Baseball teams scored an average of 4.07 runs per game last year, more than one run fewer than they averaged in 2000. It also was Major League Baseball's lowest scoring average since 1981 and the same rate teams averaged way back in 1969. Batters also struck out a record 37,441 times, more than 15 times per game, an 18 percent increase from just a decade ago. The major league batting average of .251 was the lowest since 1972.
Why? Teams are employing defensive shifts. Umpires are calling lower strikes. And pitchers are throwing harder than ever.
"I remember growing up when I was watching the Braves, if someone came out of the pen throwing 95 [mph], it was a big deal," San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey said. "And that wasn't that long ago. The specialty arms that come out of the bullpen now are really the power arms. Not closers or setup guys but those middle-inning guys."
Seattle Mariners infielder Willie Bloomquist reached the majors in 2002. "There may have been a handful of guys in the league throwing 95 or above, and those were the guys you didn't want to get to," he said. "I can think maybe Bartolo Colon was the only guy throwing [that hard] as a starter. Now everybody is throwing harder. You see more cutters. You see more of everything. I'm dating myself, but when I first started, they were just dabbling in cutters. Now everybody is throwing a dang cutter."
Last year, 61 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings averaged 94 mph with their fastball, compared to 19 in 2004. Average major league velocity for fastballs is up to 92.1 mph, the sixth straight season it has increased. Hitting has never been easy, but now it is more difficult than it has been since perhaps 1968, the infamous "Year of the Pitcher" when teams threw 339 shutouts, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 average and offense was down so much that the mound was lowered, the strike zone shrunk, and the American League started moving to implement the designated hitter.
Which prompts the question: Is it time again to make changes to boost offense? Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia says it's too soon, that baseball is always cyclical and that we need to wait a few more seasons before changing rules.
"To overreact and start to say, 'We've got to lower the mound' or 'We have to eliminate shifts,' that's absolutely ludicrous," he said. "You have to let this game play."
Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price takes a similar view: "My first year in Seattle, we were second in the league in ERA at [4.49]. And last year that would have been next to last in the National League. I think it's punch and counterpunch. The game is always evolving. I would hate to see the strike zone be compromised any more than it has been. I think what will be driving it is fan interest. If fans quit watching it because there are not as many runs being scored, then the rule makers will try to do something."
Should MLB make changes before scoring decreases even more? Or is the responsibility on the batters and teams to hit better? Here's a look at ways baseball can increase the offense (without the use of steroids).
1: Cut the Strikeouts
Strikeouts have increased every season but one in the past dozen years, rising from 30,801 in 2003 to a record 37,441 last year. That's almost three more strikeouts per game. Part of this is better pitching but part is also due to batters' attitude and approach.
"Having a lot of strikeouts is something a lot of guys are comfortable having because of the power that comes with it,'' Oakland Athletics outfielder Sam Fuld said. "Certainly, the higher strikeout rate is the result of better stuff, higher velocity, better breaking balls, pitchers working the corners better. It's not necessarily the worst thing. I'm not sure if there's any correlation between a lower strikeout rate as a team and winning. So I don't know if it's something that we're really focusing on as hitters.''
MLB Team Strikeouts Per Game
Fuld makes a good point but hitters do need to focus more on contact. Some may consider a strikeout just another out, but it isn't, providing no opportunity to move up a runner. Swinging and missing also gives you no chance at getting on base whatsoever. Making contact does.
Hall of Famer George Brett says reducing strikeouts begins with pride.
"Back in the 1970s and '80s we didn't like to strike out,'' he said. "If you struck out, it was a bad at-bat. Now, you strike out 150 times a year and they don't think twice about it."
Brett says batters need to make adjustments, beginning with not over-swinging on the first strike.
"You put the ball in play. You hit the ball the opposite way,'' he said. "You think up the middle. You shorten your swing a little bit.''
And most of all, make contact!
2: Beat the Shift
Opponents are increasingly shifting defenders to the other side of the infield so the solution seems obvious: Hit the ball the opposite way. As Wee Willie Keeler said long ago, "Hit 'em where they ain't.''
"All you have to do [as a left-handed hitter] is hit the ball to shortstop twice in a series, and they won't use the shift anymore,'' Brett said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. If they had put three guys on one side of the infield against me, I could have hit .450. Because I could hit a ball to the shortstop anytime I wanted. And when I see these teams put the shift on and guys still hit into the shift, these guys all have to go to the doctor and get a lobotomy because they're playing into the team's strength."
Alas, it isn't quite as simple to do that if you're not one of the game's greatest hitters. The problem is that players hit the ball to certain spots for a reason: It's where they naturally hit the ball. According to ESPN data, 86.5 percent of ground balls hit by left-handed batters in 2014 went to the right or to the center of the field; for right-handed batters, 86.8 percent went to the left or center of the field. To change an approach and hit it somewhere else isn't easy or productive for many batters, especially when pitchers are throwing to zones that lend to hitting into shifts.
