the NL.

The AL is more difficult to explain. The AL hasn't scored this few runs since 1972, an infamous year of bad offense that led the league to add the designated hitter for 1973 (the NL last outscored the AL in runs per game in 1974). What's happening? I don't know. It could be nothing, just a blip in the data sparked by things such as Mat Latos' allowing two runs in four starts or Ricky Nolasco's not getting lit up. The Blue Jays, last year's offensive powerhouse, are scoring 1.54 fewer runs per game this season; the Yankees, the second-highest scoring team in 2015, are averaging 1.12 fewer runs per game. Maybe the AL simply added more pitching depth -- and took some of it from the NL in the offseason.

Whatever the case, it has led to this: Entering Thursday, seven of the eight highest-scoring MLB teams are in the National League. That's the opposite of the case last season, when seven of the top nine were AL teams.

The strike zone is smaller

I mentioned that strikeouts and walks are both up. It's no surprise about strikeouts, given that they've increased 11 seasons in a row. But walks are up from a 7.7 percent rate to 8.5. One reason for that might be that umpires are calling a slightly smaller strike zone this season.

Based on data from ESPN Stats & Information, here are the numbers:

Pitches on the corners (upper and lower corners)

2016: 45.8 called strike rate

2015: 48.8 called strike rate

Pitches on the black (vertical edges of the zone)

2016: 68.1 called strike rate

2015: 70.4 called strike rate

Now, we are looking at very small areas, but if pitchers are getting fewer borderline calls, it would make sense that that could lead to walks. The effects are small -- about one extra walk per team for every three games played -- but not insignificant.

Pitchers are hitting eighth

Last year, National League teams hit their pitchers eighth 11.3 percent of the time; this year, that's up to 17.6 percent. Here's an interesting thing related to that: Joe Maddon was responsible for more than half the total figure last season, as he hit his pitcher eighth in 140 games, but he hasn't done so at all this season. For whatever reason, after batting the pitcher eighth all season, Maddon started doing so less frequently at the end of the season, and in the postseason he batted Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester ninth and the other starters eighth. So far in 2016, the non-Maddon managers have increased their pitcher-bats-eighth rate from 5.9 percent to 17.6 percent. Terry Collins dabbled in this last year but also hasn't done so in 2016.

One of the converts has been Giants manager Bruce Bochy. He hit his pitcher eighth once last year but did so 16 times in his team's first 23 games this year. Of the seven times Bochy hit his pitcher ninth, five came in games Buster Posey didn't start.

"Overall, I think it's worked out a little better than I expected," Bochy said a few days ago. "There have been moments in the game where it's come up, and you say, 'Well, we would have been better served with the pitcher batting ninth,' which is going to happen. Overall, it's gone well. If it hadn't, I would switch."

The Diamondbacks have hit their pitcher eighth in 10 games but only once in their past dozen, when Zack Greinke batted eighth, so it's possible Chip Hale has already largely abandoned the practice. Reds manager Bryan Price batted the pitcher eighth 57 times last year and has done so 11 times so far in 2016, all with Billy Hamilton hitting ninth (though Hamilton has also hit leadoff four times).

One problem, as Joe Sheehan recently pointed out, is that managers aren't always maximizing their run-scoring potential when they do this. A primary reason for the practice is to move a better hitter into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, where he'll not only potentially get an extra plate appearance but also have similar RBI opportunities to if he were batting third. But in the Reds' case, Joey Votto continues to bat third.

As Joe wrote,

Batting the pitcher eighth isn't a standalone move. Rather, it's a piece of the overall puzzle. You don't bat the pitcher eighth because you really want that .350 OPS coming up earlier; you bat the pitcher eighth because it enables you to bat your best hitters higher in the order while keeping them away from the pitcher. The pitcher-eighth move goes hand-in-hand with batting your best hitter second -- best practice in lineup assembly.

Shifts are up ... way up

At the rate we're going, soon shifts will no longer be mentioned on telecasts. Announcers might have to say, "The defense is playing old-school." Shifts are up about 50 percent from last season. The Mariners, with a new front office and new manager, have gone from 24th in shifts to eighth. The Brewers, with a new GM, have climbed from 18th to third. The Nationals have gone from 30th to 22nd. What's interesting is that the shift hasn't actually affected the overall batting average on balls in play:

2011: .295

2012: .297

2013: .297

2014: .299

2015: .299

2016: .297

Maybe Joe Girardi shouldn't worry so much about these shifts. (This doesn't mean shifts don't work (they do). It means players are hitting the ball harder when they make contact to balance out the hits lost to shifts.)

It's early on all this. We can be confident about the shifting, of course. But the pitcher hitting eighth is more in the fad phase than rule of thumb. I'm not confident the AL will continue to score so few runs, and let's see what happens with the strike zone.

Back to your games.