Baseball's evolution keeping game in balance

Batting averages may be down, but offense remains robust and hitters are making harder contact than ever

July 17th, 2018

So let's talk about how baseball's offense is down. This is one of the hottest conversations in the sport right now. You know the song. Strikeouts are out of control. The shift is choking the life out of offense. Batting averages are way, way down. Everyone has a solution. Lower the mound. Shrink the strike zone. Ban the shift. Limit the pitchers. And so on.
Let me make a bizarre but fervent counterargument here.
Without the huge strikeout numbers and whatever value the shift provides, offense would be so out of control that the game would be hardly recognizable.
Here's what I mean: You might know that this year, hitters are batting .247, which is the lowest it has been across baseball since 1972. That's the talked-about number. It suggests a problem in the game, a problem that has been building for the last seven or eight years. And I'm not saying it isn't a problem. You might call it an entertainment problem; we as fans might prefer the rhythms of baseball with more balls in the field of play and more hits scooting past fielders.
I am saying it isn't an OFFENSIVE problem.
In 2017, when hitters connected with baseballs they hit .336. How good is that? Well, I'll tell you: It's the best in baseball history. In 2016, when hitters connected they hit .334, which is the second-best in baseball history. This year, when batters connect they are hitting .329, which is in the Top 10 all-time.
Best batting averages when hitters connect:
2017: .336
2016: .334
1999: .334
2000: .333
2006: .332
1996: .332
2007: .332
1997: .330
2018: .329
2008: .329
Over the last three years, even with all the strikeouts, even with the shifting, teams are averaging 4.5 runs per game, which is higher than baseball's all-time average, and significantly higher than it was in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the glory years so many people point to. It's not far off the scoring average of the 90s and 2000s, when the game leaned toward offense.

In other words, hitters are delivering. Offense is robust. It might not be the kind of offense you or I personally enjoywatching, but that's a different discussion. From a pure baseball effectiveness standpoint, hitters are mashing the ball.
Look at it this way: Baseball is built around the epic conflicts between offense and defense, pitcher and batter, fielders and balls in play. We are all acutely aware whenever pitchers and defenders gain an advantage: A new pitch like the split-fingered fastball is popularized, more pitchers with extreme velocity fastballs are used, shifting takes away a few batting average points, etc. Strikeouts go up. Fielders steal outs on balls that were always hits. What will hitters do? How can they respond?
Hitters respond by quietly developing advantages themselves. They work out and get much stronger. They study video. They change their swing angles. In recent years, batters have been less concerned with quantity of contact and more concerned with quality. They hit the long ball. It's a smart counter to a world of 100-mph fastballs and designer defensive positioning. You can't defend the homer.
This is the evolution of the game.

And the game evolves both ways. Hitters are now cracking baseballs harder than they ever have in the long history of this game. So what are pitchers and fielders to do? What would happen to baseball if relievers STOPPED throwing 100-mph fastballs or infielders were pushed back to their traditional spots on the field?
Well, it's pretty easy to guess. Let's say that you could magically cut strikeouts across baseball by 20 percent -- say you lower the mounds. What do you think would happen? That would be 5,000 more at-bats to play with. Batting averages would go way up -- I figure this year it would go up into the .260s, which much more like what most would consider "normal." But there would probably be 200-plus more home runs hit. Teams would likely be scoring five-plus runs per game or more, which is up there with 1999 and 2000 numbers when offense was deemed out of control.
Now, take away the shift, too. Averages would presumably go up even higher. So would offense in general. We'd be in crazy offensive world with runs scoring at an all-time rate.
See, it isn't just hitters. Pitchers and fielders are also on the edge, just holding on, doing what they can do to survive. If they don't get the strikeout these days, they pay like pitchers have never paid before. If fielders don't shift, they will watch baseballs get pulled and scorched to the same spots repeatedly.

So, yes, it's a sensible thing to want more baseballs put in play. People spend a lot of time pointing out that the average time between balls getting put in play is 3:45, which is a long time, and that this year for the first time ever there might be more strikeouts than hits and so on.
But there's a reason for all this. The game is teetering, like it always teeters, between pitcher and hitter. Traditionalists like George Will might pine for the days of Rod Carew spraying baseballs in all directions, but when it comes to scoring runs, hitters are doing fine. When it comes to crushing baseballs hard, hitters are doing better than ever. Pitchers better go for the strikeout. Fielders better shift. With the power of hitters these days, that's the only way they can keep the game in balance.