"I think if you try to change your swing, you're doing them a favor," said Angels center fielder Mike Trout, last year's American League MVP. "I think you've got to keep your same approach. If you start changing your swing, you're going to be in trouble and that's what they're trying to make you do. They're trying to get in your head. You just have to keep the same approach and go ahead."
If batters can't hit the opposite way, Posey said, they should at least lay down an occasional bunt.
"I think the bunt can at least make them not shift quite as much,'' he said. "Maybe rather than being right behind second base for a lefty, that third baseman will be at the shortstop position. I think the bunt could move the defense a little bit."
Said Fuld: "Once you show you are willing to bunt and it gets on every team's advance report, it definitely makes them a little more hesitant to shift."
3: Know Thyself
Yes, the odds are against the hitters -- as the old line goes, even the best hitters are successful only 30 percent of the time -- and they are getting worse. Rather than accept this, batters must fight back with the weapons that got them to the majors.
"Hitting is a tough thing to do," Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "What we've taught even young kids is a little out of whack. I think we've gotten away from teaching hitting right. We need to teach guys to use the whole field, to keep the bat in the strike zone. As you get closer to the big leagues, approach is so important. If you can't make adjustments up there, if you don't understand what you do as a hitter and understand what the pitcher does and how to attack that, you're in trouble.
"There is so much information now. They know where to go to get you, right? But you should know as a hitter what they do also. We have the same weapons as a hitter as the pitcher does. I just think the hitters need to make the adjustment back."
Know what you do well. And work to do it even better.
4: Study the Data
The problem with advanced data is that most of it favors the pitchers, not the hitters. Asked what new information helps batters, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon replied: "Nothing. Zero."
"I've been saying that for a couple years now -- there's nothing they can do," Maddon continued. "They can look at all the data they want, and it's not going to help them."
Which is not to say there is absolutely nothing new that can't be studied. Maddon says hitters should work on improving their sight of pitches with new vision training techniques. He also thinks they should take fewer sessions of batting practice and cage work because excessive BP tires the body more than it improves the swing. Maddon had fun with the Rays last year when he had his players wear the same cologne used by their fathers to create comforting aroma memories at the plate.
"Wear some cologne," he said with a smile this spring. "And swing less. Think less. See more."
5: Activate the Running Game
So what can teams do if batters can't beat shifts or cut down strikeouts or raise their average? Go old school. Rather than waiting for a three-run homer, manufacture more runs with the running game.
"You're going to see teams getting back to [traditional] baseball -- hitting behind the runner, using the hit-and-run," Scioscia said. "Some teams that are just used to batter's box offense are going to have to adjust some things because that sort of lineup is not going to be as prevalent as 15 years ago when a lot of guys were using PEDs."
"Maybe what we need to be doing is ... trying to create more offense through aggressiveness. I think baseball has just become more passive." Reds manager Bryan Price
It's time to use steals and hit-and-run and whatever else possible to move the runner closer to home. Price says the game used to be predicated on guys hitting the ball and making the defense stop them from taking the extra base. Now, they tend to concede the fielder will always make the play.
"Maybe what we need to be doing is playing the game at a higher effort level, and trying to create more offense through aggressiveness," the Reds manager said. "I think baseball has just become more passive."
In other words, if batters are going to strike out or hit into the shift rather than drive in the runner, take some chances on the bases. Hey, it might have worked for the Royals with Alex Gordon in the ninth inning of Game 7 in October.
Still, if the offensive decline continues, Major League Baseball might look to implement rule changes that will help the hitters. Not that players want to see changes to the game.
"We have a good game. It's a beautiful game," Bloomquist said. "Why screw with it anymore?"
One veteran catcher, when asked about potential rule changes, preferred to walk away from the interview rather than answering the questions. In other words, don't mess with the game. But that may happen with some of these ideas.
6: Shrink the Strike Zone
With advent of PITCHf/x data going back to 2008, umpires have become more uniform in their strike zones, but studies have shown the size of the strike zone has increased by about 40 square inches since 2009, mostly at the bottom of the knees. So some suggest raising the strike zone to the top of the knee.
"The minimal, minor changes aren't going to do a heck of a lot," Bloomquist said. "The pitchers are just too good. Unless you did something drastic, that's the only way to sway it one way or another. Plus, I think the harder guys throw, it's easier to hit when it's lower than it is up high."
While there are high-ball hitters and low-ball hitters. Bloomquist is correct. Major league hitters hit .236 and slugged .376 against fastballs in the upper third or above the strike zone, but hit .298 and slugged .435 against fastballs in the lower third or below.
San Diego Padres pitcher James Shields agreed with Bloomquist: "As pitchers, we're trained to hit the bottom of the strike zone. If they raise the zone a couple inches, I don't think that would make a big difference. There would be a little adjustment but we'll still go for the bottom of the zone. Pitchers aren't going to suddenly start throwing a bunch of pitches down the middle."
New York Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer said: "A lot depends on the movement of the pitcher. If he's got some sinking action, he's probably going to lose a few strikes. As a hitter, you train to keep your sights low. I know expanding that way -- outside -- has a much bigger impact than expanding up and down."
Still, it could make a small difference. Jon Roegele's study in The Hardball Times estimated that 31 percent of the recent offensive decline can be attributed to the larger zone. Raise it from the bottom an inch or two, and it should help.
7: Lower the Mound
Baseball did this once before, after the major league average in 1968 plummeted to .237 and the average ERA was 2.98. The height of the mound was reduced from 15 inches (some, like Dodger Stadium's, were even higher) to 10 inches. In 1969, scoring increased 19 percent. But that wasn't the only reason scoring increased. The strike zone was changed from the "top of the batter's shoulders and his knees" to "between the batter's armpits and the top of his knees." It was also an expansion season with four new teams, which may have helped to dilute the pitching. Lowering the mound may have played a part. Or maybe not.
"To be honest, I have no idea what [lowering the mound] would do," Shields said. "I've always pitched from mounds the same height."
One study of the changes in the 1968-69 seasons reported that the ratio of ground-ball outs to fly-ball outs barely changed -- in fact, it increased slightly, suggesting that throwing from a downhill plane didn't increase the ability to induce ground balls.
"It will have an effect," Angels catcher Drew Butera said. "Fastballs, sliders, submariners, knuckleballers. I think it would affect everything to some extent. I just don't know how much."
Padres outfielder Matt Kemp speculated you would see more fastballs if breaking balls are more difficult to throw for strikes.
"That would help hitters be more aggressive early in the count," he said.
Bloomquist had another idea: "Maybe they should just move the mounds back."
8: Limit Pitching Changes Per Inning
The idea here is that maybe a reliever has to face at least two batters before coming out of the game, or that a manager can only make so many pitching changes per inning. Not only would this speed up the game, but it would help limit the number of matchup advantages the defense currently receives. The chorus was strong on this one, however: Don't do it.
"That's part of the game. That's why you have lefties in the pen. That's why you have righties. I'm against it," Butera said. "I guess I'm a traditionalist in that way."
Shields was even more succinct: "Come on. Leave the game the way it is."
As bullpens have expanded in the past two decades -- both in the number of pitchers and the number of relievers used per game -- managers have fewer bench options to use as pinch-hitters. This has allowed the pitcher to get the platoon advantage more often. In 1984, batters hit with the platoon advantage 60 percent of the time. In 2014, that was down to 55 percent. The number of lefty-vs.-lefty relief matchups has increased from 6,361 plate appearances in 2009 to 7,142 in 2014.
Of course, there's a simple solution if managers want the platoon edge more often: carry more position players and fewer relievers.
9: Be More Vigilant About Doctored Baseballs
A couple of seasons ago, there was the infamous incident when Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox was accused of doctoring the baseball, as his forearm glistened with something that probably wasn't just sweat. Last year, New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was suspended after he got caught using pine tar. Obviously pitchers use foreign substances -- which are banned by the rulebook -- to get a better grip on the baseball. Spray-on sunscreen is one popular method.
"I've had teammates go back and lather up after every inning," one veteran said. Still, if there is an advantage to be gained, the position players don't seem to mind too much.
"We don't talk about that at all," said Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko. "It's hard enough worrying about just trying to hit the ball. If they use a little sunscreen or whatever, that's just part of [the game]. I don't think it's a big deal."
Bloomquist said he's OK with the pitchers getting a better grip on the baseball.
"I don't think [a foreign substance] really helps their pitches get a better break," he said. "And if that means pitches aren't slipping and coming toward my head, that's a good thing."
10: Control Defensive Shifts
New commissioner Rob Manfred got some heat after he suggested -- on his first day on the job -- that eliminating defensive shifts could help bolster offense. Still, shifts, which have increased from 2,357 in 2011 to 13,296 in 2014, according to Baseball Info Solutions, play a small part in the offensive decline. BIS estimates the runs saved via shifting in 2014 at 195 runs across the majors, or 6.5 runs per team on average.
"I don't think the shifting is that a big deal," Gyorko said. "I'm sure everyone has seen where a team has shifted and somebody hits a gapper somewhere; sometimes it even goes for a double. Personally, I don't mind it. It can open up holes where you normally wouldn't get hits."
"It's just this era, just the time right now. At some point, hitters will get their revenge. Hopefully." Mariners infielder Willie Bloomquist
Still, it is an advantage. And considering NL teams are behind AL teams in the amount of shifting they've done, we're likely to see the number of shifts increase. Again, however, this gets at the heart of baseball.
"I think that's just part of the game," Butera said. "You have the advantage of knowing a guy is more likely to pull the ball. That's like saying you can't allow NFL teams to study film. It's part of preparation."
So MLB needs to tread carefully about making rules changes that will boost offense.
"We're competitive people. It's just this era, just the time right now," Bloomquist said. "At some point, hitters will get their revenge. Hopefully."